When David Ben-Gurion Met the Chazon Ish

A summary of the ideological debate between Zionism and ultra-Orthodox Judaism can be found in one meeting held in Bnei Brak way back in October of 1952

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion at the entrance to the home of the Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak. Press photographers were not allowed to enter the meeting room.

This morning I went to Bnei Brak for a meeting with the Chazon Ish. The press thought it to be a sensational visit, and I encountered crowds along the way and around his house. A group of his followers waited outside and in the nearby rooms. Yitzhak Navon was the only one who came in with me. I asked him the question to which I have yet to receive a sufficient answer from my observant friends. We are divided in different ways; in the matter at hand we are divided by our views of religious tradition. There are Jews like you and like me, how do we live together? How will we become a unit?

(From the diaries of David Ben-Gurion, October 20th, 1952)

There are some battles that seem to last for an eternity. Such was the meeting between two of the most prominent figures of the Jewish people in their generation. The encounter took place on October 20th, 1952, between Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and one of the leaders and shapers of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (commonly known as the Chazon Ish).

On that fateful evening in the rabbi’s humble and austere Bnei Brak apartment, the prime minister, his assistant (and future Israeli president) Yitzhak Navon and the leader of the tiny ultra-Orthodox community in Israel crowded into the living room and sat down for a discussion. The prime minister opened with the ever so pertinent question: “How will we, religious and non-religious Jews, live (together) without exploding from within? We have different views. How do we live together?”

Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

It seemed the answer given by the Chazon Ish was prepared ahead of time. He referred to a well-known Talmudic parable about two camels travelling down a narrow path, one carrying a large burden and the other carrying nothing. According to Halacha, Jewish law, the rabbi explained, the unburdened camel was to make way for the one carrying the burden. The Chazon Ish left no room for interpretation and explained the parable himself: We, the ultra-Orthodox community, bear the burden of the Torah and its commandments. Therefore, the non-religious Zionists must defer to us and move out of our way. Ben-Gurion, not exactly the leader to cower in front of anybody, promptly replied: “And what of the absorption of immigrants? What of security? What of establishing the State? Are these not burdens?”

It soon became clear that the two men held completely different views. Though Ben-Gurion acknowledged the grave importance of studying the Bible, he wanted the ultra-Orthodox community to contribute to and become integrated with the state in the making. The Chazon Ish was appalled at what he saw as the desecration of the Sabbath and the Zionist rejection of the yoke of the commandments – the burden of the practicing religious Jew. He believed that recreating the world of the Torah that was destroyed in the Holocaust was the only thing that could save the Jewish people.

At the end of that meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office issued the following press statement:

PM D. Ben-Gurion met privately with Rabbi A. Y. Karelitz (“The Chazon Ish”) in Bnei Brak yesterday. The purpose of the visit was to exchange general views regarding the following issue: How can observant and non-observant (Jews) live together harmoniously in the State of Israel? The question of recruiting women (to the army) was not discussed and the visit had no relation to current political matters.

“Ben-Gurion Meets With the ‘Chazon Ish'” – A report in Maariv on the momentous meeting, published on October 20th, 1952

Contrary to the report, the meeting was much more than a “general exchange of views.” The prime minister made a gesture towards the ultra-Orthodox community by agreeing to continue the exemption of a limited number of Torah scholars from military service. As early as February 1948, before the State of Israel had even been formally established, a limited number of young ultra-Orthodox men were exempted from being drafted into the armed forces, which were already fighting in what would come to be known as Israel’s War of Independence. On January 9th, 1951, the prime minister ordered the Israeli army’s chief of staff to exempt yeshiva students from regular service. Ben-Gurion’s meeting with the Chazon Ish did not set the ground for the current ultra-Orthdox exemption from military service, but it did give the controversial early arrangement a substantial political boost, and equally significant – symbolic support.

The National Day of Mourning… and Fundraising?

In the early 20th century, Zionists rallied around Tisha B’Av

Both Jewish Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on the same date, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, or “Tisha B’Av“. Besides destroying the national religious and spiritual center – the very home of the divine presence on Earth, according to Jewish tradition – each destruction was accompanied by mass carnage, unspeakable violence and forced expulsion still mourned thousands of years later.

The Destruction of the Temple, as depicted in an early 18th century Dutch prayer book. From Seder Hamisha Taaniot, printed in Amsterdam by Abraham Attias, ca. 1727. Click image to enlarge

The Biblical “Sin of the Spies” over three millennia ago; the disastrous end of the Bar Kokhva Revolt in the year 135 CE; the beginning of the First Crusade and its murderous destruction of Jewish communities across Europe; the Medieval expulsions of Jews from England, France and Spain; and the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 are just a few of the events that have also occurred on or around Tisha B’Av over the centuries.

To this day, Tisha B’Av is a day for mourning these national tragedies. Traditionally observant Jews mark it by fasting and refraining from worldly pleasures. Somber poetry, written across the generations, is read while community members sit on the floor, morning the destruction of the Temples and the other national calamities associated with the day.

Yet, in the early 20th century, there was a major effort to turn this day of grief and sadness into one of hope, renewal and redemption.  In fact, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) made Tisha B’Av into a major fundraising day, soliciting contributions from around the world to support the renewal of Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

An early 20th century Jewish National Fund postcard showing founder Theodor Herzl, Zionist pioneers and the Old City of Jerusalem. Publisher: “Lebanon” publishing company, Warsaw; From the Postcard Collection, National Library of Israel archives.

According to Dr. Hezi Amiur, curator of the Israel Collection at the National Library of Israel, “Tisha B’Av is considered a national day of mourning and the JNF would often utilize ‘national days’ such as Hannukah and Tu B’Shvat for fundraising purposes. These were called ‘Ribbon Days’, and they presented a major source of income for the young Zionist movement.”

While fundraising is not generally associated with this most somber day, JNF would use it to raise serious funds from thousands of communities across the globe. In fact, from the organization’s founding in 1901 by Theodor Herzl, Tisha B’Av was commemorated by asking Jews across the world for money to help rebuild the common ancestral homeland.

Within just a few decades, the calls for support declared that there was no more free land left to accommodate the burgeoning Zionist enterprise. Contributions were needed to buy more land in Palestine, and to continue building infrastructure to support the courageous halutzim (pioneers).

One call to action published in 1926 under the banner “Remember Jewish National Fund on Tisha B’Av” asked “every true Jew to donate on the Ninth of Av, the day of national mourning, a piece of land in Palestine for the Jewish people.”

All were implored to be generous according to their means, with everyone asked to give at least enough to purchase 1/4 of a dunam (roughly 1/16 of an acre, or 250 square meters) of land. After all, continued the cry, “Fellow Jews! The sacrifice we ask of you is insignificantly small in comparison with the sacrifices of our brave Halutzim who are giving their all for the restoration of the homeland.”

Excerpt from an article urging international contributions to JNF on Tisha B’Av, published in The B’Nai B’Rith Messenger on July 16, 1926. Click for the full article

A mixture of Jewish guilt and Biblical inspiration was employed to encourage donors to open their wallets:

“Consult your own conscience, your Jewish heart, your racial pride and do your duty to your People. Claim no exception, attempt not to evade your own sense of duty, bring your brick towards the great structure, help redeem Erez Israel! From the grief over the Desolation, onward to the joy of Restoration!”

While different years had slightly different styles and themes, often relating to current events, it was generally the same call to action: Brave Jews in the Land of Israel need your support!

In 1924, donors were enticed with commemorative illustrated receipt booklets, a visual reminder of their help rebuilding the Land. Three years later, Tisha B’Av came just a few weeks after a devastating earthquake rattled the Levant. Jews were forbidden from praying at the Western Wall, after the authorities forbade it as a precaution following massive damage caused to many of Jerusalem’s structures. Nonetheless, instead of lamenting this additional point of sadness on the national day of mourning, the JNF encouraged donors around the globe to “shake to the core the indifference… of the many who could aid mightily in the speedy up-building of a Jewish Palestine”, and turn the day into “a splendid beginning… by swelling the coffers of the Jewish National Fund this Tisha B’Ab.”

Jerusalem following the 1927 earthquake. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

In 1939, Biblical verses and powerful imagery were used to gather contributions and rally opposition to the recently published White Paper, which severely limited Jewish immigration to British Mandatory Palestine. Less than a decade later, the State of Israel was born, largely thanks to decades of financial and political support from Jews across the world.

“If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.” This image, published in The Sentinel on July 20, 1939, appeared as part of JNF efforts to raise funds and opposition to the White Paper. Click for the full article

It may seem strange or even inappropriate to use the saddest day on the Jewish calendar – one commemorating destruction, slaughter and expulsion – to fundraise. Yet, in a way, turning mourning into hope and action is a reflection of the resilient Jewish spirit over the centuries, and even more so of the Zionist dream to rebuild and resettle the very land from which the Jewish people were exiled millennia ago.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

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When and how did Jews begin praying at the Western Wall?


View of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

When reading the headline above, those familiar with Jewish sources may be quick to respond by quoting the Midrash: “The Divine Presence has never departed from the Western Wall.” Yet those very knowledgeable people surely know that the Western Wall mentioned by our sages of blessed memory is not the same enormous wall we today call the Western Wall. How then, did the western retaining wall of the Herodian Temple Mount come to be the most prominent national-religious site for Jews around the world?

Jewish women wearing shawls pray in front of the Western Wall. From the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

Let’s start at the beginning. As mentioned, the Western Wall next to which people pray today is one of the four retaining walls built by King Herod as part of the expansion and renovation of the Temple Mount compound and the Temple that stood in the center of it. Yet another quote from the sages concerning the Herodian Temple states the claim: “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 4a). And while most sages probably never got a chance to glimpse the Taj Mahal or the Palace of Versailles, it does seem accurate to say that Herod’s Temple must not have been too shabby. This Temple came to its end in the infamous year 70 CE, when the Roman legions burned it down during the conquest of Jerusalem and suppression of the Great Revolt.

When the sages wrote of “the Western Wall” (HaKotel HaMa’aravi in Hebrew), they probably were still able to see the remains of the western wall of the actual Temple building itself, in addition to the retaining walls of the Temple Mount plaza. This was an impressive relic that apparently remained standing after the Roman fire. This was the wall closest to the Holy of Holies, and its miraculous survival probably added to the sense of awe and sanctity of the place. According to historical estimates, its final destruction occurred by the end of the seventh century at the latest, when the recently arrived Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the same site. We will return to this lost Western Wall later.

The Western Wall and Jerusalem from a map of holy places in the Land of Israel. Click here to view the this full map from the National Library’s Eran Laor Cartographic Collection

At some point, the Temple building’s western wall was destroyed, and what remained was the western wall of the Temple Mount – the retaining wall of Herod’s plaza. However, anyone who has ever looked over the Old City must have noticed that this is not the only wall of the Temple Mount left standing. The southern and eastern walls of Herod’s mighty building project also remain, and still support the Temple Mount plaza. Only the northern wall is no longer visible today. The southern and eastern walls were actually incorporated into the walls of the Old City itself. The famous Gate of Mercy, also known as the Golden Gate, through which the Messiah is traditionally supposed to enter Jerusalem, was carved into the eastern Wall.

Indeed, testimonies of travelers who visited the Land of Israel as early as the Byzantine period do not mention prayers taking place on the western side of the Temple Mount necessarily. The account of the “Pilgrim of Bordeaux”, who visited in 333 testifies that Jews still ascended the Temple Mount once a year (probably on the 9th of Av), “and wept and mourned over one stone that remained from their Temple and anointed it with oil.” Could this have been the Foundation Stone which sits today inside the Dome of the Rock? In any case, whether for halakhic reasons or due to the objections of various rulers, Jews stopped ascending the mount itself and contented themselves with frequenting adjacent areas.

Prayer at the Western Wall. From the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

Later testimonies mention the Western Wall, but not necessarily the place of worship known to us today. A text from the Cairo Genizah written in the 11th century records prayers near the Western Wall, but further north, at a site directly facing the destroyed Holy of Holies. The famous 12th-century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela cites the Western Wall by name, stating that Jews prayed there. However, he also placed the Gate of Mercy in the same wall, though, as mentioned, this gate is actually found in the eastern wall. To this must be added the fact that Jews were generally barred from entering the city during this period, and therefore it is unlikely that he personally witnessed Jews praying near today’s Western Wall.

The Western Wall adorns a map of Jerusalem from the 19th century. Only a few maps of the city prominently display the important site, as most portrayed the city from the east. Click here to view the full map from the National Library Eran Laor Cartographic Collection

Other contemporary travelers mention the Western Wall, but not the custom of praying next to it. Some even point out how the Western Wall stands alone, with none coming to pray or view its massive stone blocks. In the 14th century, Ishtori Haparchi, another famous geographer of the region, wrote of Jews praying at any of the Temple Mount walls which they managed to access, without any particular preference for the one to the west. This description is reinforced by inscriptions engraved by the pilgrims on the various walls (including on the Western Wall) – a common practice in the past among visitors to holy sites.

Men and women praying at the Western Wall, mid-19th century. Photo: Felix Bonfils, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Only in the 17th century did clear evidence of Jewish prayer in the specific location begin to appear. Initially, it was individuals praying, and slowly, over the years, we see increasing reports of public prayers held at the site. At first, these were special prayers on the Ninth of Av, and later a general prayer site formed that became ingrained in the hearts of all Jews. What strengthened the position of the Western Wall over the other retaining walls of the Temple Mount? There seem to be two main reasons: one is that it is the same Western Wall is mentioned by the Jewish sages. Even if there is confusion in identifying the western wall in question, the current Western Wall is indeed still the closest to the Holy of Holies, the ascent to which, at some point, was forbidden. The second reason is perhaps more prosaic: in the middle of the 15th century, the Jews left their neighborhood on Mount Zion and settled instead in the location of today’s Jewish Quarter. The proximity of this new quarter to the Western Wall helped to turn it into the preferred prayer site for Jerusalem’s Jews. An earthquake in the 16th century apparently uncovered more parts of the Western Wall, enabling the creation of the place of worship familiar to us today. It seems the exclusive sanctification of the Western Wall can be traced to this century.

Prayer at the Western Wall, early 20th century. It is possible to see the inscriptions engraved on the wall. Photo: Zadok Basan, from the Moshe David Gaon Archive

This, then, is the story of the most important national-religious site in Judaism today. This is how the wall became the symbol of the Jewish people’s longing for Zion. And, this was the story told by the representatives of the Jewish community in the Land Israel to the British Commission of Inquiry set up following the riots of 1929, which erupted following a dispute over prayer at the Western Wall. And what of the notes crammed into the spaces between the stones? This seems to be a “recent” custom introduced only in the 19th century. It took a firmer hold following the British ban on engraving names on the Western Wall, a practice that is no longer accepted today. Other prayer customs at the Western Wall have also changed over the years: today, for example mixed prayer, with both men and women present, is not permitted by the site’s Orthodox rabbis, though this was the practice during the Ottoman period. It turns out that customs, which may seem timeless to us, are in fact based on traditions which have a habit of changing and developing over time.


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New Digital Platform Celebrates Else Lasker-Schüler

Lasker-Schüler, one of Germany's greatest poets, fled to Jerusalem in the 1930s. "Poetic Textures: Else Lasker-Schüler Archives. An Online Platform" offers digital access to a large portion of her literary and artistic legacy.

Else Lasker-Schüler in 1919, the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945) is considered to be one of the greats of German poetry, a bohemian artist who corresponded with many of the most prominent cultural figures of her time including Albert Einstein, Martin Buber and Thomas Mann. She fled Nazi Germany to British Mandatory Palestine, ultimately settling in Jerusalem, where she lived a life of obscurity and poverty.

Poetic Textures: Else Lasker-Schüler Archives. An Online Platform” is a collaboration between Jerusalem’s National Library of Israel (NLI), home to Lasker-Schüler’s personal archive, and the German Literature Archive (DLA), home to a significant collection of her works. The platform, available in English, provides a window into the life and work of Lasker-Schüler, offering digital access for the first time to a large portion of her physically scattered literary and artistic legacy, accompanied by explanatory and illuminating texts provided by leading experts.

Der zielende Blitz übt sich im Pfeil und Bogen vor, by Else Lasker-Schüler, 1940, the Else Lasker-Schüler Archive at the National Library of Israel

The materials on display reveal the deliberately hybrid forms of Lasker-Schuler’s work: manuscripts, letters, telegrams, fragments, collages and drawings, which reveal the dissolution of boundaries between life and art, writing and drawing, staged self and imaginary figures, even between German and Hebrew in tone, writing and illustration. The platform has been made possible with the generous support of Karl Albrecht.

An online event celebrating the launch of “Poetic Textures” will be held on Tuesday, July 14 at 19:00 Israel time / 18:00 German time.  The event is presented as a DLA – NLI collaboration, and as part of the “Gesher L’Europe” initiative to connect NLI with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

“Poetic Textures: Else Lasker-Schüler Archives. An Online Platform” is available at: www.laskerschuelerarchives.org.



The Else Lasker-Schüler Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.


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