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Trump’s controversial visit to the Western Wall and why it was so important to Jews

President Trump bowed his head and touched the Western Wall, the holiest site for Jewish prayers, in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 22. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evan Vucci/The Washington Post)

JERUSALEM — There were several pivotal moments during President Trump’s first state visit abroad, but one that Israelis and Jews are likely to remember is his stop at one of Judaism’s holiest sites — the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

No other sitting American president has visited the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as “the Kotel.”

The place is just too contentious.

Sitting in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, the site is volatile and has sparked bloody violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the past. It is also in territory officially viewed by the United States and much of the world as being illegally occupied by Israel.

Before his visit, Trump’s planning team turned down a request by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accompany the president to the site, saying only that it was a private visit. Meaning that the U.S. side did not want to make any kind of political statement about Israeli sovereignty there.

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But in many ways, the absence of politics made the visit more meaningful.

“The Western Wall today is the spiritual center of the Jewish people and the heart of Judaism,” said Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites in Israel.

“This visit showed respect for the Jewish people and for tradition,” said the rabbi. “Jews don’t need international approval to recognize the connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, but we also cannot hide from what happens around the world where people try to deny the Jewish connection to the wall, the Temple Mount and Jerusalem.”

Trump has been accused of not doing enough to fight anti-Semitism in the United States and of surrounding himself with advisers suspected being insensitive to Jewish concerns, if not of harboring anti-Jewish sentiments. His press secretary, Sean Spicer, apologized recently for commenting that “even Hitler did not use chemical weapons,” when Jews were sent to their deaths in specially built gas chambers.

[Spicer: Hitler ‘didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,’ although he sent Jews to ‘the Holocaust center’]

“I think Trump’s visit to the wall means a lot to Israel and the Jewish nation because it sends a message that ‘we are with you,’ ” said Dvora Berkin, director of public relations for the Western Wall.

Responsible for accompanying first lady Melania Trump and the president’s daughter, Ivanka, who is an orthodox Jew, to the women’s section of the wall, Berkin told them “that as women you have power to pray and thank God for everything you have and ask him for what you want.”

“I told them that this is the closest place you can be today to pray to God, and hopefully God will accept your prayer,” she said.

The Western Wall is the holiest place where Jews are able to pray. It is the outer wall of the ancient Jewish temple built more than 2,000 years ago on the hilltop Jews refer to as “Mount Moriah.” Mount Moriah is the spot where Jews believe the first human, Adam, was created and where God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

[Jewish activists want to pray on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, raising alarm in Muslim world]

The site is holy to Muslims, too. The al-Aqsa Mosque, which sits in the open esplanade, is the third-holiest shrine in Islam, and Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad visited here on his “night journey.”

According to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the wall draws some 11 million visitors a year. Most Jews who visit Israel make their way at some point to the Kotel.

In addition to saying silent prayers at the wall, it is also a traditional to write God a note and place it between the enormous stones. Trump, his wife and his daughter came ready with their notes when they visited on Monday.

Berkin said the U.S. visitors were asked in advance if they wanted to make their prayer notes open, meaning that future visitors could view their messages. The policy of asking first is to prevent a repeat of what happened when then-Sen. Barack Obama placed his private note in the wall in 2008 and it was found and published by an Israeli newspaper without his permission.

“In the end, they decided they wanted their notes to be closed, so we took them out after the visit and put them in a different, secure place,” assuring that God would still hear their prayers, she said.