On a rain-slicked, 2,000-year-old stone-paved street in Jerusalem’s Old City, a laughing group of young, rifle-bearing Israel Air Force cadets congregates and faces their tour guide, a bearded, black kippa-wearing middle-aged man. He swiftly calls them to attention.
“Listen up, folks. This is the Western Wall. Yes, it is the same [wall] as the Kotel [the traditional prayer site],” he says, meeting the soldiers’ incredulous looks.
Off to the side, 12-year-old Israeli boys climb on a haphazard pile of enormous chiseled building blocks. Resting on some four inches of dirt and ash above the Herodian-era street, these stones are the visceral remnants of Titus’s siege on Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago.
It’s morning, and one of the Religious Zionist teachers accompanying the pupils is wearing a prayer shawl and about to start the first of his three daily prayers. But as the kids frolic, he suddenly points to faint char outlines on the nearby Western Wall.
“Look,” he says excitedly, “you can see the outlines of the fire that destroyed the Holy Temple!” The boys look up, ooh and ahh, then return to their antics on the ancient stones.
Meanwhile, the soldiers’ tour guide drones on. “The Western Wall is holy, why? Because of its proximity to the Temple and the Holy of Holies. Jews from around the world pray toward what? No, not in the direction of the Western Wall, but in the direction of the Temple,” he lectures.
But the soldiers’ attention is easily distracted by the entrance of another guide, this one speaking German over a small loudspeaker.
In Jerusalem’s packed Old City, every meter is fraught with conflict, past or present. At the vast Davidson archaeological park, today’s visitors are a mix of peoples and traditions that mirror the diversity of the surrounding archaeology — a hodgepodge of ancient cultures and time periods.
Commonly referred to as Robinson’s Arch after one of its prominent structural features, the archaeological park is located on the southwest corner of one of the most controversial and contentious places on earth — the biblical Temple Mount.
And if a January 2016 government decision is implemented, the park will quickly enter a new modern phase and permanently house an egalitarian prayer pavilion as well.
The Western Wall’s dueling dual purposes
The struggle for gender equality at the Western Wall was spearheaded some 30 years ago by a small group of feminist religious women who went on to call themselves the Women of the Wall. But the roots of the Western Wall’s competing identities as a prayer area and a historical preservation site date back to the heady days of the Six Day War when the Old City was retaken by Israel Defense Forces.
The transfer of authority from the IDF rabbis to the religious affairs minister was enshrined in the Law of the Conservation of Holy Places (Hebrew), which stated, among other things: “The holy places will be protected against desecration and all other harm, and against all things that may prevent free access of all religions to the holy places, and their feelings for these sites.”
That the wall was originally intended for the entire People of Israel — and its friends and neighbors — is borne out by a statement by then-religious affairs minister Zerach Warhaftig, a legal thinker who signed the Declaration of Independence. About two weeks following the war, Warhaftig told the Knesset that the law would ensure that peoples of all religions, from all places, will have free access to the holy sites.
At the same time, the Western Wall was divided between a prayer section — north of the Mughrabi Bridge leading to the Al-Aqsa Mosque — and a southern section for the research and presentation of in situ archaeology.
However, as can be seen from the increasingly strictly regulated administration of the prayer plaza, the nature of the Western Wall pavilion slowly changed from a place for all peoples to an open-air Orthodox — and some say, ultra-Orthodox — synagogue.
And then add the international political significance of the site: A controversial United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) resolution from last week — in addition to sparking a political catfight over its lack of recognition for Jewish heritage on the Temple Mount and the surrounding Western Wall plaza — slammed Israel (the “Occupying Power”) for “the removal of the Islamic remains at the site.”
January’s government decision represents a quid pro quo between many interests. But the idea of establishing a home for the Women of the Wall’s prayer in the archaeological garden was first floated by then justice minister Yaakov Neeman in 1996. Variations on that theme were discussed for decades by a roster of activists and political who’s who in the attempt to find a compromise solution for those who are now essentially excluded from praying at the Western Wall.
The decision, which allows for the construction of a massive 10,000 square feet permanent prayer area in the archeological park and the establishment of a new pluralistic entrance for the entire Western Wall plaza, is a benchmark case in that it marks the first time the government of State of Israel is giving formal recognition to the rights of millions of Liberal Jews, complete with budget.
Immediately following the publication of the government decision for a permanent egalitarian pavilion, head of the North American Reform Movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs greeted the plan with guarded optimism.
‘This is a beacon of what is possible: If we can do it at the Kotel, we can do this in other areas of life’
“I’m not going to say, we’re done. This is a beacon of what is possible: If we can do it at the Kotel, we can do this in other areas of life. Symbolically this is something that shifts how we think about ourselves; how we think about the state,” Jacobs told The Times of Israel in January.
A careful jubilation was also heard then from head of the Jewish federations Jerry Silverman. “There’s going to be people who will try to maneuver in various ways, but we have confidence in the partnership with the prime minister and the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] which have worked closely with us,” said Silverman.
However, post-plan, ultra-Orthodox politicians’ threats to exit his shaky coalition have led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appoint his bureau chief David Sharan in early April as head of a new committee. In the next 60 days, roughly end of May, Sharan must come back with new recommendations on how to overcome the rising political conflicts related to the egalitarian pavilion.
This new move is leading to a flurry of speculation of last-minute governmental back-tracking — and giving a group of angry archeologists renewed hope.
‘The gem of Jerusalem archeology’
Back in the Davidson archeological park, acclaimed archeologist Prof. Gabriel Barkay points out the pedestrian paths that frame both sides of the “magnificent” Herodian paved street, the widest ancient road in Jerusalem’s Old City. Turning towards the Kotel, he marks a series of shops whose roofs collapsed in the massively destructive fire, leaving impressions seen today on the wall.
Part of the street’s paving stones are sunken in. Barkay says this is where the Roman General Titus’s soldiers, deliberately destroying the upper ramparts of the Western Wall, took crowbars and caused the massive meter-high building stones to fall upon the Jews below.
“With a little imagination, you can hear the crash. This is what makes the destruction so vivid. There isn’t much left to testify to the fall of Jerusalem, but for Jewish history, the destruction is no less important than the construction of the State of Israel,” says Barkay, who was born in the Budapest Ghetto under Nazi occupation and immigrated to Israel in 1950.
‘With a little imagination, you can hear the crash’
Ahead of the fall of the Second Temple, the area was bustling with crowds who spoke different languages, he says. They brought their families, bought sacrificial animals and purchased souvenirs of Jerusalem and kosher household equipment to take back home.
While the 72-year-old, internationally acclaimed archeologist uses the stones as props, the streets are again crowded, teeming with excited pilgrims arriving to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
The pilgrims’ jubilation was perhaps matched in 1967, when in the course of the Six Day War, Israel retook that Old City. Subsequently, from 1968 until 1996, some 10 meters of earth were removed in the ensuing excavations which revealed a stratified tale of historical Jerusalem and its rulers throughout the millennia. And although not overlooking the intersection of non-Jewish influences, in the fledgling Jewish state, the unspoken end goal for state-funded archeological digs was evidence of the biblical Jewish home. The resulting Second Temple ruins and artifacts fit the bill.
When the Kotel engendered a sense of victory among Diaspora Jewry again in January’s announcement of the prayer platform compromise, in Israel many archeologists were left aghast.
The disgruntled Archeological Council, a coalition of preeminent archeologists who until now have been the de facto guardians of a park displaying the glories of the past, sent open letters to the Netanyahu government.
The council implored “the government and its various authorities to prevent more ruinous damage to the archeological site and to halt plans that will harm this singular, awe-inspiring site.”
The Israel Antiquities Authority, a government agency, responded in a carefully worded statement to the open letter. “The stance of the council reflects the stance that the Antiquity Authorities has expressed all during this process. With that, from the point at which the decision was taken, the Antiquities Authority made demands which, if they are implemented, will minimize the damage that could occur in the archeological garden. The Antiquities Authority is the representative of those interested in the conservation of this important site its and character.”
Barkay, a signatory to the council’s protest letter, is in the Davidson park on an early April morning to show this journalist just why the site is so unique.
In addition to the broad street we still see today, Barkay says, there was another road built on the tops of the shops abutting the Western Wall. There was also a bridge that soared overhead, which was used by the priests and the king to reach the Temple Mount, forming what Barkay calls a “triple communication” of pilgrims and Jerusalemites filling the three levels of footpaths.
Barkay is most known for his 1979 discovery of two silver amulets containing the Priestly Benediction, and for his work since 2004 as the head of the Temple Mount Sifting Project, which has a team of archeologists, volunteers and tourist examine buckets of topsoil that was removed during an unauthorized excavation on the Temple Mount. His prize-winning project is currently sponsored by the right-wing NGO Elad, which also administers the City of David excavations and tourist site, and is in a legal battle over the administration of the Davidson park.
Barkay has never worked on a dig in this archeological park, but knows each stone and corner intimately. While his passion and knowledge of the site are vast, it is made clear by an Elad spokesman that the archeologist’s opinions are his own.
“This is a gem of Jerusalem archeology. It is the jewel in the crown of Jerusalem,” says Barkay at one point in our private tour.
Are reports of the plan’s death greatly exaggerated?
International media was abuzz this January with the announcement of the prayer platform compromise, which was lauded as a leap towards religious freedom in Israel. The headline garnered more than its 15 minutes of fame, for several days leading the global news cycle.
In sharp contrast, today’s tone regarding the plan is one of dismal speculation at best. Could the deal actually already be dead? Not at all, says Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, the prime architect of the compromise.
“I see very critical remarks in the press that Bibi [Netanyahu] is hesitant, but if he were not prime minister, this negotiation wouldn’t have started and continued until it was finished. Bibi strongly understand the implications for relations between the Jewish people and Israel,” Sharansky told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation this week.
“He is now in a difficult situation but we need to give him an opportunity to work it through. I think he will do everything in order to implement the decision of the government,” assures Sharansky, a longtime Netanyahu friend and supporter.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), is less certain during a telephone conversation from the other side of the ocean where he is visiting US Reform congregations to meet the “Jew in the pew.” he laughs. There, the status of the Kotel plan is the first question he is asked by American Jews, says Kariv.
“I think there is a good chance that it will happen — sometimes things like this take a few months,” he says.
If the plan isn’t implemented, however, Liberal Jewry and the Women of the Wall already plan to go to the Supreme Court with a petition asking for the redivision of the Western Wall into three sections: men, women and egalitarian.
“The petition was already written three years ago, but we deferred because the government said it wanted to negotiate. If the government cannot implement its decision, we’ll go back to plan A,” says Kariv.
This is not something Tel Aviv-born Kariv, fully cognizant of the fierce intra-faith battles that would ensue, takes lightly.
‘In my opinion, with this government decision, we crossed the Red Sea’
“In Passover we celebrate the fact that we crossed the Red Sea. In my opinion, with this government decision, we crossed the Red Sea. The [Western Wall compromise] gives recognition to Liberal Jewry and a right-wing government supported and passed the government decision. If in the end we’ll need to go to the Supreme Court, our starting point is much stronger,” he says.
“We’ll do everything we can to implement the plan, but if the government comes and says we can’t, this is not the final step, it’s still a journey,” says Kariv.
And there are signs that the Reform movement’s “plan A” may soon be pulled out of the proverbial drawer.
When MK for the Opposition’s Yesh Atid party Aliza Lavie was asked on Israeli Radio this week at a New York meeting of American Jewish leaders whether the compromise was collapsing, she responded: “Collapsing? The agreement on the Kotel was never really on.”
The slow ‘obliteration’ of the archeological park
While walking among the ruins elsewhere in the Davidson park, archeologist Barkay points to blocks dating from the Second Temple that were reused in the surrounding Byzantine buildings, in Jewish houses, and early Arab palaces. Walking through a doorway hewn in an Arab palace wall and plastered for safety and free access, Barkay says this modification doesn’t bother him.
‘One has to solve problems for the modern people as well’
“One has to solve problems for the modern people as well,” says Barkay.
But there’s no love lost for the modern egalitarian prayer platforms that have become a fixture in the park since 2003. Barkay says the archeological park has been “slowly bitten into.”
On a higher elevation in the park, an early Christian bathhouse can be seen. It was still in use during the early Arabic rule, says Barkay, but is now obscured by the 2013 temporary platform dubbed “Ezrat Yisrael” by Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett who, since he also served as the head of the East Jerusalem Development company, could authorize and push through its construction as a place for egalitarian prayer. (Bennett declined to comment for this story.)
Interestingly, it is during this period that Elad first gained the right to undertake operational oversight of the Davidson park, although an appeal is still pending in a Jerusalem district court on a 2015 case.
When asked by The Times of Israel what its perspective role would be in the new prayer platform, an Elad spokesman said, “The City of David Foundation has made it clear from the very beginning that it will support any agreement reached between the relevant parties and the government of Israel.”
“The City of David Foundation has no interest in operating a site designated as a prayer area,” according to the Elad spokesman.
Currently, however, it’s unclear if anyone is “operating” the temporary prayer platform. In the damp April weather, the stairs are waterlogged and slick. They would clearly not meet any permanent building safety code, nor would the temporary iron fence that cordons the stairs off from visitors to the archeological site.
For tourists, there is now no contiguous access to the bathhouse from the Roman street section of the park due to the three-year-old “temporary” platform. While the prayer area can be accessed by worshippers free of charge from a different entrance, it is from behind padlocked metal gates that Barkay points out a far-off section of archeology that this reporter couldn’t locate.
Sighing, he says, “They’re obliterating the bathhouse and reusing it for less mundane purposes.”
One site for many peoples
It may seem far-fetched that a few old rocks and archeological findings could sway the leader of the Jewish state, but Netanyahu’s political career was disrupted by archeology once before — when his authorization of a new exit to the Via Dolorosa from the subterranean Temple Tunnels led to bloody 1996 riots which saw the death of 17 Israeli soldiers and 70 Palestinians.
Barkay, asked if he thought the Palestinians would object to the planned prayer pavilion, at first says that since the area is under clear Israeli rule, they have no choice. A moment later, pointing to the Mughrabi Gate Bridge whose replacement in 2007 sparked protests, he concedes that the egalitarian pavilion plan could be used as “an excuse for an explosion.”
Last week’s controversial UNESCO resolution concerning the Temple Mount, “Deprecates the persisting Israeli unilateral measures and decisions regarding the Ascent to the Mughrabi Gate, including the latest works conducted at the Mughrabi Gate entrance in February 2015… as well as the enforced creation of a new Jewish prayer platform south of the Mughrabi Ascent in Al-Buraq Plaza ‘Western Wall Plaza.'”
The UNESCO resolution further “reaffirms that no Israeli unilateral measures, shall be taken in conformity with its status and obligations under the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict of 1954.”
Indeed, an archeology student at Al-Quds University who preferred to remain anonymous called the Old City “the most debated area in the world,” adding that “in general it’s a very sensitive area and creating this place is making the area more active to religious activities,” and thereby changing the religious status quo of the Old City.
Other archeologists uninvolved with the protest coalition also emphasize the extreme political and religious sensitivity of the park’s location. It is a site for all nations, not only Jews, they say.
Former Israel Antiquities Authority archeologist Yonathan Mizrachi is the founder of the left-wing interfaith activist group Emek Shaveh. His organization has an active website, filled with reports condemning current and past development projects, and works as a watchdog for excavations of interfaith sensitivities in Israel and the West Bank.
In conversation with The Times of Israel this week, Mizrachi explains that the Davidson park portrays a microcosm of Jerusalem history.
“The place includes ruins from all different periods… This is the history of Jerusalem: the ruins might be from the Roman period, the Byzantine period, these ruins could be Muslim, Jewish, Christian or atheist. Since the area is already excavated, the place should be open to all nations to show the history of Jerusalem,” says Mizrachi.
And maintaining a not overtly religious atmosphere is also important.
“Suppose I would like to explore and learn from the history and what I see is people are praying. Maybe I’m interrupting; I don’t want to bother people’s prayers, I want to respect everybody,” says Mizrachi. “But what about respecting the people who would like to keep Jerusalem a multi-cultural society whose history can be seen?”
And 25-year “guest” in Israel, Prof. Dieter Vieweger, the head of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology Jerusalem and Amman, echoes Mizrachi’s concerns in an email while on a dig in Jordan.
“I also fear — as my Israeli colleagues — that the planned prayer space, which is slated to accommodate non-Orthodox worshipers, could cause damage to archaeological contexts and destroy the gorgeous overview over the Herodian Cardo,” writes Vieweger.
“Archaeological parks and prayer areas should be divided in honor of both groups of visitors. Nobody should be distracted while praying or studying archaeological remains. Both groups are too different to each other,” Vieweger adds.
A reasonable price to pay?
Jewish Agency head Sharansky assured The Times of Israel this week that archeologists’ concerns were addressed at every stage of the compromise’s negotiations.
“Many things that were brought to the compromise, many things which made this platform smaller, was the fact that most of the archeology is not covered at all, it is open,” says Sharansky. (The original plan had called for a platform above the exposed archeology.)
‘Hopefully the decision of the government will be implemented and many will be coming to pray — and many for archeological site’
What is a clear departure is that the “archeologists will not be the masters, they will be partners,” says Sharansky. “I am not a lawyer; I don’t know if archeologists had legal or de facto authority, but in fact they were running the place, it is an archeological park… No doubt in practical terms they will have less authority.”
“Hopefully the decision of the government will be implemented and many will be coming to pray — and many for the archeological site,” says Sharansky.
Lawyer/rabbi Kariv, a representative of the millions of Liberal Jews clamoring for their place at the Western Wall, likewise sympathizes with the archeologists, saying they are on the “same side of Jewish history” and calling their stance “legitimate” and “important.” However, he says, after Liberal Jewry’s hard-fought battle for recognition and compromise, the reduced access to certain sections of the park is “reasonable harm.”
“When the Kotel was given to Israel in ’67, when they divided into parts for prayer and archeology, the government didn’t take into consideration the egalitarian movements. Fifty years later, the State of Israel wants to, and needs to, give a place for the egalitarian movements,” says Kariv.
This deal is also telling “millions of [Liberal] Jews that they have a place to pray in Jerusalem,” he explains.
Furthermore, Kariv asks, where were the archeologists during all these years of negotiations? Why didn’t they support Liberal Jewry in its fight? Why haven’t they spoken up when the men’s section of the Western Wall plaza was enlarged, or when luxury building projects are being developed on top of other archeological sites?
‘When the Kotel was given to Israel in ’67, when they divided into parts for prayer and archeology, the government didn’t take into consideration the egalitarian movements’
“What’s happening here is that for most of the archeologists, with all due respect, prayer is not their way to connect with the historical Jewish people and they less understand the need for millions of Jews to pray and their need to be in a place that serves all people,” says Kariv.
“If the archeologists were saying, ‘We are asking the government to build an egalitarian section in the current Kotel,’ we’d embrace them in the battle to find an egalitarian compromise,” says Kariv. He adds, however, that a redivision of the Western Wall would indubitably “turn the Kotel into a symbol of Jewish conflict, and not unity.”
‘The ancient people are not represented by any party’
Archeologist Barkay leans on the rickety temporary prayer platform grafted onto the archeology site. It rests on the ancient stones in the park much like how temporary bleachers are set up along a street ahead of a parade. It is, he says, a “barbarically built foreign entity in this place… In an area designated to demonstrated and explore ancient glory, we have modern ugliness.”
He deplores the plan that will create a platform double its size, which will lead up to the Western Wall and hide more archeological remnants. The compromise, said Barkay, is “politically, an escape. The problem is over there,” he said pointing to the other side of the Mughrabi Bridge.
“I’m not against worship; on the contrary,” says Barkay, who is a member of a Conservative synagogue in Jerusalem. “I am somebody who regards the worship at the Wall as important. Everybody has to be allowed to express their views and way of worship in his or her style.”
But this is an archeological park, says Barkay, and solving political problems in the State of Israel shouldn’t be at the expense of archeology.
“The ancient people are not represented by any party; archeologists are not influential. There must be a way politically to form a solution of a separate place that will pacify American Jewry and maybe avoid clashes. This [the park] is the easy solution. It is more complicated to force everyone to pray together.”
“The whole thing is a disgrace,” says Barkay.