Some critics of Western Wall plan still unhappy after freeze
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Some critics of Western Wall plan still unhappy after freeze

Archaeologist says expansion of pluralistic prayer site may still harm antiquities; feminist religious activist who opposed agreement finds little joy in reversal

Archaeologists claim the egalitarian platform harms the visual story of the Western Wall by hiding important archaeological artifacts. (courtesy, Eilat Mazar)
Archaeologists claim the egalitarian platform harms the visual story of the Western Wall by hiding important archaeological artifacts. (courtesy, Eilat Mazar)

The government decision to suspend a plan creating a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall brought little satisfaction to two non-Orthodox groups that opposed the original proposal: archaeologists and religious activists who had sought greater gains than the compromise afforded.

On Sunday, the government suspended a plan it had previously approved for a pluralistic prayer area, following calls by Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition allies to scrap the deal. The plan would have seen the establishment of a properly prepared pavilion for pluralistic prayer — as opposed to current temporary arrangements — under joint oversight involving representatives of all major streams of Judaism.

The government has said despite the deals being canceled, it will continue to expand the prayer space at Robinson’s Arch south of the main Western Wall plaza, leading to continued concerns over archaeological damage to antiquities there.

“There is no way only solution should be found on account of such an important heritage site,” said Dr Eilat Mazar, an archaeologist with Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology, who has excavated many sites around the Old City walls.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett opened the platform in 2013 when he was religious affairs minister, in part due to pressure from non-Orthodox Jewish groups, including Women of the Wall.

The platform, constructed as a temporary measure, enraged some archaeologists at the time.

A group of Jerusalem archaeologists petitioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year to remove the platform immediately and find other arrangements, calling the site “the crowning glory of the archaeology of Jerusalem.”

Minister Naftali Bennett unveils a temporary platform built for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in August 2013 (photo credit: Ezra Landau/Flash90)
Minister Naftali Bennett unveils a temporary platform built for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in August 2013 (photo credit: Ezra Landau/Flash90)

“This is the is the only place where you can see and touch the immense stones that fell during the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, the stones that fell from the Western Wall onto the original street that was used by the masses of pilgrims,” Mazar said Monday.

There are no ongoing archaeological excavations in the area where the egalitarian section is located or is planned to expand.

“The debris, the destruction those were already revealed, but the destruction is hiding it underneath any kind of ramp,” she said. “You lose the whole impression that is given when you see the Western Wall and the immense stones that fell,” she said.

This undated photo of the egalitarian section shows how the platform was built over stones that toppled from the Second Temple and landed in the street below, where archaeologists discovered them 2,000 years later. (courtesy Eilat Mazar)
This undated photo of the egalitarian section shows how the platform was built over stones that toppled from the Second Temple and landed in the street below, where archaeologists discovered them 2,000 years later. (courtesy Eilat Mazar)

The platform obscures some of the former temple’s magnificent masonry, as well as gems from other archaeological periods found in the area.

The committee charged that the platform was built in violation of archaeological and construction statutes.

Mazar’s grandfather, Benjamin Mazar, was the archaeologist who oversaw the excavation of the area where the platform stands today. Nine archaeologists signed the petition to Netanyahu calling for the dismantling of the platform.

The Israel Antiquities Authority declined to comment on the new developments regarding Netanyahu’s decision to freeze the agreement. In a Knesset session examining the platform on November 22, 2016, IAA chief Yisrael Hasson also decried the platform’s construction.

“Converting the site into a prayer space will prevent adequate preservation and management of the finds,” Hasson told a meeting of the Knesset Education Committee.

However, Hasson added that if the government does decide to expand the pluralistic section, the IAA wants to be involved in order to minimize damage.

A young member of Women of the Wall holds up the miniature Torah scroll during the monthly Rosh Hodesh service on June 25, 2017, in the women's section of the Western Wall plaza, just before Netanyahu froze the Kotel Agreement. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
A young member of Women of the Wall holds up the miniature Torah scroll during the monthly Rosh Hodesh service on June 25, 2017, in the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza, just before Netanyahu froze the Kotel Agreement. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Non-Orthodox religious activists who originally opposed the Western Wall agreement also said they felt torn.

“It’s hard to know what to think, because of course we have always opposed the deal and did not want it,” said Cheryl Birkner Mack, one of the leaders of the Original Women of the Wall group.

Original Women of the Wall split from the larger women’s activist prayer group, Women of the Wall, over Women of the Wall’s decision to ultimately support the Western Wall agreement.

Cheryl Birkner Mack, far left, is interviewed after praying at the Western Wall with the 'Original' Women of the Wall on February 3, 2016. (©2016 Raya Meltz, morayaDESIGN)
Cheryl Birkner Mack, left, is interviewed after praying at the Western Wall with the ‘Original’ Women of the Wall on February 3, 2016. (©2016 Raya Meltz, morayaDESIGN)

“But what we did not want was the forgoing of women’s rights at the Kotel [Western Wall] itself,” added Mack. “On the one hand, it seems to be status quo, but on the other hand, it’s very disrespectful for the non-Orthodox movement. All of us, whether we’re Orthodox or not, support non-Orthodox movements and support recognition of their rights, so it’s hard to know how to respond to this.”

Bennett on Monday called the latest government decision to freeze the deal unfortunate, but not a major disaster.

He said the government this week allocated some $5 million to carry out the promised expansion of the prayer area in the coming months. It was only other aspects of the plan, including construction of a shared entrance to all prayer areas and joint management of the site by all streams of Judaism, that were frozen.

“The main message for Jews around the world is ‘you are wanted,'” Bennett said. “The Kotel is open for all Jews of the world and will remain open for all Jews of the world.”

Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this article.

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