Archaeologists: New Western Wall prayer site will damage antiquities

Signatories to letter of protest warn of harm to ‘diamond in Jerusalem’s archaeological crown’ due to planned site for mixed-gender worship

Creating a new plaza at the Western Wall will damage “the most important archaeological site for the Jewish people,” nine senior Israeli archaeologists warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, days after plans for a multi-denominational site were announced.

The “diamond in Jerusalem’s archaeological crown” must not be harmed accommodate the needs of various Jewish religious streams, they wrote, Israel Radio reported.

The protest drives another spoke into the wheel of the plan to expand an existing area south of the main Western Wall prayer site by creating a plaza over ruins from the Temple in an area known as Robinson’s Arch.

Signatories to the protest letter include Dan Bahat, who excavated the Western Wall tunnels; Ronny Reich, head of the Archaeological Council of Israel, who exposed part of the paved road beneath Robinson’s Arch; Jerusalem Prize winner Gabriel Barkay, who directs the Temple Mount Sifting Project; and Israel Prize laureate Amihai Mazar.

The plan ends a decades-long fight between Reform and Conservative Jews and Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment over prayer rights at the Western Wall. Brokered by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, and announced by the cabinet at the end of January, it is set to expand the mixed-gender prayer section at Robinson’s Arch and thus formalize access to the Western Wall for women’s prayer groups.

Ultra orthodox Jewish men look out over the southern end of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on December 17, 2015. (Esther Rubyan/FLASH90)
Ultra orthodox Jewish men look out over the southern end of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on December 17, 2015. (Esther Rubyan/FLASH90)

Although approved by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which is responsible for archaeological concerns, the plan has drawn fire from ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups. And although it was signed by the Reform and Conservative movements as well as the feminist prayer group called Women of the Wall, it has earned bitter criticism from a splinter group from the Anat Hoffman-led Women of the Wall who, along with their international supporters, do not see the government decision as a solution for them but rather a setback in their attempts to pray with a Torah scroll at an all-women’s section at Western Wall.

One day after the plan was announced, Palestinian Minister of Waqf and Religious Affairs Youssef Ideiss warned that it would violate the status-quo agreement governing the area. Israel would use the expansion of the non-Orthodox section to carry out archaeological digs and “Judaicize the holy site,” he alleged.

The Western Wall prayer plaza, below a Roman-era Temple Mount retaining wall, is the holiest site where Jews can pray. While the Jordanian-run Waqf governs the top of the Temple Mount, known as the al-Aqsa compound to Muslims and home to the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, Israel maintains control over access as well as religious services at the Western Wall, as part of a status quo agreement in place since 1967. Israel does not allow Jews to pray atop the mount.

But Ideiss claimed the Western Wall was a part of the Temple Mount compound and “a holy Islamic site expropriated by Israel in 1967.” According to Muslim tradition, the Western Wall is where the prophet Mohammad tied the winged animal Buraq, which he rode on the night he ascended to heaven. In October 2015, the Palestinian Authority attempted to have the United Nations recognize the Western Wall as a Muslim holy site.

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