Archaeologists say pluralistic Western Wall prayer area harms historical site

In Knesset debate, experts say a platform built for prayer hampers efforts to conserve holy spot; all the more so an enlarged egalitarian space

Ilan Ben Zion is an AFP reporter and a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

A police officer stands in front of a makeshift partition erected ahead of an Orthodox prayer service at the mixed gender Western Wall plaza on June 14, 2016. screen capture: Facebook)
A police officer stands in front of a makeshift partition erected ahead of an Orthodox prayer service at the mixed gender Western Wall plaza on June 14, 2016. screen capture: Facebook)

Israeli archaeologists protested at the Knesset on Tuesday against a government decision to convert part of an archaeological park at the base of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount into a pluralistic prayer space, arguing such a move would inflict irreparable damage to historic remains.

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

“We think this decision harms the archaeological [finds],” he said, but added that if the government does push ahead with the plan to build a non-Orthodox prayer section beside Robinson’s Arch, the IAA wants to be involved to help minimize damage.

On January 31, 2016, the cabinet passed a government decision to build a platform for pluralistic and egalitarian prayer in a bid to end conflict at the Western Wall plaza between Orthodox and other Jewish groups, largely over the issue of women’s prayer.

Members of Women of the Wall wear prayer shawls as they read from the Torah and pray at Robinson's Arch, near the Western Wall in Jerusalem (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Members of Women of the Wall wear prayer shawls as they read from the Torah and pray at Robinson’s Arch, near the Western Wall in Jerusalem (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Then, and today, archaeologists warned that not only was the platform damaging to the site, but called it a massive eyesore that detracted from its historical importance.

The archaeological park at the base of the Temple Mount “is the only area where we can see the Western Wall in its full glory and the destruction that took place in Second Temple times,” seasoned Hebrew University archaeologist Eilat Mazar told the committee. In recent decades, Mazar has headed excavations at the southern wall of the Temple Mount.

A platform built over the archeological park “dwarfs” the only remnants of the Second Temple’s destruction, which it seeks to highlight, said Mazar, who is spearheading the opposition.

Part of the park contains the stones from the temple toppled by Roman troops that came crashing down onto the Herodian-era pavement below, found in place by archaeologists nearly 2,000 years later.

Located on the other side of the Mughrabi Bridge from the archeological park, the Western Wall prayer plaza, found below a Roman-era Temple Mount retaining wall, is the holiest site where Jews can legally pray. As part of a status quo agreement in place since 1967, the Jordanian-run Waqf manages the Temple Mount plateau — known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif compound and home to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque — whereas Israel maintains control over access, as well as religious services at the Western Wall.

Israel does not allow Jews to pray atop the mount, and Jewish prayer at the Western Wall plaza is restricted to Orthodox, gender-segregated prayer. After years of protests by the Women of the Wall, a group advocating women’s right to pray at the Kotel, as well as Conservative and Reform activists, the government agreed earlier this year to expand the mixed-gender prayer section at Robinson’s Arch and thus formalize access to the Western Wall for pluralistic’s prayer groups. Soon thereafter, archaeologists protested the move.

But already in 2013, then-religious affairs minister Naftali Bennett unveiled a temporary platform for non-Orthodox prayer as a stopgap measure to enable egalitarian worship at the Jewish holy site. The platform obscures some of the former temple’s magnificent masonry, as well as gems from other archeological periods found in the area, and the committee resolved its erection was done in violation of archaeological and construction statutes.

Anat Hoffman, head of Women of the Wall, derided the temporary platform’s construction in 2013, and said during Tuesday’s hearing that the group never supported its erection.

Photos of the Succot holiday priestly blessing at the Western Wall, taken from a police helicopter on October 19, 2016 (Police spokesperson)
Photos of the Sukkot holiday priestly blessing at the Western Wall, taken from a police helicopter on October 19, 2016 (Police spokesperson)

Besides the existing platform, the planned prayer plaza will obscure part of the small portion of the 492-meter-long Western Wall visible to visitors, further diminishing the site.

“I have no idea what the planners are thinking,” Mazar said. “One thing is certain,” she continued, “this site is an orphan, this site is neglected, there’s no one to protect it. The site is of supreme historical, archaeological and cultural importance, and we must… protect it, display it and give it the respect it deserves.”

Meir Ben Dov, who headed digs abutting the Temple Mount during the 1970s, also implored members of Knesset to bar development of the site, saying: “This place needs to remain open without any construction atop it, because its existence is more important.”

“The platform is ugly and endangers the site and there’s no construction permit, and what doesn’t have a construction permit needs to be dismantled,” Likud MK Oren Hazan told the committee.

Fellow Likud lawmaker Yehuda Glick, however, threw his support behind the worshipers who seek a space of their own at the Western Wall. “We’re always torn between two parallel lines: the desire to preserve heritage and archaeological values, and on the other hand the desire of the state of Israel to develop and advance.”

“I recommend that the Antiquities Authority be the body that builds [the section] that gives a response to hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the world, who, though I disagree with them, certainly in this place in which there is archaeological evidence of the destruction [of the temple], I think is a place for unconditional love and giving the chance for every person who wants to pray in their own way,” he said.

If the plan for a pluralistic prayer pavilion isn’t implemented, Liberal Jewry and the Women of the Wall already plan to go to the High 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,” the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism Rabbi Gilad Kariv told The Times of Israel in April.

“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,” said Kariv.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting at the Knesset, the committee resolved that the platform was built without a permit, and in violation of the law, and called upon the state comptroller to investigate the government’s decision to erect it.

It also called on the relevant archaeologists to weigh in on the possible impact on the park. Further, it seconded the Antiquities Authority’s call to strike a balance between preserving archaeological remains and developing the site within the confines of the law.

— With contributions from The Times of Israel staff

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