The Archaeological Council of Israel has called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make changes to plans for the egalitarian prayer plaza adjacent the Western Wall in Jerusalem out of concern that construction of the plaza would cause major damage to archaeological remains from the Second Temple period. The new plaza is slated to be built south of the existing Orthodox-administered main prayer plaza. The new area is adjacent to Robinson's Arch, the remnants of a massive staircase that led to the Temple Mount at the time.
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An agreement on plans for the egalitarian prayer space was sealed in January with approval by the cabinet in an effort to resolve demands by non-Orthodox groups and the Women of the Wall, an association of feminist religious women that includes Orthodox women, to conduct religious rituals as they see fit at the Wall rather than conforming to Orthodox custom. The pluralistic prayer area, plans for which have come under increasing attack from within the ultra-Orthodox community since the agreement was reached, is slated to enable men and women to pray together without Orthodox rabbinical oversight.
In its call to the prime minister, to Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and to the director general of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the council, which is an official advisory body appointed by the culture minister, said it would cause serious harm to the archaeology showcased in the park. A major highlight of the park, the archaeologists noted, is the ancient street running the length of the Wall, the remains of shops that catered to pilgrims on the way to the Temple Mount and the pile of massive stones that reflect the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. The stones, the archaeologists said, have no equal in demonstrating the destruction that was carried out at the time in the city, saying that they have "huge educational and historic value" and are a heritage site of prime Jewish and global importance.
"Preservation of the remnants at the site is a supreme archaeological, public, educational and cultural obligation," the council members wrote. More limited work that has been carried out there since 2003 has already caused "destructive damage," they said.
The law requires the Israel Antiquities Authority to consult with the Archaeological Council prior to every excavation, and excavation licenses are issued by a committee on which council members are in the majority.
Last week, Netanyahu announced that he had appointed his bureau chief, David Sharan, to oversee discussions between the opposing sides and present recommendations for reconciling their differences within 60 days. The ultra-Orthodox parties are opposed to providing official government recognition to the Reform and Conservative movements.
Their key demand is that representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements not sit on the public authority that will oversee the new prayer space, as stipulated in the agreement. The agreement, however, avoided using the specific names of the non-Orthodox movements as a concession to the ultra-Orthodox representatives to the negotiations.
For his part, in comments to Haaretz, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky warned that reopening negotiations over the Western Wall plan would jeopardize the entire compromise.