Archaeologists Threaten Legal Action Over Mixed-gender Prayer Space at Western Wall

Dan Bahat, who heads the group, supports the existence of an egalitarian prayer area for Reform Jews, but fears damage to the site

Work at Robinson's Arch near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, February 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

A group of archaeologists plans to petition the High Court of Justice against the government’s attempts to replace Culture Minister Miri Regev as head of a committee for approving work on an egalitarian prayer area near the Western Wall.

The head of the group, Prof. Dan Bahat, a former Jerusalem district archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority and excavator of the Western Wall Tunnel, opposes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan for the antiquities-rich Robinson’s Arch area to become an egalitarian prayer space, citing irreparable damage to the site.

The archaeologist Dan Bahat, 1999.
Tamar Hayardeni

Bahat told Haaretz that in principle he supports the existence of an egalitarian prayer area for Reform Jews, but not if that means damaging the site.

This week Regev announced her resignation from the committee, saying she stepped down because her conscience would not let her “approve Reform prayer at the Western Wall.” Bahat’s petition states that work at the site is illegal.

The petition, along with one by the Orthodox Jewish organization B’Tzedek, has led to the current complication. A ministerial committee headed by Regev must approve the work, but Regev, despite pressure from  Netanyahu, has refused to call a meeting of the committee and this week announced her resignation as chairwoman.

On Sunday the government is set to approve a replacement for Regev, expected to be Netanyahu himself.

Bahat is now threatening to petition the High Court of Justice against the legality of replacing Regev. The replacement can be made based on a clause in the Basic Law on the Government stating that areas of responsibility may be transferred from one minister to another.

But Bahat’s attorney, Amnon Lorch, is expected to argue that since this is a ministerial committee established by statue, its work does not stem from the government itself, and therefore the Basic Law on the Government does not apply.

Meanwhile, nationalist ultra-Orthodox groups are pressuring Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to oppose the Robinson’s Arch plan. Even if Regev is replaced, Religious Services Minister David Azoulay is also against the plan, thus Shaked’s vote will decide the matter.

Speaking on Army Radio Thursday, Regev said that Shaked supports the plan. So far Shaked has reportedly not made a decision.