Archaeologist Challenges Netanyahu in Petition Against Mixed-gender Prayer Space at Western Wall

Prof. Dan Bahat, the man who excavated the Western Wall tunnels, has petitioned against widening the Robinson's Arch section which he says would cause irreversible damage to the site.

A woman praying at a Western Wall section known as Robinson's Arch, March, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

An archaeologist who opposes expanding the mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall petitioned the High Court of Justice on Monday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assumption of the chairmanship of the committee handling the issue. 

The committee’s original chairperson, Culture Minister Miri Regev, resigned last week because she said her “conscience wouldn’t allow her” to approve the expansion. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also on the three-member panel, subsequently resigned as well

Since Netanyahu favors the expansion, his assumption of the chairmanship is widely expected to facilitate the plan’s approval.
Prof. Dan Bahat, the man who excavated the Western Wall tunnels and formerly served as the Israel Antiquities Authority’s chief archaeologist for the Jerusalem District, opposes widening the mixed-gender prayer space near Robinson’s Arch because he says it would cause irreversible damage to the important archaeological site.

The petition objects to Netanyahu chairing the committee mainly on procedural grounds. 

Under the law, the prime minister can assume the chairmanship of any committee set up by the cabinet. But this committee, the petition argues, is a statutory panel created by the Antiquities Law. Therefore, it’s an independent panel rather than a cabinet committee, so the prime minister can’t replace the culture minister as its chair.

“The government tried to change the committee’s composition in order to crudely intervene in its expected decision and change the outcome of the vote,” the petition charges, referring to how the original committee lacked a majority behind the proposed expansion.  

“Through the decades of the committee’s existence, there has never been any intervention in its composition or in the authority of the ministers on it, and never has a minister been denied authority solely in order to reach a specific result,” it adds.

The petition is expected to accelerate Netanyahu’s efforts to push the expansion through the committee, for fear that otherwise, the High Court might order the government to allow mixed-gender prayer at the main Western Wall Plaza, which is currently divided into men’s and women’s sections. That would almost certainly spark a crisis with the ultra-Orthodox parties who are part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition.