Latest Obstacle to Western Wall Deal: Israel’s Archaeologists

Researchers weigh in on plans for egalitarian space at Western Wall, arguing that it would jeopardized significant excavation site.

Two Reform Jews pray at a gender-equal prayer service at the Western Wall, february 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

A week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised American Jews he remained committed to creating an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, Israeli archeologists warned on Tuesday that the plan would jeopardize one of Jerusalem’s most important excavation sites.

The egalitarian prayer plaza is supposed to replace a makeshift prayer space set up at the southern expanse of the Western Wall three years ago.

The site is near that of an excavation dominated by a large of pile of rocks widely thought to have toppled off the Wall when the ancient Jewish Temple was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago.

The new permanent prayer plaza, according to the plan, will be built above this rubble.

Chaired by Yaakov Margi of Shas, the Sephardic religious party, the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee convened at the request of Eilat Mazar, a prominent Jerusalem archeologist.

Her grandfather, the renowned archeologist Benjamin Mazar, had discovered the pile of stones during excavations in the 1970s.

“This is the only spot on earth where it is possible to see and experience the actual destruction of the temple,” Mazar told the committee. “It is a site of paramount archeological, historical and Jewish significant, and therefore, it is incumbent upon us to protect it.”

Mazar charged that the temporary prayer plaza was already obstructing the view of the site and access to it. Her concerns were shared by members of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s advisory body.

Representatives of organizations that support the Western Wall deal, as well as several committee members, charged that the session had been called to provide the government with yet another alibi for not fulfilling its promise to Reform and Conservative Jews.

The government had approved the plan to build a new plaza at the Western Wall in January. Under pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, however, Netanyahu has not followed through.

The ultra-Orthodox oppose the deal because it provides formal recognition to the Reform and Conservative movements, which it deems illegitimate, at one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

Ever since negotiations about the plan were launched three years ago, archeologists have voiced concerns that any new construction could damage nearby excavations. The Israel Antiquities Authority, which manages the country’s archeological sites, approved the plan, however.

Several Knesset members at Tuesday's meeting questioned the timing of the debate.

“What are we supposed to learn from this story?” asked MK Aliza Lavie of the opposition Yesh Atid party. “Is it that people in this country don’t know how to make decisions? Is it that they don’t know to consult with professionals?”

Any attempt to back out of the deal at this point, she warned, would represent a slap in the face to American Jewry.

“We promised our brothers and sisters a space,” she said, “and that promise has not been fulfilled. Archeology is very important, and so is history. But that can’t be used now as an excuse to override a government decision,” Lavie said.

MK Yehuda Glick, an Orthodox member of the Likud, echoed these sentiments.

“We need to tread a fine line here,” Glick said. “On the one hand, it is critical that we preserve our archeological treasures, but on the other hand, there are a million Jews out there who have been asking us for a place to pray, and we need to respect their wishes even if they have different customs.”

Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, warned the committee that the government’s inaction could have dire consequences. “At a place where prayer books are torn and praying women are attacked, blood will be spilled,” she said.

Hoffman was referring to recent acts of violence perpetrated against members of her organization during their monthly prayer service at the holy site.

Yisrael Hasson, chairman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, noted construction had been undertaken on numerous occasions near the Wall with no harm done to nearby archeological sites. “But it’s always easier to say no,” Hasson said.

It has not yet been decided who will build the new prayer space, but Hasson recommended that the Israel Antiquities Authority lead the effort.

This was the second time in recent weeks that the Western Wall deal has been addressed in the Knesset. The last time, Knesset Interior Committee Chairman David Amsalem (Likud) called on the government to scrap the plan once and for all, after he led a tour of the site where the new prayer plaza is supposed to be built.

During his address last week to the Jewish Federations of North America, Netanyahu begged Reform and Conservative leaders for patience and urged them to join him in “quiet diplomacy” so that they could finally have their space at the Wall.