Sharansky's Solution for the Wall Will Ruin the Country's Archaeological Treasure, Israeli Scholars Fear

The 'Sharansky plan’ for a new worship space, near Robinson’s Arch, has raised the ire of local archaeologists and blurred the definition of 'sacred.’

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The Jerusalem Archaeological Park and Davidson Center, located south of the Western Wall, is widely considered the most important archaeological site in the country − the site which perhaps best embodies the destruction of the Temple. Enormous stones that formed the upper tiers of this wall prior to the destruction lie on top of each other in a tall heap. Above them are remnants of Robinson’s Arch, the largest stone overpass in the ancient world, which led to the Temple Mount. Not far from there are the remnants of the Umayyad palaces, immense structures built by the rulers of that dynasty in the early Muslim period, some 1,300 years ago.

This park area has now come under threat due to Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky’s plan to create an additional prayer area there for the Western Wall. According to details that Haaretz has obtained, the plan calls for the erection of an enormous wooden deck that would cover 500 square meters and be suspended seven to eight meters off the ground by steel beams to create an additional space for worship.

“The goal is for every Jew in the world to be able to come to the Western Wall and express his identification, his bond with the Jewish people, with the Jewish faith, with the State of Israel, in the manner in which he is accustomed to doing,” Sharansky explained to the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women a week ago. The local archaeology community, led by the Israel Antiquities Authority, is up in arms against the scheme, which they believe threatens to alter the historic balance between the religious section and the archaeological-scientific-tourist part of the Wall.

To understand the plan and the opposition to it, we have to go back to 1967. Shortly after the Western Wall was conquered, Israel established the plaza in front of it that we know today; both wall and plaza are modern architectural creations.

It is enough to look at the famous series of photographs by David Rubinger from the day the army broke through to the area, during the Six-Day War, to see how close the sky was to the heads of the Paratroopers and Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, and to grasp how much the plaza has changed since then. The Mugrabi neighborhood nearby was demolished and the ground level was lowered to expose more tiers of the sacred wall; that is how the familiar Western Wall and plaza of our day came into being. In the southern part of the site, on the other side of the Mugrabi Bridge battery, the piles of dirt and ruins for a time towered almost as high as the Western Wall itself.

Excavations conducted in the area beginning in the late 1960s − which are remembered as the most important in the history of local archaeology − uncovered the full depth of the Western Wall. The archaeologists, among them Benjamin Mazar and Meir Ben Dov, discovered stratum dating to the destruction of the Temple, Robinson’s Arch, the ancient inscription “And when ye see this your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall flourish like young grass” ‏(which a Jew is thought to have engraved on one of the stones in the fourth century C.E.‏), and also the cornerstone of the Temple Mount, with the inscription “To the trumpeting place” ‏(since that is where a trumpeter once stood to herald events on the premises‏).

Until 2003 the separation between the religious-national section of the plaza, on the north, the prayer plaza, and the archaeological section to the south was meticulously upheld. Excavations in the latter area continued and uncovered, among other things, the Umayyad palaces, a Byzantine bathhouse and layers dating to Roman, Crusader and Islamic times. In recent years, a subterranean dig was conducted along the drainage canal, dating from Herod’s time, which revealed the lowest tier of the Western Wall.

The findings from that excavation, which was carried out by Eli Shukron of the IAA, challenged the archaeological supposition that all the walls of the Temple Mount were built during the reign of Herod. Shukron showed that Herod’s heirs probably were the ones to complete the construction.

Unsuccessful solutions

In 2003 the High Court of Justice handed down a ruling on a petition by the Women of the Wall and ordered that a prayer area be made available in the southern section of the area, to enable them to worship as they desired. A small deck was thus built, above the stones dating from the Temple’s destruction, which allows women to reach this part of the Western Wall itself. The deck was hardly used, however; the Women of the Wall claimed it was impractical and inaccessible. But in the meantime the national park had become a popular worship and gathering place for Conservative and Reform Jews.

Sharansky, who had been asked by the prime minister to find a solution to the Women of the Wall’s problem, suggested adopting the deck solution, but dramatically expanding it. Under the plan, which is still incomplete, a wooden deck would run the whole length of the southern wall − along 81 meters. For the sake of comparison, the entire Western Wall plaza ‏(the men’s and women’s sections together‏) spans only 60 meters. To meet the Reform and Conservative movements’ demand that worshipers be able to stand on the same topographical level as the original plaza, the deck would be built eight meters above the Herodian street and the ruins. An access path is to be built from within the plaza, so that non-Orthodox worshipers would enter through the same gate as the rest.

“After the entrance, there is obviously a security check. The same for everyone. Then you can choose to go left, to a traditional prayer service, go straight up the Mugrabi [bridge] to the Temple Mount, or go right to an non-traditional prayer service,” Sharansky said by way of explaining the basic principle of the plan to the Knesset committee.

In recent years, several battles were waged between the IAA and archaeologists in academia over construction plans for the Western Wall area. The latter claimed that the IAA is too lenient vis-a-vis developers and is not doing its job of protecting archaeological sites. In the current case, however, the organization is leading the campaign against the new plan. Its top officials, who usually guard their tongues, have attacked it in unsparing terms.

“From our standpoint, this spells doom with respect to the park,” says Dr. Yuval Baruch, director of the IAA’s Jerusalem district.

Sharansky wants to create two levels in the park − a lower level where tourists and archaeology buffs would be able to wander around, while above them would be the worshipers. Naturally the experience of grasping the dimensions of the destruction will be utterly different if it is no longer possible, with a single glance, to take in the piles of debris and the places from which the stones were thrown.

Baruch takes issue with the very idea that he has to defend the important archaeological park. He points out that the Western Wall in that section is “new” − in the sense that it was never considered, because it wasn’t even uncovered until 1967. “We are actually talking about a site that is − in its entirety, 100 percent of it − the product of archaeological activity. Not for nothing is it also called Robinson’s Arch. It is not called the southern section of the Western Wall, it is called Robinson’s Arch, after the researcher who discovered the place,” Baruch said at the recent Knesset committee meeting.

“It is simply madness,” responds Prof. Yoram Tsafrir, a senior archaeologist from the Hebrew University, who on virtually every other issue finds himself opposing the IAA. “The Women of the Wall must not accept this. Even if it is their victory, it is a disgrace. It would be shameful, we would not be able to show our faces in the world.”

“The public needs to understand that the role of this place is not to solve problems for now, but rather to preserve values for the sake of the future generations,” Baruch adds. In his address before the Knesset panel, Sharansky did not seem to ascribe importance to the park’s very existence, only to its potential for yielding new finds: “I checked whether there is continued active excavation at Robinson’s Arch. There is not. For many years now there hasn’t been,” he told the group.

Besides Sharansky’s plan, another scheme is in the works, one that was formulated in recent years under the guidance of the outgoing cabinet secretary, attorney Zvi Hauser. Under that plan, the existing porch would be extended by a few meters along the length of the Western Wall and significantly farther away from it, so it can hold more people. In addition, an access path from the plaza would be built, thereby meeting the condition that all worshipers − Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike − enter through the same gate. This proposal is expected to be submitted to the Jerusalem Development Authority soon.

If the government approves the Sharansky plan, it would be a temporary solution until the bigger plaza is built. The IAA does not like that scheme either, but is willing to accept it as the lesser of evils. “We objected to this too,” says Baruch, “but understand that life is stronger than everything.”

Concept's holiness

At the southern edge of the Western Wall, a few centimeters before it meets the southern wall, there is a hole, whose significance nobody knows. The hole was uncovered during the excavations conducted at the site in the 1970s. As happens elsewhere, a folk legend grew up around this hole, apparently at the initiative of imaginative tour guides. The legend has it that the hole is nothing less than the place where Mohammed’s wondrous horse Al-Buraq was tied up, waiting for the prophet as he ascended to the heavens from the Temple Mount. Except that Jerusalem being Jerusalem, legends are sufficient basis for making a place sacred, and today there are many Muslims who view this hole as a holy site.

Not far away are the remnants of lavish palaces from the Muslim Umayyad period. The stones from which the houses were built were apparently taken from the pile of destruction debris from the Temple Mount. That is enough for some visitors to stick notes between the cracks of the palace ruins as though they were part of the Western Wall itself.

These are just two examples of the remarkable flexibility that exists when it comes to the concept of holiness to describe this site.

Holiness, contrary to its image, also obeys the dictates of fashion and changes from one era to another and from place to place. For most of the years since the Temple was destroyed, the Western Wall was neither a holy site nor the focus of the Jews’ yearnings. Jewish pilgrims preferred other places; the Mount of Olives, with its view of the Temple Mount, was one of them. The southern wall, from which the pilgrims entered the Temple Mount, was another of them ‏(to this day it is preferred by Evangelical Christian worshipers, and there too you can find notes between the stones‏). Only in recent centuries was the Western Wall consecrated, evidently because of its proximity to the Jewish Quarter. The explanation for this, according to halakha ‏(Jewish religious law‏), was that it is the closest wall to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. In the eyes of the groups, like the Temple Mount Faithful, that aspire to repossess the Mount, at any rate, the Western Wall is no more than a pathetic substitute for the real thing − the Temple Mount’s plaza.

Now, in opponents of the plan to build the new Western Wall plaza in the Robinson’s Arch/Davidson Center area, we are witnessing another conception of holiness, this time as a means to resolve the problem of a place for the Women of the Wall. The southern part of the Western Wall was never considered to be part of the Wall per se, and certainly not something that could be characterized as sacred. This is because of the simple reason that it simply did not exist in many civilizations, as most of its layers were buried beneath layers of stones, dirt and structural remains. Even after it was uncovered in the 1970s, there were few who thought it was a holy site. It was only in the wake of pressure from both the alternative streams in Judaism and Women of the Wall, who wanted a place of their own next to the Wall, that the southern wall and archaeological park adjacent to it became “holy” enough to host prayer services and bar-mitzvah ceremonies.

“We are now at a certain point in time. We are talking about a historic event,” Yuval Baruch of the IAA explained recently to the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women. “We are talking essentially about a process of sanctification of a site − a process that is nothing to be sneered at.”

Robinson's Arch.Credit: Michal Fattal
Western Wall Plaza.

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