Praying at the Western Wall.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A host of eminent archeologists spoke out on Tuesday against the government resolution to create a large, government-recognized pluralist prayer area at the southern end of the Western Wall due to the harm it would do to the archeological garden at the site.
The archeologists were speaking in a hearing of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports committee during which they questioned the authority of the government to approve the large-scale changes required to create the proposed prayer section.
Dr. Eilat Mazar, the archeologist who headed the excavations of the City of David, stated that the southern archeological gardens are the only place to witness the remnants of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans.
Mazar added that the new prayer platform that would be built above the Herodian street at the site would obscure the archeological remains and the toppled stones from the Temple walls in what which she said should be the signature attraction of the site.
“The site is of the utmost importance and we must give it the proper respect and not hide it behind a platform designed for social events,” she declared.
Meir Ben Dov, the archeologist who conducted excavations along the southern wall of the Temple Mount and who created the current archeological gardens, also spoke out against the proposed prayer site, saying that the gardens are a world-renowned site which should be preserved.
In spite of these objections, chairman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Yisrael Hasson, said that following the passage of the government resolution in January, it had worked to present a plan that would balance the needs of archaeology and the requirements of the state.
“The IAA is obligated to say how things can be done and now how things cannot be done,” said Hasson.
“We need to allow both freedom of worship at the Western Wall and for the preservation of archeological remains, so when the government came to us and said ‘this is the decision’ we came up with a plan.”
He also insisted that no damage would be done to the archeological findings at the site.
Likud MK Oren Hazan spoke out against the proposed new prayer space and the existing platform which he said had been built without the proper permits, while four other MKs present at the hearing argued that in spite of the concerns of the archeologists, the government resolution was a necessary measure for Israeli society and could be carried out without harming the current archeological site.
Likud MK Yehudah Glick said that he had “great respect for archaeology and also great respect for people are alive and want to pray,” and suggested that the IAA be in charge of constructing the new prayer platform to avoid damage to the existing archeological remains.
“We find ourselves between two parallel directions: the desire to preserve our inheritance and archeological values and the desire for the State of Israel to develop and advance,” said Glick.
“The new prayer site will provide an answer to hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the world, and despite the fact that I disagree with their opinions, it is fitting that at the place where there is archeological testimony to the destruction [of the Second Temple] I think this is the place for love [of the Jewish people] and the provision of the possibility of anyone to pray in accordance with their own manner.”
At the end of the hearing, committee chairman and Shas MK Yaakov Margi issued a statement on behalf of the committee although no vote was taken on it and the majority of MKs disagreed with it.
Margi’s statement said that the committee “had arrived at the conclusion that the current platform was done without the appropriate permits and in contravention of the Law for Archeology and the laws for planning and construction.”
It also called on the Reform Movement and the Women of the Wall “to reject any solution that will grossly violate the Law of Archaeology and the laws of construction.”
Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman, who was also present at the hearing, objected to Margi’s statement, saying that “he obviously wrote it on his kitchen table last night,” and pointing to the fact that four of the six MKs present had not supported his position.
She also argued that the debate had not been “a candid attempt by the education committee to educate itself on the issue,” and said that only archeological opponents of the proposal had been present and none of those who supported the deal when the negotiations regarding the site were underway.