The significant upgrade to the Western Wall’s controversial egalitarian prayer section at Robinson’s Gate will ruin Judaism’s “jewel of archeology,” an internationally recognized archeologist from the Hebrew University contended Tuesday.
Less than 48 hours after the cabinet approved a historic overhaul for the gender-neutral prayer space, Dr. Eilat Mazar, of HU’s Institute of Archeology, said the construction will “absolutely ruin the site” by turning an irreplaceable archeological landmark into a religious site.
To Mazar’s consternation, the current 12 meter section and 500 square meter wooden platform leading to it will be dramatically remodeled, enlarged and remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to become a “fully functional and operational” prayer space.
“This is the most important archeological site of the Second Temple period, which best expresses the destruction of Jerusalem and the life that existed after that point,” the archeologist said by phone.
“It’s the only place you can see the huge stones that fell from the Western Wall when the Romans destroyed the Temple Mount – the only evidence to show the destruction. There is no other place that does this, period.”
Mazar asserted that all areas of the Wall beyond the roughly 55 meters designated for the traditional men’s and women’s prayer sections, must remain untouched to preserve its history.
“It should not be used as a prayer site,” she said plaintively. “You can’t have both functions at the same time. It doesn’t work.”
According to Mazar, the current infrastructure built for the egalitarian section is “more than enough.”
She added that extending the area to more than 20 meters will cover “more than half the debris that fell from the Wall.”
“They want to convert the whole site and declare it not as an archeological site, but as a religious site so the priority will be people who come and visit, but not the archeology,” she said.
“The Western Wall is 492 meters, why destroy such a unique and important site? Such an act is a disaster and I’m not sure that people know what harm this is going to do. Do they know how much harm this will cause the most holy site in Jerusalem?” Moreover, Mazar claimed that “people will be sorry for generations to come” if the project goes forward and priceless artifacts are overshadowed.
“It’s the only tangible history of Jerusalem that speaks for the Second Temple period,” she said. “They will regret this. We’re talking about history that should be preserved for future generations.”
Despite Mazar’s scathing rebuke of the project, the Israel Antiquities Authority, which approved and will oversee the expansion, issued a brief statement saying it stands by its position, claiming the construction and resulting changes will be “minor.”
“In reaching the agreement, the IAA demanded measures to continue to maintain the character of the archeological surroundings,” it said.
Meanwhile, the left-wing NGO Emek Shaveh echoed Mazar’s concerns and further condemned the construction as an egregious violation of the Old City’s delicate status quo.
“The government of Israel’s decision to extend the prayer area at the Western Wall into the archeological area in order to create a separate Reform and Conservative prayer area will inflict damage on one of the most important archeological sites in the Old City,” the NGO stated.
“The decision violates the religious status quo, strengthens the ultra-Orthodox and their activity at the Western Wall and its tunnels, and supports the settlers in their attempt to gain control of the Davidson Archeological Park.”
To mitigate purported damage to the archeological character of the site, Emek Shaveh submitted a request to the attorney general demanding that the expansion plan be processed through the planning and building committees, and subject to public discussion and opposition.
“The decision creates a precedent whereby an antiquities site becomes a prayer space and a holy site,” the statement continued.
“This is a violation of the 1967 decision designating the area of the Western Wall for prayer and allocating the area of the Southern Wall for excavation by archeologists and public presentation of the city’s history through the extraordinary archeological remains discovered there from the Second Temple through the Muslim periods.”
Nonetheless, the Women of the Wall organization, Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and North America, as well as political leaders in Israel and the Diaspora, hailed the agreement as a historic victory that will strengthen the capital and unite Jewry worldwide.
“This is a historic day for Women of the Wall and women in Israel in general and anyone who thinks there is more than one way to be Jewish in Israel,” Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of WOW, said after the agreement was made.
“We are happy that the government of Israel took this first step to establish an egalitarian, pluralist and tolerant section to which all will be welcome. We will promise that it will welcome everyone with open arms and that no one will be harassed as occurs in the current plaza.”
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky also lauded the cabinet decision as “unprecedented” for Israel and world Jewry.
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.
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