Renewing the old

Planning and construction committees should approve a logistical face-lift for the Western Wall, says the rabbi in charge.

Western wall 58 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Western wall 58
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Since the destruction of the Temple and since the halachic decision that due to our ritual impurity we can view the site from afar but must not go up to it, the Western Wall was made sacred by generations of pilgrims who came to pour out their prayers in front of its ancient stones. Jews from all over the world gathered in the little alleyway in which the Muslim and British rulers allowed prayer; individual emissaries of whole communities, repeatedly vowing “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.”
Immediately after the Old City was conquered during the War of Independence and its Jews expelled (among them my grandfather), the agreements that had guaranteed freedom of religious worship there were cancelled, and the Jewish nation was torn away from even the Western Wall for 19 years – until the Six Day War.
When the battles ended, a large plaza was created adjacent to the Wall where gleeful prayers of thanksgiving took place on Shavuot of 1967, only days after the war ended.
From the time that plaza was created until today, no planning was done for the Western Wall Plaza. Therefore, it is no wonder that for years, the Western Wall Plaza has had difficulty containing its millions of visitors: The women’s section was drastically reduced, while attempts to widen it have met with Muslim objections; the number of rest room stalls is hundreds of percent lower than the world standard for tourist sites; the public transportation network is unsuitable for modern needs; and the list goes on.
The local and regional committees for planning and construction in Jerusalem are currently in discussions to approve a general outline for the Western Wall and its surroundings, following countless debates in a steering committee headed by Mayor Nir Barkat.
This plan is the fruit of many people’s labor: architects, the Antiquities Authority, experts on preservation, tourism and, of course, members of the Jerusalem Municipality, the regional committee and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. All the above spent days and nights to plan a Wall Plaza for millions of visitors over the coming years.
The plan attempts to find a balance between the logistical needs of this most-toured site in the country, and its archeological and historical significance, constraints of the location and concern for the sensitivities of the area. The planners are all worthy of commendation for their hard work.
Since its sovereignty was applied to the Old City, the State of Israel maintains a clear policy of tolerance and freedom of worship. Out of respect for the three largest religions, the state works incessantly to improve physical conditions, accessibility, safety and archeological preservation in the holy sites. This is occasionally at the price of closing its eyes to damage done by less-tolerent religions (for example, the destructive earthworks at the Temple Mount).
THUS, IT is hard not to rise up against the voices calling to invalidate the plan and leave the situation as it is. Do those who object believe things can continue this way – without sufficient bathroom stalls, without a police and first-aid station, without a classroom in which students or soldiers can learn about the Wall out of the hot sun? Should the rules that apply to the Western Wall be different from those that apply to any other holy site? Are its millions of visitors not entitled to suitable conditions? What enrages even more are the insolent voices that take advantage of the public debate to undermine the State of Israel and the Jewish nation’s right to the Western Wall Plaza. These are the same voices that continue to spread the lie that excavations are being conducted under the Temple Mount, as though revealing the Western Wall tunnels endangers the homes of the Muslim Quarter, though the homes have been standing on top of these same tunnels for more than 600 years.
Indeed, there are people with hearts of stone.
Approval of the outline plan for the Western Wall Plaza is a joyous message for every Jew in the world, and for anyone for whom the heritage of the Jewish nation means something.
The millions of visitors to the Western Wall who come every year will enjoy improved conditions appropriate for a holy and exalted site whose stones have a human heart. For this I thank all those working on this sacred mission.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation will continue to display the Western Wall antiquities and receive visitors in the most respectable and appropriate way possible, as suits such a site. May we merit the fulfillment of King Solomon’s prayer when he dedicated the First Temple: “And listen to the supplication of Your servant, and of Your people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place; yea, hear You in heaven Your dwellingplace; and when You hear, forgive.”
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.