Borderline views: The Antiquities Authority’s campaign against pluralism at the Western Wall

Just as the environmentalists may not like turning to the defense establishment for assistance, so we would assume the archaeologists do not like serving the interests of the Orthodox establishment.

Women of the Wall at the Kotel (photo credit: screenshot)
Women of the Wall at the Kotel
(photo credit: screenshot)
Yesterday’s announcement that the Antiquities Authority, representing Israel’s archaeologists, would lodge a protest at the government’s plans to allocate an area by the Western Wall for prayer for non-Orthodox denominations must have brought a rueful smile to the face of the country’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and religious leaders. They have always been fiercely opposed to any form of prayer taking place at the Western Wall which does not accord 100 percent with Orthodox ritual.
Their representatives in the Knesset have exercised a strong lobby to prevent the Reform or Conservative movements from establishing a foothold, and they have fiercely demonstrated against the women’s minyanim which take place there on Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of each Jewish month) and some festivals.
But if the Orthodox community has had a more hated opponent than those campaigning for greater religious pluralism, it is the country’s archaeologists. In this country, where almost the entire land surface hides valuable and unique archaeological findings, ancient synagogues and churches, astounding mosaics and burial sites, they have gone out of their way to stop archaeological digs from taking place whenever they suspect the presence of ancient burial sites, which they believe should remain undisturbed until the coming of the Messiah. There have been many violent confrontations between members of the Atra Kadisha (the Orthodox organization which supervises and controls ancient burial sites) and the Antiquities Authority while, in many cases, important digs have been halted for long periods or ceased altogether so as not to disturb these ancient graves.
The Atra Kadisha have also been fierce opponents of development projects, such as the construction of new roads or settlements, if and when they believe that there is an ancient cemetery under the proposed construction site. In some cases, there have been interesting halachic compromises reached, such as leaving a vacuum between the graves and the roads, but these have been few and far between, and the archaeologists remain enemy No. 1 of the Atra Kadisha – not only because of the excavations but also because their findings challenge the very essence of Orthodox lifestyle which believes in the creation of the world no longer than 5,000 years ago. The historical narratives of the rich archaeological findings which date back beyond this period are not taught in Orthodox schools, or even most religious Zionist ones.
However, the opposition of the Antiquities Authority to the preparation of a separate space further along the wall for non-Orthodox and mixed-gender prayer on the basis that this will prevent further excavations of one of the most important ancient Jewish sites in Israel, as well as limiting access to those who came to see the archaeology rather than for prayer, serves the interests of the Orthodox community, who are strongly opposed to such forms of alternative prayer.
The fact that the plan which was finally approved by the government in this week’s cabinet meeting is to be funded from alternative sources and not by the Religious Affairs Ministry (which funds all religious activities at the Kotel) is itself an indication of the compromises that had to be made during three long years of negotiations among the government, the Jewish Agency and the large religious denominations in the Diaspora who have demanded that the Kotel be removed from the monopoly and hegemony of the Orthodox and be open to all.
It is clear that the prolonged discussions were aimed at finding a compromise which would satisfy the Orthodox community; not much attention was paid to the demands of the archaeologists. If they were involved in any way, it is to be assumed that their opposition was less vociferous and less threatening than that of the Orthodox groups, especially that of the Religious Authority which is in charge of the daily management of the Kotel and which, it must be said to its credit, has introduced an orderly process of management into the activities which take place there.
Neither do the archaeologists have the sort of organized representation in the Knesset that the Orthodox and religious parties have.
Not that the archaeologists lack any political influence.
Au contraire. Whenever a development site is thought to cover an ancient archaeological site, the Antiquities Authority has the right to immediately step in and excavate the site, at government expense, to ensure that nothing valuable is damaged. While it does not always have the authority to completely prevent a project from going ahead, the development often has to wait, for months and in some cases years, while the excavation takes place and valuable artifacts are covered and protected, or removed altogether to museums so that they can be preserved for future generations.
But when it comes to the archaeologists versus the Atra Kadisha, it is the powerful pressure and violent demonstrations of the latter which invariably come out on top.
In this particular case, it is to be assumed that the Reform, Conservative and other non-Orthodox communities are keen to display the rich religious and cultural heritage of the Temple site in all its glory and would normally join forces with the Antiquities Authority to prevent any shutting down of archaeological sites and their continued excavation – especially in such a key location. But given the announcements made yesterday by the Antiquities Authority that it would oppose any such action, even to the extent of lodging an appeal against the government decision in the Supreme Court, it would appear that someone didn’t do their homework.
It is hard to believe that Orthodox activists put the Antiquities Authority up to it, but it is equally hard to understand why this opposition from the Antiquities Authority has only surfaced at this point, after three long years of discussions and only after the cabinet finally approved the decision.
This would not be the first time a strange coalition has come about in an attempt to prevent development. The same has happened between other contrasting authorities, such as the army and the environmentalists, who have, on occasion, banded together to prevent areas of open land from being taken over by developers. The army want areas for training and shooting ranges, while the environmentalists want areas to remain untouched and their natural resources preserved. The army is a much more powerful lobby in the planning committees than are the environmentalists (although their power has increased in recent years compared to the situation two and three decades ago). While the green lobby would have areas remain open for the public, it is preferable from their point of view to have some of the areas closed to the public for military purposes rather than to have them destroyed by the expansion of urban and metropolitan areas.
As geographer Dr. Ami Oren shows in his book, A Land under Khaki (published almost a decade ago), much of the Negev, with its pristine desert beauty, has been closed to the public for the purposes of army bases and training sites, and this has only increased as much of the defense establishment is now in the process of leaving their bases in the center of the country – areas which will now be available for urban and metropolitan expansion – and relocating to the south. In effect, the defense establishment controls some 50 percent of the country’s land, if only to the extent that the country’s planning authorities must have the approval of the defense establishment before any major development project takes place – and it is by no means clear that their opposition always stems from purely military considerations, as contrasted with financial and economic reasons. Much of the present development of the new army bases in the Negev is to be financed by selling off valuable plots of land in the center of the country – although whether the land actually belonged to the army in the first place is itself open to question.
Strange coalitions often emerge when interests are threatened. It is unlikely that in the most recent case of the prayer sites at the Western Wall, such a coalition was planned in advance. But the opposition of the Antiquities Authority to this week’s government decision serves the interests of other lobbyists – in this case the Orthodox community – who must be rubbing their hands with glee at this unexpected intervention against religious pluralism.
Just as the environmentalists may not like turning to the defense establishment for assistance, so we would assume the archaeologists do not like serving the interests of the Orthodox establishment.
Politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows.
The author is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.