The minister of history has a sense of humor: For about seven years, the Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Affairs Ministry (today the Religious Services Ministry) have been waging a "world war" against archaeologists over the future of the southern section of the Western Wall. Former chief rabbis Yitzhak Nissim and Isser Yehuda Unterman insisted that the southern section of the Western Wall, to the right (south) of Mughrabi Gate, be made into a site for prayer. The archaeologists, led by Professor Benjamin Mazar and Meir Ben Dov, held on to it for dear life. Over the years, they revealed all its secrets.
The battle was won nearly 40 years ago by the archaeologists. The Religious Affairs Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate made the traditional area to the left (north) of Mughrabi Gate into a large outdoor synagogue, and they even managed the project of excavating the Western Wall's underground sections to the north. The archaeologists got the southern section of the Western Wall.
The excavations turned the site, including the area at the foot of the wall's southern section, into one of the most spectacular archaeological parks on earth. The boundary line that separated the two sections was the Mughrabi Path (today the Mughrabi Bridge). To its right, the archaeologists worked; to its left, people prayed.
Now people who belong to other streams of Judaism -- the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall -- may hand the Orthodox establishment a victory in this old battle. But the Orthodox establishment would most likely be glad to do without this particular victory.
This unexpected occurrence stems from the resurrected plan proposed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to solve the growing Women of the Wall protest movement for equality of prayer at Judaism's holiest site. His plan threatens to undermine the old order and the division of the Western Wall that was set many years ago.
Sharansky, who is dealing with the matter at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's request, suggests turning the area of the archaeological park at the foot of the Western Wall's southern section into an egalitarian, mixed-gender prayer area according to Reform and Conservative custom. He hopes that the new area will also satisfy the Women of the Wall. The group's prayer services in the women's section of the Western Wall, as many of its members wear prayer shawls, have led time after time to uproar and opposition that offend many in the American Conservative and Reform movements "to the point of humiliation."
But ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are outraged by Sharansky's plan, will not be the ones to scuttle it. They are no longer partners in the coalition, and have been locked out of positions of influence.
The ones who will oppose it most actively will be the archaeologists, who have been in an uproar since the plan to turn the Wall's southern section beneath Robinson's Arch into a prayer area became known. The most prominent archaeologists, with whom we spoke for the first time about the subject this week, are firmly opposed to the plan.
Defending Robinson's Arch
High-ranking officials in the Antiquities Authority rule out the possibility of such a prayer area, noting that a ruling by the High Court of Justice allocated an egalitarian prayer area near the Wall's southern section in 2003. Last year, they said, they even spoke with Sharansky and the prime minister's associates about expanding the area a bit southward, but "by no means in the area of Robinson's Arch."
"That's a disastrous proposal that has never been discussed anywhere. It will never happen," they say.
The area Sharansky proposes for the alternative prayer area -- on a kind of raised platform, perhaps from transparent material -- beneath Robinson's Arch is one of the only places near the wall around the Temple Mount that brings home the destruction of the Temple and its glorious past. This is a remnant of the enormous arch about 15 meters (49 feet) long that juts out from the Western Wall's southern section 17 meters (56 feet) above the paved street that runs along its bottom.
In the past, it was believed that this place was the beginning of the arched bridge that connected the Temple Mount with the upper city, which lay on a hill west of the Temple Mount. But when the bases of other arches that faced south rather than west were discovered, it turned out that this was not a bridge at all. Rather, it was a system of vaults from the Second Temple period that descended toward street level. From the street one could climb on the stairs of the vault and enter the royal stoa on the Temple Mount's southern section.
The traffic on the stairs of the vault did not interfere with the perpendicular traffic of pedestrians on the street below or with the commercial activity in the shops that were located within the vaults. Thus, Robinson's Arch was the first traffic interchange in history. Piles of stones, some of them still scorched from the destruction and burning of the Second Temple, are strewn on the Herodian street beneath the giant vault. One can walk on the remnants of that street today. A drainage canal was discovered beneath the street; it, too, can be seen today. After the Second Temple was destroyed, the last of the fighters against the Romans hid in the canal and were killed there.
'A great project will be damaged'
Dr. Eilat Mazar is the granddaughter of Professor Benjamin Mazar, the first Israeli archaeologist to excavate the bottom of the walls of the Temple Mount after the Six-Day War. An archaeologist in her own right who has also excavated there, Dr. Mazar says Sharansky's plan is a bad one. "It's not clear to me why they insist on concealing and harming the sole -- and impressive -- remnant of the fallen stones from the destruction on the Temple Mount during the Second Temple period," she says. "That's the only place where it is, to bring home what happened. It's the only section of the Western Wall that's still visible above the original street level. If such a plaza, even a raised one, is constructed there, a great project will be damaged."
Archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov, Mazar's partner in excavating the foot of the southern wall and the southern section of the Western Wall, is one of the members of the committee appointed in the 1970s by the justice minister at the time, Haim Zadok, to resolve the dispute between the rabbis and the archaeologists. According to Ben-Dov, the committee made the Mugrabi Path (today the Mugrabi Bridge) the boundary line between the traditional prayer area and the area to the south that would be excavated. "It will never happen," he says. "I'm surprised at Sharansky. It's a mortal blow to wonderful, first-rate archaeology, a world heritage site and Robinson's Arch, which was the first interchange on earth from an architectonic perspective. After so many years and after our committee already resolved the dispute and determined a clear boundary line, to come and construct a plaza underneath which people will walk, between the worshippers' feet -- that makes no sense at all."
Professor Dan Bahat, the former district archaeologist of Jerusalem, author of the Carta Jerusalem Atlas and an Israel Prize laureate in archaeology, is also vigorously opposed to the idea. Bahat fears that turning the area into a site for egalitarian worship will chip at the protections that the government put in place many years ago to keep the "regular worshippers" -- the haredim -- away from the site.
"This Herodian street, with the first interchange on earth and the remnants of the fallen stones from the destruction of the Second Temple, has become an inalienable asset, an Israeli icon, that serves our public-relations efforts. It's a wonderful and unique site. You stand below on the street, look upward, see where Robinson's Arch juts out from the wall, look down and see the remnants of the destruction. Nothing can replace a thing like that, and any solution, transparent or not, is just nonsense. It must never be touched."
'UNESCO will never allow it'
If Sharansky's program is for real, then opposition from the archaeological community will take a more solid form than statements to the press. Professor Amos Kloner, a member of the Israel Archaeological Council, which is an advisory body to the Antiquities Authority, intends to ask the council chairman, Professor Ronny Reich -- who also excavated at the foot of the Western Wall's southern section -- to convene the council for a discussion of the plan.
Kloner, the former district archaeologist of Jerusalem, says that the idea was wrong from the get-go. "It may be an easy solution to the disputes among the movements in Judaism and it may satisfy the Women of the Wall, but these problems can't be solved at the expense of one of the most important archaeological sites that exists not only in Jerusalem, but in Israel as a whole," he says. "To construct a plaza for prayer in that exposed area of the Western Wall is a desecration of the goal for which we, as archaeologists, work in Jerusalem. We are also signatories of the treaty with UNESCO and a world heritage site, and UNESCO certainly won't take this lying down either."
Kloner says that the plan remains a bad one even if the plaza is constructed out of transparent material. "After all, these would be plates made of glass or plastic that would have to be laid out on some kind of support. There will always be foundations, protrusions and supports. This would cause significant damage to one of the most special areas revealed and preserved by archaeologists in Jerusalem," he says. His colleagues in the archaeological community have already begun looking into the possibility of taking legal action against Sharansky's plan.
A high-ranking official of Sharansky's bureau at the Jewish Agency said this week that the plan is a recommendation only. "The idea is to give every Jew on earth the feeling that he is like one of the family at the Western Wall," the official says. "The plan has not yet been submitted to the prime minister, and we have no intention at any stage to ignore, forget or damage the very special archaeological site there. We will sit down with the archaeologists, move forward slowly and carefully, but we will also work for a solution that will defuse the tension between the Jewish people living in Israel and the Jewish people living in the Diaspora."
The high-ranking official notes that today, access to the Western Wall's southern section is problematic, restricted to certain hours and is often scornful and humiliating. After a certain time of day, employees of the archaeological park make worshippers pay to enter the area. "We would like to create a solution that will satisfy three parameters: a prayer plaza at the same height as the existing one, the ability to touch the wall, and mainly more convenient access and the possibility of using the wall in a more friendly and less restrictive way," he says.
According to Jewish Agency officials, Sharansky has brought these things to Netanyahu's attention, and over the past year talks were held between Netanyahu's and Sharansky's associates and officials of the Antiquities Authority in an attempt to find a solution. But Antiquities Authority officials say that the joint talks on the matter focused on a place near the Western Wall's southern section, but in an area several times closer to the Mugrabi Bridge, where a small prayer area was created for the Women of the Wall, as ordered by the High Court of Justice.
High-ranking officials Antiquities Authority officials say that the talks focused on the possibility of enlarging the existing small platform rather than a new location near Robinson's Arch, which they firmly oppose.
The irony in all this is that nobody spoke with the Women of the Wall about the new plan. Lesley Sachs, WOW's director, told Israel Hayom that "In the past and today, too, we never wanted the area of Robinson's Arch as a prayer area. It was forced on us."
According to Sachs, the members of WOW "think that this archaeological area, which is significant in the highest degree, ought to remain so, and there is no reason to destroy it or damage it because of us. Our demand is to pray in the recognized women's section in a manner that is different from the manner imposed by a group of haredim, which took it over and turned it into a haredi synagogue."
An act of sacrilege?
The previous struggle over the Western Wall's southern section occurred just after the Six-Day War. The excavations there began on February 28, 1968, with encouragement from then-Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who prodded Professor Mazar and Meir Ben-Dov to start excavating the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount walls.
At first, excavations took place at the foot of the southern wall. Several months later, they were expanded to the Western Wall's southern section despite strong protests from Chief Rabbis Nissim and Unterman and their highly-publicized visits to the site. An official protest from the religious affairs minister at the time, Zerach Warhaftig, did not stop the archaeologists.
Meron Benvenisti notes in his book, Facing the Sealed Wall, that Mazar began his excavations without waiting for the decision of the ministerial committee for holy places, which was supposed to discuss the issue. Rabbi Nissim sent a memo to the ministerial committee referring to the excavations as a sacrilegious act that prevented Jews from having free access to the southern section of the Western Wall.
The Chief Rabbinical Council announced at the time: "The entire Western Wall, up to its southern corner, has the holiness of the Western Wall" and noted: "Jews prayed there throughout the generations until homes were built adjacent to the Western Wall."
Even the students of Yeshivat Hakotel took part in the struggle over the character of the Western Wall south of the Mugrabi Gate. From time, to time, as the bulldozers worked, they went to pray there. Echoes of that old battle could be heard in the formal opposition submitted by Moshe Nissim, the son of Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, to the District Planning and Building Committee against the formal declaration of the Western Wall's southern section as an archaeological park. Nissim, a former deputy prime minister and justice minister, opposed turning part of the Western Wall into "a spot for universal tourism and recreation." He mentioned that "the ministerial committee promised that when the entire wall was uncovered, people would worship along its entire length."
According to Nissim, in other meetings of the ministerial committee, Kollek and the attorney general at the time, Meir Shamgar, said there was no intention of putting parks near the Western Wall. It would be made into a place for prayer only. "Dividing the Western Wall in such a way that part of it would stay a worship area and part would be used for mundane purposes would fall into the category of a tragedy for all time," Nissim said.
* * *
But the plan that Nissim and others recently opposed was more of an official rubber stamp of approval for an existing situation. The southern section of the Western Wall already functions as an archaeological park, and the area of the Western Wall north of it functions as a prayer area.
When Chief Rabbi Nissim, the father of Moshe Nissim, wanted to expand the prayer area to the Western Wall's southern section, he was not referring to "egalitarian prayer" or the services of Women of the Wall. Now all of that is less relevant, since the current dispute is between the archaeological community and Sharansky's plan.