Press release: Emek Shaveh Demands from Attorney General that Establishment of the new Western Wall Plaza Take Place through the Planning Committees and with Public Involvement
February 2, 2016
The government of Israel’s decision to extend the prayer area at the Western Wall into the archaeological area in order to create a separate Reform and Conservative prayer area will inflict damage on one of the most important archaeological sites in the Old City. 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 Archaeological Park. Underlying the decision, presented as a compromise that will provide a solution for the needs of all parties, are narrow interests of dominant power groups in the present government. At the same time, the public, the antiquities and the multi-cultural heritage of Jerusalem will suffer as a result of this precedent-setting decision.
Emek Shaveh has submitted a request to the Attorney General and other individuals, demanding that the expansion plan be processed through the planning and building committees, and subject to public discussion and opposition.
The Archaeological and Political Damage Caused by Expansion of the Western Wall Prayer Area into the Archaeological Park:
- The decision creates a precedent whereby an antiquities site becomes a prayer space and a holy site. 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 archaeologists and public presentation of the city’s history through the extraordinary archaeological remains discovered there from the Second Temple through the Muslim periods. Turning this place into a holy site is part of the process of converting spaces formerly not reserved for religious purposes – mainly archaeological sites – into holy sites, a trend also witnessed in recent years in the Western Wall Tunnels, at the City of David site in Silwan, and in other locations.
- The government decision is a violation of the interreligious status quo in Jerusalem. Expansion of the Western Wall Plaza into the archaeological park means the expansion of the Jewish-religious site at the foot of the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif at its southern side. International actors are not knowledgeable regarding the polemics dividing the different streams of Judaism, and as far as they are concerned, expansion of the prayer area is a violation of the status quo in effect until now in the Old City. These actors will rightfully claim that just as the Muslims and Christians content themselves with the prayer areas allocated to them, so must the Jews act accordingly despite their internal disagreements.
- The High Court of Justice is at present discussing the state’s petition against the transfer of management of the Davidson Archaeological Park to the non-profit organization Elad. This is the archaeological park on whose premises the government decided to establish the egalitarian prayer plaza. The State Attorney’s claim in court was that administration of the Davidson Center should not be transferred to Elad as long as no government decision has been passed regarding the prayer plaza. Until now, the Conservative Movement has also opposed transfer of administration of the archaeological park to Elad until an agreement with the Conservative movement is reached. Now that a decision has been rendered regarding the movement’s designated prayer site, we anticipate that the state will allow transfer of the archaeological park’s management to the settler organization. For more on this topic, see: “Far-Reaching Implications of Historical Kotel Decision” (in Hebrew).
Transfer of the Davidson Archaeological Park to Elad will give rise to numerous political changes. Elad will gain headway in its plans to connect Silwan with the Old City in terms of tourism and public consciousness and to Judaize the diverse archaeological findings in Davidson, just as it is doing in the City of David National Park. Settler control of the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount compound is dangerous and in many ways, detailed in Emek Shaveh’s publication Archaeological Activity in the Old City: Political and Religious Consequences (Chapter 2).
- In the area slated for construction of the egalitarian prayer plaza, a road was exposed that has been dated to the Early Roman Period – the days of the Second Temple, a Byzantine bathhouse, and buildings of the Roman Legion including a bakery, a bathhouse and more. In addition, ritual baths from the Roman period, and buildings from this period were also discovered. These archaeological findings are very instructive regarding the city’s history during the Temple Period and after the Temple’s destruction. For example, the bakery that was unearthed supports the conjecture that the Roman Legion was stationed at the base of the Western Wall. The Byzantine bathhouse is evidence of the centrality of the place during this period. The fact that the bathhouse remained in operation during the Early Muslim period is evidence of continuity of settlement and culture, despite the transitions in government and religion. These archaeological remains must be visible to the public eye and remain a central part of how the city’s history is presented to the greater public. Damaging or concealing them is detrimental to the city’s heritage.
- Jerusalem is a World Heritage Site. Its history and antiquities do not belong exclusively to the Jews. Israel must also take into account the millions of people around the world who are not Jewish and who take an interest in the remnants of the city’s past. Construction of a Jewish prayer plaza atop these archaeological remains reinforces the sense that Israel treats world cultural treasures with disrespect and nationalist aggression. Yesterday’s decision lends official support to the long and steady process that wrested the Western Wall Plaza from public hands and handed it over, now outright and for all to see, to the ultra-Orthodox. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation is the organization that determines how the plaza is managed, causing anyone who does not identify with Orthodox Judaism to feel alienated from it. Ettinger described this aptly in Haaretz: “The arrangement at the Kotel strengthens the ultra-Orthodox and the Reform and weakens other groups.”
- It is important to note that the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which receives its budget directly from the Prime Minister’s Office, is advancing unprecedented construction in the area of the Western Wall Plaza (for example, Beit Strauss and Beit HaLiba) and beneath the Muslim Quarter (the Ohel Yitzhak Synagogue and Western Wall Tunnels). These projects expand the religious presence and the Orthodox narrative at antiquities and heritage sites that belong to the entire Israeli public and even to those who cherish Jerusalem from around the world.
In summary, yesterday’s government decision appears to be an attempt to divide the western side of the Temple Mount compound among a limited number of groups with political power favored by Netanyahu: the ultra-Orthodox, the settlers, and progressive Jewish organizations in the United States, as usual, at the expense of the broad public interest and against Arab and international public opinion. In the coming days, we will study the government decision and determine how it can be challenged, so that Jerusalem’s unique historical character – whose preservation is important for the general good – is not compromised.
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