Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Western Wall compromise and archaeology

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: Reform prayer section to erase last signs of Temple destruction. Archaeologist warns government compromise to expand non-Orthodox Kotel prayer section will destroy priceless Jewish heritage. (Shimon Cohen, Arutz Sheva).
Dr. Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University's archaeology institute spoke to Arutz Sheva about the government's new decision to expand the non-Orthodox mixed prayer section of the Western Wall (Kotel), in the southern part of the Kotel.

Mazar warned that the decision to construct yet another prayer section for Reform Jews, in an expansion of a similar space built in 2013, could prove disastrous for the last remaining area where signs of the destruction of the Second Temple just under 2,000 years ago can be witnessed.

"In the archaeological park at the feet of the Western Wall there is only one section that is exposed and can be viewed. All the rest is underground. This is the southernmost section where the Herodian Quarter from the days of the Second Temple are preserved the way they were," she said.

Mazar added that "in the excavations of my grandfather Professor (Binyamin) Mazar a giant rockslide of the walls that the Romans destroyed on the Temple Mount was discovered."

She noted that the rockslide from the Temple's walls was excavated over the years, and "when they expanded the archaeological park - they moved the southern portion of Herodian road. What remains from all this impressive massive rockslide of these great stones is just a pile of a few dozen meters in a very narrow portion in this section."

The site of the remaining ruins of the Temple walls is exactly the point where the new Reform and Conservative prayer section is planned.

One David Newman has an Opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post which refers to IAA objections to the plan. : 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.I cannot find any other references to these objections of the IAA, but Mr. Newman summarizes them as follows:
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.
.He summarizes his own view as follows:
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.
I can't say I find the essay particular illuminating. It attempts to explain the political motivations of the various parties involved, which is fine, but it does not respond the archaeological objections to the plan, nor does it refer to Dr. Mazar's objections, which sound more urgent.

To make matters more complicated, the Grant Mufti of Jerusalem, for his own reasons, finds himself significantly in agreement with Dr. Mazar and the Orthodox: Grand Mufti condemns new Jewish egalitarian prayer section at Western Wall. In a press statement he released on Monday, Hussien claimed that the prayer space adjacent to the Western Wall is “the property of the Islamic waqf that was taken by the Israeli occupation in 1967.” (KHALED ABU TOAMEH, Jerusalem Post).

If you are having trouble visualizing the proposed changes, have a look at this article: 3 Maps That Explain The Western Wall Compromise (Ben Sales, JTA).

To be clear, Dr. Mazar does not object to the concept in principle. Rather, because of the archaeological problems with this plan she says "Find another plan." For my part, I am not an expert on the details of the geography of the Temple Mount and its vicinity, but I am very concerned by the objections raised by Dr. Mazar and I would like to see them addressed by someone who is. Perhaps Leen Ritmeyer will weigh in on this one?

UPDATE (3 February): More here.