(JTA) — New construction aimed at providing a space for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall would damage “the most important archaeological site for the Jewish people,” a group of Israeli archaeologists said.
In a letter, nine senior archaeologists urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to abort plans for construction, the Times of Israel reported.
The proposed construction, which would expand an area south of the main Western Wall prayer site, providing access for mixed-gender prayer, is part of a compromise announced Jan. 31 to resolve tensions between liberal Jews and Israel’s Orthodox establishment.
The Western Wall, the retaining wall and last surviving remnant of the Second Temple, is the holiest site in Judaism. The Temple Mount, where the First and Second Temples once stood, is one of Islam’s holiest sites and home to the Al-Aqsa mosque. The area has been a flashpoint for Jewish-Muslim tensions, with rumors in October that Israel planned to change the status quo there sparking an ongoing upsurge of Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem and Israeli reprisals. Netanyahu has denied it will change the status quo.
According to the Times of Israel, Dan Bahat, who excavated the Western Wall tunnels; Ronny Reich, head of the Archaeological Council of Israel, who exposed part of the paved road beneath Robinson’s Arch; Jerusalem Prize winner Gabriel Barkay, who directs the Temple Mount Sifting Project, and Israel Prize laureate Amihai Mazar were among those who signed the letter.
The construction plan has been approved by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation but been criticized by haredi Orthodox groups.
Palestinian Minister of Waqf and Religious Affairs Youssef Ideiss also objected to the plan, saying it would violate the status-quo agreement governing the Temple Mount area.