JERUSALEM — In a city where three major faiths guard their holy places with quarrelsome zeal and where moving a single stone can have deep religious and geopolitical implications, a proposal to double the area for Jewish prayer along the iconic Western Wall represents dramatic change for a place that does not easily embrace it.
This month, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, including children, tried to block members of a group called Women of the Wall from donning prayer shawls at the site and singing aloud, in defiance of tradition. Protesters hurled insults, eggs and chairs. The national police chief called the scene “a battlefield.”
Amid tumult over the wall, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year personally tasked Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the agency that aids immigration to Israel, to restore calm to the Old City site. Sharansky is the one-man blue-ribbon commission responsible for a redesign aimed at appeasing American Jews who have expressed disgust over clashes at the wall and Israel’s failure to accommodate more-liberal streams of Judaism at the site.
He is going for a bold remodel. As he imagines it: “One wall for one people.”
Or as a column in the Jewish Week, a U.S. newspaper, put it: “Sharansky’s New Mission: Impossible?”
There is general agreement that if anyone can bring the bickering tribes of ultra-Orthodox, traditional, liberal and secular Jews in Israel and the diaspora together, it is Sharansky, who heads the Jewish Agency for Israel. Harder will be overcoming stiff resistance from wary Muslims, who see any change to the status quo at the wall as an affront to Islam, and from archaeologists, who say the rich history on display should be preserved as is.
Sharansky, a former Russian refusenik, spent nine years in the Soviet gulag, which included solitary confinement and hard labor. He moved to Israel in the 1980s and became a skilled politician. At a meeting last month in New York with American Jews, where he unveiled his proposal, he introduced himself this way:
“I am a chess player,” said Sharansky, a onetime child prodigy who once bested a grandmaster.
“The challenge is that the wall is absolutely unique. There is no place like it,” he said in an interview. “It is our highest symbol of national identity as Israelis, and it is also our most important place for prayer as Jews.”
Searching for a comparison, Sharansky suggested a mash-up of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, but he said neither place combines the sacred and the secular the way the wall and its plaza do.
Behind Sharansky’s desk hangs a large photograph of the site. One of four retaining walls that support the raised esplanade that Jews call the Temple Mount, it is considered a remnant of the Second Temple, built atop Mount Moriah, above the Holy of Holies, where Jews believe God first gathered the clay to form Adam and where Abraham bound his son Isaac for sacrifice before God stayed his hand.
Muslims call the same site the Noble Sanctuary, where they built the Dome of the Rock shrine and al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, after capturing Jerusalem in the 7th century. The mount is administered by the Islamic Waqf trust, headed by the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who is appointed by the Palestinian Authority. Armed Israeli security forces that often patrol the site are a source of constant friction.
The wall and its surroundings represent some of the most cherished and contested real estate on Earth, having passed from Jews to Romans to Byzantines to Muslims and later to the Ottomans, British and Jordanians before being taken by Israeli paratroopers in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Today, millions of tourists a year share space with Israeli soldiers celebrating their military induction at the site, where Jews worship because it is the closest that they can get to their demolished temples.
Sharansky will need all his skill to pull off this game, said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, chair of the rabbinic cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, which aims to unite all American streams of Judaism. At least initially, Sharansky’s proposal has the backing of the government. But it could face resistance in Israel’s parliament, which could block funding, or by court challenges or bureaucrats who might deny permits.
“It is like a maze to navigate,” Weinblatt said. “But I am hopeful.”
Under Sharansky’s plan, the section of the wall used for Jewish prayer would remain under the control of Orthodox Jews, where men in black hats bob and sway and where gender division is strict: Two-thirds of the space is reserved for men and one-third for women, who worship in silence.
“This is not right,” Sharansky said. “We need a place where all Jews can pray and feel at home.”
He wants to open a new section for more-liberal streams of Judaism, such as the Reform and Conservative movements, where men and women would worship together, sing and play music. Women would be allowed to read aloud from Torah scrolls and wear prayer shawls that Orthodox Jews say are not meant for women.
“This represents a dramatic, dramatic advance. You take tension away from the wall, for all those who want desegregated prayer. . . . Nothing will make us feel like second-class citizens,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents 1.5 million Jews in the United States and Canada.
But to create the new prayer space along the southern expanse of the wall, Sharansky envisions a large, raised deck, above one of the most significant archaeological finds in Israel.
Archaeologists are in an uproar.
The excavations showcase 2,000 years of Jerusalem history, including a beautifully preserved market street built during the reign of Herod the Great, as well as a tumble of immense stone blocks pushed down from the tops of the Western Wall by Roman legions during the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70.
The archaeological park also contains Jewish ritual baths, a Roman oven, remains of housing from the Byzantine Christian era and a palace dating to the early Muslim conquerors.
“The deck idea is simply disastrous. For God’s sake, we have here some of the most significant remains of Jerusalem and of the cultural world. This place is not a synagogue,” said Yoram Tsafrir, an archaeologist at Hebrew University.
Separating the two sections that Sharansky envisions are remnants of an ancient Arab neighborhood, bulldozed after Israeli troops captured the Old City in 1967. Above those ruins is a temporary wooden ramp that leads to the Mughrabi Gate, the entrance used by non-Muslims to visit the Noble Sanctuary.
In Sharansky’s plan, the ramp to the Mughrabi Gate would form a barrier between the wall’s Orthodox and non-
“We’re lucky to have it,” so the prayers of one side will not offend the other, Sharansky said, stressing that Israelis would not modify the ramp.
But he has not presented his plan to Muslim stakeholders, who say the idea is another example of Jewish hegemony in this contested city.
“This aggression will never stop, it will always evolve, further and further,” said Mohammad Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem.
The wall, the imam noted, is revered by Muslims as the al-Buraq Wall, where the prophet Muhammad is believed to have tied his winged steed during a journey taking him from Jerusalem to heaven and back.
“The archaeological site should be kept unharmed and untouched,” Hussein said.
“I wish it could remain the status quo. But I am not going to war with Natan Sharansky,” said the rabbi of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Shmuel Rabinowitz. “As long as what is here is not disturbed, let them do what they want on the other side.”
Sharansky has not released any drawings to the public. He has said that the government would seek permits to build the first 100 feet of platform above the archaeological ruins quickly, to be completed in months. More construction would follow over the next year or two.
“Let’s do the first 20 or 30 meters, then the next 30 meters,” he said. “Why should I have all the battles now?”
Ruth Eglash and Sufian Taha contributed to this report.