A team of Israeli archaeologists have criticized plans to build a non-Orthodox prayer area at the Western Wall, arguing that the addition will destroy antiquities and Jewish history.
Nine prominent archaeologists recently penned a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, imploring him to stop plans to build a plaza at the Western Wall that would allow for non-Orthodox gatherings, including mixed-gender prayer, to take place.
The new proposal is part of a larger plan to ease tensions between the country's Orthodox and liberal populations.
Previously, only Orthodox Jews have been permitted to worship at the Western Wall, which is considered to be the most holy prayer site for the Jewish religion. Mixed-gender gatherings and female-led prayer are forbidden.
The Western Wall serves as "the most important archaeological site for the Jewish people," the letter argues, and renovations will mar the "diamond in Jerusalem's archaeological crown."
Specifically, the letter suggests that the new plaza will botch the historic value of the 7th Century Umayyad Palaces, located in the Western Wall's southern area, where construction is expected to take place.
The letter was signed by nine well-known Israeli archaeologists and historians, including excavator and scholar Ronny Reich and Amihai Mazar, who serves as a professor at the Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem.
Muslims have also spoken out against the new plan, with the country of Jordan and the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf group, which controls Muslim sites in Jerusalem, voicing their discontent.
The groups have argued that the mixed-gender plaza will encroach on Muslim attractions in the region.
Jordanian Media Affairs and Communications Minister Muhammad Momani recently encouraged Israel not to "meddle" with the Umayyad Palace area, arguing that the site should be returned to his country's jurisdiction due to its value to Islam.
Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, who oversees Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, added in a letter that the Umayyad Palaces should solely belong to Muslims, and all Jewish prayer should be forbidden from that part of the Western Wall.
"The Israeli police should remove all Judaization labels and pillars that have been entered into the site, and stop the Jewish religious prayers and parties," Khatib said.
Israel's Cabinet voted last week to expand the egalitarian prayer space.
As Al Jazeera News reports, the government's decision to allow the wall's expansion is meant to appease Jews at home and abroad in the U.S., where there is a larger liberal population.
"I know this is a sensitive topic, but I think it is an appropriate solution, a creative solution," Netanyahu said during last week's Cabinet meeting, when members voted to allow the common area.
While conservative and Muslim groups have denounced the decision, others have called the move revolutionary for inclusivity in the Jewish religion.
Batya Kallus, a member of the Women of the Wall group that helped arrange the new plan, told NPR that the decision was "groundbreaking," adding, "We've reconceived what the Western Wall includes."
"Any Israeli who wants to be with their family, to connect with the spiritual experience of being near the Western Wall can come and be fully welcomed," Kallus added.
Kallus' activist group has faced numerous arrests for praying at Orthodox areas of the wall where only men are allowed to lead prayer.