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Over protests, Israel makes plans to double prayer space at Western Wall

In a city where three major faiths guard their holy places with quarrelsome zeal and moving a single stone can have deep religious and geopolitical implications, a new 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 tried to block members of a group called Women of the Wall from donning prayer shawls at the site and singing aloud against tradition. Protesters hurled insults, eggs and chairs. The Israel National Police chief called the scene “a battlefield.”

Personally tasked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to restore calm to the Old City site, Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the agency that aids immigration to Israel, is now the one-man blue-ribbon commission responsible for a redesign to appease American Jews who have expressed disgust over clashes at the wall and Israel’s failure to accommodate more liberal streams of Judaism.

He is going for a bold remodel. As he imagines it: “One wall for one people.”

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 resistance from wary Muslims who see any change to the status quo at the wall as an affront against Islam, and from archaeologists, who say the history on display should be preserved.

“The challenge is that the wall is absolutely unique. There is no place like it,” Sharansky 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.”

In Sharansky’s plan, the section of the wall now used for Jewish prayer would remain under the control of Orthodox Jews, where men in black hats and side curls bob and sway and gender division is strict: Two-thirds of the space is 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.”

Sharansky wants to open a new section for more liberal streams of Judaism where men and women would worship together, sing and play music.

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