By Larry Gordon
There are few things in Israel as movingly stunning as the panoramic view from atop that hill leading to the Western Wall of the massive, hallowed burial ground of the Mount of Olives, or Har HaZeitim. Its history is stirring as a place where luminaries and sages were interred and where the final wish of so many was, often with obstacles and difficulty, fulfilled.
Now, after all these many decades, the sad state of the site is being brought to the attention of Jews around the world who feel a genuine stake in whatever happens in the land of Israel regardless of where we reside.
The International Committee to Preserve Har HaZeitim will be present in the Five Towns over the Shabbos of May 16-18 to bring awareness of the state of affairs on these hallowed grounds and explain how we can be instrumental in rectifying so many years of plain neglect laced with ignorance.
The Mount of Olives is where Jews have been buried or have chosen to be buried for over 150 years and perhaps even longer. According to Menachem Lubinsky, who, along with his brother Avraham, heads the committee, over 250,000 people have been interred on Har HaZeitim, yet only 150,000 graves can be accounted for. Prior to the 1967 Six Day War, the Jordanians, who controlled that part of Jerusalem, destroyed gravestones and built homes on top of an area that used to be part of the sprawling cemetery. Today there is documentation on file for 76,000 graves and the research continues on the remainder.
Though its majestic site is mostly admired from a distance, the control and restoration of the Mount of Olives is a major part of the struggle for control of Jerusalem. Rock-throwing incidents and other attacks targeting Jews seeking to attend funerals there are unfortunately too common. Like so many other important situations in Israel, up until a few years ago, this massive burial ground overlooked by the Temple Mount was a victim of benign neglect by the Israeli government.
To get the government to act, it takes organization and a demonstration of interest by people around the world and this is what this upcoming and other such planned events are all about. Lubinsky relates that a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu was arranged a few years ago by Presidents Conference Director Malcolm Hoenlein and how Netanyahu was wholly unaware about the downward spiral of the situation devolving on the Mount of Olives.
Following that meeting, Netanyahu ordered some of his aides to investigate what was happening there and some sense of order and security was implemented. Still, visitors are constantly harassed, often by Arab youth throwing stones at cars or obstructing roadways. Today, the police station in the Old City monitors 142 cameras that have been erected throughout the spidery roadways and paths. Lubinsky adds that there was also a police substation built on the grounds, but that is frequently not manned, leaving matters to the security cameras that allow police to follow up on attacks rather than prevent them.
Two years ago, on an intensely overheated July day, I was privileged to walk through part of this expansive burial ground with Israel Land Fund director, Arieh King, now a Jerusalem City Council member. King showed me areas of Har HaZeitim where Arab homes were built upon graves, with gravestones in some instances still visible on the side or in the back of the homes.
In addition, there is a mosque on the cemetery grounds that both King and Lubinsky said was determined as not technically located on the official grounds of Har HaZeitim. To my eye, it looked like the mosque, which continues to be worked on and expanded today, was just a few feet from the graves of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his wife Aliza.
Unlike other deceased Prime Ministers, Begin chose burial on Har HaZeitim as opposed to Mt. Herzl to express his intense commitment to preserving the integrity of Jerusalem. And indeed, that is very much the issue to this very day. Control or sovereignty over Har HaZeitim is not just about preserving a cemetery, albeit perhaps the most ancient and largest in the world, but about the continued struggle for control of this part of Jerusalem, which the Palestinian Arabs maintain should be the capital city of a future state.
Charlie Miller, an attorney and member of the national board of the National Council of Young Israel, has been the key player in bringing the cause of preserving the Mount of Olives to the attention of American Jews and specifically next weekend to the Five Towns community. While the Israeli government has committed 10 million shekel to the restoration project, both Lubinsky and Miller emphasize the importance of the involvement of Diaspora Jewry as a way of keeping the pressure on Israel to act on the matter. Har HaZeitim belongs to all Jews everywhere and is not a matter that requires only the attention of the Israeli government.
One of the issues mentioned by Mr. Miller was the way in which the Israeli government views the thefts and vandalism that take place on Har HaZeitim, and he interestingly contrasted this reality with how U.S. law treats similar crimes. Miller says that as a federal prosecutor he had occasion to pursue in U.S. courts those who commit hate crimes—including vandalizing cemeteries. He says that here in the U.S. it is a serious crime that can result in significant jail time. In Israel, he points out, offenders, if they are caught, receive a simple fine or equivalent slap on the wrist, so to speak.
“If the average Israeli or even American Jews knew the history of the people buried on Har HaZeitim, they would view the entire matter much differently,” Menachem Lubinsky says. So in order to demonstrate interest from here, the committee is hoping to raise funds to help improve signage on the mountain, as well as participate with the government in the building of a visitors center near the cemetery.
In a country where almost everything is either a mission, a problem, or a project, this is an undertaking that just might transcend all those characterizations. For details of the upcoming Har HaZeitim Shabbos, see the ad on page 13. It is said about Israel and the Jewish people that our future is rooted in our past. This may never have been truer than it is here. v
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