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Op-Ed: Is Israel Abandoning the Mount of Olives?

The Mount of Olives is a real Israeli national heritage site, going back thousands of years. The situation there now is intolerable.
Published: Wednesday, March 07, 2012 3:49 PM


Under pressure from Unesco, which is trying to “de-Judaize” and “Islamicize” the most holy Jewish sites, the State of Israel seems top be giving up its sovereignity on graves and sacred sites. 

The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem— the most important Jewish holy sites — have been just omitted from their list of Israel’s national heritage sites. A few days ago, the Palestinian Rehabilitation Committee raised the Unesco flag next to the Palestinian flag in front of Hevron’s Tomb and in all the Unesco official documents, Hevron’s Tomb is already labelled as “a Palestinian site”. 

After Unesco condemned the renovation of the Mughrabi Bridge that links the Western Wall to the Temple Mount, Israel’s government closed the structure. Under the Islamic Waqf’s intimidation, Israeli authorities are banning Jews from praying on the Mount and are not even allowed to carry any holy articles with them. 

Joseph’s Tomb near Nablus, which is mentioned in the Book of Genesis, can be reached by Jewish worshippers only like thieves in the night, escorted by the IDF and only once in a month. But according to the Oslo Accords, the tomb, where Unisco just financed an Arab archeological park, should have been under Israel’s control. Palestinian policemen remain armed at the tomb, despite the killing of a Jewish pilgrim last year. 

Today no Jew is permitted to set foot without military escort in the Shalom al Yisrael synagogue of the “city of palms”, Jericho. Jews were denied access to it from 1948 until 1967, when Israel liberated the area and Jews returned to the site. According to Annex II of the Gaza-Jericho Agreement of 1994, “Religious affairs in the 'Shalom Al Israel’ synagogue in Jericho shall be under the auspices of the Israeli authorities”. But in fact, Israeli authorities gave up the site. 

A few weeks ago, Israel gave the Vatican sovereignity over David’s tomb, where some believe Jewish kings of Judea are buried. 

But the most unknown story is about the Mount of Olives cemetery, which has just been discussed at an emergency hearing of the Knesset. The history of Har Hazeitim (the Mount of Olives) is the history of the Jewish people. If you want to keep Jerusalem united, you have to keep Har Hazeitim. 

When King David fled from his son Absalom, the Bible describes his ascending the Mount of Olives.

Because the Mount of Olives is 80 meters higher than the Temple Mount, it became a traditional place for lamenting the Temple’s destruction. The cemetery, where Jews have been interring their dead for more than 3,000 years, today suffers from desecration of graves and violence against visitors, including stones thrown at mourners and family members. 

This is the resting place of thousands of Jews ranging from mediaeval beggars to former prime minister Menachem Begin, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, Rabbi Avraham Elkana Shapira, the Ben Ish Chai, author Shai Agnon and poet Uri Zvi Greenberg. It has served as the burial place for Jews since the time of the Second Temple, including the prophets Zechariah, Haggai and Malachi.

Jews asked to have their coffins brought to the Mount of Olives for burial from the Diaspora,  believing that when the Messiah comes, and the dead are resurrected, they will be opposite the [sealed today] Gate of Mercy  that will be opened, leading to the Temple Mount.

The peaks which comprise the Mount of Olives have played an integral role in the many battles for Jerusalem. Roman general Titus's 10th Legion camped there, as did the Crusaders in 1099 and the British in 1917.

And today - maintenance standards are inadequate and security is lacking.

Israeli governments have allowed lawlessness and vandalism. Police presence is almost non-existent, an absence that does little to enhance a visitor's sense of security. A Jewish presence is possible only because Ma’aleh Hazeitim, the name of a tiny Jewish comunity near the Sephardi section of the Mount of Olives cemetery. Their task is to secure the area day and night, ensuring its character as a Jewish cemetery. There are eight courageous, young Jewish families in Beit Hachoshen, a building with a large Israeli flag on its roof bordering on the A-Tur entrance to the Mount below the Seven Arches Hotel

Irwin Moskowitz, the patron of Ma’aleh Hazeitim, speaks about the miracle of “the resurrection of the dead on the Mount”. 

During the 19 years in which Jews had been absent from the mountain and the areas adjacent to it, the Jordanians smashed tens of thousands of headstones, and the enormous damage to the mountain is something that the state of Israel continues to find difficult to reconstruct. Bnai Akiva youth group volunteers have used burial records in their efforts to reconstruct some of the gravestones.

But Israeli authorities share a large responsibility, since fences, surveillance and cameras have been never installed. Many people fear going there.

At police request, there were Jewish families who did not accompany their deceased loved ones for burial because the police feared rock throwers or worse. The family waited at home for a call alerting them that the body was interned and it was okay to begin the shiva period of mourning. It happened that Jews had to abandon the corpse on the ground, while they all scattered away under terror attacks. They called the police and couldn’t return until policemen came to secure the area that is synonymous with the holiness of Jerusalem. 

Armored vans have been used to reach the site. Mourners have had to be hospitalized after attacks. A US Congressman and Malcolm Hoenlein of the American Conference of Presidents were pelted by rocks there. There is no one to take care of the old and ancient graves. Tombstones, many of them centuries old, disappear or disintegrate.

We’re not talking about the Gaza Strip. We’re talking about the most holy Jewish cemetery, overlooking the Temple Mount. Is that area to become “Judenrein” like Joseph’s Tomb? If Israel is abdicating the Mount of Olives,  then she is abdicating Jerusalem. 

Israel is literally entombed in that history. Since the Mount of Olives is the resting place for prophets, writers, rabbis, prime ministers and simple Jews murdered in the riots and buried in mass graves, it should be the pride of Israel and not one of its forgotten backyards.