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Photo Feature: A Late Night Visit to Ransacked Joseph's Tomb

Much disinformation accompanied the "cancelled" entry to Shechem by 1000s of Jews to pray at Joseph's Tomb. Arutz-7 brings you the real story.
By Ezra HaLevi
First Publish: 5/20/2007, 2:57 PM

Much disinformation accompanied the "cancelled" entry to Shechem by 1000s of Jews to pray at Joseph's Tomb. Arutz-7 brings you the real story.

A hassid paces on the Jerusalem corner where the neighborhoods of Musrara and Meah Shearim meet. “Kever Yoisef, Shechem” he mumbles. Forced by government policy to operate like the drug dealers in NYC’s Washington Square Park, the religious hassid, who is offering a trip to the Tomb of the biblical Joseph in Shechem, throws a couple syllables in each direction, awaiting determined clients who seek out his contraband.

“I heard it was cancelled,” says a passerby coming from Musrara, the old Morroccan neighborhood recently transformed into a Breslov stronghold. “You heard wrong,” says the man with a glimmer of a smile.

This, of course, was the plan. After years of sneaking into Shechem under the cover of darkness, without IDF protection or approval, Breslov Chassidim joined together with Land of Israel activists – both heartened by the recent returns to Homesh - to try to pull off a mass visit to the holy site.

Just before Passover, the IDF nixed much-publicized plans to return to the northern Samaria community of Homesh, demolished during the Disengagement. “Not only will all the leaders of this movement be prosecuted and charged the amount of money it costs us to protect you," the army threatened, "but individuals will be prosecuted under the Disengagement Law [which even includes jail time for anyone with a weapon who enters the area].”

In the end, the IDF backed down when faced with thousands of Jews. They, too, returned to Homesh. The same scenario repeated itself on Independence Day, when the army declared a planned return to Homesh to be illegal, but backed down when tens of thousands came.

That is when the organizers of the return to Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem realized what the next step had to be.

The Oslo War, as some opt to call the Arab terror offensive that began in 2000, began in retreat. Retreat from a Jewish shrine that was, explicitly to remain accessible to Jews under the Oslo Accords.

In the first days of the PLO-coordinated offensive, Islamic terrorists targeted Joseph’s Tomb – the Israeli government's decision to withdraw was swift.

The Tomb of Joseph, who was father of two of the Jewish People's twelve tribes, was abandoned. Another Joseph was also abandoned that day in 2000. Druze soldier Madhat Yusuf (Joseph in Arabic) of Beit Jann was left to bleed to death as IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz negotiated his evacuation for five hours with PA militias - armed by Israel and the US under the Oslo Accords. The government later explained that a military offensive into Shechem to save the bleeding IDF soldier would have cost many Arab civilian lives.

In the light of day, before the world’s TV cameras, Arabs took sledgehammers to the tomb, smashing it, painting it the color of Islam - green, declaring it a mosque, and then smashing it again.

Forward to the present day: Monday night – day 41 of the 49-day count of “the Omer” – the days between Pesach and Shavuot. The masses are determined to return. The crowd on Shmuel HaNavi (Prophet Samuel) Street engages in the forceful jostling, traditional alongside hareidi-religious buses with not enough seats for those waiting. “Whoever did not buy a ticket and is not on the list must get off the bus – it is stealing from those who did sign up,” a young hassid announces to those who managed to secure a seat aboard the bus.

The bus pulls away from the curb way after midnight. A second bus appeared for those who remained waiting.

The buses lumber down Jerusalem’s Highway 1 – where a wall once stood prior to 1967's Six Day War, dividing the city and the entire Land of Israel in half. Aboard the bus, we exit the capital through the Hizme checkpoint and cruise down Route 60 – the highway leading from Be’er Sheva through Jerusalem north until Shechem.

Cars are pulled over at the entrances of the communities along the way – Ofra, Eli and a huge crowd at Tapuach Junction. Masses of people who heard that the visit to Joseph's Tomb was not cancelled had streamed to the route, not knowing who to call or where to wait. They were determined to get to their forefather Joseph.

All morning, the radio shows interviewed a mysterious “Moshe” – introduced by Army Radio’s Razi Barkai as “one of the organizers of the 'illegal' entry into Shechem.” Moshe claimed that the entry was planned on such a decentralized grassroots level that nobody could call it off, even if they wanted to.

Hours later, it was announced by the Israeli media that organizers had come to an agreement with the IDF, and the entry to Shechem had been called off, with the army promising to allow a coordinated visit to the PA-assigned city “in the near future.”

However, a direct call to the organizers and the IDF spokesman revealed a whole different story. The IDF had folded: agreeing to provide secure entry as it had done regularly before IDF Central Commander Yair Naveh was promoted to his current position. The condition: a gag order by the military censor of the fact that the entry had not been called off and would in fact take place from around midnight until sunrise.

The IDF said the move was for security-reasons: so the terrorists would not know that busloads of Jews would be passing through downtown Shechem and parking opposite the Balata slums around midnight.

Downtown Shechem past midnight

Soldiers on the scene, though, said the terror groups knew full well that the visit would take place – preparations even involved the IDF telling Fatah’s Presidential Guard PA militia to steer clear of the area.

Both Breslovers and Samaria residents are dismissive of the security precautions, earnestly recounting stories of lone pilgrimages to the tomb, some tinged with shades of the miraculous. “Rabbi Golan,” says an American Mir Yeshiva student who has taken an interest in the Jewish towns of Samaria, “goes there all the time. I've heard real stories that sometimes, as he walks past the checkpoint into Shechem, the soldiers just fall asleep.” The rabbi is a mystic from the town of Itamar whose reputation has been spreading in recent months. “Eventually they just started offering to drive him there because they couldn’t stop him,” his friend adds.

Worshippers disembark from the buses and are herded along into the tomb, urged to continue inside until they are behind walls obstructing the view of possible Arab snipers on the hills above.

The courtyard outside Joseph's Tomb
Charred, smashed stones surround the tomb, mixed with garbage
(Photo: Ezra HaLevi)
The spot where the mezuza was affixed and torn off by Arabs.
(Photo: Ezra HaLevi)
The passageway into the tomb

The smashed dome of the Jewish holy site reveals the stars
  

Most of the worshippers have been here before. They rush into the charred inner room, once below a dome but now with a view of the starry sky through the cracked remnant of the stone structure.

“Ad matai!!!” (until when?) yells one man heavenward. All are immersed in urgent prayer. Some are yelling out to Joseph in modern Hebrew, asking him to throw himself down before the Creator and demand that the Jewish people be inspired to greatness and might.

Crowded over Joseph's grave marker

Praying inside
(Photo: Ezra HaLevi)
Hassidim crowded over the smashed remains of the gravestone marking Joseph's burial place
A man, covered with the ashes of the burnt tomb, cries at the destruction

A Breslover distributes Tikkun HaKlali (‘General Rectification’) booklets containing ten selected Psalms said to awaken the soul to rectify itself and the world.

Tikkun HaKlali booklets

In a side room, long shadows are formed as a group of men led by Kabbalist Yeshua Ben Shushan recite prayers interspersed with the blowing of silver trumpets. The trumpets are designed according to the specifications of those used in the Temple. Their harmonious notes reverberate through the dead silence of 3 AM Shechem. Hassidim respond to the temple vessels with smiles and curious glances.

Yeshua Ben Shushan blows a trumpet
Yeshua Ben Shushan's son Yitzhak man holds an aromatic sprig of herbs
A special prayer to assist in fighting the enemies of the Jewish people
(Photo: Ezra HaLevi)
Candles are lit all around the area
Yeshua Ben Shoshan and others recite prayers interspersed with trumpet blasts

Crates of pastries and soda are opened for the public as the IDF commander on the scene starts bellowing on his bullhorn that the time is up, that other groups are waiting and will not be permitted to enter until this group has left.

Refreshments served in the courtyard
(Photo: Ezra HaLevi)
A tree planted in the courtyard more recently by pilgrims to the site
(Photo: Ezra HaLevi)

There is an air of disappointment. While the worshippers were happy that the IDF helped them visit the tomb, had they entered on their own without IDF protection (as often is done), there would not be a twenty-minute time limit. The IDF would not be dictating which walls should be hidden behind. “We probably would never have left,” says Rachamim, a Breslov Hassid back on the bus.

IDF soldiers keep watch out the tomb's window
Graffiti read "Only the righteous one" - Joseph is known as Yosef HaTzaddik (the righteous)
(Photo: Ezra HaLevi)
A soldier gets in some prayer as well

(Photos, unless otherwise noted: Josh Shamsi, Arutz-7 Photojournalist)