In the wake of serious vandalism and violence in the famous and ancient Jewish cemetery at Jerusalem's Mount of Olives, a group of leaders and activists have teamed up to protect and refurbish the heritage site and bolster it as a part of a united Jerusalem.
At a meeting on November 6 at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, the new International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim (Mount of Olives Cemetery) presented the dire situation to an audience of almost 1,000.
Victims on the Mount of Olives include the living and the dead. Not only have graves been desecrated, with tombstones destroyed, stolen, and defecated upon, but mourners and visitors who come to pay their respects in the oldest and largest Jewish cemetery in the world have been the target of rock attacks by local Arab youth.
In May, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss issued a report condemning the government for failing to protect the graveyard. Since then, the government has committed to restoring 20,000 of the 150,000 graves on the Mount of Olives by the end of 2013. Approximately 200 security cameras will also be installed throughout the site to ensure safety in the area. The aim of the preservation committee is to cause the government to increase a security presence on the mountain, to build fences, refurbish tombstones, and make the Mount of Olives completely accessible to Jews.
The organization is the brainchild of Avraham Lubinsky, who visited his parents' graves on the mountain and discovered that the graves around him had been destroyed. Additional committee members are Steve Savitsky, President of the Orthodox Union, Steve Mostofsky, President of the National Council of Young Israel, and Malcolm Hoenlein, Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The Mount of Olives has served as a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years. Some of the notable departed who have been laid to rest there are the prophet Zechariah and rabbis the Ohr HaChaim, the Ben Ish Chai, Judah ha-Hasid, Rav Yisrael Alter, Rav Shlomo Goren, Rav Abraham Yitchak HaKohen Kook and Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook. Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Israeli independence fighter Yisrael Eldad are also buried on the Mount of Olives, as are martyred Chabad emissaries of Mumbai Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, Hadassah Women's Organization founder Henrietta Szold, and Israeli linguist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.
Apart from being a famous cemetery, the Mount of Olives is of great biblical significance.
The Midrash (ancient Jewish rabbinic commentary) states that the dove sent out of the ark by Noah to determine the habitability of the world following the flood brought plucked the olive twig it brought to Noah from a tree on the Mount of Olives.
The Prophet Ezekiel mentions the site as the place to where the Divine Spirit fled immediately prior to the destruction of the First Temple: And the glory of the LORD went up from the midst of the city, and stood upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city" (Eze. 11:23). Just as it departed to heaven from there, from there it will return with the coming of the Messiah, according to the Prophet Zechariah: "And His feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east" (Zac. 14:4).
In the times of the Temple, the Mount of Olives is the location of the burning of the Red Heifer, the ashes of which are used for ritual purification. It also served as the location of the signaling the arrival of a new month, and a stop for pilgrims prior to their ascent to the Temple. Oil from the olive trees on the mountain was used for service in the Temple and for anointing priests and kings.
At the meeting to protect and refurbish the Mount of Olives cemetery, MK Danny Danon (Likud) blamed the situation, in part, on confusion within the government. According to Danon, the site falls under the purview of four separate ministries, leading to a situation in which none of them properly care for it. Furthermore, Danon blames the "Palestinian narrative" and the rejection of Jewish claims on the Mount of Olives by the international community on creating a volatile situation there. "The fight with the Palestinians is about a narrative. They want to make sure there is no connection," Danon said. "They will do everything possible to make the story different, to speak their story, and if you will ask UNESCO to come with you today to the Mount of Olives, you will show them all the graves, you can count them for years, more than 150,000 graves, they will tell you there is no connection between Jewish people and the Mount of Olives. And we have the power to change it."
David Martin, lawyer for the committee, noted that the Mount of Olives is the eastern border of Jerusalem, demarcating the line between the coastal area and the desert. "It is not by chance that Jerusalem is the border post between the settled, arable area that extends to the Mediterranean coast and on the other side, the desert. Jerusalem cries out 'What will the Land of Israel be? Will it be settled, or a desert?' When the land is in our hands, it will be settled, it will be arable, it will be fertile," Martin said. "But when it is in the hands of others, it will be a desert. If we deserve the Land of Israel, then "I will provide rain at the appropriate time", but if we do not decide, if we do not deserve the Land of Israel, then it will be a desert."
Those who are interested in helping protect and restore the Mount of Olives are encouraged to contact HarHazeitim@lonestar.co.il.
For more on the meeting of the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim, tune into Israel National Radio's Walter's World with Walter Bingham.