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What's Really Going on at King David's Tomb?

Government officials keep denying rumors the site will be handed over to the Vatican - so why are so many people still concerned?
By Uzi Baruch and Ari Soffer
First Publish: 5/22/2014, 1:01 PM

Hareidi man walks past a poster of Pope Francis in Jerusalem's Old City
Hareidi man walks past a poster of Pope Francis in Jerusalem's Old City
Reuters

As Pope Francis's landmark visit to Israel fast approaches, the storm of controversy over rumors the Israeli government plans to hand the Tomb of King David to the Vatican refuses to abate.

Numerous government officials - including Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi - have flatly denied the claim and vowed the tomb, located in Jerusalem, will not be given away. But protests have continued regardless as many remain unconvinced - and allege that while no official handover is planned the government is in fact planning to surrender to pressure via the back door.

"There's no smoke without fire," asserts Rabbi Avraham Goldstein, the Rosh Yeshiva (dean) of the Diaspora Yeshiva located in the King David Tomb compound. Rabbi Goldstein was referring to recent reports over various talks between the Israeli government and the Vatican - talks backed by a range of written agreements which have yet to be signed, he says.

Rabbi Goldstein told Arutz Sheva that the last few days had seen some impressive renovations to the King David's Tomb complex in honor of the Pope's visit this Saturday, with authorities adding new lamps, putting down new flooring and implementing a number of other repairs.

"We won't deny we are benefiting from all the improvements to the complex" even if they are being implemented for "undesirable reasons", he remarked wryly. Those reasons, he says, include a plan by the government to hand over control de facto to the Catholic Church.

The rabbi addressed the ongoing, decades-long struggle to preserve Jewish ownership of the site, in the face of heavy pressure exerted by Christain groups on the government to change the status quo.

Rabbi Goldstein explains the importance of the status-quo

Salami-tactics?

He accused the government of applying salami-tactics to slice away gradually at the yeshiva's ownership at the site. The state was trying to take ownership of the site in a piecemeal fashion via successive court cases - part of an underhand long-term strategy to hand it over to the Vatican.

"According to the information we have in our possession it is indeed true that Israel will not be handing over the Tomb to the Christians," he said. "But if it is (also) true that the state will be allowing the Church to conduct Mass on the upper floor then according to Jewish law (halakha) Jews will not be able to pray downstairs (either), since on the upper floor there will be idol worship.

"That is basically how the state is moving forward: on the one hand it claims it will not limit Jewish traffic at the site and will not transfer ownership of the Tomb; while on the other hand it may make changes which from the perspective of Jewish law prevent Jews from praying at the site."

Jewish law forbids benefiting from anything - including a structure or shelter - which is used for the purposes of idol-worship. The use of effigies and other rituals practiced by the Catholic church fall under the halakhic definition of idol worship; hence the establishment of a permanent Catholic place of prayer would prevent Jews from conducting their own services in the entire building.

Apart from legal tactics, Rabbi Goldstein showcased how the authorities appear to be building physical "facts on the ground" to assert their ownership piecemeal as well.

Rabbi Goldstein showed a wall that was built in the last few years in the middle of the compound which essentially cuts off access to other sections, as well as a locked gate which limited the flow of foot traffic.

"We are talking about changes which limit the Jewish presence at this place," he declared, and noted that a Jewish-owned kiosk was run out of business by the unexplained limitations.

The Rosh Yeshiva issued a clear call to Members of Knesset and government ministers to act with all their strength to protect the status-quo at the site and not to give in to pressure from various actors both inside Israel and abroad.

"The gradual changes at the site endanger the Jewish future of David's Tomb - it is imperative to stop them now."