Borderline Views: Lebensraum for the dead

Given the history of this country, much of it is built over ancient burial sites, while future development and expansion plans will almost certainly bring about clashes of a similar nature to the Barzilai affair.

May 17, 2010 21:41
Courtesy, rendition of proposed museum.

Museum of Tolerance 311 REAL Courtesy. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The decision by the government to finally go ahead and remove the bones from the ancient burial site at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon highlights the very real problem of the location of cemeteries and their influence on the planning and development process in Israel. Given the history of this country, much of it is built over ancient burial sites, while future development and expansion plans will almost certainly bring about clashes of a similar nature.

Of particular interest in the Barzilai case is the now, almost certainty, that this was not a Jewish burial site but a pagan one. From the haredi perspective, this should have made it easier to undertake the removal of the bones, but in order not to lose face, the Atra Kadisha organization continued to oppose the action, arguing that this would set a dangerous precedent to those countries – especially in Eastern Europe – which wish to relocate Jewish cemeteries for the purpose of commercial and residential development.

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If, they argue, the Jewish state can remove non-Jewish burial sites for purposes of development, why shouldn’t we remove Jewish cemeteries in a non-Jewish country for the same purposes? It is a strong argument and one which needs to be weighed carefully every time the government, or planning authorities, decide to move ahead with development projects on the site of ancient cemeteries.

I RECALL, as a young undergraduate student at Queen Mary College at the University of London in the mid-1970s, when parts of the adjacent Jewish cemetery were removed so that the university could expand and build its medical school and new student dormitories. The decision to remove the bones and take them for reburial was only made after much discussion by the local rabbinate and beit din, with a major consideration being given to the fact that this cemetery was no longer active, and that it did not serve the long-term interests of the minority Jewish community to be seen as holding up important development projects.

For a period of time, faculty and students spent much of the day watching the bones dug up and carefully removed under the watchful eyes of dayanim of the local beit din. For many of them, they had not previously seen haredim in anything but pictures or documentaries about the Holocaust and, as the resident religious Jewish student in the department, I spent much of my time explaining the processes which were taking place. One small part of the ancient cemetery, belonging to the Spanish Portuguese community – and predating the arrival of the majority Ashkenazi community from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century – was not touched. The area remains fenced in, in the very heart of the ever expanding university campus, adorned with such names as Mendoza, da Costa and Montefiore – although the most famous carrier of this name, Moses Montefiore, is buried in a private mausoleum in the southern coastal town of Ramsgate.

At one point in the 1960s it was suggested that Montefiore’s remains be reburied in Israel. Two of the leading rabbinical authorities of the time, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Ashkenazi Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in the US, were divided over whether this was permissible from a halachic perspective. While Yosef was inclined to permit the removal of the bones to Israel because of the status of the person involved, Feinstein came out against this, arguing that it was only permissible to bury a recently deceased person in the Land of Israel, but not to remove or desecrate bones which had already been laid to rest more than 100 years previously.

The competition for space is intense in this small, densely populated country. In the 1980s there was major opposition to the decision by the planning authorities to expand the Kiryat Shaul Cemetery in Tel Aviv, in a desperate search for new burial plots, seeking lebensraum for the dead, and not just for the living. Residents of the then new neighborhood Shikun Lamed strongly opposed the expansion of the cemetery, arguing that this would have a detrimental effect on their children who were forced to see funerals passing by all day long, and that it would lead to a decrease in property prices.

Research has shown that houses built adjacent to cemeteries in urban areas always have a lower price than similar houses just a few blocks away. This contrasts with green, landscaped, open space park cemeteries which are to be found in countries, such as the US, where there is plenty of land available. But here, where urban land is at a premium, the major cemeteries have become transformed into concrete jungles of closely packed marble slabs – one only has to drive up to Jerusalem to see the ever expanding concrete hillside of Har Hamenuhot, or to drive through Holon and Rishon Lezion, to see what an impact this has on potential development areas.

One solution which has been implemented in some cemeteries in recent years is the use of vertical burial plots, where the deceased are buried on top of each other and where the halachic requirement of remaining in touch with the soil is maintained. Notwithstanding, as the country’s population increases and as the demand for housing, roads and other facilities increases, the clash between the rights of the living and the dead will only become ever more acute.

THE CONTESTED rights of the living and the dead is a topic which has to be treated with much greater sensitivity. On the one hand, the state has to recognize the intense emotions of the religious population for whom the lack of respect to the dead is paramount, while for their part the religious authorities have to understand the intense demands being made on limited land space in a country which is almost completely underlain with ancient burial sites – Jewish and others.

It is for this reason that the state planning authorities has made one of its most mistaken decisions in allowing the so-called Museum of Tolerance to be constructed, in Jerusalem, on the site of an old Muslim cemetery. Whatever the legal niceties of this situation, in a country where we make such a hue and cry about the reuse of burial sites, the removal of the Muslim cemetery is the very height of intolerance and only serves to worsen Jewish-Muslim relations even further.

And, as the haredim have argued in the Barzilai case, undertaking such action only serves to strengthen the claims of planning authorities outside the country – most notably in Eastern Europe – that unused cemeteries, can be destroyed and removed for the sake of development – even for a museum which is not at the top of the list of priorities, and for which alternative sites could have been found and were proposed.

The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.

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