Protect Mount of Olives, Americans tell Knesset

Close road through ancient Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem to cut down on grave desecration, activists say.

By MELANIE LIDMAN
February 27, 2012 14:55
3 minute read.
Abe Lubinsky, Danny Danon discuss Mt of Olives map

Abe Lubinsky, Danny Danon Mt of Olives map 390. (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)

 
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Just a few hours before Knesset members gathered at the Mount of Olives for the 20th yahrzeit [anniversary of the death] of former prime minister Menachem Begin on Monday, American Jewish leaders urged the Knesset to improve security at the ancient Jewish cemetery, which is regularly the target of grave desecration and stone-throwing against worshippers.

“The history of Har Hazeitim [the Mount of Olives] is the history of the Jewish people,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “If you want to keep Jerusalem united, you have to keep Har Hazeitim.”



Along with members of the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim (ICPHH), Hoenlein and founders Abe and Menachem Lubinsky advocated for closing parts of the road that runs through the cemetery, to cut down on vandalism and grave desecration. Abe Lubinsky, a businessman from New York, said the graves closest to the road are in “terrible shape” and many have been smashed and destroyed.

The road is used by residents of Ras el-Amud, the Arab neighborhood located next to the cemetery.

ICPHH supporters also demanded police increase their presence at the rotary at the entrance to Ras el-Amud, which is the site of frequent stonings by young Arab residents, many of whom attend a nearby school.

MK Danny Danon (Likud), the chairman of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, said he would appeal to the Education Ministry and the Tourism Ministry to make tours of the site a regular part of the public school curriculum, in order to increase Jewish presence in the area. He echoed the call to the Jerusalem municipality to close down parts of the cemetery road, a move which could potentially create considerable tension in the area.

Danon noted that while there is a phone number that visitors can call to request a police escort, Jewish visitors should not need one at all.

“The reality is that today, if we go without guards, it’s dangerous,” he said at the opening of the session. “They don’t want Jews to come here and they accomplish this through violence.

It is clear to us the current situation can’t continue.”

On Friday, Hoenlein visited the cemetery with US Congressmen Eliot Engel (D-New York) and Jerrold Nadler (DNew York). A large rock was thrown at the group as they examined some of the recent vandalism, though no one was injured. The incident was referred to repeatedly as American Jewish leaders and politicians decried the security situation at one of the world’s oldest Jewish cemeteries.

Sarit Goldstein, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s Office, which is responsible for the site, said that much of the issue stems from total neglect of the site for decades.

Only in 2005, with the implementation of a NIS 630 million plan to renovate parks in and around the Old City – with approximately NIS 90 million allocated for the Mount of Olives – did the site begin much-needed restoration and maintenance work.

Goldstein said that there will eventually be 137 security cameras in the cemetery.

Eighty of the cameras have already been installed.

Next month, police are expected to open a new police station with 25 officers inside the cemetery. A police spokesman at the hearing said the police were undertaking “advanced preparations” but refused to say when the station would be opened.

But National Union MKs Ya’acov Katz and Michael Ben- Ari scoffed at the efforts, saying it was a “shame and disgrace” to see the cemetery in such a decrepit state, with Jews unable to visit regularly due to unsafe conditions.

“Until Jewish settlements are expanded in the Mount of Olives, there will be no answer,” said Ben-Ari.

Abe Lubinsky urged Israel to adopt stricter measures for those caught defacing graves and to take a lesson from New York State, which punishes such offenders with four-year prison sentences. He also stressed that if a Jewish cemetery was defaced in any other country there would be a public outcry and widespread condemnations.

“[The Mount of Olives] survived 3,000 years, including all of the occupiers of Israel, but it’s having trouble surviving modern day Israel,” he said.

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