IAA excavates ancient Nazareth graves despite haredi protest

Interfaith dialogue fails to halt work, 49 demonstrators detained for trespassing.

June 7, 2010 06:28
2 minute read.
The archeological dig in Nazareth.

archeological dig 311. (photo credit: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of IAA)

In one day of intense work, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) completed on Sunday the excavation of ancient burial caves, uncovered at a construction site on Paulus Road in the center of Nazareth.

Groups of haredim, who arrived at the site in the early morning hours, protested what they considered disrespect to  the dead. Police detained 49 of them for disturbing the peace and trespassing on the private property of the entrepreneur who is erecting a commercial center there.

A variety of bronze tools and bones, some of them human, were found in a series of caves from two periods in the Middle Bronze Age (2,200 BCE and 2,000 BCE), and in a series of caves from the Iron Age (1,000 BCE).

The IAA said in a statement that they “gathered the bones with meticulous care for the respect to be paid to the dead,” and are transferring them to the Religious Services Ministry.

The swift and decisive excavation came after nearly a week of talks between representatives of Atra Kadisha – the haredi organization dedicated to safeguarding the sanctity of graves – and prominent Arab leaders from Nazareth, who helped mediate between the group and Ahmad Afifi, who is developing the plot.

Rabbi Eliahu Caufman, who was asked by the Atra Kadisha to help mediate in the affair due to his experience in interfaith dialogue, blamed Afifi’s legal representation with torpedoing the understandings that were about to be reached between the sides.

“We have different standards than the Antiquities Authority for determining the identity of graves,” Caufman told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. “All we asked was that the works at the site halt, to give us the opportunity to examine the graves.”

Caufman praised Nazareth Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy, and Hadash MK Muhammad Barakei, who were sensitive to the religious sentiments and did their utmost to help reach understandings with Afifi.

“The situation in Nazareth is sensitive; we didn’t want our objections [to the grave excavations] to come across as a Jewish-Arab dispute. Therefore, it was especially important for us to be in dialogue with the Muslim leadership of the city,” he stressed.

Caufman squarely blamed Afifi’s Jewish attorneys for the failure to reach an understanding, citing anti-haredi sentiments as what caused them to talk their client out of acceding to Atra Kadisha’s request.

“We provide our clients with legal advice according to the law of the State of Israel, and the client can choose to do as he pleases,” Yossi Gilor, one of Afifi’s lawyers, told the Post in response to the allegations.

“If we could deal directly with the Muslims or Christians, without the Jewish mediators, the outcome would have been different,” Caufman asserted, citing past successful conclusions.

Earlier on Sunday, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger had appointed Rabbi Ya’acov Ruzha as an intermediary between the sides. Ruzha, a member of the Chief Rabbinate’s Council and the Hevra Kadisha, is an authority on burials, whose expertise is recognized by Atra Kadisha as well.

The Chief Rabbinate’s involvement as a mediator in an ancient burial dispute is not to be assumed; for example, it simply ruled that the graves near Ashkelon’s Barzilai Hospital were pagan and could be relocated, without trying to work out any compromise with the Atra Kadisha.

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