Protecting a holy site

Mourners should not fear for their lives at any cemetery anywhere in Israel, but all the more so at the oldest continuously used burial ground on earth.

March 16, 2013 22:44
3 minute read.
Mount of Olives Cemetery

Mount of Olives Cemetery 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)


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It is not difficult to imagine the deafening outcry that would have arisen had Jewish stone-throwers attacked Arab mourners and visitors to a major cemetery. The chorus of condemnation would have become shriller yet, had the attacks not been isolated but daily harassment and outright physical endangerment.

It is safe to assume that the violent assailants would have been castigated as despicable racists and that all-out manhunts would have been mounted to apprehend them.

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But as it happens, the assailants are Arab while the mourners and visitors are Jewish. Hence there is no outcry, no condemnation, no manhunts and the word “racist” is on nobody’s lips. No one talks about the regular predations on Jews trying to reach Jerusalem’s ancient Mount of Olives Cemetery, regarded by many as the second holiest Jewish site anywhere.

It is almost as if brutal onslaughts and lynching attempts against Jews are only to be expected and even accepted as the norm.

It is a sad testament to an even sadder state of affairs that Diaspora Jews feel obliged to take action to preserve the world’s largest Jewish cemetery, while successive Israeli governments serially fail to stem lawlessness, vandalism and neglect there.

American Jewish organizations have banded together to press for meaningful security arrangements en route to the cemetery. This is not the first time they raise the issue, arguing that the Mount is not just a local Israeli concern but is sacred to Jews everywhere.

The pressured authorities belatedly installed long-promised surveillance cameras and opened a police substation at the cemetery. But there is only marginal improvement.

The coverage of electronic surveillance equipment is by no means as full as needed and the vandals are in any case apparently not daunted, realizing that they are unlikely to be pursued. The brazen defilement at the Mount and the interminable onslaughts on members of the public who venture there have not sufficiently subsided.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told The Jerusalem Post last week that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had personally expressed to him his concern about “reports of ongoing violence despite the progress made with a police presence and security camera installations.”

Yet neither Netanyahu nor anyone else has the right to be surprised. This is not rocket science. The problem extends beyond the bounds of the cemetery. The greatest menace lurks on the approaches to the cemetery, especially near Ras al-Amud Square and on the way between Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives.

The majority of attacks originate from an Arab boys’ school positioned directly alongside the road leading to the incomparable and venerable Jewish cemetery.

Ambushes are prepared there well in advance.

Several ways exist of putting an immediate and effective end to the daily anti-Jewish assaults. The school can be closed until ironclad guarantees are obtained that brutality from its grounds will cease forthwith. Any repeat aggression would lead to another closure.

Alternatively, the police can establish a permanent presence on the road to the cemetery, both to protect visitors and to deter their tormentors. To allow unrestrained lawlessness at so hallowed a site is fundamentally unthinkable.

The Mount of Olives was already consecrated as a grave site for Jerusalem’s Jews in pre-First Temple days 3,000 years ago. It still serves that purpose.

The only break was during the 19 years of Jordanian rule between 1948 and 1967.

Not only were Jews barred entry then (in brazen contravention of armistice treaty obligations), but ancient, irreplaceable tombstones were ripped out and used for the construction of roads, army barracks and – underscoring the intent to defile, desecrate and humiliate – as walls and floors of public latrines.

The Jewish return to an indisputably Jewish site – the final resting place for a veritable pantheon of spiritual, cultural and national paragons – is what world opinion and the Arabs now deem as “occupation.”

But the Jewish state must not subscribe to inimical distortion.

Mourners should not fear for their lives at any cemetery anywhere in Israel, but all the more so at the oldest continuously used burial ground on earth.

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