A matter of respect

Ancient Jewish cemetery on Mount of Olives under assault.

Congressman at desecrated graves 521 (photo credit: EMANUEL MFOUKOU)
Congressman at desecrated graves 521
(photo credit: EMANUEL MFOUKOU)
The southern end of the Mount of Olives, known in Hebrew as Har Hazeitim, is home to the largest and most ancient Jewish cemetery in the world, holding some 150,000 tombs and grave sites. For over 3000 years, it has been a revered Jewish burial ground, with burial plots currently costing between $8,500 and $50,000. Today, it serves as the resting place for numerous rabbis, grand sages and other historic Jewish figures, such as Israel’s sixth prime minister Menachem Begin and the father of Modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.
Even before King David’s conquest of Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives was used as a burial place by the Jebusites who lived there, as seen in the many ancient burial caves from the Canaanite era.
After David entered the city and made it his capital, the Mount of Olives and the Kidron valley below continued to be used as a prime burial ground.
According to Scripture, King David deeply revered the Mount of Olives and often went there to pray (2 Samuel 15:30- 32). The Gospels relate that Jesus also often withdrew to the Mount of Olives to pray, or to teach his disciples. According to the prophet Zechariah, the Mount of Olives will be the place where the returning Messiah will place his feet. Indeed, Judaism and Christianity both maintain the tradition (also borrowed by Islam) that the Kidron will be the valley of the Resurrection and final judgment, and thus those buried on the Mount of Olives will be among the first to rise from the dead.
Thus, most Christian tour groups visiting the Holy Land stop on the Mount of Olives and enjoy a panoramic view of the Temple Mount and Old City. Yet many pilgrims are unaware of the daily desecration of the Jewish cemetery occurring just below their vantage point.
The destruction of Jewish tombs on the mount dates back to 1948 and Israel’s War of Independence. At the end of the war, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan occupied the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem until the 1967 Six Day War.
During that period, the Jordanian army oversaw a large-scale, systematic desecration of Jewish tombs. An estimated 40,000 grave sites were destroyed, with the stones used for new housing, to pave roads, build stairs, and even line latrines. An Arab business owner openly admitted in 1967 that everyone knew where to get building stones if they needed them.
Arabs have continued to desecrate the Mount of Olives cemetery for nationalistic reasons, and the problem has escalated in recent years. This led Avraham Lubinsky to form an organization called the Har HaZeitim Preservation project to pressure the Israeli government to protect the site and to provide additional private security from mainly young Arab vandals from east Jerusalem.
Lubinsky was stirred to act because of a 2010 report by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss on the deteriorating condition of the Mount of Olives cemetery, which blamed previous governments for neglecting the sacred site. The report concluded that “repair work proceeds at a snail’s pace, maintenance standards are inadequate, security is sorely lacking and vandalism and criminal acts continue unabated...”
The Christian Edition recently joined a tour of the Mount of Olives cemetery organized by Avraham Lubinsky and his brother Menachem, which also included two Jewish US congressmen, Eliot Engel and Jerrold Nadler, as well as Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“If we don’t preserve Har Hazeitim for our children they will one day look at us and ask us: ‘How is it that you neglected the holiest and most important cemetery for the Jewish people?’” said Menachem Lubinsky. He noted that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has finally begun to respond by boosting security on the mount and other measures.
Hoenlein explained that he and the two members of Congress had come to the Mount of Olives because of the more than 10,000 Americans who have relatives buried there and thus feel the place is sacred.
“In recent weeks there have been seven to eight incidents with families coming to visit their loved ones who are buried here; some have been stoned and put in great danger. This is unacceptable to the people of Israel and to the world Jewish community,” Hoenlein said.
He urged that Israeli authorities should implement harsher penalties on those carrying out the desecration. “When there is an arrest of a minor who gets released straight away, the parents should be held accountable as well, because it is their responsibility to see what the children are doing. It’s everyone’s responsibility to recognize the sacredness of the dead because that represents the sacredness of humanity,” he insisted.
Nadler concurred, adding that he felt disgust over the grave desecrations.
“Whether the place is disputed or not is irrelevant to the protection of the cemetery. I would be against any kind of grave desecration for any religion in the world,” Nadler assured.
Other participants in the tour expressed sadness and despair at witnessing the destruction of the resting places of loved ones. Toby Willig said that she cried when she first saw what had happened to the tombs, and added that the aim of the vandals was to devalue the lives of those buried there.
“I am feeling more determined than ever to make this place holy for all of us,” said Willig. “Christians have also revered this place.”
The Lubinsky brothers have a deep personal attachment to the Mount of Olives, as their mother – who barely escaped the crematoria at Auschwitz – is buried there along with their father. Only meters from their graves, we came upon a whole section of desecrated tombs.
“This is not a place where soccer can be played and where youth can trample on top of graves… This is a place where respect needs to be paramount,” said Menachem Lubinsky while standing between his parents’ grave sites.
Yet as the tour was coming to an end, the lack of respect was shown once again for both the living and the dead, as the tour group was suddenly assaulted with stones thrown by local Arab teenagers.
Israeli police swiftly appeared on the scene, but the group was clearly shaken.
“We heard a bang and then we recovered the rock,” said Engel. “It was very ironic to have been told a couple of seconds before that this is the place where rocks are being thrown. We were not protesting or chanting, we were just walking down the street visiting a cemetery and you get stones thrown at you.”
Just days later, a follow-up event was held at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem to educate the public about the problem and what is being done to protect the Mount of Olives cemetery.
Among the speakers was deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who revealed that his interest in preserving the Mount of Olives was not only patriotic but also personal, as his great grandparents are buried there.
“What is happening now on Har Hazeitim is totally unacceptable! It’s a shame,” said Ayalon. “It is the government’s responsibility and duty to exercise sovereignty over every inch of our territorial land.”
Ayalon added that the Ministry of Internal Security, headed by fellow Israel Beiteinu member Yitzhak Aharonovitch, plans to build a permanent police station soon on the Mount of Olives. If this does not help, he explained, additional measures will be taken.
“There is no question anymore to see that, first of all, the graves are not protected and honored, or that people who come and visit the cemetery are not protected and honored. This is our sacred oath to our self and to the future,” Ayalon concluded.
Israeli authorities have a firm policy concerning vandalism of tombs anywhere in Israel. When 26 Muslim and Christian graves were desecrated by Jewish extremists in Jaffa last year, the police immediately reinforced security around the site and President Shimon Peres condemned the incident, saying “the desecration of graves is a forbidden and criminal act that defames our honor and is contrary to the moral values of Israeli society.”
That policy is finally being enforced in the world’s oldest and most sacred Jewish cemetery.