Mourning the Mount of Olives

Violence and vandalism at the ancient cemetery are on the rise, with no foreseeable solution.

The caretaker of the Afghan section of the Mount of Olives Cemetery points out the vandalism. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The caretaker of the Afghan section of the Mount of Olives Cemetery points out the vandalism.
On June 15, a post appeared on reporter Dikla Aharon’s Facebook wall, asking people to join a minyan for a memorial service at the Mount of Olives cemetery.
Some 30 people answered the call, including two MKs – Eli Ben-Dahan of Bayit Yehudi, and Sharon Gal of Yisrael Beytenu – and the memorial service for Aharon’s grandmother Sarah took place for the first time in many years.
That was the good news. But as the family and others arrived at the site, what they found was anything but comforting.
The section for members of the Afghan-Jewish community, where Aharon’s grandmother lies, resembled scenes of anti- Semitic vandalism that have occurred in other countries: the tombs desecrated, torched and demolished, and garbage strewn all around.
In May, another burial was interrupted when young Palestinians attacked mourners with stones and sticks, forcing them to remain in their cars.
Eventually the police, whom one of the mourners had alerted, arrived to provide an escort to the grave so they could complete the burial ceremony.
The Mount of Olives has been the scene of ongoing vandalism for the past 10 years, and despite several expensive projects to protect the site – fences, cameras and police patrols – none have managed to prevent these acts of vandalism, or even to ensure the security of bereaved families burying or visiting the tombs of their relatives.
The cemetery is located within the City of Jerusalem’s jurisdiction, but responsibility for the site is shared between the Prime Minister’s Office, which is in charge of administration, and the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for security. For the past few years, due to the repeated attacks, the police and a private security company that the Construction Ministry has hired offer escorts for mourners who want to hold memorial services there.
But Aharon, whose family was offered that service on the June 15 visit, considers it “shameful that we’ve reached that point – that in the capital of the State of Israel, we need a police escort to visit the tomb of our grandmother.”
Local reactions to this situation were not long in coming. City Councilman Arieh King (United Jerusalem), who lives in the nearby east Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood of Ma’aleh Hazeitim, called for volunteers to form a citizens’ patrol to protect visitors at the graveyard, scornfully pointing out the police’s inability to ensure the security of the site.
But although the memorial for Aharon’s grandmother was a prominent news item for a day following the Facebook post, Aharon says in a phone conversation with In Jerusalem that “it seems like it doesn’t really touch society.
I can only imagine what the reactions would be if such a thing happened in a Jewish cemetery in Europe, but while this is happening here, it was just another item, rapidly forgotten, and it really hurts.”
For years, she continues, her family refrained from going to the Mount of Olives for fear of attacks by Palestinians, but this year, there was a feeling among the family that something should be done, that it was unbearable to let this fear continue to keep them from honoring the memory of Sarah, “who walked from her native country, Afghanistan, to Jerusalem.”
King, meanwhile, reports that “a lot of people answered my call to patrol the Mount of Olives, but we only managed to implement our program for a day-and-a-half before the police woke up and ordered us to stop our activity, and took over.”
King has organized several citizens’ security groups. One of them is still operating in his own neighborhood, which suffers from attacks by young Palestinians. In addition to throwing stones, the attackers have torched his house and the kindergarten his children attend. Earlier this week, on Sunday evening, there was yet another attack on his house – “the 50th attack,” emphasizes King, who uploaded photos to Facebook showing the bottle that the arsonists used, still lying on his balcony.
Following the Aharon story, which was reported on for a day or so in various papers and on the news, a special meeting of the Knesset Interior Committee was held on June 16 to hear more testimonies and debate on the matter.
The meeting “blew up” at an early stage, following harsh exchanges between MKs Sharon Gal (Yisrael Beytenu) and Jamal Zahalka (Balad). Chairman MK David Amsalem (Likud) then decided to cut it short – explaining that despite the urgent nature and seriousness of the matter, he was not willing to allow uncivilized conduct in his committee.
A resident of Jerusalem, Amsalem previously occupied a high-ranking post at Safra Square for an extended period.
Among the guests of the committee was another city resident, Itzhak Gull, the son of the late Avraham Gull – one of the leading figures in Jerusalem’s Afghan community, who died a month ago. Before the fracas began, Gull told the panel what had happened to him and his family on the day they buried his father at the Mount of Olives graveyard, as specified in his will. “We were attacked by a mob throwing stones and cursing at us, it was horrible.”
But the worst occurred a week later, when the family came to put a stone on the grave and found the place totally desecrated, gravestones broken and graves torched.
As for Amsalem, he declared at the end of the session that he would adamantly request a government decision to declare the cemetery a national heritage site. The present situation is “shameful for the state. This is a place where our ancestors and the most legendary personalities of our history are buried; it is not just any other graveyard in Kiryat Malachi or Ashkelon.”
THE INTERNATIONAL Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim (the Hebrew name for the Mount of Olives) was founded in 2010 following that year’s State Comptroller’s Report about the precarious situation at the site and the desecration of graves. Several American-Jewish leaders of various denominations formed the committee to monitor the situation on the ground and follow up the state’s actions in responding to the problem.
On its website, the ICPHH publishes information about the best times and conditions for visiting the graveyard, including instructions to avoid visits on Fridays (which are sensitive due to the Muslim prayer services on the Temple Mount), and a phone number for acquiring an escort from the Construction Ministry’s security company. Those interested in the latter must call 24 hours in advance, and the site suggests that if a problem arises, the visitors should immediately call 100 for police or 101 for an ambulance.
On Monday, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) issued a letter to Jerusalem’s police chief to ensure Jewish residents’ security in the Old City and east Jerusalem neighborhoods during Ramadan. Smotrich did not include the Mount of Olives in his request, but did mention Ma’aleh Hazeitim.
Why would Palestinians desecrate graves, an act that is considered a religious offense? Former city council member Meir Margalit, who held the Arab residents portfolio from 2008-2013, says, “It is true that desecrating a grave, any grave, is considered an offense in Islam, but I assume that nevertheless, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find enough young Palestinians who would use that as a way of expressing their anger.”
In 2009, during one of the peaks in Mount of Olives vandalism, Margalit was involved in an attempt to get religious figures on both sides to curb these acts.
“We managed to convince the mufti of Jerusalem to issue a fatwa [religious ruling] forbidding such acts,” he continues, “but his condition was that something similar should come from a chief rabbi concerning the Muslim graves in Mamilla [which the work on the Museum of Tolerance destroyed].”
Then-chief rabbi Shlomo Amar was in favor of doing this, but for other reasons, the counterpart letter from the Jewish side came under the signature of his assistant.
“The mufti said he couldn’t publish his fatwa, but agreed to do his utmost to prevent the vandalism,” says Margalit, adding that “maybe it’s time to get back to that option.”
Adnan, a Palestinian taxi driver living in the nearby E-Tur neighborhood, says these acts of vandalism are the work of “young and stupid boys, who respect neither Jews nor Muslims.”
But he adds that “sometimes, desperate people follow delinquents, and the best way to stop these acts is to give these youth some hope and dignity.”
Adnan continues that he believes the desecration of the graveyard was perpetrated by hooligans, and was not encouraged or planned by political streams in the Palestinian sector.
“I am pretty sure these are acts of youth, shabab as we call them; real Muslims wouldn’t desecrate tombs. I fail to understand why the Israel Police cannot put a stop to this.”
Neither the police nor the Interior Ministry responded to IJ’s request for an explanation regarding the increase of violence in the area.
THE MOUNT of Olives dates back at least 3,000 years and has some 150,000 tombs.
It is mentioned in biblical texts, and it is believed to be a major site for the days of the resurrection. Over the centuries, major Jewish figures and laypeople alike have been buried there, including writer S.Y. Agnon and former prime minister Menachem Begin.
From 1948 to 1967, despite the cease-fire agreements that allowed Jews to visit the site, it was inaccessible to Israelis until the Six Day War.
As cases like Aharon’s have made evident, even 48 years after the city’s reunification, the Mount of Olives remains a hazardous site to visit.
The most vandalized parts of the cemetery are the Yemenite and Afghan community plots.
Both are at remote ends of the graveyard and are very close to – in some cases, literally among – Palestinian houses, making it easier for Palestinian vandals to reach them.
A source at the Prime Minister’s Office in charge of the holy sites admits that “only a regular patrol of policemen, [or even] a special unit, can put an end to this shameful situation. But all the authorities involved apparently have other priorities.”
Mayor Nir Barkat remained concerned, stating: “I am not satisfied with the present situation at all.” He then announced that he is planning to visit the site shortly to see for himself what must be done, with the help of all necessary authorities – including, of course, Jerusalem police.