'Crematorium owner sought insurance funds'

Zaka head alleges fraud behind arson; Beilin announces desire to be cremated.

meshi zahav 88 (photo credit: )
meshi zahav 88
(photo credit: )
Arsonists scorched Israel's only crematorium Wednesday night in Hibat Zion, a Moshav near Hadera, in a case that might best be described as fighting fire with fire. Since cremation is considered anathema by religious Jews, accusing fingers immediately pointed to ultra-Orthodox activists as possible arson suspects. However, in Hibat Zion, which has a mixed secular and religious population of 150 families, opposition to the crematorium was registered across the board. Both religious and secular residents were surprised and outraged when they discovered two weeks ago that the crematorium, active since June 2005, was in their community. According to Dr. Ra'anan Geshuri, chairman of Hibat Zion's local council, the residents called for the crematorium's immediate removal. "I was bombarded with calls over the past week complaining about the crematorium," said Geshuri. "A few people were disgusted to discover that the smells of cooked meat were not from the nearby cooking and packaging factories." According to information provided by crematorium marketers on the Internet, new crematoriums emit no smells. Geshuri said that the crematorium was between 50 and 100 meters from the nearest house. A resident of Hibat Zion who described herself as "traditional, not religious," and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in the past few days the crematorium has been the focus of talk at the local market. "Nobody wants that thing here," said the resident. "Whether religious or secular. It's opposed to Judaism, and it is simply disgusting." The Hibat Zion resident who rented the space for the facility was approached by his neighbors to terminate the rental contract. The landlord, who also owns a bakery that is under the kosher supervision of Bnei Brak Chief Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib Landau, was told by Landau that he would lose his kosher approval if he did not terminate the contract within a month. For traditional Jews, disposing of one's body via cremation is not only seen as kowtowing to non-Jewish sensibilities, it is a violation of the body's sanctity as a vehicle for doing God's will. Unlike other religious transgressions such as Shabbat desecration or eating pork, cremation is seen as a radical upset of the delicate religious status quo. But religious Israelis are not the only ones with an aversion to cremation. With the impact of the Holocaust still keenly felt in Israel, cremation arouses images of concentration camps, where the Nazis used massive crematoriums to dispose of the bodies of their victims. As a result of both historical and cultural factors, even the most secular kibbutzim, which offer burial ceremonies devoid of religious trappings, have never considered cremating their members, according to Muki Tzur, a historian and member of Kibbutz Ein Gev. Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head of ZAKA - an organization that specializes in collecting the remains of terrorist and car accident victims in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law - was instrumental in discovering the exact location of the crematorium. "I did not burn down that disgusting thing, but I admit that I am happy somebody did," said Meshi-Zahav, who was known in the 1980's for spearheading aggressive, often violent, haredi demonstrations. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Meshi-Zahav raised suspicions that Aley Shalechet, the funeral home that operates the crematorium, purposely burned it down in order to collect on their insurance policy. "They barely have any business from that crematorium," claimed Meshi-Zahav. "They also knew that they were about to be thrown off Hibat Zion. So Aley Shalechet decided to burn the crematorium and blame the haredim." However, Alon Nativ, CEO of Aley Shalechet, rejected Meshi-Zahav's claims. "Men like Meshi-Zahav have no respect for the law," he told Army Radio. "They have no respect for the last wishes of the deceased. All they know is coercion and intimidation." Nativ added that he was very satisfied with his cremation business and quoted a 2002 survey that found 10% of Jewish Israelis would be interested in cremation if they had the choice. Nativ said he sees his battle for the right to provide cremations to those who desire them as a fight against the ultra-Orthodox establishment's stifling of religious freedom. "A person has a right to choose how he or she wishes to be buried," said Nativ. Although Shas has drafted legislation that would prohibit cremations in Israel, the bill has not yet been passed. At the same time, cremations are not recognized by the National Insurance Institute as a legitimate form of burial. As a result, Israeli citizens who choose cremation are not entitled to state funding. In Western countries, cremation is a popular form of burial. According to data provided by Aley Shalechet, a quarter of those who pass away in the US opt for cremations, as do 45% in Canada and 68% in Holland and Great Britain. In Japan, almost all deceased are cremated.