'Mt. Meron is a terror attack waiting to happen'

Thousands of worshipers are without protection at Bar-Yohai's grave, says rabbi responsible for prayers at site.

meron rashbi 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
meron rashbi 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A terrorist attack is waiting to happen on Mount Meron, at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai, the rabbi responsible for daily prayers there warned on Sunday. "Every week thousands of people visit the site, but there are no security checks whatsoever," said Rabbi Mordechai Halperin, chairman of Moshav Meron, where the grave is located. "Just this weekend a man who turned out to be an Arab was wandering around the place, apparently gathering information," said Halperin, who plans to present evidence of the security risk to a Knesset committee on Monday. The security problem is just one of the pressing issues that has been left untouched as various groups vie for control over the holy site. Halperin said there was also a general lack of upkeep at the site, which he described as dilapidated. "It is an embarrassment to bring visitors from abroad to the grave," he said. Other sources said that Meron, a center for nonprofit organizations including soup kitchens, had become an attraction for criminals and the homeless. With Purim over, Pessah a month away and Lag Ba'omer in the offing, the anarchy surrounding the burial place of the founding father of Kabbala, Israel's most visited holy site after the Western Wall, is once again being pushed to the forefront. Every week, thousands, many of them not religiously observant, flock to the burial site of the talmudic sage who, according to tradition, authored the mystical work the Zohar, in search of a special connection to God that they believe can be obtained only by channeling into the energies of Bar-Yohai. United Torah Judaism chairman Ya'acov Litzman initiated the discussion in the Knesset two months ahead of Lag Ba'omer (May 23), the anniversary of Bar-Yohai's death, in an attempt to sort out who is responsible for managing the site. Approximately 500,000 people visit the grave each year on Lag Ba'omer, many of them camping out days in advance. On the night of the anniversary the entire Meron area is alight with bonfires, in accordance with the tradition that Bar-Yohai was taken up to heaven in a burst of flames. Nearly 2,000 years after Bar-Yohai's death, control over the holy site is still disputed. According to Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliahu, whose religious jurisdiction extends to the grave, the Sephardi hekdesh, or religious trust, has been responsible for the upkeep of the burial site and surrounding area for centuries. "The Sephardi hekdesh has had power over the site for at least 700 years," said Eliahu, dating back to the period when Safed became a center for Jewish learning with figures such as Rabbi Yosef Karo and Rabbi Isaac Luria. In contrast, an Ashkenazi source said that only in recent decades did the Sephardi trust gain control over the central part of the burial site, as a result of a deal reached between the National Religious Party's then-chairman Zevulun Hammer and minister Aharon Abuhatzeira as a part of an attempt by the NRP to woo Sephardi votes. "But, historically, the place has always belonged to the Ashkenazi hekdesh," the source said. Shlomo Levi, the head of the Merom Hagalil Regional Council, is interested in securing national control over the site. In the past, Levi has complained that although the site is in his jurisdiction, he "cannot bang in a nail" without getting permission from one of the religious trusts. In a move seen as an attempt to shake off personal responsibility for what happens at the site during mass visits, Levi has issued orders prohibiting entry that are promptly ignored by the public and the local police. However, by issuing the orders, Levi exonerates himself from responsibility. The last time Levi issued closure orders that were subsequently ignored was on 7 Adar (March 14), the traditional anniversary of both the birth and the death of Moses. Since Moses's burial place is not known, many commemorate it at Meron. Ostensibly, the site is run by a national body called the National Center for Holy Sites, created by the NRP and placed under the auspices of the Religious Affairs Ministry. However, with the dismantling of the Religious Affairs Ministry at the end of 2003, the national center was transferred to the Tourism Ministry. The Galilee District police, who are responsible for security at the grave, said Safed police conducted regular daily patrols there. "We have designated a community police officer who, together with volunteers, operates in the area," the Galilee District police spokesman said. "The purpose of their presence there is to give visitors a feeling of security. We recommend that Rabbi Halperin file a complaint at the Safed police station."