Restore and protect the Mount of Olives

After J'lem's reunification, burials were resumed on the Mount, but good order and safety were not.

mount of olives 88.298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mount of olives 88.298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Without any fanfare, the Knesset last week passed in preliminary reading one of its most overdue bills ever - for the establishment of a single national authority charged with the preservation, restoration and protection of the Mount of Olives cemetery - the Jewish people's most ancient burial ground and final resting place to a veritable pantheon of religious, spiritual, cultural and national paragons, including the Biblical prophets Zechariah, Haggai and Malachi. Jews have been interring their dead on the mountain for more than 3,000 years. Its proximity to the city and the Temple Mount, as well as the traditional proscription against burials within Jerusalem's walls, made the Mount hallowed as far back as First Temple days. The chain had been unbroken ever since, save for 19 years of Jordanian occupation (1948-67), during which the cemetery was systematically desecrated, in blatant violation of the Hashemite Kingdom's undertakings to safeguard holy sites. The destruction was unbridled and premeditated. Antique tombstones were torn out to be used as latrine floors and pavement stones. The Intercontinental Hotel and Jericho Road were constructed over graves. Garbage and debris were regularly dumped on the tombs. After Jerusalem's reunification 40 years ago, burials were resumed on the Mount, but dignity, good order and safety were not reestablished. Though public figures like former prime minister Menachem Begin, author S.Y. Agnon, poet Uri Zvi Greenberg, and rabbis Shlomo Goren and Zvi Yehuda Kook - among numerous others - asked to be laid to rest there, their choice failed to prompt even minimal proper upkeep and security at a cemetery of historical continuity and significance unmatched anywhere in the world. This is the regrettable situation that the new bill - tabled by the National Union's Arye Eldad (whose own father, famed Prof. Yisrael Eldad, is also buried on the Mount) and supported by a broad political spectrum of MKs - aims to rectify. Shameful neglect isn't the Mount of Olives' exclusive lot. The ancient cemetery in Safed also suffers unforgivable and indescribable dilapidation. But the Mount of Olives' greatest ongoing calamity is frequent and deliberate predations by Arab neighbors, who desecrate graves (their favorite target is unaccountably the Gerrer Rebbe's tombstone, but Begin's has also been damaged). These hoodlums smear human feces on the tombs and cover them with household rubbish and construction debris. Markers are daubed in paint, hate graffiti is scrawled and gravestones are hammered and smashed. Nighttime vandalism is accompanied by assaults on visitors during daylight. "Many fear going there," Public Security Minister Avraham Dichter admitted to the Knesset a few weeks ago. He recalled the case of "a family that came to their mother's grave only to be attacked by Arabs with boards and rocks. Two of the mourners had to be hospitalized." Vehicles are stoned routinely from the yard of a nearby Arab school. Dichter sees it as "a particularly disturbing manifestation of Arab anti-Israel hostility, which especially escalated lately, following [Islamic Movement northern branch chief] Sheikh Raed Sallah's incitement." Had a fraction of such incidents occurred in any Jewish cemetery abroad, Israel would surely have lodged official protests and demanded adequate protection. The dereliction of a site second only to the Temple Mount in its emotive importance to Jews stains Israel's honor. Fences, electronic surveillance, cameras and the like are frequently promised, but never installed. A few months ago, the Jerusalem Municipality announced a wholesale five-year renovation project in which thousands of shattered graves would be rebuilt, recorded and mapped. Speed the day. The Authority to be set up according to the new Knesset legislation is to manage the cemetery as "a national shrine for the Jewish people, resurrect it from ruin and protect it from desecration and defacement." We can only hope that real action does indeed finally follows all the words and lamentations. As Eldad stressed: "Without special status for the Mount and without an identifiable authority with clout to coordinate among various groups involved in the Mount's maintenance, there is no single address responsible for security [and for] prevention of illegal construction and wanton destruction of what should be dear to every Jewish heart." In the words of the late Yigal Allon: "A nation that cannot respect its past will lose its future."