By Menachem Lubinsky
I recently wrote an article for Hamodia that described the chilling state of desecration of Har Hazeisim, Judaism’s oldest bais hachayim. Overlooking the Har Habayis, the 3,000 year-old cemetery with its 60,000 graves is a sad picture of destruction, neglect, and yes, terrorism. It has come to a point where the common reaction of many potential visitors is one of fear, and thus they avoid visiting the cemetery at all cost. The scenes of destroyed graves, strewn garbage, drug paraphernalia, animal feces, and pure and simple neglect are heart wrenching, especially considering the sanctity of the location and the fact that it is the burial place of several nevi’im. Since the article appeared, I have heard from many eyewitnesses who were stoned and several whose cars were damaged nearby the cemetery. What is transpiring on Har Hazeisim is pure and simple terrorism from the Arabs who live in the surrounding areas.
How did it happen that Har Hazeisim was allowed to deteriorate in such a shameful way, that there is no national and international outcry over the systematic destruction of the cemetery? Why is it that the Israeli government has given Har Hazeisim lip service at best? Could it be that we are dealing with the unthinkable and that Israel has abandoned Har Hazeisim?
Recently, a new ad hoc committee was formed in New York to deal with what some of its members call a “national disgrace.” But as the committee broadens its reach and searches for some answers, the results are very disheartening. The various chevra kadisha groups that are involved in Har Hazeisim appear to be helpless, and have reluctantly accepted the conditions there. One source said that they simply do not want to add to the panic, especially since the cemetery is a functioning cemetery. One Chevra Kadisha member related that family members of a deceased are usually on-edge at the site and look for a “quick levaya.” Chasidim of various admorim who are interred there do not even visit the tzion of their rebbe on a yahrzeit.
Various Knesset members reached by the committee do not have any answers either. They seem to have no explanation for the deteriorating security and ever-increasing neglect. They point to the Knesset appropriations for Har Hazeisim but are unable to explain the ultimate disposition of the money. Occasionally, a road is fixed, a tower is set up, surveillance cameras are being set up – though that process seems to be taking years – and one security patrol vehicle roams a cemetery that contains 60,000 graves, but that is the extent of it as the neglect and random destruction continue mostly unchecked. One can call the security patrol in advance to accompany him on a site visit, but then the rest of Har Hazeisim will be neglected during that time. Many Jews are not even aware of this opportunity. Is this any way for a Jew to feel secure on Har Hazeisim in 2010, at a time when the country has more than ample means to secure the location?
How sad that Israel even treats its own prime minister with the same type of benign neglect. Prime Minister Menachem Begin chose burial at Har Hazeisim over Har Herzl, but his burial place is forlorn and neglected. Frequently terrorized, it is quickly repaired by his son, MK Benny Begin, who for some reason has not galvanized his party and long-time followers to care for the entire site. Other national heroes from the War of Independence are interred there as well, and they, too enjoy the same level of neglect and disrespect.
Last year, the State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss highlighted the neglect of Har Hazeisim on the eve of Yom Hatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. “Repair work proceeds at a snail’s pace, maintenance standards are inadequate, security is sorely lacking and vandalism and criminal acts continue unabated, accentuating the danger that funds and labor already invested at the site will go down the drain,” he stated. This too spurred little action.
Appearing in New York, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared shocked at the state of Har Hazeisim as Malcolm Hoenlein, Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and I painted a picture of the destruction on Mountain of Olives. What if this type of terrorism happened at a Jewish cemetery in Poland or Germany? Would Israel not lodge a complaint with the United Nations and other international bodies? Why is there such a complacency and indifference by Israel’s political leadership and society at large?
There is the frightening thought that perhaps Israel has indeed abandoned Har Hazeisim. On April 25th, in the Jerusalem Issue Brief, Mr. Begin revealed that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had offered to divide Jerusalem in two parts. The neighborhoods populated by Arabs would become a part of the capital of the Palestinian Arab sovereign state. The Jewish neighborhoods would be retained under Israeli sovereignty. “In addition,” said Mr. Begin, “he proposed that Israel relinquish its sovereignty over the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, and the City of David – referred to by some as the “holy basin.” Israel’s rule of these areas would be replaced by a consortium that would administer them, comprised of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United States, the PLO, and Israel. This far-reaching proposal by Prime Minister was declined by the PLO. Amazing!
Standing on Har Hazeisim, it is easy to see Abu Dis just across the road. In many of the discussions on the future of Yerushalayim, the Israelis are said to have offered the Arab village as the “capital” of a new state of Palestine. Could it be that Israelis are resigned to a new status for Har Hazeisim? Why else does the Har Hazeisim issue generate nary a yawn when in fact it is a tragedy of historic proportions? I can only imagine how unsettling this prospect is for the kedoshim who are buried there – who imagined that their coveted position overlooking the Har Habayis gave them a preferred vantage point beyemos hamoshiach. As one visitor said: “Har Hazeisim is the only bais hachayim where the visitor is greeted by stones and not by an ounce of water to wash one’s hands. What a disgrace!”
The time has come to end this national shame, and for Jews everywhere to proclaim that the security and maintenance of Har Hazeisim is not negotiable, especially with our enemies. The time has come to reassure the kedoshim that we have not abandoned them. For if we do, the admonition of Mordechai to Esther in Megillas Esther will come true in our times: “Salvation and rescue will come from another source, but you and your household will be lost.”
Menachem Lubinskyis CEO of LUBICOM Marketing Consulting, former president and chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, former vice president of Agudath Israel of America