By Menachem Lubinsky
It was in late 2012 after a spate of rock attacks and vandalism by Arab youths on Har Hazeisim that the idea of building a wall to protect Har Hazeisim first came to the fore. My brother Avrohom who two years earlier helped found the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeisim(ICPHH) sat with an enlarged map of the 2.3 square kilometer 3000-year old cemetery, pointing to some of the open areas in the cemetery where the Arab vandals flee to the communities nearby after committing the crimes. They include Silwan and Ras al Amud, just two of several Arab villages and towns that surround the historic cemetery where 150,000 Jews are buried. It was the first time that I thought about building a wall around the cemetery, like the walls that enclose Jewish cemeteries all over the world.
On my next trip to Israel, I raised the possibility of a wall with officials of the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA or “Harli” in Hebrew) who were responsible for executing projects on Har Hazeisim and Yerushalayim in general. It was the JDA, for example, that served as the operational arm for the light rail project on behalf of the Municipality and the government. I was not prepared for the answer: “A wall would not be aesthetically pleasing, according to the City architect, and besides it would be a message of surrender.” The idea of a wall was a non-starter, or so it seemed at the time.
Meanwhile the ICPHH had managed to successfully lobby for the installation of 136 surveillance cameras, a 24/7 underground monitoring room and the establishment of a police sub-station. But in late 2014 and then in 2015 there were a number of vicious attacks that shocked Jews everywhere. They included several acts of vandalism in the Colel Polin section, a mass destruction of graves in the Afghanistan section, and several attacks near the maarah where two Gerer Rebbes are buried (the Bais Yisrael and the Lev Simcha). There were several attempts to penetrate the steel door but in the end all the Arab thugs could do was attempt to burn down the door. I once again raised the idea of the wall and this time began an intensive lobbying effort in the Knesset and the government. The response was overwhelmingly positive, especially with the newly formed government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Particularly encouraging were the positions of the Ministry of Housing and Construction, under Minister Yoav Galant, which is responsible for security on Har Hazeisim, and Deputy Police Commissioner Moshe Bareket, who serves as a key advisor to the Minister for Internal Security Gilad Erdan. The police were particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of a wall, arguing that it would greatly enhance their ability to patrol and secure Har Hazeisim. The discussions about the wall subsequently took a number of twists and turns. For example, officials felt that it was not necessary to build a wall around the entire mountain. They pointed out that many areas were already walled in and that others faced terrain that was not accessible. In any case, they pointed out, not all areas of Har Hazeisim were prone to vandalism.
What seemed to emerge from the officials was a plan to build the wall at first around the Eastern section of Har Hazeisim that included the oft-targeted sections of Ger, Polin, Afghanistan and Taiman. The plan called for the construction of a 10 foot concrete wall followed by 10 feet of iron gates. The gates would be topped by security cameras where there are none now and by new lighting. The estimated cost was NIS 4.5 million.
One of the strongest allies for the wall was MK Dovid Amsalem (Likud) who in his first meeting as Chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee, showed extreme impatience with the police that the wall was not yet built. First Deputy Mayor Yosef Deutsch (Yahadut Hatorah) became a key ally in pushing for City Hall support. Malcolm Hoenlein, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, and a key member of the ICPHH, raised the idea of the wall with the highest officials he had met and found support unanimous. MK Yitzchak (Buzi) Herzog, led the opposition support for the wall.
By early 2016, the idea of a wall, albeit initially in the Eastern section of HarHazeisim, seemed well on its way. The idea that I first raised in 2012 seemed to be finally becoming a reality. The police, who were in the last few months put in charge of the project, finalized their plans. Now it was amere question of making sure that the funds were transferred so that the work could begin. Rabbi Hillel Horowitz, Director of Jewish Cemeteries in Yerushalayim was of enormous help.
For the ICPHH, the construction of the wall was part of the next phase of securing Har Hazeisim. In the past six months, security had greatly improved with few incidents reported. Minister Erdan had kept his promise to the ICPHH and increased the police presence. A contingent of Border Police reinforced the police and the Ministry of Housing and Construction continued to offer armed escorts to visitors who requested it despite the much safer conditions on the mountain, for now. In addition, thanks to the efforts of Deputy Mayor Deutsch, a multi-million dollar Visitors Center and shul will soon be built. The Visitors Center will be financed through a grant from the government and funds to be raised by the ICPHH. Finally the ICPHH is planning to restore some of the 23,000 graves destroyed during the Jordanian occupation (1948-1967).
But despite the national consensus on the wall, there was still the issue of the funding. The ICPHH solicited the support of Eli Groner, the Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office, who pledged to do whatever he can to build the wall immediately. According to sources, the transfer is imminent and the work on the much awaited wall should begin within a few weeks. The idea that began with a shrug by officials and eventually turned into a national consensus is now only weeks away from becoming part of the future security and development of the coveted Har Hazeisim cemetery.
With a spate of knifings and other attacks in Yerushalayim and elsewhere it recalled the flooding of the Danube during the days of the saintly Chasam Sofer. It is said that when the tzaddik was asked how to stop the floods and the suffering of the Jews, he suggested checking the cemetery and indeed the wall was breeched. The 150,000neshomos on Har Hazeisim will certainly appreciate the wall and perhaps the eternal peace that they seek.