Five Towners mobilized on Sunday to step up the fight to preserve and develop the 3,000-year-old Jerusalem cemetery on Har Hazeitim, the Mount of Olives.
Community leaders and rabbis spoke at the Young Israel of Lawrence Cedarhurst, joining a call to action sounded by a Brooklyn marketing executive and his brother.
The cemetery dates back to the First Temple and is the site where King David fled from his rebelling son Avshalom, where the Cohanim burned the parah adumah (red heifer) and gathered the ashes, and it was the first in a chain of mountains where fires were lit to announce the new month. Those buried there include the prophets Chagai, Zechariah, Malachi and Hulda; rabbis including Ovadiah of Bartenura, Yehuda haChasid, Chaim Ben Attar and Avraham haCohen Kook (the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel), as well as former Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his wife Aliza. Although it is crowded and very expensive, it accommodated 120 burials there in 2013.
Reclaimed from the Jordanians in the 1967 Six-Day-War, the cemetery was not maintained until recently, except for an initial effort to repair the many graves that had been desecrated by the Jordanians during the time they occupied the area from 1948 to 1967. Jordanians destroyed or vandalized 70,000 ancient graves, built a hotel on the site and used gravestones for toilets.
But the destruction of graves did not stop under Israel’s watch, as Arabs in the surrounding area continued to destroy graves, dumping garbage and construction materials, using tombstones as markers to play soccer on the mount, and terrorizing visitors by throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails and smashing car windows.
Subsequent to a 2010 report by then-Israel State Controller Micha Lindenstrauss that detailed neglect of this holy site, two brothers from Brooklyn, Avraham and Menachem Lubinsky, formed the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim and enlisted the help of Jewish leaders across the religious and communal spectrum. They met with Israeli government officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and have begun instituting changes.
Recent efforts have led to the installation of 142 security cameras where monitoring personnel can alert police to attacks and destruction. A police substation was installed in March 2012 but more patrols and protection are needed. The Jerusalem Municipality is now collecting debris at the site and some fencing was installed to deter vandals and protect mourners.
In a video shown at Sunday’s event, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, declared it a “war about our future.”
“They understand that if they take away our past they take away our future,” Hoenlein said.
Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum of the Young Israel of Lawrence Cedarhurst, compared destruction at Har Hazeitim to that of a cemetery where his grandfather is buried in Poland. While in Poland Jews have “no power over that,” the “same desecration steps from Har Habayit” is “unfathomable…a chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name),” he said.
Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of LUBICOM Marketing Consulting, said that 150,000 Jews are buried on Har Hazeitim, Some graves are 3,000 years old, yet the Palestinian map denies the existence of the area, calling it the Ras Al Amud neighborhood. He said the site protects Jerusalem from 55,000 illegal units built by the Arabs in the area.
Rav Moshe Tuvia Lieff, morah d'asra of Agudath Israel Bais Binyomin in Flatbush, said “we believe that the 150,000 intercede at the Kisay Hakavod (G-d’s throne) on our behalf.” He urged klal Yisrael (the people of Israel) to validate that “this is our land and sanctify the future by sanctifying the past.”
Ambassador Ido Aharoni, consul general of Israel in New York, called Har Hazeitim “the most important burial site in Jewish life,” where “early promulgators of Zionism” are buried. It should be a “magnet” for tourism and a “spiritual experience” where visitors can see their “forefathers, those who helped make Israel what it is today,” he said.
With plans for a promenade and visitors’ center and a connection via monorail to a train station and a cable car to a bus station, the current Israeli government is the first to “take seriously the maintenance and rehabilitation of Har Hazeisim,” Menachem Lubinsky said.
The visitors center will house a museum — including a data bank of the 76,000 graves documented thus far— a lecture hall, café and synagogue. A permanent police presence is also planned, to also protect the Jewish communities there including Shimon Hatzadik, Beit Orot on Har Hazeitim, Maale Hazeitim and Ir David, he said.
In addition to its historic and religious significance, there is also an issue of geographic contiguity and the strategic importance to maintaining a Jewish presence there. The area connects the Old City with Maale Adumim to the east, Har Hatzofim to the north and Mizrach Talpiot to the south.
“There is concern regarding the impact on all [these] areas plus the roads to the area of Har Habayit and the city beyond,” Malcom Hoenlein told The Jewish Star. “Denying access to Har Hazeitim would, in effect, break continuity and deny access to parts of Jerusalem. It would be a psychological and geographic division.”