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Insurmountable Obstacles

Avi Friedman

Forty-three years after Jews around the world were horrified by Jordan’s extensive desecration of the ancient cemetery on Har HaZeisim (the Mount of Olives), damage at the burial ground of prophets, rabbis, chassidic masters, and thousands of ordinary Jews has yet to be fully corrected. Can a coalition of religious and secular Israelis and Americans prod the government to restore Har HaZeisim to its former glory?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

It would be wrong to call Avi, a nonreligious Israeli man in his thirties, a crusader for the restoration of Har HaZeisim. An interior designer and theater set designer by trade, he says he is not politically involved at all, but his eyes go black when talking about the state of the ancient Jewish cemetery.

“It’s the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I was there with my family for a memorial service for my grandmother a couple of months ago, but when we arrived the headstone was broken and there was garbage strewn all over the place. Friends told us to get a security guard to accompany us up there because there have been a lot of riots in the area, and that worked out okay, but it made me sad and really angry. Why in the world do we need security to pay our respects to my savta?”

Avi’s story is hardly unique, and hardly new. The desecration of Jewish graves on Har HaZeisim (the Mount of Olives) made international headlines in June 1967 when the extent of Jordanian destruction at the site became apparent — 38,000 tombstones used to pave roads and latrines for the Arab Legion, open graves with bones scattered everywhere, an asphalt road running through the cemetery in two, trampling thousands of grave, and a parking lot and a gas station. At the top of the hill stood the five-star Intercontinental Hotel, and Jordan’s official caretaker of the site, Sadar Khalil, took care of the site by using gravestones to build his home on the grounds of the cemetery.

But four-and-a-half decades later, the situation in some parts of the cemetery has barely improved. There is no fence to keep out vandals, or security cameras to catch them in the act; illegal Arab housing rings the mountain on land technically zoned as cemetery land intended to ensure future Jewish burials; and animals have been seen traipsing freely over graves. Jewish mourners are regularly attacked on the way to or from funerals or memorial services, and at night, Jewish residents of the nearby Maaleh Zeitim community say local delinquents use the cemetery for illicit purposes. They claim that Jerusalem police have little interest in prosecuting the vandals.


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