Jerusalem — Every time Menachem and Avraham Lubinsky, from Brooklyn, visit their parents’ graves at the Mount of Olives (Har Hazeitim) cemetery in east Jerusalem, they feel it necessary to request an armed escort.
“I’ve been going to the cemetery for 25 years and I still feel fearful,” Menachem Lubinsky, a businessman, said in a telephone interview from New York. “One time kids threw rocks at me.
Graves are desecrated. A friend saw teens playing soccer in the cemetery, using gravestones for goal posts. I know American Jews who don’t want to be buried there because they’re worried about their children’s safety when they visit.”
Last year, after Micha Lindenstrauss, Israel’s State Comptroller, slammed the Israeli government for not doing enough to ensure the ancient cemetery’s safety and preservation, the Lubinsky brothers and others concerned about the cemetery created the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim (ICPHH).
Close to 1,000 people attended an informational evening the organization held at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue in November, the Jerusalem Post reported.
The organization is demanding better maintenance of the cemetery, a beefed-up security presence — including the installation of 200 security cameras — and improved cooperation between the various authorities responsible for the cemetery. It wants to stop people from using the cemetery as a shortcut to local neighborhoods and a place to hang out.
ICPHH’s leadership has enlisted the support of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, whose members toured parts of the sprawling cemetery last week during their annual meeting in Israel.
“We’ve met with government officials and discussed some of the things that need to be done,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, told The Jewish Week during a tour of the cemetery.
While the cemetery’s status is obviously of concern to the families whose relatives are buried there, the activists insist that it is also a national treasure that proves the Jews’ ancient roots to the land, and whose future could be jeopardized if Israel loses sole control over east Jerusalem.
To be sure, the Mount of Olives has been prime Jewish real estate for at least 3,000 years, when Jews started burying their dead on its hillsides. After the Temple’s destruction, the living gathered there for festivals and especially Tisha B’Av, to mourn its destruction.
Located directly across the valley from the Old City walls, the cemetery affords an unparalleled view of the Temple Mount.
Biblical prophets, famed rabbis, former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, Nobel Prize-winning author Shai Agnon and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, are all buried in the cemetery. Surrounded in many areas by low stone walls but no locked gates, the cemetery is simple, with almost no landscaping.
An estimated 40,000 of the cemetery’s 150,000 known graves were destroyed between 1948 and the 1967, when Jordan ruled East Jerusalem and prevented Jews from going there. During the first and second Palestinian uprisings, the cemetery was targeted with vandalism, its visitors with stones and other forms of intimidation.
Though it is far safer today —and appears mostly clean and well maintained in the most-frequented sections — visitors are nevertheless urged not to walk around Har Hazeitim without an armed guard in attendance.
Pointing to the grave of Henrietta Szold, founder of the Hadassah women’s organization, Ahmed Sayad, an elderly (fourth-generation) Arab caretaker employed by one of the burial societies, recalled how, right after the end of the Six-Day War, “I returned from Jordan and saw the Jordanians had built a hotel next to the cemetery, on my family’s land. There were thousands of uprooted gravestones.”
The stones were reportedly removed to pave a road to the hotel, Sayad said.
Over the years, the caretaker said, he and others have restored many of the stones, but not necessarily on top of a specific grave.
“No one knows where many of the people are buried,” Sayad acknowledged.
Aryeh King, the manager of the Public Office of Jerusalem, an organization that promotes for the rights of Jews in the eastern part of the capital, led the tour.
King, who lives in an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, asserted that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon earmarked 60 million shekels ($16.5m.) for the cemetery’s restoration and upkeep in 2005 “in order to give a carrot to the people opposed to the uprooting of the Gush Katif settlers” in Gaza. “But instead of putting up fences and gates, the money went to salaries and consultants.
While King acknowledged that the Jerusalem Development Authority, a joint government/municipal corporation responsible for the cemetery, would soon install the requested surveillance cameras, he said that “most of the attacks against Jews take place on the road to and from the cemetery.”
King pointed to a stone house that, he said, was built illegally on cemetery land.
“The Arabs are grabbing land and no one is stopping them. In 20, 30 years there won’t be room for any more graves.”
In reality, there may be open land in the future, but few wishing to be buried on it.
During a private tour to a more remote part of the cemetery after the American leaders departed, King pointed to empty, or near-empty, plots of barren land adjoining an Arab neighborhood.
Along the way he pointed out several gravestones that had clearly been shattered by someone wielding a heavy, blunt object.
“People are afraid to be buried here, out of concern for their graves and their family members,” King said.
Elad Kendel, manager of the Old City department of the Jerusalem Development Authority, said he “can understand this feeling. Until two years ago there were no patrols and the site was not kept up. But it has improved since last year and it will continue to improve.”
Kendel said that by the end of June, 150 cameras will be installed at a cost of NIS 19 million ($5.23 million), and lighting will be improved. (In Israel, burials take place also at night).
There is also a plan to replace the area’s shuttered police station, Kendel noted.
Lubinsky insisted that the attacks and desecration are part of a systematic Arab plan to intimidate Jews.
“They want to abolish Jewish identity and Jewish history here,” he said.
Hoenlein said Jews have a responsibility to ensure the survival of Har Hazeitim (Mount of Olives) for both religious and political reasons.
“If you lose Har Hazeitim, you lose Jerusalem.”
Hoenlein emphasized that when a Jewish cemetery in Europe is desecrated, “we raise our voices. If we really place a value on respect for the dead, this is the biggest mitzvah we can do.” n