A sea of black hats filled Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side as demonstrators protested in front of the Czech Republic Consulate Monday. The Orthodox contingent is claiming the Czech government and a major Czech insurance company have violated a 3-month-old agreement to protect a recently uncovered medieval Jewish cemetery in Prague.
Met by an unusually heavy police presence, some 2,000 black-coated, umbrella-carrying men took part in a prayer vigil sponsored by the Central Rabbinical Congress, a Williamsburg-based umbrella chasidic group. They carried signs reading "Czech government hear our anguish, hear our pain."
In speech after speech they hurled emotion-driven accusations, including charging the Czechs with continuing to dig up skeletal remains and desecrating the site: a mostly developed two block area in downtown Prague that hasn’t been used as a Jewish cemetery for more than 500 years.
The charges are a renewal of worldwide friction between fervently Orthodox rabbis and the Czechs over the Prague cemetery: not to be confused with the popular tourist site near the Old-New Synagogue.
In March, Orthodox critics waged a worldwide e-mail campaign against the Czechs, spreading misinformation that the government was desecrating the popular 17th-century cemetery.
On Monday afternoon, a series of rabbis contended that newly excavated bones belonged to "tzadikim" (righteous people). They criticized Ceska Pojistovna, the insurance company which owns the site and is building a new headquarters, for "completely violating" a March 29 deal agreed to by the Czech government, the company, the Prague Jewish community and outside Orthodox rabbis.
The deal called for Czech government to grant landmark status to about one-tenth of the area believed to be part of the former cemetery. The agreement also called for bones and full skeletal remains accidentally discovered when construction began two years ago, and now sitting in a warehouse, to be reburied quickly.
Perhaps most significant, the parties apparently agreed that nothing could be built over or under the small, protected site: a religious position issued by Israel Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau.
But Orthodox critics last week learned that the insurance company was planning to build a tunnel and a basement floor area under the protected area.
Aggravating the situation is the continued failure of the Czech government and insurance firm to speedily rebury the formerly dug up remains.
And things heated up further last week when several European Orthodox rabbis entered the "non-protected" portion of the construction site, and claimed that more skulls and bones were being dug up.
But the claim of new bones is being disputed by American embassy officials, according to Michael Lewan, chairman of the little-known U.S. Commission for the Preservation of American Heritage Abroad, which has been supporting the interests of American Jews overseas.
"The American Embassy visited the site twice last week … and found no such evidence," Lewan told The Jewish Week. "The Orthodox community does itself a great disservice" it if demonstrates against the Czechs around the world without clear proof about new bones being found.
Lewan said the real issue is the plan to build a tunnel and basement under the small plot, which clearly seems to violate the deal.
"The real question is what halachically and politically can be built under this Jewish cemetery," Lewan said. "The international Orthodox Jewish community believe that Rabbi Lau’s declaration in writing some weeks ago must be respected."
"The spirit of the deal has been broken," said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, which has played a mediating role in the controversy.
"There was a clear understanding there would be no construction beneath the site." He accused the Czech government and insurance company of withholding the tunnel plan. "They should have been up front about this."
At the rally men recited prayers in Hebrew and Aramaic, listened to speeches in English and Yiddish, and sat on the ground as a token of mourning. Police cordoned off four blocks with metal barricades.
"We are talking about our ancestors who have rested undisturbed for 800 years. Can we allow a cemetery, our hallowed ground, to be desecrated and uprooted for greed, for money?" asked Rabbi Chaim Stauber, a member of the Central Rabbinical Congress executive board and editor of Der Yid.
"Please let our sages rest in peace," said Rabbi Yitzchak Gluck, general secretary of the rabbinical group.
Rabbi Hertz Frankel, a vice president of the World Council of Orthodox Jewish Communities, alleged that the Czech government "legitimizes desecration" in countries where cemetery vandalism has become common in recent years.
"If you can officially sanction uprooting an ancient cemetery, it legitimizes the behavior of the hooligans."
Countering Lewan, Rabbi Schneier said he has received information that new skeletal remains were indeed found by the rabbis who entered the site. "I know there were some remains found," said Rabbi Schneier, who called for full-time archaeologists on the site.
But while there is dispute over the discovery of new bones, most Jewish observers criticized the Czech government for dragging its feet in reburying skeletal remains dug up two years ago. The delay is considered a gross desecration of Jewish law.
"They should have been buried already," said Lewan. "It’s a miscalculation by the Czechs. It does nobody any good to have the remains sitting in a warehouse."
Rabbi Schneier warned that other key issues have not been resolved, which could lead to future crises.
"The other thing that has to be addressed and resolved is what happens if intact graves or human remains are found in the other nine-tenths of the site? This issue has never been addressed. There is also no sifting of earth," which he said might contain small bone fragments.
The renewed controversy once again puts the largely secular and tiny Prague Jewish community at odds with outside Orthodox rabbis: whom they resent for meddling into what they believe is a local affair. Feeling isolated and put upon, Prague Jewish leaders have been trying to compromise with the Czech government and the insurance company.
In response, outside Orthodox rabbis have sharply criticized them, saying they are not qualified to make religious decisions, and that the cemetery belongs to worldwide Jewry.
Lewan said resolving the tunnel issue will be tough.
"I don’t know how you get out of this box. It may mean compromise from those who hate to compromise: the Orthodox rabbis."