Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

6 Nisan 5759 - March 24, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Antiquities Authority Desecrates Har Zeisim Burial Cave

By B. Kahn and G. Robinson

The National Antiquities Authority last week secretly desecrated an ancient burial cave in the Mount of Olives Cemetery in East Jerusalem. The cave, dating back to the Second Temple era, had been discovered during government- sponsored tractor work to build an observation point for tourists and sightseers who come from all corners of the world to visit the famous cemetery.

The archaeologists removed almost all the bones from the cave, and also took away the ancient stone coffins that were found there, probably intending to display them in a museum somewhere. The Authority also had tractors cover over the entire area with dirt, to conceal that the looted cave ever existed.

The Authority's move was yet another blatant violation of its agreement with the Ministry of Religions to stop desecrating Jewish graves. Approximately half a year ago, the Authority's director, Amir Drori, promised to not conduct any archaeological digs where any human graves are found, or even where their presence is merely suspected. Drori also committed the Authority to notify the Ministry of Religions whenever archaeological digs unexpectedly even come close to grave sites.

Last week's sneak desecration in the famous Mount of Olives cemetery, and the Authority's attempt to conceal its deed, again showed that Drori's word cannot be trusted. In fact, activists claimed that the incident indicates that Drori never really had any intent to stop desecrating ancient graves, so that the agreement that he signed is virtually meaningless.

In this instance, Drori attacked a site that is close to the hearts of hundreds of thousands of observant Jews around the world, for according to Prophecy, the resurrection of the dead will actually begin on the Mount of Olives. This is why Jews throughout the ages have sought to be buried there, and it also is partly why the cemetery is a popular tourist attraction.

It should be noted that regarding the Mount of Olives area, in several instances in the past when construction uncovered similar ancient caves that contained stone coffins, activists succeeded in having the caves securely reinforced with thick concrete walls. The caves were tightly sealed, so that the remains that were buried there could continue to rest in peace, until the dead will be resurrected. These measures could have been taken regarding the cave that was desecrated last week too, but Drori and the Authority had other ideas.

At the Organization for the Prevention of Grave Desecrations, whose members discovered the pillage, concern was expressed over the safety of other burial caves in the Mount of Olives cemetery. The group has contacted several members of Jerusalem's city council to persuade the council members to exert pressure on the city government to prevent similar sneak encroachments on the Mount of Olives. The tractor work for the observation point was being done by the East Jerusalem Development Company, which is jointly operated by the City of Jerusalem and the Ministry of Tourism.

Impassioned appeals were made to Yoel Marinov, the firm's director, to not allow the Authority such a high hand in the future. Marinov admitted that the Authority had made off with the stone coffins that had been in the cave, and he added that the Authority had assured him that all the bones that were found were handed over to the Ministry of Religions, which according to the activists is blatantly not true.

At the Organization for the Prevention of Grave Desecrations, it was claimed that the archaeologists handed over to the Ministry only a few bones from the cave, and they found many fragments strewn around outside on the ground, exposed to the elements, when they first arrived after desecration was over.

Marinov denied complicity in the Authority's sneak operation, and explained that one of his firm's tractors "came across the cave by accident."

He commented that members of the Antiquities Authority were at the site in the first place "pretending simply to be supervising the construction," for the Authority has special jurisdiction over the entire area. That is, the Mount of Olives is one of the tens of thousands of "archaeological" districts throughout Israel -- areas that are "classified" as likely to contain archaeological artifacts.

According to Israeli law, all builders, public and private, who seek to dig in such "classified" areas first need a permit from the Authority, and the charges for these permits have helped to make the Antiquities Authority one of the Israeli government's wealthiest agencies. The Authority grants construction permits in such areas only if the Authority determines that no artifacts are endangered. However, a government report documents that many times, before the permits are issued, the Authority charges the firms exorbitant fees to conduct digs to save artifacts which often turn out not be there.

In this instance, as well, Marinov said, the Authority was watching the digging for the observation point, ostensibly to protect "archaeological interests." In the end, however, their real purpose was another illegal attack on Jewish graves, for bones are not considered archaeological artifacts and neither are coffins.

It also came to light last week that the Authority had desecrated several burial caves in the Barakee Junction area, along the road that leads to the city of Charish. The road is being widened, and when the digging uncovered burial caves the Authority was notified, and not the Ministry of Religions or any activists who work to prevent desecrations. As a result, the archaeologists were able to completely empty all of the caves of their bones.

As has happened repeatedly in the past, when activists and officials from the Ministry of Religions arrived at the scene they were physically prevented from approaching the digging that was underway. After hours had passed and darkness had fallen, some of the activists, in fact, did make their way in, not following any path, but they found that the dig was over and that all of the caves had already been thoroughly looted.

Complaints are being sounded by The Organization of the Prevention of Grave Desecrations, in the hope that the powers that be can put a stop to Drori and the Authority. "How can it continue to be tolerated, that a government agency time and again directly and wantonly strikes at the beliefs and sentiments of hundreds of thousands of Jews who hold that it is a basic tenet of our faith, that the soul remains after death? How can it be that in a Jewish state, there can be such a shocking disrespect for Jewish graves and the remains of our ancestors?"

The spokesman added, "All over the world, Jewish organizations have succeeded in impressing on the different governing authorities that the sanctity of Jewish grave sites must be protected. Why just here, in the Holy Land, the Jewish state, are our ancestors treated as nothing more than rocks and stones, to be crushed and thrown around without a second thought?

"It is time to act decisively against Amir Drori and the Antiquities Authority. Drori continues to flagrantly flout the law. In the process, he is trampling not only upon the ancient graves, but also upon the beliefs and sensibilities of hundreds of thousands of Jewish people, in Israel and around the world."

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