Keeping Har Hazeisim Secure

As someone whose mother and grandparents are buried on Har Hazeisim, I am extremely grateful to Reb Menachem Lubinsky and his brother Reb Avrohom for establishing the ICHH (International Committee on Har Hazeisim) and for their tireless work on behalf of the more than 100,000 niftarim who are buried in this beis hachaim. The ICHH has played a pivotal role in making it a much safer experience to visit Har Hazeisim, and these two esteemed askanim deserve much credit for their efforts.

However, I am deeply concerned about the possibility of erecting a visitor’s center on Har Hazeisim, as urged by Mr. Lubinsky in last week’s Hamodia. While I have no doubt that his intentions are noble, I am very worried about the unintended effects of such a center.

For one thing, under whose auspices will it be run? Who will ensure that the amphitheater will be used in a way that will not clash with the holiness and purity of this makom kodosh in which so many tzaddikim were buried? Who will take responsibility to ensure that any lectures given there will be according to Torah values?

This center is supposed to include a gallery of “prominent leaders,” including Gedolei Yisrael — and the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his wife. With all due respect to Mr. Begin, who had the best relationship with the Torah community of any Israeli PM, putting political figures in the same gallery as Gedolei Yisrael sends a very disconcerting message to our youth.

Most importantly, what type of crowd will this center attract? Who will guarantee that the tourists who will flock to it will dress and act appropriately? Do we really want this beis hachaim to become a tourist attraction? The article quotes various politicians who are supportive of the idea. But what do the Gedolei Yisrael and Rabbanim of Yerushalayim say to it?

There is an additional facet that I find unsettling, and that is the focus on “Jewish sovereignty.” The reason why the kevarim on Har Hazeisim must be protected, and those who seek to be mispallel there must be able to do so without fear of attack, is not because it is, l’havdil, the “Arlington Cemetery of the Jewish People,” nor because it is located in Yerushalayim. It is because of what it is, not where it is, or whose it is.

Every civilized country, anywhere in the world, has a moral obligation to show respect to a burial place. If we want foreign governments to protect Jewish cemeteries in their countries, the last thing we should be doing is turning it into a matter of “sovereignty.” We will, of course, easily win the argument when it comes to Har Hazeisim, but in the process, we hurt our chances at protecting batei chaim in other countries.

Avraham Y. Heschel

Mr. Menachem Lubinsky responds:

I appreciate Rabbi Avraham Heschel’s well-articulated concerns about our efforts to construct a Visitor Center on Har Hazeisim. The primary mission of the International Committee for Har Hazeisim (ICHH) is the present and future security of Har Hazeisim. It was after consultation with security officials and, yes, prominent Rabbanim and Torah authorities, that we concluded that a Visitor Center was necessary to preserve the security of Har Hazeisim. We must make sure that the holy beis hachaim never again reverts to the chaos and abuse it suffered prior to 2010. It was a stain on the Jewish people. A national disgrace and a shanda!

It has been many years since there was a police station opposite one of the entrances to Har Hazeisim and later on an IDF checkpoint. When both were removed, it left Har Hazeisim without any appreciable security presence, save for the private security that provided escorts. That is why at one point an average of 50 graves a month were desecrated.

After several years of effort by the ICHH, a police sub-station consisting of two mobile caravans was established in 2013. Mobile caravans can be rolled out just as quickly as they were rolled in. On the other hand, the Visitor Center will include a “permanent” police station with sophisticated communications gear and monitors for the network of surveillance cameras on Har Hazeisim.

Jewish tourism should be welcome and important for every Jew to learn about the rich history and kedushah that is embedded in the holy mountain. With thousands of tourists, the government — and most notably the police — will have to maintain a permanent presence.

The proper character and nature of the Visitor Center will be maintained by virtue of the fact that the ICHH will be a full partner with the government. A management group will be chosen that is committed to the proper decorum of such a makom kadosh. Guarantees will be written into the by-laws of the Visitor Center that the Visitor Center will be operated as a makom kadosh. A Rav, like Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, Rav of the Kosel, will be appointed. The 19 chevrah kaddishas who own most of Har Hazeisim are an even better guarantee. Our chareidi Chavrei Haknesset and people like Deputy Mayor Yossi Deutsch (Agudah) are fully committed to the kedushas hamakom. The amphitheater is merely a seating area atop of the Visitor Center that will allow visitors to see the panoramic historic importance of the area, including the Makom Hamikdash. It is by no means a “theater.”

It is important to recognize that in addition to the prominent Gedolei Yisrael who are buried there, several thousand secular Jews are interred, including such people as Eliezer ben Yehuda, considered the “father” of the modern Hebrew language; Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah; the writer Shmuel Agnon; the American philanthropist Harry Fishel; Prime Minister Menachem Begin and many members of the pre-State Lechi and Etzel fighters as well as the IDF. I have been to Har Hazeisim many times where entire secular families were there and I saw them wear yarmulkes and scarves. It should be no different than any other Makom Kadosh, including the Kosel.

The use of the term “Jewish sovereignty” is important if one considers that Arabs live on Har Hazeisim, that they ignore the cemetery and refer to it as the Ras al Amud neighborhood, and would easily have built more houses had we not stopped them; and, of course, no one knows exactly how the political winds will shift. Former PM Ehud Olmert at one point suggested that Har Hazeisim and the entire “holy basin” be controlled by an international group of countries including Jordan and Saudia Arabia. Hashem Yerachem! By building a Visitor Center that is owned and operated by international Jewry (ICHH), it is yet another guarantee that “we” will control Har Hazeisim. It is not just Israel that will fight to keep it Jewish; we in the Diaspora will, especially as it is believed that more than 10,000 Americans lie here!

You are so right that every civilized country should respect its burial places, but unfortunately, from 1967 until 2010, Har Hazeisim was hefker, with scenes that former Israeli Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss described as a disgrace. Yes, kvod hameis is a question of sovereignty, and Jews who, more than any other nation, understand the paramount importance of taking care of our shochnei afar, should support anything that falls within our requirements to protect those who are no longer there. The building of the Visitor Center on Har Hazeisim is more than anything else a question of security!