A standoff is currently taking place at the site of the
ancient Jewish graveyard in the holy city of Tiveria. The
scenario is different this time, however. The chareidim are
not confronting archaeologists this time. On the other side
stands the Church of Scotland.
An announcement by the Association to Prevent Grave
Desecration explains, "There is a Jewish cemetery in the
northern part of ancient Tiveria where Jews prayed up until
one hundred years ago. The cemetery dates from the time of
the students of the Arizal, zt"l, (over 400 years
ago) and is near the grave of the Rambam . . . the place is
well known as an ancient, holy cemetery where many people
prayed and were granted salvation. . . .
"The cemetery is located between Derech Gdud Barak Street
and Dona Grazia Street. The area currently belongs to the
Church of Scotland, which wants to destroy the cemetery in
order to build and to enlarge its existing missionary center
at the site. It has ignored repeated requests and demands .
. . "
Rabbi Micha Rothschild of the Association explains that
older Tiverianis remember that up until about eighty years
ago, Jews frequented the site for prayer. A famous drawing
from 1847 by Bartlett, a Christian artist, shows Jews
sitting and praying at the graves on the north shore of
Tiveria, near the citadel that exists until today.
The Association learned of the Church of Scotland's building
plans only after the Tiveria Municipality and the Town
Planning Commission had already approved all the building
plans. Following receipt of the required permits, the
Antiquities Authority began to excavate the site and this is
how the Association and others concerned with prevention of
grave desecration first learned of the plan. This was the
springboard for numerous concerted efforts to thwart the
Overt as well as covert attempts are being made in many
areas in every possible way: diplomatic, parliamentary, and,
of course most importantly, prayers and demonstrations are
being held at the site. Rabbi Rothschild explains that while
conducting a preliminary excavation on the site six months
ago, the Antiquities Authority confirmed the assessment that
there were indeed graves at the site. But for some reason,
these findings did not signal a warning to anyone who could
have raised the alarm and prevented the approval process
The main negligent party is the Tiveria Municipality, headed
by Mayor Ben Kiryati. Although the building plan was legally
submitted and followed all necessary procedures, no one
there bothered to check to see if the area contained any
Everyone with whom we discussed the situation has stressed
that the oversight was an unintentional one, and that it
would be wrong to impute any improper motives to anyone in
the Municipality. Unfortunately, though, once the die is
cast, change is difficult.
Rabbi Refoel Cohen, Director of the Kashrus Department of
the Tiveria Religious Council, appealed to everyone who
could possibly help remove the onerous decree when he found
"A matter of life and death!" he called in the letter that
he sent to anyone who, in his opinion, could change the
building plan. "The Church of Scotland in Tiveria has
received a building permit for a large missionary center in
the North, so that they can continue their spiritual
destruction among Jews, under the guise of a tourist center.
Jewish graves, among them those of great Torah figures, have
been found in two of the three areas. The Church is
completely ignoring the calls of the city's honored citizens
to halt construction on the site. This omission is liable to
lead to bloodshed and warfare between Jews . . . "
The Church has already begun to renovation of its existing
building, which is also situated atop graves according to
the activists. The sale of the land to the Church was
completely illegal from the beginning, they add. How can
land with a cemetery be sold? Rav Yitzchok Naphcha and other
tzaddikim were interred here, according to
The activists are working revoke the permits, claiming that
they were issued illegally. Not long ago, when it was
discovered that a grave that was originally thought to be
Moslem was in fact the last resting place of Rochel, the
daughter of Kalba Sovua and the wife of Rabbi Akiva, the
Moslems were evicted from the area. Following a struggle
against the Municipality's plans for a place of amusement on
the seashore that would inevitably lead to terrible Shabbos
desecration, the Municipality renounced its plans.
The current plan is to obtain a letter from the Minister of
Religion stating that the building site is a holy place for
Jews and as such, Jews are allowed to enter. Such a letter
would wreak havoc with the construction.
But in the meantime, round-the-clock demonstrators are
showing that Jews do care and are keeping an eagle eye on
all proceedings. At 1:30, a gathering of bnei Torah.
Six-o-clock brings a caucus of local residents. Av beis
din of Tiveria, HaRav Avrohom Dov Auerbach,
davens there every day. The media have been called
in, so the word is spreading.
HaRav Tsvi Cohen, Municipal Council member and Vice-Chairman
of the Galilee Development Company tries to explain to us --
and to himself -- how it happened that the Municipality got
itself into such hot water.
About a year ago, he relates, the Church of Scotland
approached the Municipality requesting an exchange of
property. The Municipality owned a narrow strip of land that
ran through the Church property that was earmarked for
building. The Church offered an alternate strip of land, and
the Municipality agreed to the swap. Had it not agreed then,
the Church could not have gone through with its current
"We voted against the swap because we were of the opinion
that it was a bad deal for the Municipality: good property
for property that could have no conceivable use, but even at
that stage we were unaware that there was a cemetery
Only after the plans were approved and an archaeologist was
asked to approve the plans did the possibility that the site
was an ancient graveyard come up. He also thought that the
way to revoke the permits was to claim that they were
illegal. It was a legal loophole: land transfers require the
approval of the Minister of the Interior and no approval was
given in this case. The land transfer agreement is therefore
null and void, especially since the Municipality made the
deal contingent upon the approval of (former) Minister of
the Interior, Natan Sharansky.
The Mayor issued a letter to the Church calling upon them to
delay construction, but the Church has started to work in an
area that is not under dispute, and the authorities are hard
put to stop them.
We've all become accustomed to the fact that battles against
the desecration of graves are waged against archaeologists.
Most of the demonstrations, confrontations and skirmishes in
the past were between archaeologists unwilling to give up
their booty and Heaven-fearing Jews desirous of preserving
the resting-places of our ancients.
The scenario is different this time. The Church of Scotland
is at the center of the storm, stubbornly trying to build
its missionary complex atop the ancient graves of Jews.
"We discussed the matter with the British ambassador,"
relates Rabbi Gadi Ziskind, coordinator of the northern
division of Lev L'Achim's anti-missionary department. "He
told us that in Britain it would be impossible to excavate
any area containing a cemetery belonging to another
religion, because of the law prohibiting any affront to
religion. Israel, however, has no such law, and, `we will
continue to build.' The local Police commissioner warned
him, `Blood will be spilled here!' But the ambassador
remains obstinate: `I have received instructions from
Scotland to continue construction even if Jewish blood is
The Antiquities Authority is trying to keep a low profile in
the matter. Since the appointment of its new director,
Yehoshua (Shuka) Dorfman, it is not interested in sparring
with the chareidi public in the name of science. The
Authority Spokesperson now likes to emphasize that the role
of the Authority is to prevent any damage to antiquities,
not to either issue or revoke construction permits. She
explains that the law states that wherever antiquities are
found, preliminary excavations must be carried out. If
necessary, "rescue excavations" are the next step, but she
stresses that the Authority does not initiate any
excavations. Rescue excavations that entail the moving of
bones are allowed only for the purpose of the country's
development, such as he building of roads and buildings, not
for the building of recreational facilities, for example.
Even this is unacceptable to the chareidi public concerned
with the holiness of the graves, which overrides the
importance of developing the country. But this is neither
the time nor the place for such discussions.
The Ministry of Education, headed by Minister Limor Livnat
who is responsible for the Antiquities Authority, is in no
hurry to start any arguments between the archaeologists and
the chareidi public, and not only to keep the coalition
Chezi Sheinelson, an advisor to the Minister of Education,
said the following: "We are working very hard to find a
solution to the problem. The Foreign Ministry is trying hard
to convince the Church of Scotland to accept an alternate
site that would take Jewish sensitivities into account."
Meanwhile, the Antiquities Authority excavations are being
diplomatically delayed for lack of police protection. The
Police claims that in these turbulent days it doesn't have
enough manpower to protect archaeological sites. It has more
pressing worries. And without "rescue excavations,"
construction can not begin. In this way, a time-out has been
created in which to try to find a peaceful solution to the
But there is no rest for the activists working to prevent
desecration of the graves. They know that as soon as the
watchdogs shut their eyes for even a second, the Scots are
liable to take irreversible measures. This is why the
demonstrations are continuing.
"The Scots hired Bedouin watchmen to guard their work,"
according to Rabbi Ziskind. "This week we saw
tractorim working on the area, claiming that they
were working in a permissible area. A group of demonstrators
broke through the barriers and entered the disputed area.
The Bedouins -0 whom we certainly can't suspect of harboring
any love for the Jewish people -- began to attack them. Then
the Police intervened. A special Yasam team came on
the scene to set things straight."
In his opinion, the Scots will not accept any proposal for a
halachic solution of building over the graves, since
this would significantly raise costs. He is positive that we
can look forward to many more battles with the Scots.
MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni, who has stepped into this tangled web,
is trying to act in his own way to reach an acceptable
solution. "I appealed to the Minster of Education, to the
Office of the Prime Minister, and to the Foreign Ministry.
We are trying to convince the Scots to look for a
halachic solution. In the meantime, we have succeeded
to delay the start of construction through various
In addition, Rabbi Gafni adds, protection of the graves of
our ancients is firmly anchored in the Coalition agreement.
The agreement states that out of respect to the honor of the
departed, if graves are found where there are excavations
for the purpose of construction, an appropriate
halachic solution will be sought. The agreement also
stated that a ministerial committee would be set up to
discuss the whole topic of grave desecration. This article
of the agreement was formulated in conjunction with the
Labor Party's legal counsel.
"I demand that the Government decide to form this
ministerial committee at its next meeting," Rabbi Gafni
The question remains: can a solution to the problem of
building on the site of an ancient Jewish cemetery possibly
be found? But even if this is resolved, the overall problem
of the Church of Scotland remains. Rabbi Ziskind, who is
familiar with its goals as well as its methods, insists
that, "it is a missionary church."
The Scots, he relates, support the "Jews for J." This group
is quite active throughout the country, and its national
center is in Tiveria.
A few years ago, Yated Ne'eman uncovered the
missionary activities that were being perpetrated at the
Galtronics electronics firm. It was proven that all company
profits went towards missionary activities. Rabbi Ziskind
says that the Church of Scotland is a behind-the-scenes
supporter of this group, granting them use of their
buildings as well as land. Smaller congregations such as
"Kehillat Paniel" and "Kochav Hashahar" have also been
granted Church buildings for use as pre-schools and
elementary schools. And Jewish children are studying in
these missionary schools.
Lev L'Achim is working tirelessly through various means to
remove these children from such schools, but there are many
obstacles along their way. "Anyone who tries to do so is
subject to enormous pressure," relates Rabbi Ziskind. The
missionary congregations enjoy widespread support among
certain American congressmen, and when money is involved,
everyone stays quiet. This is a multifaceted problem, he
says. And in his opinion, a dangerous situation that many
would prefer to ignore.