Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Tammuz 5761 - July 11, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Jewish Graves Threatened by the Church of Scotland
by S. Fried

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 disastrous plan.

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 from continuing.

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 Jewish graves.

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 out.

"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 tradition.

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 building plan.

"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 there."

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 spilled.'"

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 intact.

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 problem.

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 means."

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 stressed.

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.


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