Reflections on the Mount of Olives [Har Ha’Zetim] By: Dan S. Septimus
Along the borders of the new Jerusalem light-rail that travels from Hael H’Aver to Mount Herzl on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, lies The Mount of Olives national cemetery, known to Israelis as Har Ha’Zetim, pays tribute to Jews who lived and died for Jewry. According to the Jewish theologian Rabbi Avraham Y. Kook, who served as the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, holy sites such as The Mount of Olives personify Knesset Yisrael—the collective unconscious of the Children of Israel. To many Jews across the religious divide, The Mount of Olives serves as the quintessential landmark of the Promised Land of Israel. Wherever Israelis make their homes in the Promised Land, whether you define yourself as religious or secular, an ardent Biblicist, or neither; even if what draws you to reside in Israel is merely “the right of return” granted to every Jew. Nevertheless, when the vibrant Old City of Jerusalem’s very existence comes under attack or merely offered on the geo-political sacrificial alter, ironically Israelis—usually divisive about territorial issues—would immediately unite to preserve the Old City: its walls, contents, and indeed the exorbitant cost to resident taxpayers to maintain the city’s complex infrastructure. Many great Israelis and non-Israelis are buried along The Mount of Olives: those merited to be buried, or those who paid between ten-thousand and twenty-thousand dollars to secure a burial plot. The history of The Mount of Olives dates back over 3,000 years; sadly it has remained the only address available to those dearly departed Jews. Great Jewish leaders from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth century are buried on this impressive mountain: personages such as Rav Avraham Y. Kook and his son Rav Tzvi-Yehuda, Dr. Yakov Hertzog, foreign minister to Prime Minister Eshkol, as well as Shai Agnon, considered Israel’s greatest writer. I made aliya from New York City in 2011, although I spent my childhood visiting Israel—including my “gap” year, when I studied in Jerusalem—before choosing to make aliya. During my first year as a new immigrant, I was fascinated by how many tourists as well as residents didn’t acknowledge the significance of The Mount of Olives, as an awesome remnant to the ongoing narrative of Jewish historicity. And it’s with good reason that visitors don’t know the importance of The Mount of Olives. Ironically I made my first visit there, after living in Jerusalem for already two years. The magnificent vista of this mountain defies its popularity: in order to visit The Mount of Olives, I had to drive into the heartland of East Jerusalem, because the entrance lies deep into Palestinian neighborhoods; as a result, few people other than Arabs feel compelled to visit. Arabs have been restricted from burial on this mountain that runs through their very own backyard. What this reality reveals about the landscape of Jerusalem, generally available to tourist and visitors, is that The Mount of Olives is actually a more contentious landmark than the Old City of Jerusalem. And we all know about that bone of contention. As a typical new immigrant, I associate The Mount of Olives with historic national cemeteries of America: Gettysburg comes to mind and even more notably Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., which houses the largest number of fallen soldiers in American history. Whereas America does not discriminate between American soldiers who died in battle versus soldiers who died defending another country, the state of Israel only grants burial to Israelis. A cross-cultural difference runs along The Mount of Olives: Israel pays tribute to its citizens, while America honors its denizens. Perhaps what distinguishes the American ethos from Israel’s burial policy is Israel’s indispensable vigilance towards national security; whereby the I.D.F. scrutinizes residents along Israel’s borders. The history of The Mount of Olives cemetery began in the Biblical period and continues through post-modernity. It is the oldest existing cemetery with ground graves; since approximately 2400 B.C.E., it was used as the house of Jewish burial. The TaNach records that the wicked elder son of King David named Absalom was buried on The Mount of Olives; and the last three major prophets of Israel Chagai, Zechariah, and Malachi were buried there. Today a mystical tradition ensues that the souls of these prophets hovers over their graves. In antiquity Christians believed that Jesus ascended to heaven on The Mount of Olives (Book of Acts I). During the British-mandate period of the 1940s, Arabs pillaged mass graves along The Mount of Olives. They desecrated over fifty thousand graves. No leading western nation has confronted such unprecedented dehumanization on its very own soil! Are there any accounts of graves desecrated at Versailles, France or Arlington to which their respective leaders didn’t denounce as an affront to their national mores and ethics? Those cemeteries remain as sacred symbols of national honor, sovereignty, and ultimately humanity. In contradistinction, the history of the Jewish migration since WWII can be summarized as: trespassing prohibited and subject to penalty with duly harsh measures. It is only since the founding fathers of the U.S.A. inaugurated a system of liberty and equality that Jews have experienced a safe haven in America—considered by many as a quasi-New Jerusalem. Since the establishment of the state of Israel, it’s only rational that Jews reciprocate by denying foreigners the very right Jews were denied throughout history. This Jewish collective unconscious typified through The Mount of Olives decries the ongoing stalemate between those supporters of Israel as a sovereignty versus proponents for a dual-state resolution. If you can defend your borders from terrorism, then duly honor those members of multi-nations lost in battle. On the other hand, when you have just begun to enjoy the benefits of nationality, as the single-longest history of any recorded nation deprived of sovereignty, then active vigilance against outsiders isn’t only a gesture of fair-play, but also pragmatic border-control to acts of terrorism. If we just extend this argument to The Mount of Olives cemetery—overlooking the most disputed real estate in the world, the Old City of Jerusalem—then why must Israel defend the right to procure its own citizens and preserve a society? I work in the sales department at the Jerusalem Post, and I speak with many interesting customers in North America. I recall a particular customer, a Jewish man over ninety years-old who survived the Shoah, and subsequently moved to Montreal. In our conversation he articulated the following proverb on death and burial:
There are three types of Jews: some give charity to Israel; others emigrate; and then there’s the third kind, my type, who wish to be buried in Israel. . . And that’s what gives me solace.