The Mount of Olives (Har Hazeitim in Hebrew) in Jerusalem has been used as a Jewish cemetery for more than 3,000 years. Approximately 150,000 Jewish people are buried there including some of the greatest Jewish leaders, prophets, and rabbis of all time. Thus the Mount of Olives is by far the largest and most important Jewish cemetery in the world.
The Mount of Olives is also central to Christians: several key events in the life of Jesus as related in the Gospels took place there, including the description in the Book of Acts as the place from which Jesus ascended to heaven. Because of its association with both Jesus and Mary, the Mount has been a site of Christian worship since ancient times and is today a major site of pilgrimage for the Eastern Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants. It is home to significant sites including: Church of All Nations, Garden of Gethsemane and the Russian Orthodox Church of Maria Magdalene.
But the Mount of Olives is also at the heart of the dispute for Israeli sovereignty, as well as the Jewish People’s tradition, history and our most sacred real estate.
The Mount/cemetery is involved in the territorial dispute between Israel and the Muslim nations as well as the Palestinian-Arabs because Islam rejects Jewish sovereignty and Arabism rejects Zionism. So in addition to being a functioning cemetery and site of pilgrimages, the Mount of Olives is also a place where daily Palestinian-Arabs commit physical attacks, rock throwings and firebombings, terrorizing Jewish mourners and visitors, impeding burials thus forcing relatives to miss the funerals for their loved ones, and destroy gravesites. Moreover, the Palestinian Arabs have demanded that Israel withdraw from/give up control over the Mount of Olives, claiming it is part of their “occupied territory.”
Some background: The Mount of Olives is one of three peaks of a mountain ridge which extends 2.2 miles just east of and adjacent to Jerusalem’s Old City including the Temple Mount, and across the Kidron Valley, in the area called the Valley of Josaphat.
Mount Scopus is the northern peak at 2,710 feet, Mount of Corruption is the southern peak at 2,451 feet. The ridge acts as a watershed, and its eastern side is the beginning of the Judean Desert. It is named for the olive groves that once covered its slopes. The southern part of the Mount was the necropolis of the ancient Judean kingdom.
The Mount of Olives is mentioned in the visions of the prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah. Jewish tradition relates that the beginning of the resurrection process will take place on the Mount at the end of days. Many Jews believe that those buried on the mount will be the first to arise for everlasting life with the coming of the Messiah. The Jews of Jerusalem customarily sent soil from the Mount of Olives in bags to Jewish communities in the Diaspora, and Jews outside of Israel would spread this soil on the graves of their beloved. In sum, it has been a religious and historic shrine for Israel and the Jewish People for thousands of years.
From 1948-1967, when Jordan illegally controlled eastern Jerusalem, Jewish access and the continued burial of Jews on the Mount was prohibited, despite Jordan’s explicit commitment in the Israeli-Jordanian Armistice Agreement of 1949. Moreover, the Jordanians destroyed and desecrated the cemetery, and 38,000 of its tombstones and graves were smashed and/or used for making of latrines and roadways.
Since Israel reunified Jerusalem in 1967 as a result of the Six-Day War, burial ceremonies have renewed and large sections of the cemetery were rehabilitated. Israel also guarantees free access to all for religious purposes- something the Muslim-dominated Arabs did not do.
In order to get a better sense of the current condition and seriousness of the situation, I posed several questions to Jeff Daube, director of the Israel Office of the Zionist Organization of America and Israel co-chairman of the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim:
1) What is the significance of the Mount of Olives historically?
“The Jewish significance of the Mount of Olives (HH) cannot be overstated. It is the greatest repository of Jewish history in the world, represented by the leaders and scholars buried in its 3,000+ year old cemetery. This would include three ancient Jewish prophets and a prophetess; numerous sages; chief rabbis of Israel; an Israeli prime minister; many Zionist builders and defenders of Israel, such as the founder of Hadassah Hospital; and illustrious Jews and countless others from around the world whose final request had been to be buried in Judaism’s holiest cemetery. Note that it sits directly across from Judaism’s holiest site over all, the Temple Mount.”
2) What is its significance for Israeli sovereignty?
“While residents of Jerusalem are entitled to safe and secure access in all areas of sovereign Jerusalem, depriving Jews on HH has special significance. Despite the fact that HH had fallen behind the 1948 ceasefire line, the April 1949 Israel-Jordan Rhodes Armistice Agreement recognized its special status by stipulating, in Article VIII(2), that not only should visitors to the cemetery be accorded free access, but use of the cemetery for burial purposes should continue in force. The exact opposite happened, as we know, under the 1948-67 Jordanian occupation, which also permitted the desecrations of tens of thousands of graves.
“Given the realities of HH under Jordanian occupation, HH post-1949 needs to have Israeli sovereignty asserted in order to prevent a repeat of the depredations. Moreover, from the point of view of geostrategic importance, Israeli control is needed to forestall Palestinian Arab attempts to form a north-south corridor of massive illegal construction from Ramallah to Bethlehem. With facts on the ground, which the Arabs are steadily pursuing virtually unchecked, they could severely undermine Israeli sovereignty not only in eastern Jerusalem, but extending well beyond to the Adumim bloc further east. The Jewish presence on HH, together with the adjacent City of David and Emek Tzurim National Park, constitute a natural barrier to those efforts.”
3) What is the security situation: Is it being protected from Arab vandals and terrorists sufficiently?
“The security situation has improved — at least as I write, though conditions as we have observed are in continual flux. There are more police, both uniformed and undercover, than in years past. ZOA’s Israel Office has been instrumental in that process. Actually, we’ve accomplished quite a bit more, having worked with the cabinet secretary and director general in the Prime Minister’s Office on a strategy to effect greater well-being for Arab residents, and security for Jews, throughout all of eastern Jerusalem. Known as The Mandelblit Plan, this new carrot and stick approach, by means of a 300 million shekel budget addition, may be responsible for certain changes we’ve already observed.
“During the summer and into September, October and early November, the situation had been especially horrific. Now, with the increased police presence, the number of attacks is down to 5-6 per day. This still is too high. Many of the attacks involve stonings, firebombings or shooting fireworks. Kindergartens and burial processions are sometimes the targets. Luckily nobody has been killed, but Jewish visitors have been seriously injured; if not for the lucky breaks, the outcomes would have been far worse. We continue to advocate for a policy of zero tolerance.
“The violence, as described, relates directly to the sovereignty issue again. The Arab agenda is: ‘If we can terrorize visitors/residents so they no longer frequent an area, we can wrest control by default. If we can wrest control, we can undermine sovereignty.’
• Are Jews visiting the area safe?
“That depends. A visitor is relatively safe in the area facing the Temple Mount. If you venture to the back 2/3 areas, which we sadly call the Wild East, you should either go with your own protection (many are carrying pepper spray if not licensed guns), or with an armed escort provided by the government.”
• Are graves being desecrated?
“They were being badly desecrated until 2013. With the installation of 137 security cameras and a police substation, both of which we had lobbied hard for, we thought we had the desecrations under control. There was a marked decrease in 2013 going into the first half of 2014. As eastern Jerusalem was roiling during the Gaza war, and subsequently into the Fall of 2014, we also saw a sharp uptick in smashed and defaced gravestones. Not coincidentally, the desecrations were accompanied by the toppling or burning of cameras.”
4) What role does or has it been playing with regard to any “peace process” negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs?
“With Israel having agreed to make Jerusalem’s disposition a subject of final status negotiations, per the Oslo Accords, it has become more difficult in the interim to assert sovereignty, and take the steps needed via the rule of law. Another example of this is the de facto permitted illegal construction of an HH mosque extension abutting the cemetery, PM Menachem Begin’s grave in particular, despite a Jerusalem municipality stop-work order. The Israel Office had been monitoring and complaining about that over a protracted period, but the situation has reached the point of being too late to oppose further.
“The Holy Basin, with HH spanning its eastern rim, is especially exposed to microscopic international scrutiny. Every action, or inaction, attracts international censure and sanctions. In order to regain control and restore order, Israel must declare that since the PA is in material breach of the very same Oslo Accords — signed agreements that were witnessed by the US, EU, Russia et al — it will once again resume full assertion of sovereignty in all of Jerusalem.”
5) What can American Jews do to help secure and protect it?
“a) Join ZOA ISRAEL’s efforts in partnership with the ICPHH (International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim); b) Contact U.S. government officials to take steps if an American is killed or seriously injured. U.S. law mandates official follow-up, including prosecution of perpetrators; c) Contact the Government of Israel to let its representatives know you are concerned about the violence, along with the desecrations and vandalism. You might imply that increased personal security on HH would have a salutary effect on tourism; d) And contact ZOA’s office in Israel if you want to help us create a ferment of Diaspora opposition to the status quo. After all, HH is part of the entire Jewish people’s heritage. We, in Israel, are merely your trustees.”
6) Is there any pending legislation in the US, Israel, UN?
“In Israel, we arranged for the translation into Hebrew of an Illinois statute on cemeteries desecration and a Florida statute on rock throwing (researched by ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice head, Susan Tuchman), and shopped both, more stringent approaches, around the Knesset. In addition, we initiated many a discussion about penalties for parents when the culprits are under age, and minimum sentencing for older culprits, to strengthen the deterrence factor. All was received favorably. However, government-sponsored legislation waiting in the pipeline was derailed with the disbanding of the Knesset, so we’ll have to revisit that after the elections.
“We are very close to MK Miri Regev, who as chair of the Knesset Interior Committee was spearheading efforts along the lines we proposed. Her high standing within Likud pretty much assures she’ll be back in that role soon. We also are already discussing parallel legal strategies with new candidates on the scene expected to win seats in the next Knesset session.
“ZOA ISRAEL has been working on the desecrations issue with U.S. Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY). Her Protect Cemeteries Act, which we had helped bring to the attention of Meng’s colleagues to help it pass, has applicability to this particular problem. The implications of that bill, now a law, for penalizing any country that fails to protect its cemeteries is thornily connected to the Jerusalem sovereignty question.
“My office is also working with U.S. State Department officials to get the attacks entered into relevant reports for 2014 (on Terrorism, Human Rights Practices), which we had achieved with State’s countries report on International Religious Freedom in previous years. We’re pursuing a course of getting the attacks labeled as ‘anti-Semitism,’ as well, because Christian groups on HH tend not to be victimized the way Jews are.
“While not a matter of legislation, we are asking State Department’s Consul General and officials to elicit condemnations from local Arab leaders and from the PA itself, both of whose incitement is highly correlated with the violence and desecrations. Contact ZOA.org for further details on how to get involved.”
Bottom line: We must all treat the Mount of Olives with the reverence and importance it deserves — strategically and religiously — or ignore it and give it up at our peril.
Lee S. Bender is the co-author with Jerome Verlin of the book, Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed From A-Z (Pavilion Press, 2012) and is co-President of ZOA-Greater Philadelphia District.