Shortly before he departed Israel after participating in the funeral of Shimon Peres, Prince Charles paid a visit to the Mt. of Olives to visit the gravesite of his grandmother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, the mother of Prince Philip (in itself a fascinating story). The Prince made the decision to visit the historic cemetery after speaking at the funeral to Malcolm Hoenlein, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Mr. Hoenlein briefed the Prince on the successful efforts of the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim (of which I am co-chairman) to secure and protect the cemetery. Hoenlein, an active member of the Committee, told the Prince of the security measures that were adopted since May 2010 when the ICPHH was founded. It followed a horrific report by the then State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss about the tragic state of abuse and neglect in Judaism’s holiest cemetery.
Much has changed in the past 6 plus years since the efforts by Jews in Brooklyn and now in Los Angeles, Toronto, Jerusalem, Amsterdam and London initiated the historic efforts to “retake” a cemetery where graves were routinely desecrated and visitors stoned. Today, thanks to such measures as surveillance cameras, new walls and fencing and a hefty police presence, Jews are once again visiting the graves of relatives and the many notables who are buried there, from such prophets as Zechariah, Malachi, Chagai to the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
While the Prince visited Gethsemane, the small Roman Catholic cemetery on the Mt. of Olives, an estimated 150,000 Jews are buried there. Were it not for the wanton destruction of some 65,000 graves during the Jordanian occupation (1948-1967), that number would have been 215,000 Jews. The irony is that some 400 Jews are still being buried each year in a 3000-year old cemetery that is coveted by Jews worldwide because of its proximity to the Temple Mount and the prophecy that at the end of days the Messiah would arrive there first which would lead to the resurrection of the dead.
Indeed, Jews from throughout the world are buried here. For example, some 10,000 American Jewish citizens are buried here, 4,000 British Jewish citizens and nearly 3,000 French Jews. It is time that Jews and indeed the world recognize that while Mt. Herzl might be the national cemetery of Israel, the Mt. of Olives is the undisputed historic Jewish cemetery of the Jewish people wherever they may be. Thus, its status is one that belongs to every Jew worldwide irrespective of its location in Eastern Jerusalem. It is for that reason that the ICPHH, working closely with the Israeli Government and the Jerusalem Municipality, is continuing to push forward with various plans to make the Mt. of Olives a leading tourist destination – for no place in Israel offers such a snapshot of 3000 years of Jewish history as does the Mt. of Olives. Included in these plans is the construction of a Visitor’s Educational Center for what is first and foremost a holy site that is also the international historic cemetery of the Jewish people.
The recent vote by UNESCO to deny Jews their historic link to the Temple Mount only makes it more urgent than ever that we loudly proclaim that the Mt. of Olives while including gravesites of other religions is first and foremost Jewish which it has been for 3000 years.