Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem: Why Continued Israeli Control Is Vital

No. 572 July-August 2009

Jerusalem Center For Public Affairs

Nadav Shragai

  • The Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, that the Palestinians demand to transfer to their control, is the most important Jewish cemetery in the world. The area has constituted a religious and national pantheon for the Jewish people and the State of Israel, containing the tombs of the illustrious dead of the nation over the course of 3,000 years and serving as a site for Jewish gathering and prayer at the time of the ancient Temple and even prior to it.
  • Under Jordanian rule, 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. During the period of Jordanian rule, the cemetery was destroyed and desecrated, and 38,000 of its tombstones and graves were smashed to smithereens.
  • Since Jerusalem's reunification, burial ceremonies were renewed at the site and large sections of the cemetery were rehabilitated. Nevertheless, attempts by Palestinians to damage the cemetery have never totally abated, and there have been periodic attacks on Jewish mourners escorting their dead for burial.
  • Previous Israeli governments that consented to discuss arrangements in Jerusalem with the Palestinians rejected their demand to transfer the Mount of Olives to PA sovereignty and control. Nevertheless, those governments were prepared to give their assent to the transfer of neighborhoods that control the access routes to the mount. Should any such agreement be implemented in the future, it could endanger freedom of access to the site and continued Jewish burial there.
  • In any future arrangements, in order to allow continued Jewish burial on the mount, Israel must guarantee freedom of access to the site by controlling the arteries leading to it, as well as the areas adjacent to it. On the previous occasions that Israel transferred areas that included Jewish holy sites to Palestinian control, the Palestinians severely encumbered or refused to allow Jewish access to these places. Sometimes these sites were even severely damaged.

The Mount of Olives as a Jewish Site for Assembly and Prayer

The Mount of Olives separates the Judean Desert to the east from the city of Jerusalem. The olive trees that covered the mount in the past are responsible for its name. An alternate name for the mount cited in the Talmud and the Midrash is the Mount of Anointment, named after the anointing oil, prepared from the olives that grew there, to anoint kings and high priests.

Even before it became a Jewish cemetery, the Mount of Olives functioned as a place of prayer, even prior to the building of the Temple.1 King David would customarily prostrate himself there, and he earmarked the site for prayer.2

The Jewish commentaries relate that for three and a half years the Divine Presence dwelled on the Mount of Olives after having left from the site of the Temple Mount in the expectation that the Jewish people would do repentance. The prophets Zachariah and Ezekiel prophesied that from there it would make its return to its proper place at the Temple.3

The Red Heifer ceremony was performed on the Mount of Olives. Ashes from the heifer were used to purify those defiled by contact with the dead during the Temple period and afterwards. A relay of bonfires that began from the Mount of Olives would inform the Jews of the Land of Israel as well as Jews residing in the diaspora that the new moon had been sanctified. After the Temple was destroyed, the Mount of Olives, which overlooked the Temple Mount and the site of the destroyed Temple, became a pilgrimage site and a venue for prayer and assembly, one that continued to function in that manner for many centuries.4 Jewish sources in particular note the pilgrimage to the Mount of Olives on the Festival of Tabernacles and on Hoshanna Raba (the seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles), as well as on the Sabbath and weekdays.5 Jewish tradition holds that the dove that brought the olive branch to Noah at the end of the Flood came from the Mount of Anointment.6

The Jewish Cemetery on the Mount of Olives

The Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives is the largest and most important Jewish cemetery in the world, extending over 250 dunams east of the Temple Mount and constituting in effect a national and religious pantheon for the Jewish people containing the tombs of the illustrious dead of the nation over the course of 3,000 years. The greats of the Jewish people and the state are buried there, creators from all walks of life: rabbis and dynastic leaders, the prophets Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi, David's son Absalom, the commentator on the Mishnah Rabbi Obadiah of Bartanura, Rabbi Haim ben Atar (the Orah Hayyim), and Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (the Rashash). Others include Pinhas Rutenberg, the founder of the Israel Electric Company; fighters such as Yehiam Weitz; the authors Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Haim Hazaz; the renowned poet Uri Zvi Greenberg; Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language; the rabbis of the Sadigora, Gur, and Nadborna hassidic dynasties; the founder of Hadassah, Henrietta Szold; intellectual giants such as Professor Ephraim Ohrbach; the revered Chief Rabbi Abraham HaCohen Kook; Menachem Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize; Moshe Yoel Salomon, one of Jerusalem's builders at the close of the nineteenth century and the founder of Petah Tikva; and myriads upon myriads of simple Jewish folk in the Yemenite, Bukharan, Georgian, Ashkenazi, Hassidic, Babylonian, and Jerusalem sections. All of them together constitute the historic backbone of the Jewish people.7


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