Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kushner - US State Department True to Form on the Mount of Olives

Arlene Kushner
20 December '11


Is the US State Department capable of getting it right when addressing deprivation of human rights endured by Jewish people? Its conduct with regard to the Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem gives serious pause.

On the slopes of the Mount of Olives (Hebrew: Har Hazeitim), in eastern Jerusalem, lies a 2,500 year-old Jewish cemetery, bearing a legacy of enormous import and sanctity. Among those buried in its 1,500 Jewish graves are prophets, Zionist leaders, rabbis, writers, and an Israeli prime minister.

From 1948, when eastern Jerusalem was captured by Jordan, until its liberation by Israel in 1967, no Jews were permitted at the site; horrendous damage was done to the cemetery during those years. Although restoration has been taking place since 1967, until recently action to protect the site had been insufficient. That is now changing as the Israeli government has become more vigorously involved and the International Committee for the Preservation of Har HaZeitim has been established.

Yet vandalism still regularly occurs at the cemetery. Arabs drop cinderblocks from the top of the Mount down the hillside, in a frequently successful effort to crack headstones. Additionally, mourners and those visiting graves of loved ones are often harassed by Arabs throwing stones and require an armed Israeli security escort. Not infrequently, those mourners and visitors are American citizens.

Enter Jeff Daube, Director of the Israel Office of the Zionist Organization of America, and a leading member of the International Committee. Alarmed by what he had learned about the situation, he wrote a letter on November 10, 2010, to the U.S. General Counsel and Chief of Mission in Jerusalem, Daniel Rubinstein.

Observing that as, “the consulate’s good offices are meant to represent the U.S. in Jerusalem…it appears the Mt. of Olives falls within your diplo­matic purview.” Daube requested, on behalf of “outraged U.S. and Israeli citizens,” that the Consul General “issue a condemnation of this ongoing sacrilege and violence,” and call upon local Arab leaders and the PA to issue condemnations of the acts of desecration and harassment.

On November 12, 2010, Daube was invited to a meeting with Jonathan Cullen, Political Officer, and Matthew Welsh, Officer of Religious Affairs, at the Consulate. After the situation was discussed, it was agreed that these officers would visit the site with Daube on January 5, 2011. But when the consulate officers subsequently learned that they were to be accompanied by Israeli security personnel, they explained to Daube that regulations forbid consulate personnel from participating in any event involving Israel-funded security. This is to avoid implicit U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over eastern Jerusalem. As Daube declined to be responsible for escorting American officials on the site without security protection, there the issue rested.

This spring, Daube, who lives in Israel, visited Washington DC. Twice – on May 10 and June 1 – he met at State with John Buzbee, Director of the Bureau of Near East Affairs/Israel-Palestinian Affairs. At the first meeting, with regard to the Mount of Olives, Daube made three requests:

 - That the State Department issue a condemnation of the violence and grave desecrations.

 - That the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem prevail upon the PA to release a condemnation in Arabic.

 - That the problem be addressed in the State Department’s annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

During the second meeting, Buzbee reported with satisfaction that the draft of the report on religious freedom was on his desk and, indeed, the problem on the Mount was included. In mid-November, Secretary Clinton held a press conference announcing the release of the report for 2010. On checking, Daube learned that the relevant text in that report reads:

The desecration of Muslim and Jewish cemeteries in Jerusalem continued throughout the reporting period. Jewish tombstones on the Mount of Olives cemetery were vandalized, and the Jerusalem Municipality demolished tombstones in the Muslim Mamilla cemetery it deemed were constructed illegally.

The State Department has a solid reputation for adopting a stance of moral equivalency regarding Israeli-Palestinian issues: When releasing a statement critical of Arabs, its officials behave as if duty-bound to find something equally critical to say about Israelis. While allegedly this is done to avoid the semblance of a pro-Israel tilt, this policy actually generates an anti-Israel bias because Israeli and Arab behavior are simply not equivalent.

This is stunningly obvious with regard to this particular report. Those who drafted it, while seeking that ubiquitous equivalence, have outrageously misrepresented the situation:

Earlier this year, the Israel Land Authority discovered that the northern branch of the Islamic Movement had been planting fake tombstones in the ancient Mamilla Cemetery as part of a “land war.” Official inspectors at the site found tombstones that bore no evidence of graves beneath. After extensive documentation had been gathered, the Authority declared that they were dealing with “…fraud on a massive scale. Five hundred tombstones…were placed in the graveyard…”

Working with antiquities officials to insure no actual graves were disturbed, the Authority removed the fake headstones. It is a distorted description of this action, without proper context, that found its way into the State Department report.

Neither Secretary of State Clinton nor other officials within the State Department have issued public condemnation of the deprivation of religious freedom endured by Jews on the Mount of Olives. The guess would be that – while this issue merits public condemnation – Secretary Clinton is inhibited by her concern that Arab sensibilities not be offended.

Arlene Kushner, an American-Israel author, writer and blogger, has dealt extensively with Israeli-Palestinian issues over the years, via major reports, blogs and articles. She currently also serves in a consultant capacity with the Center for Near East Policy Research. Her material can be accessed via: www.arlenefromisrael.info.

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