JERUSALEM (Dec. 16)
An Orthodox-secular standoff over ancient Jewish graves found at a road-building site in northern Jerusalem has worsened after the city’s chief rabbi issued a halachic ruling forbidding the graves to be moved.
The decision by Rabbi Yitzhak Kolitz to move the road rather than the 2,000- year-old graves disappointed people on both sides of the controversy who were hoping the rabbi would provide an acceptable solution sanctioned by religious law.
Partly because of bad weather, authorities have halted road-building at the site where a projected interchange is intended to relieve major traffic bottlenecks at the northern entrance to the city.
In the wake of Kolitz’s ruling, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Ornan Yekutieli of the secularist Meretz bloc has called for resumption of work on the road without delay.
Behind him, government archaeologists voiced their own determination to carry out a legally mandated rescue dig of the Second Temple period burial caves.
A spokesman for the Israel Antiquities Authority pointed to a statutory requirement that sites threatened with ruin by modern development be examined by archaeologists.
It was in just such a routine dig that burial caves were unearthed last month along the route of an interchange designed to spare commuters from Neveh Ya’acov and Pisgat Ze’ev one-hour traffic holdups in the morning.
Riots in the Hasidic neighborhood of Mea Shearim prompted a decision to rebury the ancient bones at Har Hamenuhot cemetery in Jerusalem together with the 16 stone caskets in which they were found.
Kolitz is now proposing that authorities solve the traffic problem by speeding up work on a planned overpass nearby. But he said the road could not be built where planned, as this would entail moving the graves.
“These dear Jews lived to see our Holy Temple,” he wrote. “Why should we disturb their eternal repose?”
Objecting, Deputy Mayor Yekutieli said construction of the overpass will take years, whereas the road can be built right away.
The controversy triggered violent demonstrations not only in Jerusalem but, more recently, in London, where 200 fervently Orthodox Jews demonstrated last week as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin held a news conference at the conclusion of an official visit to the British capital.