Behind the Headlines: Controversy over Burial Caves Pits Commuters Against Haredim

“Driving to work in the morning is certainly no picnic,” said Sara Cohen, her motor idling in early morning traffic.

Cohen was caught in the traffic bottleneck that routinely traps commuters from Jerusalem’s northern neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev and Neveh Ya’acov.

“I can’t wait until the new interchange that’s being built is finally completed,” she said.

Cohen and her fellow commuters may have a very long wait.

In the course of constructing an overpass and expanding the main road connecting the neighborhoods to the city center two months ago, bulldozers unearthed nine ancient burial caves in the French Hill neighborhood.

When the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated two of the caves, clearing the way for further construction, thousands of haredim, or fervently Orthodox Jews, staged violent protests against what they view as the desecration of a 2,000- year-old cemetery.

A few weeks ago, archaeologists at the site were forced to stop their work when the police officers who had been guarding the excavations were assigned to intifada-related duty elsewhere in the city.

At the same time, Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who wanted to resolve the issue quickly without locking horns with the religious community, asked Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Kolitz to rule on whether it is halachically permissible to destroy the burial caves and proceed with the road, provided that the human remains were buried elsewhere.

To Kollek’s dismay, Kolitz ruled that the caves cannot be destroyed and that the remains within cannot be removed.

The result has been virtual gridlock between the municipality, which spearheaded the road expansion in the first place, and the haredim, who will not budge on the issue.

In his ruling, Kolitz stated that a Jewish gravesite must not be tampered with, whether a person was buried yesterday or thousands of years ago.

He drew parallels to existing cemeteries, and asked, “What if a plan mistakenly called for a road through the cemeteries of Sanhedria, Har Hamenuhot or the Mount of Olives? Nobody would consider unearthing graves to clear the way for a road.”

The rabbi said that although widening the road was halachically unacceptable, because doing so would require the graves’ removal, constructing an overpass to accommodate traffic was permissible.

Kollek immediately rejected Kolitz’s decision on the grounds that constructing the overpass without widening the road “might not be feasible and, at any rate, would be too time-consuming.”

As a city spokeswoman explained it, “We are interested in the road being completed as soon as possible, because it’s necessary for the city’s development.

“There are already very difficult traffic problems in the new northern neighborhoods of Jerusalem into the center of the town,” she said. “These problems will only get worse when thousands of families move into the homes nearing completion.”

Upon hearing the mayor’s decision, Tzvi Meshi-Zehav, a vocal opponent of burial cave excavations and a member of the Eda Haredit, one of the city’s most extreme haredi groups, said, “The mayor doesn’t realize what an outcry this will produce. Haredim from around the country will come together and demonstrate.”

Indeed, a massive demonstration by haredim was planned for Monday.

“Respecting the dead is of utmost importance,” explained a yeshiva student who gave his first name as Moshe. “The Israeli army will try at any cost to bring back a soldier’s body for burial. There is a halachic reason for that.”

The Antiquities Authority, which is slated to resume its work on the remaining seven burial caves in French Hill in the near future, is currently performing at least a dozen similar excavations around the country, according to spokeswoman Efrat Orbach.

“We average 250 rescue excavations every year, whenever something archaeologically significant is found in the course of building an apartment house or constructing a sewage system. There are thousands of such caves in Israel,” she said.

“What bothers me is the inconsistency,” said an archeologist not associated with the dig. “There are burial caves all over the neighborhood of Shuafat, which is slated to become a large haredi community. Why didn’t the religious leaders raise a fuss about them?”

With the issue still unresolved, and perhaps more confrontations on the way, commuters like Sara Cohen may have little choice but to consider getting jobs closer to home.

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