Haredim Stage Massive Protest at Ancient Jerusalem Gravesite

Some 25,000 fervently Orthodox Jews staged a primarily peaceful demonstration this week to protest the city’s plans to destroy ancient burial caves in order to build a road that will alleviate traffic from the northern suburbs.

During the two-hour rally, which took place Monday in the French Hill neighborhood where the caves were discovered two months ago, the demonstrators recited psalms and prayers which, they said, would help to safeguard the caves and those buried in them 2,000 years ago.

Buses brought men and teen-age boys, most clad in black hats and long dark coats, from all over the country. There were almost no women and children in attendance, perhaps because of the threat of violence.

Over the past two months, haredi demonstrators opposed to the Israel Antiquities Authority’s excavations of the caves have clashed with the police on several occasions. Those few women who did show up were told to stand at the back of the crowd.

Both the demonstrators and the 300 police on duty shivered in the unseasonably cold afternoon air as one speaker after another addressed the crowd in Hebrew or Yiddish. One rabbi declared, “We must maintain our vigil. We cannot eat or drink as long as this threat looms before us. No one must be allowed to disturb a burial site.”

Recently, Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Kolitz ruled that the caves could not be destroyed and the remains could not be removed. His position left the conflict unresolved and the two sides with few compromise options.

There were many harsh words against city officials and the Antiquities Authority, which carries out legally mandated digs at sites targeted for building or road construction. It was during road construction work that builders stumbled on the burial caves from the Second Temple period.

One large poster featured photographs of two of the archaeologists involved in the dig, calling them “the cursed archaeologists responsible for desecrating Jewish graves.” Another photo, depicting an Orthodox rioter clashing with a policeman, carried the words, “A demonstrator is beaten by `Israeli’ police with murderous cruelty.” The word `Israeli’ was placed in quotes because many haredim do not recognize the State of Israel.

The only violent incident occurred at the start of the demonstration, when a few religious teen-agers scuffled with a handful of university students carrying placards supporting excavations. The teen-agers tore up the placards, and one demonstrator threw a large piece of wood that hit a student in the head. She was not injured.

After police broke up the fight, they ordered the university students to leave the site. From the sidelines, Yali Daniel said, “I’m very angry that we were the ones told to back off. The police are supposed to protect us, not just the haredim.”

Daniel was equally critical of the demonstrators. “I came here today to protest the haredim’s attempts to force religion down our throats. That’s what this whole burial cave controversy is all about. I’m Jewish, too, and I believe in God. I have rights as well.”

Michael, a yeshiva student from Brooklyn, took the opposite tack. “I think the city’s plan to uproot the graves is disgusting. No civilized country could think of doing such a thing. Here in Israel, even more so than in other places, a gravesite should be considered holy.”

Watching the sea of black hats from her window, Chana, a resident of French Hill, could only shake her head and wonder at the controversy. “I don’t believe in the haredi way of life. They don’t serve in the army, for one thing. But maybe they’re right in this instance. I don’t know. Perhaps the road can be built a few meters away, where the graves won’t be disturbed. It’s worth looking into, isn’t it?”

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