PRAGUE, Jan. 20 (JTA) — A heated debate over a 750-year-old Jewish cemetery has stalled a multimillion-dollar construction project in the Czech Republic.
The Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel may hold the key to unlocking the dispute, which has been joined by Jewish representatives across Europe and the United States.
The controversy centers around a Czech insurance company that gained permission two years ago to build a high-rise apartment block and underground garage in central Prague.
The problem is that the site on Vladislavova Street stands directly over part of a medieval Jewish burial site.
Before construction began, archaeologists brought in by Prague city authorities confirmed the existence of the cemetery, which was voluntarily relinquished by Prague’s Jewish community in the 15th century.
They estimated that the site owned by the Czech Insurance Company contained a total of 400 graves.
The building project has infuriated Jewish groups around the world who believe the cemetery has been desecrated.
The Czech Republic’s chief rabbi, Karol Sidon, has come under fire for reaching a compromise deal with the insurance company last November.
Under the deal, the company agreed to move a 3,500 cubic-foot section of soil containing the remnants of up to 300 graves to a separate site, where a new consecrated space would be created.
According to the Jerusalem Post, the compromise came under attack from the chief rabbis of Britain, France and Holland and the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.
The controversy was heightened by disinformation relayed over the Internet that Czech Jewish leaders had sold off part of the famous Old Jewish Cemetery, a separate burial ground that lies within the walls of the city’s Jewish Quarter.
Sidon has maintained that the agreement struck with the insurance company was the best offer available, given that the firm owns the land on which the cemetery lies.
“Of course I would be happy if the cemetery would stay where it is now, but there are two parties in this case. Given the circumstances, I could not see a better option,” he told the Prague Post.
But the agreement may have to be torn up.
This week, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau, sent an emissary to Prague to establish the facts surrounding the case.
The emissary visited the construction site with Sidon, who later described the meeting as “very friendly.”
Sidon has indicated that he will wash his hands of the matter if Lau expresses disapproval of the agreement.
In an open letter, dated Jan. 13, Sidon stated that if the deal were not approved, “the Jewish Community in Prague and its Chief Rabbinate will feel obliged to leave the representation of the right of our ancestors to rest in peace to those who assume they stand the chance to reach a better solution.”
Sidon’s stance is being firmly supported by the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic.
The group’s executive director, Tomas Kraus, described the compromise as a “minor evil,” adding, “Rabbi Sidon’s decision in our opinion was more favorable to the relics than other options. If we suggest that nobody should touch these bones, we would lose a lot of time and the cemetery would be damaged by the weather.”
Construction at the site was halted in December pending a decision by the Czech Ministry of Culture on whether the cemetery should be proclaimed a protected monument.
A preliminary order has been in place since February 1999, but a spokesman for the ministry said a final decision on the site’s status would be made only once it is clear that the compromise agreement will hold up.
A great deal of money rides on the outcome of the dispute.
Michael Urban, spokesman for the Czech Insurance Company, said that if construction had to stop permanently, the company could face losses of millions of dollars.
Urban said the company had made every effort to establish a compromise with the Jewish community over the past two years, adding: “Our concern has not only been to comply with legal building criteria but also moral and ethical norms.
“We are in a trap — we have legal permission to build, but only on the condition that we build an underground garage. On the other hand, there is this process involving the Ministry of Culture which prevents us from doing anything.”