For the past year and a half, I have become a student of security issues that relate to preserving the 3,000 year-old holy cemetery of the Mount of Olives. This resulted from my involvement with the International Committee for the Preservation of the Mount of Olives, a broad-based group my brother Avrohom founded. His initiative came following a critical report in May 2010 by Micha Lindenstrauss, Israel’s State Controller, criticizing successive Israeli governments for neglecting the Mount of Olives for 43 years (at the time) since its capture in the Six-Day War of 1967. (I am actually writing this on the yahrzeit of my father Chaim Pinchas Lubinsky zt”l, who is buried on the Mount of Olives along with my mother Pesa o”h).
Despite a dramatic improvement in the past year, including the installment of 80 surveillance cameras, thanks in large measure to the committee, graves are still frequently randomly destroyed and visitors and mourners occasionally stoned, albeit with far less frequency than before the committee swung into action. There are still areas of the legendary mountain that are without cameras, a small mosque near the main entrance of the Mount of Olives (and just several feet from the gravesite of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his wife Aliza) was being significantly expanded despite a Stop Order from the Municipality, police deployment while promised is still sorely lacking, and broad support for a new bill imposing stiff new penalties for violence perpetrated in cemeteries is still elusive. In addition, there is concern for the continued budget allocation specifically designated for the Mount of Olives.
Most of the violence perpetrated on the Mount of Olives emanates from the three Arab neighborhoods that hug the sprawling mountain: Ras al Amud, A-Tor, and Silwan. The struggle to preserve the Jewish character of eastern Jerusalem extends even to the name as the Arabs consider the Mount of Olives, despite its obvious Jewish historic significance, as part of the Ras al Amud neighborhood. The controversial mosque is also known as the Ras al Amud Mosque. Arab vehicles and schoolchildren routinely use the cemetery as a thoroughfare, not to speak of the thriving drug trade in some areas.
While the committee has focused on the sanctity of the Mount of Olives and the kovod hameis (respect for the dead) of the nearly 135,000 people who are buried there, including three Nevi’im (prophets), many see the struggle for the Jewish character of respect for the dead as central to the larger battle of keeping Yerushalayim united under Jewish control, a pronouncement often made by Israeli leaders but not always accompanied by action. It is unconscionable to most Jews that the Mount of Olives should not be accessible to any Jew who wishes to daven (pray) there. How could it be that a state that prides itself in providing access to all religions should tolerate Jews being stoned as they seek access to the holy the Mount of Olives? Shouldn’t Jews in their own homeland at least have the same right as Christians and Muslims.
We already know what happens when the Arabs control our holy sites. The Jordanians, who should never have been awarded part of Jerusalem in the first place, did not allow access to the Mount of Olives or for that matter the Kotel (Western Wall) despite signing the Armistice Agreement of 1948 which explicitly provided access to Jews.
A View from the Lion’s Den
To better understand the security issues that face the Mount of Olives, I accepted an offer from Mati Dan, the chairman of Ateret Kohanim, to tour the nearby Arab neighborhoods, some of it in an armored vehicle, which is a story onto itself. Ateret Kohanim is bent on settling Jews in homes in eastern Yerushalayim, as part of the just Jewish claim to the entire city. The tour of these neighborhoods offered a glimpse into everyday living in the predominantly Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. These neighborhoods are a blend of shabbily built houses, some with red roofs, old stone structures and here and there some magnificent villas (illegally built). There is also what could best be described as low-rise apartment buildings. We toured much of A-Tour and even Ras al Amud in a regular vehicle, but transferred to a beat up white armored vehicle for the trip into Silwan, the scene of many riots in the past few years and the source of much of the disturbances in eastern Jerusalem.
Although Ateret Kohanim bought the vehicle new in 2005, it pretty much carried the history of the rampant violence in the area. Its original green color was replaced by an assortment of colors, the paints thrown on the vehicle by Arab rioters. The glass in front of the armored pane was completely shattered from the many rocks it has received. In short, the totally beat-up vehicle looked much more like one of the remnants of the armored vehicles from the 1948 War of Independence that are displayed along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway than a 6-year old new vehicle.