In a city of Jewish symbols, the Mount of Olives is perhaps the most symbolic of all: With a theatrical view of the Temple Mount and the Old City, it was the last stop for the Divine Spirit before the destruction of the First Beit HaMikdash and will be its first stop when Mashiach arrives. During Holy Temple times, the Red Heifer was burned here for Israel’s purification, it was the last station for Jews visiting Jerusalem three times a year, and it was a decisive battle site during the Romans’ capture of Jerusalem 1,900 years ago.
Today, it is the oldest, largest, and most important cemetery in the Jewish world, with an estimated 135,000 Jewish graves. Among the Jews buried there are the prophets Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi; King David’s son Avshalom; Middle Ages Torah giants Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura and the Ohr HaChaim; Rabbis Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Shlomo Goren, and Yisrael Alter; the Sadigora, Gur, and Nadborna Rebbes; and Zionist leaders and figures such as Uri Tzvi Greenberg, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Henrietta Szold, and Menachem Begin.
Unbelievably, during the 19-year Jordanian occupation, nearly half the graves on the Mt. of Olives were vandalized and destroyed – proof that leaving holy sites under Arab control is not quite advisable. Arab vandalism continues even today, decades after Israel liberated the area in the Six-Day War, and many Jews still consider it an unsafe place to visit.
But this is now beginning to change. For one thing, renovation of the destroyed graves and headstones is underway, sponsored in part by official city bodies. Some 15,000 graves or stones have been painstakingly restored – leaving the shocking number of 50,000 or more still to go.
In addition, the City of David organization has established an online mapping system of the myriads of Mt. of Olives gravesites. The project has been described as being of “national and historic importance,” containing information on the location and accessibility of the graves, and of course the names of those buried there. The program is easily downloadable onto home computers, at no charge (www.mountofolives.co.il/map.aspx?CID=293).
Yet another Mt. of Olives program currently underway is the initiative of Jerusalem lands activist Aryeh King, founder of the Israel Land Fund. He is featured on a recent Jewish Press.com video explaining that “for the first time in over 70 years, Jews have returned to this plot of Mt. of Olives land – purchased by Jews, yet forgotten by their descendants – and we are now planting olive trees.… We are not living here yet, but we are working the land – and with God’s help, in four years [after the trees lose their orlah status] we will be able to enjoy their pure olive oil.”
Possibly the most important of the new Mt. of Olives initiatives is the formation of the International Committee for the Preservation of Har HaZeitim (Mt. of Olives). It was founded just over a year ago by Avrohom Lubinsky, a “simple Jew” from Brooklyn who visited his parents’ burial site one day and saw that the nearby graves had been smashed and ruined. The organization aims to put a stop to ongoing Arab desecration of graves by buttressing the slowly improving police efforts to this end.
Due to pressure by the committee, some 80 cameras have been placed around the cemetery, and another 67 are planned, as well as six heat sensors for nighttime supervision. A typical success occurred in November, when an Arab throwing bricks at graves and shattering headstones was apprehended within minutes by private security guards and handed over to the police. Sentenced to three months in prison, he related that he had been paid 1,000 shekels to perpetrate the attack.
The committee truly lives up to its name, having involved high levels of the U.S. State Department in its efforts. Leading member Jeff Daube, director of the Israel Office of the Zionist Organization of America, has met with U.S. Consulate officials in Jerusalem and with State Department representatives in Washington, leading to a mild condemnation of Arab vandalism on the holy site.
The committee has also been working hard to stop the expansion of a large mosque adjacent to the Jewish cemetery – but this is a topic for a future article.
It goes without saying that continued control of the Mt. of Olives is an absolute imperative in the framework of the Jewish people’s campaign to retain a united Yerushalayim under Israeli sovereignty. Israeli governments that consented in the past to “negotiate” arrangements in the holy city with the PA rejected its demand to transfer the Mt. of Olives to PA sovereignty and control – but were prepared to agree to the transfer of neighborhoods that control the access routes to the mount.
“Should any such agreement be implemented in the future,” writes Jerusalem historian Nadav Shragai, “it could endanger freedom of access to [Mt. of Olives] and continued Jewish burial there.”