Twenty-two years ago, one of our sons had his brit milah in Me’arat Hamachpelah in Hevron. My wife’s saintly uncle, an 80-year-old Viznitz chassid was the sandek. Because of a medical problem, he walked with a cane, mounting the 85 steps to the entrance of the building with obvious difficulty but with a smile on his face, overjoyed by the privilege to enter such a holy place.
Several years ago, after Rav Moshe Levinger suffered a stroke that confined him to a wheelchair, I visited him in Hevron where he lived. Since he customarily prayed every morning in Me’arat HaMachpelah, I helped carry him up the stone steps – which was hardly in accordance with the proper honor due a Torah scholar and a man who helped found the modern settlement of Hevron.
But it was only after I visited Hevron a few weeks ago and felt my arthritic knees scream out as I ascended stair after stair that I realized the utter disgrace in there being no elevator at a site frequented by nearly two million visitors a year, including elderly and handicapped people.
On February 10, after years of knocking on politicians’ doors, Shai Glick of the B’Zalmo Organization for Human Dignity, addressed the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for the third time, pleading that the committee act in the spirit of kindness and love of mankind for which Avraham Avinu was known.
The day before the meeting, the IDF sent a letter asking that the discussion be closed to the public and that the proceedings be kept confidential, on the grounds that mere talk of installing an elevator at the holy site could trigger a new Intifada. The head of the Knesset Committee turned down the army’s request.
At the meeting, which was attended by MKs from a broad spectrum of parties, no one expressed opposition to building an elevator, and a spokesman for the Defense Ministry said architectural drawings have been completed and the elevator will be completed in no more than a year.
But according to Glick, “it’s all talk.” He told The Jewish Press, “They said the same thing in the previous meeting last year. Everyone agrees to such a worthy and noble cause. Ten years ago, Bibi promised he would get it done. Nu? Where’s the elevator?”
According to Glick, the government won’t act because of the Arabs. “They don’t agree to the elevator, even though their elderly and handicapped will benefit as much as the Jews,” Glick said.
“For someone confined to a wheelchair, being lifted up the steep stairways is a frightening and humiliating experience…. But while Knesset members all smile with genuine sympathy, and swear that they are in favor of the humanitarian proposal, and that everything is all set to go, no one is making sure that the project gets started – not the defense minister, not the prime minister, and certainly not all the leftist human rights groups who won’t do anything that may make life better for the Jews of Hevron, or for the general settlement cause, or to honor Jewish heritage, or for the terrifying possibility that Medinat Yisrael might fortify its sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael by having an elevator in Me’arat Hamachpelah.”
Eighteen months ago, Kiryat Arba resident Motti Ochayon, who was confined to a wheelchair, decided to make a short film about the sad situation. Tragically, he fell from his wheelchair and received a blow to his spine and head. A few months later, he died.
Noam Arnon, spokesman for the Jewish settlement in Hevron, told The Jewish Press:
“It seems like the elevator won’t be a reality until, at least, a year from now. That’s what the head of the Hevron Civil Administration, General Resan Eliyana, said at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week. After several years of discussion and negotiation, the Wakf and the Hevron Municiplity remain steadfast in their rejection of the proposal, like the Arabs do in every matter that could improve the life of both Muslims and Jews in Israel.
“This comes as no surprise to us. The Arab mayor of the city, Tayseer Abu Sneineh, a released terrorist, participated in the murder of six Jews in 1980. Basically, the Hevron Municipality is an appendage of the Wakf, which despises the Jews on principle…
“That’s the reason there are no lavatories in the building, no roof over the inner prayer courtyard, no air conditioning or heating. The Arabs don’t allow any type of permanent construction whatsoever. The Jews of Hevron can put up temporary tents outside in the yard, or a chuppah and chairs for a wedding – nothing more.”
Israel, Arnon said, has the authority to build a ramp or elevator. “There is a law in Israel, like everywhere else in the world, known as eminent domain, which gives the government the right to appropriate private property for the benefit of the public. Interestingly, the law dates back to the Torah, as the right of the Israelite king.
All the prime minister has to do is to instruct Israel’s defense minister, who has overall authority over the area, that the Israeli government is going to attach a small, four-by-four-meter elevator to a wall of the Tomb, and to pave a few wheelchair ramps in the plaza leading to the elevator.
“The Justice Ministry, which is no great friend of the Jewish settlement in Hevron, has stated that this would be perfectly legal, in line with many other such precedents in favor of the overall public good. In the meantime, the elderly, handicapped, and pregnant women of all faiths and nationalities, suffer, unable to enter the holy site because of the pain involved in the climb, or their disabilities.
“The responsibility and disgrace rests with the government of Israel. The champagne is ready for the opening celebration, but, for the time being, it is being kept chilled, like the project, in the depth of a freezer of fear, lest the Arabs grab the excuse to ignite pogroms against the Jews and call out for world Jihad.”
Orit Struk, resident of Hevron, and currently running on the Yimina list in the approaching election, attended the Knesset Committee meeting and came away hopeful. “The dice has been cast,” she told The Jewish Press. “A clear decision was made and backed by all committee members. The new minister of defense, Naftali Bennett, is going to install an elevator in the Me’arat HaMachpelah, whether the Arabs agree or not.”