The Mt. of Olives is no longer only the oldest, most important, and probably largest Jewish cemetery in the world. It is now also a bustling and dynamic tourist and cultural site.
The Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage has launched the “Culture at Mt. of Olives Festival” with a gala performance by famed Jerusalem singer Yehoram Gaon. Over 1,000 people came to take part, followed a few days later by nearly the same amount at a concert by chasidic-music singing star Avraham Fried. The visitors were also treated to unique tours of the mountain and a spectacular view of the Old City and the Temple Mount just across the Kidron Valley.
Dozens of events have been scheduled at Mt. of Olives (Har HaZeitim, Israel’s 11th-highest mountain) for this month of Elul preceding the High Holidays; they started Sep. 15 and will continue through Oct. 3. The Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage is investing millions of shekels in the project, carried out under the auspices of the East Jerusalem Development Company (Pami).
Visitors will pay a nominal fee to take part in tours and lectures, focusing on the people and events that have shaped Jerusalem over the past 3,000 years. A particular focus will be placed on some of the illustrious Jews buried in the Mt. of Olives cemetery, including Rav Kook, Menachem Begin, Rav Shlomo Goren, Nobel Prize winner Shai Agnon, the martyrs of the 1929 Hebron massacre, Pinchas Kehati, Henrietta Szold, and 100,000 more beginning at least during the First Temple period.
Under Jordanian rule, between 1948 and 1967, Jewish access to the mount was illegally and strong-handedly prohibited, despite Jordan’s commitment in the Israeli-Jordanian Armistice Agreement. In addition, the Jordanians smashed to pieces or otherwise desecrated some 38,000 tombstones and gravesites there. Since Jerusalem’s reunification in the Six-ay War, burial ceremonies have been renewed at the site and large sections of the cemetery rehabilitated. A dozen burial societies are currently active there.
This is not to say that Arab attempts to damage the cemetery or attack victors have totally abated. The past two weeks alone saw at least four such attacks, after a relatively quiet period. Nevertheless, it is clear that Israeli security efforts have had a positive effect.
Jewish Presence Increasing
Most importantly, the Jewish presence in the area of the Mt. of Olives, and throughout eastern Jerusalem, has grown significantly in recent years. Among the new neighborhoods are Beit Orot (24 families), HaChoshen (two adjacent buildings atop Har HaZeitim), the City of David (nearly 90 families), Kidmat Tzion, the Yemenite Quarter in Silwan (35 families, with six more soon to move in), and more – but the largest of all is Maaleh HaZeitim, with close to 150 families.
It is important to remember the mountain’s critical importance in Judaism: The parah adumah ceremony was performed there, King David earmarked it for prayer, and it was a Jewish pilgrimage site for long after the Second Temple was destroyed. Not only that, the oil from Mt. of Olives’ olive trees was used for the Menorah in the Holy Temple across the valley, and the torch-lightings signaling that a New Moon (new month) had been declared began there.
Perhaps most importantly, the last prophecy of Zecharia speaks of the day when G-d will fight on behalf of Jerusalem and the Mt. of Olives will split open from north to south.
The objective of the Mt. of Olives Festival is to enhance the area and solidify its standing as a preeminent and safe cultural and tourist center. A state-of-the-art Visitors’ Center will soon be built, and many security and environmental measures have been upgraded. Of note is the International Committee for Har Hazeitim’s decade long commitment to the construction of the Visitor Education Center. Their agreement with the government to finance half its cost and, perhaps more importantly, its unceasing efforts to keep it front and center on the government’s agenda contributed significantly to its prioritization.
“Our goal is to solidify Mt. of Olives as a place of history, Judaism, and culture,” says Netanel Izak, Director of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, “and to thus strengthen Israeli sovereignty and authority throughout Jerusalem.”
“Har HaZeitim is among the most important Jewish sites in Yerushalayim,” says Jerusalem Minister Elkin, “and it also has significant strategic importance. We wish to instill this special site in the hearts of the entire population. I invite the general public to come to the tours and events at Har HaZeitim and enjoy a unique and safe experience.”
Its Role in Maintaining Sovereignty
In order to ensure continued future Israeli sovereignty over the entire city of Jerusalem, certain facts on the ground must be guaranteed. In the case of the all-important Mt. of Olives – and can we even conceive of a Jewish Jerusalem without the Mt. of Olives?! – Israel must make sure to guarantee and facilitate Jewish access and presence there. Jews must feel safe there, and must feel free to frequent the site, not only for funerals and to visit gravesites, but to visit friends, enjoy the view, stop off at the Visitors’ Center, remember its history, and more. The current Culture Festival should do much to attain this goal.
For information on how to participate in KeepJerusalem’s program to keep Jerusalem united and Israeli, visit www.KeepJerusalem.org.