Tuesday, Jun 11, 2024

Violence Continues on Har Hazeisim

The headlines two days after Rosh Hashanah were a source of shock and dismay to many: “Masked Vandals Destroy Gravestones in the Gerrer Section of Har Hazeisim.” It wasn't that anyone was unaware that Har Hazeisim suffers from repeated acts of vandalism. This is an open “secret,” and an unfortunate phenomenon that has been on the public agenda for years already. But still, one could not help but be heartbroken. To think that the graves of the admorim of Ger had been vandalized! Two weeks later, another painful headline screamed, “Criminals Desecrate the Tombstone of the Nachalas Don of Modzitz and His Mother.” Once again, our hearts were filled with anguish. Another two weeks passed and there was devastating news again: “Once Again, Dozens of Gerrer Gravestones Have Been Smashed.”

Our sense of shock may have been justified due to the magnitude of such desecration, but in a different sense, that shock was unwarranted: The mountain has long been exposed to Arab violence and vandalism. A group calling itself “The Unit for Security on Har Hazeisim” has circulated an announcement that “402 incidents have been reported in the past month (September) on Har Hazeisim. A simple calculation reveals that this amounts to approximately 15 incidents every day. An “incident” can mean anything from stones being thrown at people visiting the graves of their loved ones to the destruction of tombstones themselves.  According to their announcement, the majority of the incidents (233 to be precise) were episodes of stone-throwing. The rest were other criminal acts: the destruction of gravestones, damage to security cameras, or the throwing of Molotov cocktails.


This past Friday, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva of Philadelphia, wished to visit the kever of Rav Elya Svei zt”l on Har Hazeisim. Upon investigating the matter, Rav Shmuel’s companions were told in no uncertain terms that the rosh yeshiva should not visit Har Hazeisim, not even with a security detail. Friday, due to the attempted murder of Yehuda Glick the previous night, was one of the tensest days in the area. Rav Kamenetsky was forced to forgo the visit.


There are two ways to get to Har Hazeisim. One route takes drivers past the kever of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh. Every year, there is heavy security there when thousands visit the grave. Alternatively, one can travel to Har Hazeisim via Har Hatzofim, but it is not advisable to take this route when school is in session in the neighborhood of Abu Tor, since the favorite pastime of the schoolchildren there is throwing stones.


Several months ago, MK Dovid Azoulay of Shas demanded an explanation from the Ministry of Education as to why the school’s funding had not been frozen in response to the students’ repeated acts of violence. The answer was: “The school’s fence has been raised and 28 security cameras have been installed. There is also a constant presence of faculty at every entrance and exit to and from the school.” It is both laughable and sad that a minister in the Israeli government could issue such a response. In any event, the reality is that the schoolchildren are continuing to throw stones. They simply leave the school grounds and throw stones at Israeli cars from the side of the road. Naturally, they identify the cars first. The chevrah kadishah car leading the way generally makes this easy.


One of the main reasons the police have not been successful in putting an end to the phenomenon is that they have nothing to do with the children if they are caught. It is hard enough for a police officer to chase and capture a young boy, but even if the boy is arrested, the law does not permit taking any measures against him. Just this week, as a result of pressure brought to bear on the police, the decision was made to change the policy on this subject and to allow for legal action to be taken against the parents of children caught throwing stones, as well.


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The current lawlessness prevailing on Har Hazeisim is an unfortunate reflection of the failings of Israel’s police force and thereby of the failings of the government itself. Endless promises are made, but in the end the disruptions continue and only grow more intense. Anyone who examines the transcripts of the Knesset’s debates will discover that this subject has been brought up countless times, and promises – that have not been fulfilled – were always made that it would be dealt with.


A pertinent example can be found in the Knesset transcripts from July 18, 2012. On that day, MK Nissim Ze’ev, a member of the Shas party and himself a resident of Yerushalayim, brought up the subject after two near-lynches that occurred on the yahrtzeit of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh. The Minister of Police under the previous government, Yitzchok Aharonovitch of Yisrael Beiteinu, who occupies the same position today, admitted to the facts: “On the yahrtzeit of the Ohr Hachaim, there was a conflict between Jews and Arabs… The second incident took place on the yahrtzeit of the Gerrer Rebbe.”


He claimed that the police were engaged in both open and clandestine efforts to counter the violence, that security cameras had been installed at the scenes of the incidents, and that a new police station had even been placed there. “Everything is working,” he claimed. “Twenty police officers have been there for several months. I cut the ribbon myself, and the station has been functioning ever since – living, breathing, working, and stopping every criminal incident. I have carried out what I promised to do. There are security cameras at the site that operate 24 hours a day, and there is a local police unit that is responsible for security and maintains a constant police presence. Thus, we have a very effective system.”            


He also spoke about how the Arab offenders were handled: “High priority is being given to dealing with incidents of stone-throwing. From the beginning of 2012, 56 cases were opened. In cases where the suspects were below the legal age of punishment, criminal charges were issued.”


If everything was handled so well, why have the acts of violence continued? Since then, two years have passed, and Har Hazeisim is still the scene of as much lawlessness as ever.


Three years before the 2012 discussion, on January 2, 2009, Aharonovitch also responded to questions on this subject. Then, as well, he explained that the police were doing everything in their power, and he revealed that 53 cases of graves being desecrated on Har Hazeisim had been reported between the years 2000 and 2009. That alone is quite a significant number, and the number of actual incidents is undoubtedly much greater. At that time, as well, he admitted that the problem was that the perpetrators tended to be minors.


Almost every year, the subject of Har Hazeisim is discussed both in the Knesset plenum and in the Knesset Interior Committee. Each time, the minister responding explains that every effort is being made to put an end to the incidents, that more will be done, that funds will be allocated for this purpose, and that there will be police protection. Yet, despite the police station and the security cameras currently in place, 402 incidents were recorded on Har Hazeisim this past September.


– – – – –


In order to complete the picture, let us quote from a letter that was sent to Rabbi Chaim Miller, who holds the title, among other things, of “Chairman of the Movement for Yerushalayim,” and who is very active on behalf of Har Hazeisim. It should be noted that many other good people have been working to protect Har Hazeisim, among them an American group headed by Jeff Daube. MK Dovid Azoulay of the Shas party has also made the issue into a personal project. In the past, when he chaired the Knesset Interior Committee, he was very active on the subject.


In any event, the following letter was written to Chaim Miller by a group of van drivers:


“We are drivers who work for various companies involved in transporting people to Har Hazeisim. Lacking any alternative, we sometimes find ourselves driving through the neighborhood of A-Tor several times a day. Very often (almost always), when we pass the two schools located on either side of the main road of A-Tor at the end of the school day and later in the day, we are attacked by wild youths throwing stones at our vehicles. Our vehicles and our passengers suffer greatly from this phenomenon, which places us and them in grave danger. Fortunately, with Hashem’s kindness, there have been no physical injuries to date, but we and our passengers have suffered much emotional trauma and damage to our property. It should be noted that the sign above the tunnel on the way to Maaleh Adumim directs drivers to Har Hazeisim, and any driver unaware of the danger will find himself entering a trap.


“We are writing this letter only after the situation has become absolutely intolerable. This past Thursday (November 7, 2013), a very troubling incident occurred. One of our drivers was traveling on the aforementioned route at 1:30 in the afternoon and was attacked from both sides of the road, with no way out. Stones were thrown from both directions and every window in his vehicle was shattered. It was nothing short of a lynching. Naturally, the vehicle was heavily damaged, and the driver and passengers were all terrified. It goes without saying that the entire incident was very traumatic for them. We must inform you that a tragedy is bound to take place on this road. The police are aware of the danger, but nothing substantive has been done about it. There is a police station in the area, but whenever the police are called to help us, the rock-throwers disappear before they can arrive on the scene.”


The letter is signed by about twenty drivers, along with the name of the organizer, and with the added note that they are awaiting a response.


The “trap” of which the letter writer speaks is a well-known one. But even drivers coming from the lower road will find themselves driving into a terrible trap after they enter the cemetery, with Arab children throwing stones from every direction, especially from above them.


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This Sunday, when the Knesset Interior Committee discussed the explosive situation in Yerushalayim, Mayor Nir Barkat and Police Commissioner Yochanan Danino were in attendance. Barkat’s comments at the session are not really relevant; he has no power, no authority, and no ability to make a change. All he can do is submit a request to the police, just as any Knesset member can. At the session, Barkat declared that the “Har Habayis requires special treatment” and no one paid attention.


By the time the police commissioner spoke, though, the pressure was mounting. His words do have some bearing on the field, especially since he was sitting across from the newly-appointed police commander of the Yerushalayim district, Moshe (Chico) Oren. Danino related that the subject of Har Hazeisim had been discussed in the government just two hours earlier. Apparently, the cries of the deceased had reached the Knesset, despite its usual indifference. “We have established a police presence and security cameras,” he asserted. “I have the impression that the situation is very good.”


Danino’s protestations are reminiscent of the old joke about a man who borrowed a donkey from his neighbor. When the neighbor came to reclaim the beast, the borrower claimed that it had died. Suddenly, the unmistakable sound of a donkey braying emanated from his barn. The donkey’s owner demanded an explanation, and the borrower put on an innocent face. “Whom do you believe,” he asked, “me or the donkey?” With all due respect to Danino, as “excellent” as the situation may be, the attacks on Jews are continuing on a daily basis.


On Monday, just one day after those discussions took place, the police force released a statement to the media: “Three weeks after the desecration of graves in the Gerrer plot on Har Hazeisim in Yerushalayim, three suspects have been arrested. The three are Arabs. One is 22 years old, and the others are minors, one 15.5 years old and the other age 12. They are all residents of A-Tor. They are suspected of involvement in other incidents that have occurred in the cemetery during the past month, as well. Under questioning, the minors admitted to smashing the gravestones three weeks ago. They also identified other suspects and described other incidents in which graves were desecrated. The adult suspect denied their claims, but evidence has been gathered that ties him to the incident. From the interrogation, it was learned that the three would come to the cemetery in the late afternoon hours and use large blocks and pieces of stone to break the gravestones. The 12-year-old suspect, who was summoned for questioning along with his parents, was released with restrictions and was reported to welfare authorities. The other two suspects will be brought to the Shalom Court in Yerushalayim today (Monday) at 1:00 for an extension of their remand.”


This is the state of affairs in the State of Israel today. Under pressure, the police force suddenly becomes effective. But this, too, will pass. Unfortunately, it seems that visiting Har Hazeisim will remain as perilous as ever.



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