Cemetery Politics

By Allan Nadler
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Among the many bones its various enemies pick with the Jewish state, one has been much in the news lately: bones, very dry bones, residing in cemeteries both real and imagined all across the country.  

Within the ranks of Israel's ultra-Orthodox (to begin there), some radical opponents of Jewish statehood have a particular obsession with the holy ground of old Jewish cemeteries, which they routinely accuse the government of desecrating in its relentless drive to develop the "Zionist abomination." This summer, in a bizarre controversy surrounding the construction of a new emergency room for Barzilai Hospital in the coastal city of Ashkelon, their zeal extended to interfering with an endeavor whose purpose is to save lives—a supreme value in Judaism. Undeterred by such considerations, or by the likelihood that the ancient burial ground in question was a pagan rather than a Jewish cemetery, anti-Zionist Haredim launched attacks on workers involved in re-interring the site's dry bones. Just last week, a group vandalized the hospital itself, and destroyed its life-sustaining equipment.

The anti-Zionist Haredim are hardly alone on the issue of ancient sites in Israel. Sharing their virulence is an assortment of Palestinian activists who, needless to say, are not motivated by any concern for the remains of dead Jews. To the contrary: after the 1948 War of Independence, the Jordanians used Jewish gravestones for, among other things, paving latrines. What Palestinians fear, and with reason, is that digging up Jewish sites will only serve further to substantiate the antiquity of Jewish ties to the Holy Land. But their real focus lies elsewhere.

Although Israel has been extremely painstaking in its treatment of old Arab cemeteries, this has not stopped Palestinian and other Arab activists from charging it with despoiling their gravesites. It was thus not surprising that, just as the furor over the Barzilai affair was being laid to rest, the New York Times should have resurrected a by-now tired controversy over an old (but far from ancient) burial ground in the Bedouin desert encampment of Al Araqib, a few kilometers from Beersheba.

At bottom, this dispute has to do with Israel's ongoing efforts to improve the lives of its Bedouin citizens by resettling those who wish from their ramshackle habitats on government-owned land (where they live as squatters) to more modern towns. But, standing in Al Araqib's 19th-century cemetery, the leader of the anti-government protest, Sheik Saya Abu Mudegem al-Tori—a successful businessman and Israeli citizen—declared in flawless Hebrew for the Times' video crew: "Anyone who thinks of throwing us out will first have to throw the dead out of the cemetery."

The sheik was also happy to oblige reporters by reading inscriptions on the cemetery's tombstones as ostensible proof of Bedouin "ownership" of the land, despite the fact that Bedouin culture has no concept of such ownership.  Adding a volatile religious element to the controversy, the few hundred squatters of Al Araqib have been observing Ramadan this year by gathering for their nightly Iftar on the cemetery's grounds.

But the prize for the most pernicious cemetery battle this summer goes to the protests against the construction of a Jerusalem branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, whose headquarters are in Los Angeles (very possibly atop some ancient Inca or old Mexican burial ground). For almost two years now, Israeli Arab politicians and left-leaning Jewish "human-rights" activists have been claiming that Israelis were set on destroying another old Arab burial ground. This is the storied Mamilla cemetery in Jewish West Jerusalem, which Israel has scrupulously preserved for the past half-century.  

For a long time, the protesters' complaints, lodged with exquisite precision against an institution devoted to promoting religious and civic tolerance, were accepted more or less at face value, even by most Jewish media. But in late July, Israeli officials noticed a dramatic increase in the number of graves in the vicinity of the construction site. As the Associated Press reported:

A pathway that city gardeners regularly used with their pickup truck was suddenly blocked by headstones, and a row of gravestones mysteriously appeared over an underground sewage line and on top of manhole covers. . . . The new gravestones, typically constructed with old stones set in fresh concrete . . . scrambled the physical record at an important historical site.

A spokesman for the Islamic Movement, the group at the vanguard of the protests, quickly responded, with no hint of embarrassment, that new "markers" were being installed at places where nothing substantial remained of original graves. In any case, the spokesman went on to say, the precise location of graves was "beside the point. . . . If you dig a few meters down anywhere here you'll find bones."

This much, at least, was correct: it would be almost impossible to find more than a few contiguous kilometers anywhere in this most ancient of lands where no one was ever buried. But the spokesman's insistence that he and his movement "just want to guard the cemetery" was patently disingenuous. Like their Haredi and Bedouin counterparts, the Islamic Movement has been engaged in mobilizing the dead, real or imagined, as props in a political campaign against the modern Jewish state.  

Since its inception in 1973, the cartoon Dry Bones has been the most popular Anglo-Jewish political sketch in the world, admired for both its wicked wit and its knack for pointing up the absurd lengths to which Israel's enemies are prepared to go. Its un-humorous title derives from the powerfully resonant vision of the biblical prophet Ezekiel, who—in Babylonian exile—was vouchsafed the most consoling interpretation of his apparition of a valley of dry bones:

Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say: Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. . . . Therefore prophesy and say unto them: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, O My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, whither they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land.

The Zionist imagination has long been stirred by Ezekiel's vision of a desiccated people animated and restored to life on their ancient land. This summer's shenanigans eloquently attest to its opposite: Zionism's enemies, whether of the ultra-Orthodox or Arab variety, would sooner abuse the dead than abide the miraculous revival of the Jewish nation.  

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/cemetery

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