Secular gather in tents, religious take to the streets

By Nathan Jeffay, August 4, 2011
Follow The JC on Twitter
Chasidim at the contested burial site

Chasidim at the contested burial site

The Israeli government has sparked fury in the Orthodox community after deciding to take possession of the burial place of sainted second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

Israeli law permits the state to expropriate privately owned land for national interests. This provision was controversially used in the early days of the state to take possession of stretches of Arab-owned land, but its application against Jewish charities like those running the tomb is exceedingly rare.

Bar Yochai, purported author of the Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah, is widely seen as a genius capable of working miracles from beyond the grave. His tomb on Mount Meron in the Galilee is the most visited Jewish religious site after the Western Wall.

Nevertheless, the decision to essentially confiscate the tomb and place it under state ownership using controversial laws seems puzzling - especially at a time when the government is pushing an ethos of private ownership.

The state’s decision to take over the grave of Bar Yochai has sparked fury

But this is Israel, and all bets regarding how the government will act are off when it faces that great Jewish institution, the broiges. There are two hekdeshim, or trusts, that claim ownership of the tomb and its surroundings, both of which trace their rights back into the mists of time. One is Sephardic-run and the other Ashkenazic-run.

They have been feuding for as long as anybody can remember over who owns the site, and their disagreement has paralysed its development. Despite the flow of visitors, facilities there are desperately lacking and the structure surrounding the tomb is old and neglected. There have even been wealthy donors who have wanted to pay to make the place more visitor-friendly, building prayer houses and ritual baths, but the deadlock over who had the right to approve the work meant that it did not happen.

Now, both trusts and their followers are angry at the state's decision to take ownership. And given that we are talking about a site that brings out some 500,000 visitors on Bar Yochai's yahrzeit alone, expect large demonstrations and a major face-off between religious communities and the government.

There is, however, one glimmer of hope. If the feuding trusts decide that they detest the idea of state ownership even more than they hate the idea of sharing the site, they may agree on a solution and ask the government to cancel its decision. Government intervention seems like a heavy-handed method for ending a broiges,
but it may
just work.

Last updated: 1:25pm, August 4 2011