Bones found at rabbi's tomb on Mount Meron ignite uproar

Monday, January 2, 2012

It was not immediately clear why the guard, Fitousi, sat huddled up next to a space heater, its cord plugged into a socket some distance away, guarding a seemingly empty piece of ground near the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai on Mount Meron.

Even without the heater, the piece of ground has been red-hot for a week; like everything having to do with the sacred tomb, it is the source of unending conflict.

Two pits, apparently tombs, uncovered during restoration work at the site, have raised a furor among the ultra-Orthodox. The storm was fed by rumors that the bones of Bar Yohai himself had been uncovered, and that a truck-driver who had agreed to remove the earth of the desecrated tombs had flipped his truck.
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It all started with the decision to build a new path to lead to the women's section, which would prevent eye-contact between men and women and be more comfortable than the previous one.

The decision to renovate was made by a committee consisting of four representatives of ultra-Orthodox groups, who have been managing the sacred site for several years. The committee is now headed by a representative of the state, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the rabbi in charge of Israel's Jewish holy places.

His appointment garnered such a backlash that Rabinovich had to be given bodyguards.

The paving of the path was apparently intended to calm things, but the discovery of the bones had the opposite effect at the site, which, with an estimated million visitors per year, is the second most popular Jewish pilgrimage site in Israel after the Western Wall.

Rabinovich said work stopped immediately with the discovery of the bones.

"We will not act until we receive directives from the experts," he said.

However, last Wednesday night, a group of ultra-Orthodox came to the site to protest that the works were still underway.

The tomb that was uncovered is believed to consist of a niche in which bones had been laid, although final determination has not been made.

Following the discovery, an ultra-Orthodox High Court issued a warning that members of the priestly class (who are not permitted in cemeteries) should not come to the site.

Yeshiva students at the tomb Wednesday said the truck-driver who had removed the earth from the site, over the requests of protesters, overturned a few minutes later near Moshav Safsufa. The driver, who would not give his name, said on an ultra-Orthodox internet news site that he had indeed overturned.

"I hope it isn't because of the bones. It's scary. I feel bad. I won't do that work any more," he said.

Conflicts have been erupting over control of the tomb for 200 years, and the latest flap comes amid struggles over the division of space at the site. Most of the area, where a majority of the charity boxes are, is under Sephardic control. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, who is to visit the tomb in the coming days, has issued a harsh critique of the site's management.

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