Are the ultra-Orthodox Digging Their Own Grave?

As two factions within the community battle over grave excavations in Jaffa, one real estate development company has been subjected to a boycott some say is not necessarily justified

Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman
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The recent ultra-Orthodox demonstrations against the desecration of graves, caused by excavations adjacent to the Andromeda apartment complex in Jaffa, surprised many in the Tel Aviv District Police. Unlike protests staged two months ago at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, also against the removal of graves, the policemen in Jaffa were unable to prevent hundreds of protesters from reaching the center of the dig after they'd infiltrated from nearby side streets and alleys.

The protesters' determination and acts of violence - they set fire to garbage bins and hit policemen, perhaps in the wake of their failed campaign at Barzilai - is what came as a surprise to police.

Ultr-Orthodix men protesting construction in Jaffa, May 2010Credit: Haaretz

The riots, which took place opposite a hotel and luxury apartment complex in the Jaffa neighborhood of Andromeda Hill, is just a small element of a much larger fight being battled out in recent weeks in rabbinical courts in Bnei Brak and Mea She'arim - bits of which have appeared on websites and in the ultra-Orthodox press.

All ultra-Orthodox groups agree that exhuming graves is not legitimate, primarily if the reason for doing so is to build real estate projects. Even if the graves uncovered contain the remains of gentiles, most ultra-Orthodox agree that they should be left untouched, lest their removal lead to the desecration of Jewish graves abroad.

The feeling that Atra Kadisha, a small and extremist group waging a controversial battle, is managing to lead the entire ultra-Orthodox sector is upsetting an increasing number of people from within the community.

"Atra Kadisha climbed too far out on a limb this time," said a senior ultra-Orthodox journalist who wishes to remain anonymous. "When they say that the main halakhic arbiters and most of the public are not behind them, they will have no choice. They will be the ones who come down, branch by branch."

Atra Kadisha is a small ultra-Orthodox group that in the 1950s took upon itself the goal of protecting Jewish graves. Its members, lead by Rabbi David Shmidel, belong mostly to the more extreme ultra-Orthodox courts in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. But they have broad support among the Eda Haredit and other sectors of the religious public.

At the start of the campaign over the grave uncovered in Jaffa, Atra Kadisha members took all the standard steps for the Eda Haredit: They published their views in the press, printed posters, organized demonstrations and managed to obtain the support of several key rabbis. But they soon realized that dozens of protesters shouting "gevald" are not enough to interfere with the excavation work and they needed a specific entity or person to focus their anger on - to achieve what they describe as an end to the desecration via direct pressure.

The Atra Kadisha members got lucky: Investigators they sent to review the land registry document of the project's developer found a cautionary note from Electra Properties, which had been previously been involved in the project. They had found an address.

A boycott ensues

In August 2008, Electra Properties signed an agreement with Yefet, the representative of the American real estate firm RFR to collaborate on a project to build a hotel and luxury residential units in the Jaffa complex. The complex is located on the corner of Yefet and Louis Pasteur streets, on the southeastern side of Old Jaffa. According to the legal opinion recently submitted to the Eda Haredit rabbinical court, the agreement stipulated that Electra could annul the contract if human graves were uncovered at the site.

Electra executives declined to be interviewed for this article in an attempt "to reduce the flames and prevent any further publicity in the matter." Electra released the following statement in response: "The company already notified RFR over a year ago that it does not intend to carry out its part in the project and recently announced the official termination of its involvement in the project. The company has no recorded rights of any kind in the project. We are dismayed that a certain sector has deemed the company as the object of unjustified accusations.

"Likewise, the company is puzzled why the leaders of this sector did not see fit to discuss the matter with the American company, which holds the rights to the project," the statement continued. "It should be furthermore stressed that the company was not involved in any stage of the implementation of the project."

According to Electra executives, it was agreed that the settling of accounts between the parties - which relates primarily to the sums Electra invested in the project thus far - would be discussed separately. But Eda Haredit extremists did not feel this step absolved Electra of its responsibility and a boycott of the company and its products was issued. Notices of the boycott, signed by several leading rabbis, were distributed widely.

The boycott prompted several violent incidents in Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. Last week, for example, dozens of ultra-Orthodox protesters surrounded the car of an Electra technician who arrived in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood. One of them tossed a brick at the car, shattering the rear window; another ripped off a mirror. Several protesters tried to drag the technician out of the car, but the police eventually rescued him unharmed.

In another incident, in the Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood, an Electra company car was set on fire. The company said it has also had to cancel several deals, the monetary value of which it refuses to disclose.

Company officials feel that extremists in the Eda Haredit movement are trying to scapegoat them in their campaign. They tried to convince the boycotters that there is a difference between Electra Properties, which was involved in the property deal, and Electra Consumer Products, a leading Israeli domestic appliance company that has become the direct victim of the boycott.

What's in a name?

A key source in Eda Haredit, who also refused to be identified, dismissed Electra's claim. "What difference does it make what the company is called? These are two sister companies, jointly owned and maintained," he said. "It is Electra's responsibility to stop the work at the site. It doesn't matter what we call the company at the moment. In our opinion, so long as it is involved in the matter, it is capable and obligated to prevent the continued desecration of graves."

According to the ultra-Orthodox journalist, Electra executives have until now capitulated to every whim of the Atra Kadisha people: "The company removed the cautionary note relating to the land at the hospital in Andromeda, published a notice to the stock exchange - which stated that it had no connection to the project - and presented another official letter that it sent to the Yefet company concerning the cancellation of the agreement. But it received no response," he said.

Representatives of Eda Haredit relied on an opinion submitted by attorney Jacob Amster, whom they hired. Amster also declined an interview with Haaretz. But because Electra continued to argue that Amster's opinion does not accurately reflect the legal situation, the more moderate members of the Eda Haredit rabbinical court approached attorney Ram Kaspi and asked him for another opinion. Kaspi, who also refused to be interviewed, provided an opinion completely opposite of Amster's.

Key elements of the Eda Haredit claim, on the one hand, that Electra's past involvement in the project obligates it to take a stand and do everything possible to prevent further grave desecration. On the other hand, there are some - considered to be more moderate - who accept the company's claim that it cannot do anything about the matter. These members oppose the tactic employed by Atra Kadisha.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Steinman and the man considered the greatest halakhic arbiter, Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, have thus far refused to sign the boycott. They have, however, voiced public support for the call to halt work on the project due to the desecration of graves.

The two sides of the ultra-Orthodox sector - with the help of allies, activists and public relations people - are exerting a huge amount of pressure on their followers. The moderates are trying to find a compromise, understanding that if the boycott against Electra is proven to be unjustified, the ultra-Orthodox sector will incur another blow to its image. The extremists say they concede any effort to improve image, and declare they will continue to fight for the sanctity of the graves with all means at their disposal.