Only three and a half months after demolishing a pathway for kohanim (priests) at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Mount Meron, the government is rebuilding it at a high cost, despite the fact that the local rabbi believes it to be completely unnecessary.
The Tourism Ministry has apparently succumbed to pressure by an extremist Hassidic group, Toldot Avraham Yitzhak, and has allocated NIS 600,000 to quickly build the pathway before the annual Lag Ba'omer festivities at the site, expected to draw half a million participants.
The pathway was built last year without a permit - but with government funding - and was recently demolished after a legal battle. Now, hurried construction to rebuild it is being carried out without fulfilling conditions laid out by the local planning committee. Furthermore, many religious leaders, including Rabbi Meir Stern, the Meron Rabbi for the past 50 years, say there is absolutely no need for the pathway, and that there is no basis whatsoever to the Hassidic group's claim that there are sepulchres on the main road leading to the tomb. If that was true, kohanim would be unable to use the main road, according to Jewish law, because they cannot be in close proximity to the dead.
The construction of the pathway last year caused a furor among various Haredi groups, when it was revealed that the Tourism Ministry cooperated with the Toldot Avraham Yitzhak Hassidic group, and allocated NIS 200,000 for the pathway. The group had vehemently denied any cooperation with the Zionist state, saying that the construction was funded by donors.
The pathway controversy signals a further religious radicalization at Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's tomb, the second most popular religious site in Israel, after the Western Wall. In recent years, a new tunnel was built under the main road, and the partition between men and women is now observed there; previously it was only observed in the tomb area. Also, the partition canvases in the tomb area were significantly higher last year than they were the year before.
The religious extremism is seen at least partially as a reaction to the Tourism Ministry's efforts to take over the site, contrary to the wishes of various extremist Haredi groups and organizations. Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov recently visited the site and declared that in the near future a government company "for administration of the Rashbi site at Mount Meron" would assume responsibility for all activities at the site. The board of the company has already been chosen, and according to the ministry's plans, the company will plan and administer the Lag Ba'omer festivities as early as next year. Still, as yet, the company hasn't been created, nor is there a date set for its creation - a demand raised by the state comptroller. Currently the ministry allocates NIS 6 million for the daily administration of the site, and NIS 7 million more for the Lag Ba'omer festivities. Lag Ba'omer falls out next Wednesday evening, May 9.
Sources familiar with the controversy point out that it is also a flash point in an ongoing bitter conflict between the head of Toldot Avraham Yitzhak, Rabbi Samuel Ya'akov Kahn, and his brother, Rabbi David Kahn, head of Toldot Aharon, a rival Hassidic group. Both groups are vying for leadership in the battle against the ministry.
The Tourism Ministry's says it has invested NIS 13 million at the Rashbi tomb, including NIS 2 million that was recently invested in safety projects, among them the pathway, which cost NIS 1 million, as well as two extra stages, a VIP stage, emergency routes and a woman's balcony. It added, "The pathway, like the other stages, is not intended for the use of any particular Hassidic group, but to serve all participants in the festivities. The pathway was funded in its entirety by the state and approved by the Israel Lands Administration."
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