For First Time, Religious Sites to Get State Budget of NIS 6.3m

The chair of the Merom Galil religious council had reason to be pleased yesterday. A new agreement between the state and the national center for religious sites grants the annual Lag Ba'omer celebration on Mt. Meron in memory of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai an annual budget of NIS 2.3 million - in place of the financial uncertainty that surrounded the event year after year. The money will come out of the center's NIS 6.3 million budget for 2007, up from last year, when the center's entire budget was NIS 1.8 million.

Bar Yochai's tomb is the most visited Jewish religious site in Israel, after the Western Wall. Hundreds of thousands attend annual Lag Ba'omer celebrations there. This year's event will be jointly financed by the Tourism Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Transportation Ministry.

Danny Saideh has two reasons to be pleased. "First, this will end the repeated mockery of holding out the hat until the last minute, when the event is financed," says the religious council chair. Moreover, all of Merom Galil hopes this is a first step toward nationalization of the site, since two months ago the Supreme Court ruled that a civil court can rule on the Bar Yochai trust, and not just a religious court.

After the state appealed a Nazareth District Court ruling, Justices Dorit Beinisch, Miriam Naor and Esther Hayut ruled that, "when a trust was created in a rabbinical court, the only authority to hear matters concerning its creation or internal management belongs to the rabbinical courts." The court found, however, in a complex hearing on the history of the management of the tomb, that the Bar Yochai trust was created in a Muslim religious court.

The Mt. Meron gravesite, which attracts more than one million visitors annually, is on the list of Israel's official holy sites, but is managed privately by the trust. Saideh says most visitors are not even religious. There is a long-running legal battle surrounding its control.

According to Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog, "Jewish religious pilgrimage sites are poorly maintained today. Neglect of the sites harms Jewish history and the history of the people of Israel as well as tourism." The ministry did note that the Lag Ba'omer budget will be paid out against documentation, in order to prevent private entities from taking control of the funds.

The Merom Galil council has repeatedly asked for the site to be declared a national heritage site, like the Western Wall. Council head Shlomo Levy said he hoped Herzog would transfer it to a state authority. "Today, no one manages cleaning and maintenance. It does nothing for the dignity of a place as important as this." Saideh adds, "As a religious person, I believe in the authority of the religious courts. But here we have a terrible situation. Our dream is that the state will go one step further and nationalize the site."

The battle between the Ashkenazis and the Sephardis for control of the site dates back 200 years, but has worsened recently with the sharp increase in visitors. Some say the heart of the dispute is economic: According to the division between entities, most of the buildings and charity boxes belong to the Sephardic trust managed by Shlomo Chelouche, son of Netanya chief rabbi David Chelouche. Among the trust's guardians are Safed chief rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu and his father, former Sephardic chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, and Rabbi David Chelouche.

Attempts to reach a compromise have failed and the disputes have been heard in rabbinical courts. However, a few years ago, the management of the Sephardic trust became convinced that the Safed regional rabbinical court leaned toward the Ashkenazi trust, which led to the hearings regarding the rabbinical courts' authority to hear matters relating to the tomb.

In appealing to the Supreme Court, the Sephardic trust opted not to address the question of authority, instead taking a stand against what it called the "state's intentions to take over the Sephardic community's assets and nationalize them." It asserted that "the gravesite has been properly managed by the Sephardic trust and its trustees for hundreds of years, and plaintiffs' arguments regarding the site management are groundless." Representatives of the Ashkenazi trust claimed "there is no call for the involvement of the civil courts in the internal management of properties - which are naturally the jurisdiction of the religious courts and which are best handled by people of faith." They further argued that the state as a secular entity was unprepared to manage holy sites.

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