Who Is 'Judaizing' King David's Tomb?

The Israel Antiquities Authority's peculiar decision not to reconstruct smashed Ottoman tiles in King David's Tomb means the vandals who attacked the site last year managed to erase virtually every remnant of its Muslim past.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A serious act of vandalism, a string of coincidences, and a decision by the Israel Antiquities Authority have combined to change the character of King David’s Tomb on Mt. Zion from a Muslim site into a synagogue.

On Tuesday this week, two painters were busy applying the last coats of paint on the building’s doorposts, thereby completing six years of extensive renovations. For the first time since the 16th century, every last trace of the building’s Muslim past has been erased; the site, holy to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, has for all intents and purposes become a synagogue.

Two policemen who were patrolling Mt. Zion on the night of December 19, 2012, heard knocking coming from the tomb. They entered the room and found two men smashing the ancient ceramic tiles covering some of the structure’s interior walls. The tiles were created by Ottoman artists in the 17th century as part of renovations to the tomb’s structure, which then served as a mosque. Similar tiles can be found at the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.

During their interrogation, one of the suspects said he was a bachelor looking for a wife. He claimed he’d been told to break the ceramic tiles because “they were blocking his prayers.” The police recommended indicting him on the charge of violating a sacred space, a serious crime carrying a jail term of up to seven years. The State Prosecutor’s Office has yet to make its decision, however.

All parties involved in running the place from Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Western Wall, and the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites to the Israel Antiquities Authority expressed their profound shock over the incident and concluded that better security was necessary. But two weeks after the two men were caught breaking the tiles, Israel Antiquities Authority employees came to work in the morning to discover that someone had returned and completed the job of smashing the tiles overnight.

This time, the damage wasn’t just partial: Every last Islamic tile inside the tomb structure had been systematically destroyed. The incident raised some troubling questions about the various authorities’ policy on King David’s Tomb.

The vandalism took place just one day before security cameras were set to be to be installed. The lock of the door leading to the tomb did not show signs of tampering. But it gets odder: According to every assessment, whoever carried out the damage must have worked many hours inside the tomb using machinery - and not hammers – yet no one heard a thing; the police received no report. “It seems everyone had an ear infection that night,” said one of the site’s guards.

Rabbi Avraham Goldstein, the head on the Diaspora Yeshiva, however said it is possible yeshiva members didn’t hear the vandalism as it was taking place.

“We’re not connected to this act in any way," he said. "It would seem there are ways of accomplishing such destruction without anyone knowing,”

Shortly after the incident, the Israel Antiquities Authority held a meeting. It seems the authority has replicas of the tiles because of renovations done on the tiles in the past. It was possible to reconstruct at least some of the decorations as most of the experts involved recommended. Nonetheless, Shuka Dorfman, the director general of the authority, decided not to restore the wall. Within a few months, all the renovations were completed, the walls remained bare, and King David’s Tomb lost virtually every remnant of it Muslim past.

Because of the chain of events, a group of Jerusalem researchers in various disciplines got together and to protest the Israel Antiquities Authority's decision not to restore the tomb's walls. “Deciding not to reconstruct the tile work….is first and foremost rewarding the vandals who achieved their goal,” wrote the scholars, including Prof. Ora Limor, Prof. Elhanan Reiner, Dr. Amnon Ramon, Dr. Doron Bar, and Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa.

The Israel Antiquities Authority does not deny that the decision represents a victory for the vandals but claims that the authority also benefitted by having the ancient walls behind the tiles exposed. This assertion aggravated the scholars even further. According to Dr. Shalev-Khalifa, who has published an article on the tiles of King David’s Tomb, “the tiles weren’t a matter of decoration; they were the ultimate artistic expression of the Ottoman Empire.”

Dr. Yuval Baruch, director of the Jerusalem District of the Israel Antiquities Authority said "the tiles were irreversibly damaged. Therefore the choice was either a full reconstruction of the 17th century tiles or exposing the hewn rock walls of the original structure. Because a full restoration is not in keeping with the Israel Antiquities Authority’s mission, the authority chose to preserve the walls instead… No attempt has been made to hide remnants of different eras."

Historical revisionism

The tomb on Mt. Zion, holy to three monotheistic religions, is a microcosm of Jerusalem. It has been the source of innumerable quarrels for nearly 1,000 years. Jews and Muslims believe this is the burial place of biblical King David. Christians believe that the hall on the second floor of the structure was the location of Jesus' Last Supper.

In the Jewish tradition, the identification of the site as the tomb of King David is in dispute and Judaism, in fact, was the last of the religions to ascribe holiness to the site. Jewish tradition started to view the location as the burial place of King David and his descendants, including King Solomon and King Hezekiah, only in the 12th century, some 2,200 years after King David’s death.

For most of the Ottoman period, the authorities barred Jews and Christians from entering the structure and it became an elaborately decorated mosque. It was only after the 1948 War of Independence that the site’s importance to Jews became more pronounced than ever before, as the other holy sites – the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem – ended up on the Jordanian side of the border.

By 1967, King David’s Tomb had, with enthusiastic government support, become the holiest site in the State of Israel. Traditions, symbols and ceremonies linked to the site were renewed or invented. This is also when the tradition of smashing tiles started. In 1950, acclaimed poet Uri Zvi Greenberg was apprehended with a hammer in hand after he’d smashed an ancient plaque written in Arabic.

In 1967, after the Six-Day War, the Diaspora Yeshiva made its home there. The ultra-Orthodox school, which caters to the newly observant, currently controls the warren of buildings around the tomb. Until 1980, the yeshiva also managed the tomb itself. Today the tomb is the under the jurisdiction of the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites and the official rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites, Shmuel Rabinovitch, but the yeshiva is still deeply involved in the tomb’s affairs.

In recent years, the Judaization process at the site has greatly accelerated. A partition dividing men from women has been installed; a large bookcase filled with Jewish religious texts was placed in the mihrab (the mosque’s semicircular wall niche indicating the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca) and hiding it; and prayer services and lessons take place there on a daily basis. According to Dr. Doron Bar, who studies the site’s history, the smashing of the tiles is the last stage of this longer process.

Academics raise the white flag

As the character of the site changed so it has also become holier and holier. People from Diaspora Yeshiva, right-wing activists and Haredi groups have begun to co-opt the archeological digs to asserting proof has been found the foundations of the tomb's structure date back to the Second Temple Era with a much more ancient tradition of holiness than previously thought.

In addition, Mt. Zion is attracting peculiar Haredi groups, hilltop youths, newly religious Jews and converts often motivated by hatred of Christians and Muslims. The churches in the neighborhood have often been targeted in price-tag attacks, shorthand for anti-Arab hate crimes. Jewish extremists originally used the term to describe vandalism and violence that targeted Israelis as well as Palestinians and was aimed at preventing or avenging evacuations of West Bank settlers.

Many blame the vandalism at King David’s Tomb on these groups. In an interview with the Kikar Hashabbat website, Yossi Shwinger, the director general of the National Center for the Development of Holy Site, called them, “a crazy sect of delusional people.” Evidence of Kool-Aid at Mt. Zion popped up three months ago when an American in the process of converting to Judaism built a small altar in a Diaspora Yeshiva courtyard, cut the heads off of four doves, and burned them as an offering on his improvised altar.

“The restoration work necessitated a heroic effort on the part of the Israel Antiquities Authority and doing battle with all the eccentrics and madmen who flock here, but at the end of the effort the authority flew the white flag of surrender,” says Dr. Amnon Ramon, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and one of the originators of the scholars’ protest over the authority’s decision not to reconstruct the tiles. “I’m simply wondering out loud if this desecration didn’t serve someone’s best interests.”

“It used to be a multicultural space despite the disagreements,” adds Prof. Ora Limor, a historian at the Open University. “David is a powerful character and everyone wants him to himself. Each of the three religions involved has its fingerprints here and the ceramic tiles were the Muslim fingerprint. At this point, I’m really worried about the Last Supper.”

Goldstein, however, said the diverse history of the tomb's structure cannot be erased with many Muslim characteristics permanently in place.

King David's Tomb after it was vandalized.
Some of the smashed tiles at King David's Tomb in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

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