For Keeper of Israel's Crypts, Barzilai Is Part of Long Struggle

About two weeks ago some 2,000 people gathered at Shabbat Square in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea She'arim neighborhood for an extraordinary ceremony - a funeral for bones unearthed during construction in Moshav Tzippori in the Galilee.

The funeral also served as a demonstration of yet another victory by the Haredi group Atra Kadisha.

After facing off against police in the north and in Jerusalem, Atra Kadisha was given a sack of bones found at Tzippori, a site where Jews lived during the Mishnaic period some 1,800 years ago.

Before the bones were taken to the Mount of Olives for burial, Atra Kadisha head Rabbi David Shmidel told the crowd that everyone must know that archaeologists and the Israel Antiquities Authority and everyone else who "treats the bones of Jews cavalierly, are our enemies."

On Monday Shmidel agreed to join a committee headed by Prime Minister's Office Director General Eyal Gabai trying to reach a compromise regarding the bones found at the construction site for the new bomb-proof emergency room at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon.

Sunday's cabinet decision to move the construction site due to the discovery of the ancient tombs came under fire immediately and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a panel set up to reevaluate the decision on Monday.

Shmidel, 76, has been at the forefront of the Haredi fight against construction at ancient grave sites since the 1950s. He is well known to archaeologists and contractors who have faced off against him for years, beginning with the struggle over Maimonides' Tomb in Tiberias in 1956. The struggle continued with the Ganei Hamat Hotel in Tiberias and Area G of the City of David in Jerusalem in the 1980s, and issues over the construction of Route 6 a few years ago.

Still, many of the disagreements were solved through negotiations, especially after Atra Kadisha, despite its anti-Zionist origins, was given the official right to object to construction in planning institutions and the High Court.

Shmidel, who despite his well-known stubbornness has been known to compromise, became increasingly identified in recent years with the head of Eda Haredit, Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss. (Weiss was last in the news when he charged Shmidel with dealing with the case of the Haredi mother suspected of starving her son.)

But Shmidel also enjoys the support of the mainstream Haredi community. He thus has an independence that has allowed him more than once to come out against important rabbis, including against Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the leader of Israel's Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, who opposed Shmidel's 1993 struggle over construction at the French Hill intersection in Jerusalem, where tombs had been uncovered.

Publicly, Elyashiv now takes the same position as Shmidel, but at Elyashiv's home this week, Shmidel was reportedly refered to as an "enemy."

MK Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, an independent voice in Shas' Knesset faction, has for years been trying to get the tombs at Barzilai moved. In a report he wrote recently, obtained by Haaretz, Amsellem described in abstract, flowery speech how his efforts - including both in the Knesset and through Sephardic rabbinic authorities - had failed to breach the line Shmidel had set.

Without mentioning names, Amsellem wrote: "Unfortunately, in our faulty generation even if the great men of the world ... shouted like cranes 'enough distortion of the truth,' the empty clerks ... would shake the world with another 'decision' from their study house; and who will dare oppose them; even the greatest men of the generation suffer their temerity."

Shmidel's response could not be obtained yesterday.

According to Menahem Gesheid, deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman's aide, who is also on Gabai's committee, "the work of the committee has already begun. At the end of the day, it is less important what Shmidel decides. According to our agreement, in the coming days additional tombs will be opened at the site to determine whether they are those of Jews or others and we will present the findings to the leading rabbis. They will decide."