French Consulate Opens Disputed Second Temple Site in East Jerusalem

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish visitors confront security guards at Tomb of the Kings, gifted to the French government in the late 19th century, which hadn’t been open in years

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray in front of the gate to the Tomb of the Kings after they were prevented from entering the site in East Jerusalem, June 27, 2019.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray in front of the gate to the Tomb of the Kings after they were prevented from entering the site in East Jerusalem, June 27, 2019.Credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP

For the first time in years, the French consulate in Jerusalem opened on Thursday the Tombs of the Kings in East Jerusalem, a burial site from the Second Temple period that it controls. But a confrontation developed there between security personnel from the consulate and ultra-Orthodox Jews who came to visit the site without purchasing advanced tickets, as the consulate is requiring.

The Tombs of the Kings, which was given to the French government in the 19th century, is an opulent burial site in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood not far from the Jerusalem District Court. Researchers are divided over who is actually buried there. One assumption is that it contains the grave of Queen Helene of Adiabene, a Median monarch who converted to Judaism.

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In 1878 a Jewish woman, Berta Amalia Bertrand, purchased the site and about eight years later one of her heirs gave it as a gift to the government of France. Some ultra-Orthodox and right-wing Jews claim that the site was given to the French government in return for France’s commitment to allow Jews to visit the burial ground.

The site was opened to Jewish visitors in 1967 for a nominal admission fee. In 2011, the consulate sparked controversy when it organized a concert there along with the Palestinian organization Yebus. In 2015, two right-wing Jewish activists filed suit in Rabbinical Court against the French government in an effort to take possession of the complex. The lawsuit caused anger in Paris and at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and the French announced that the site would be closed for renovations.

Visitors walk at the Tomb of the Kings, in East Jerusalem, June 27, 2019.Credit: Menhamen Kahana/AFP

The renovations were completed about a year ago, but the French sought assurances from the Israeli government that no new lawsuits would be filed regarding the site before it reopened to the public. It’s not clear whether the Israeli government provided such a commitment, but in any event, the consulate posted a notice several days ago on its website that the Tombs of the Kings would be opened twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Visitors are being required to register in advance and purchase an admission ticket at a cost of 10 shekels ($2.80). When the site opened to the public on Thursday for the first time, among the other visitors were about 20 ultra-Orthodox Jews who demanded to be allowed in without tickets and were refused admission. The confrontation with security personnel followed.

Comparing it the Second Temple-era palace and burial ground built by King Herod, a tour guide, Uri Ohayon, who visited the Tomb of the Kings on Thursday, called it “more interesting site than Herodion and than all of the largest Second Temple sites.” Ohayon and the visitors in his group prayed at the site without interference, despite French concerns that it will come to be viewed as a holy site.

The members of Ohayon’s group were stopped by security staff from the consulate on their way out because the guards were afraid that if they opened the gate for the group, the ultra-Orthodox group outside, which was protesting the consulate’s refusal to admit them without tickets, would enter. Police were called to move the demonstrators away so that the group could leave.