This Jerusalem Community Stands in the Way of a Cable Car to the Kotel

And it has to do with a roof over a cemetery

The Karaite cemetery in Jerusalem, February 14, 2019.
Emil Salman

The Karaite community has rejected the Jerusalem Development Authority’s request to build a roof over the community’s ancient cemetery in the Hinnom Valley in the capital. The authority plans to run a cable car line to the Western Wall over the cemetery and without the roof, the project faces a major problem for religious reasons.

According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, Jews who are kohanim — descendants of priests — are not permitted to enter cemeteries and it is expected that rabbinical authorities would ban them from using the cable cars if the line passes over an unroofed Karaite burial ground.

Members of the country's 40,000-strong Karaite community, which accepts the authority of the Hebrew Bible but not of the Oral Law that is codified in the Talmud, said they had not been consulted or given notice of the plan. Planners said it would be difficult to find an alternative route for the cable car that does not run above another cemetery.

About two weeks ago, the Jerusalem Development Authority submitted the cable car plan to the national infrastructure committee, despite the Karaites’ objections. The route is to run from Jerusalem's First Station retail and entertainment complex to the Abu Tor neighborhood, from where it is expected to continue over the Hinnom Valley to Mount Zion. It will then run to the area around the Old City's Dung Gate near the Western Wall. Another stop is planned at the Kedem complex at the City of David in the Silwan neighborhood.

The development authority, the Jerusalem municipality and the Tourism Ministry view the plan as a way to ease access to the Old City, but conservationists, city planners and left-wing activists, as well as the Palestinian residents of Silwan, are expected to object to it.

Simulation of the Jerusalem Old City cable car system.
Jerusalem Development Authority

The cable system's planners considered and ruled out several other proposed routes because of the many other cemeteries in the area, especially around Mount Zion. They ultimately resolved that the best option was the route over the Karaite burial ground and a corner of the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion.

In August, the Jerusalem Development Authority contacted leaders of the Karaite community seeking to arrange the construction of the roof over their cemetery.

“We told them we wouldn’t agree to it under any circumstances. From a religious standpoint, roofing a graveyard invalidates the entire graveyard, because there is a prohibition against standing under a roof that has the dead beneath it,” said Shlomo Gever, the director of the Universal Karaite Judaism non-profit organization. “No one would dream of building a cable car over the Har Hamenuhhot Cemetery or any other cemetery,” he said. Har Hamenuhot, the city's largest cemetery, is adjacent to the Givat Shaul neighborhood of the city.

In a sharply worded letter to the development authority, Gever wrote: “It will not be possible to build the cable car line without causing critical harm to the Jewish-Karaite faith, the grounds of the cemetery and bereaved families of the dead frrom the past and future.” He insisted that the route be moved.

Leading Karaite sage Moshe Firrouz said the community has been burying its dead in the cemetery since the Second Temple period. “To this day the community buries its dead here and comes for memorial services here. They’re trying to defile the cemetery. The Torah forbids taking shortcuts through cemetery, not to mention a funeral, where there would be people hovering over it, at which point it would become a spectacle.”

Several organizations and individuals are expected to submit objections to the cable car plan, which has come in for criticism for other reasons as well. A group of 70 intellectuals including four Israel Prize laureates also issued a statement objecting to the plan.