Israel Trying to 'Nationalize' Second Most Visited Jewish Holy Site

High Court of Justice rejects request submitted by yeshiva operating at grave of Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron, asking for injunction against state's intention to purchase and use parts of site for public purposes.

The High Court of Justice rejected last week a request submitted by a yeshiva that operates at the grave of Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron, asking for an injunction against the state's intention to purchase and use parts of the site for public purposes. The yeshiva's opposition stems from concerns that the state intends to operate the holy site, in lieu of the array of organizations that operate there today.

Before the land's appropriation, a hearing will be held and the groups, about 20 in number, will voice their opposition. Apart from the Western Wall, the grave of Bar Yochai (also known as Rashbi ) is the country's most frequently visited Jewish religious site. Estimates hold that more than a million visitors reach the site each year.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai grave, ultra-Orthodox, pray
Archive / Yaron Kaminsky

The zenith of annual pilgrimages to the grave occurs during the Lag Ba'omer holiday; last year some 400,000 people attended the celebrations there.

According to a report released by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss three years ago, "many elements are involved in managing the site during special occasions throughout the year, with the peak reached at Lag Ba'omer. Disputes between these elements have gone on for years, and sometimes bring events to a standstill."

Power struggles at the site, along with security flaws and pollution in the area, have been covered in a number of Haaretz reports. Although the grave is cited on the list of official holy sites in Israel, it was only after the release of the state comptroller's report that a state committee was appointed to deal with the issue.

From its inception, the committee faced stiff opposition from various streams in the ultra-Orthodox world, which eventually led to the resignation of the committee's chairman, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Western Wall rabbi. Along with the committee head, two Sephardic delegates and two Ashkenazi delegates serve on the committee. During his tenure, Rabinowitz dealt with threats and acts of violence that were prompted by renovation work at the grave authorized by the committee. The fact that bones were found during these renovations stirred the wrath of some ultra-Orthodox groups.

Today, the five-strong committee meets rarely, and is paralyzed by disagreements among its members. The committee lacks the legal authority to gain control of land slated for appropriation at the grave.

In recent years, the state has invested millions of shekels in renovations at the site. Sources at the the site relay that some NIS 3 million are donated to a charity fund operated at the grave.

Power struggles at the site between Ashkenazi and Sephardic groups are complicated, and stretch back 150 years. They have escalated in recent years, owing to the steep rise in the number of visitors. Some say that the struggles are motivated by economic calculations. During a court hearing three years ago, the state claimed that "the grave site is operated as a family business, and it is badly neglected; it is a management failure."