Israel's Second-most Visited Jewish Holy Site, Now Under State Control

Decision comes about 10 days after High Court turns down petition by a yeshiva that operates at the ancient tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron, against the intention to expropriate the site.

Yaron Kaminsky

The cabinet decided Sunday to place the ancient tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai under the management of a special government company under the supervision of the tourism minister.

It is expected to cost approximately NIS 27 million to implement the decision.

About 10 days ago the High Court turned down a petition by a yeshiva that operates at the tomb, located in Meron near Safed in the north, against the intention to expropriate the site.

The yeshiva belongs to a Sephardic hekdesh, a type of organization that traditionally administers properties for charitable purposes.

The company will be in charge of dealing with safety concerns and the appearance of the site. It will also ensure free access to the site for all visitors and oversee special public events at the site, including the famous Lag Ba'omer mass event, on the anniversary of the death of the mystical rabbi almost 2,000 years ago.

Bar Yochai was a first century Jewish sage, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva and according to tradition, the author of the Kabbalistic work known as the Zohar.

Sources in the Tourism Ministry said that in light of the failings at the site highlighted by the 2008 State Comptroller's Report, and the decision of the High Court of Justice that the complex be managed by a special committee, the Tourism Ministry proposed that due to its major significance, the site should in the possession of the state.

Once the Israel Lands Administration is in possession of the site, the government company can begin its work.

However, before expropriation can proceed, the Israel Lands Administration must conduct a hearing for some 20 groups that oppose the takeover. The groups could seek compensation, claiming that they see no profit from their management of the site and in fact spent their own funds on it.

Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov said yesterday that the tomb is the most popular site for Jewish visitors in Israel after the Western Wall. Over the past three years, the Tourism Ministry has invested heavily in improvements in and around the compound, which contributed to the success of the annual Lag Ba'omer event in terms of safety and tourism, he said, adding "the establishment of the government company would help realize the tourism potential of the site."

It is estimated that more than a million people visit the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai annually, some 400,000 on Lag Ba'omer alone. Thousands also gather there at the beginning of each Hebrew month.

According to State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss's 2008 report, conflict among the many groups involved in running the site "have gone on for years and create paralysis."

As reported in Haaretz, after the 2008 State Comptroller's report, a panel, known as the "committee of five" began to oversee the site. However, it encountered major opposition from various quarters in the ultra-Orthodox community, leading to the resignation of the committee's chairman, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall.

His place was taken by the director general of National Roads Company, Alex Vishnitzer.

Rabinovitz reportedly encountered threats and violence, and demonstrations ensued following renovations of the tomb complex authorized by the committee. Bones found during the work aroused the ire of the extremist Eda Haredit movement. The work fanned the flames of the dispute over ownership of the site.

Despite the millions of shekels the Tourism Ministry has invested in the site, including for the Lag Ba'omer event, it has not been able to take possession of the compound, part of which is still in the hands of the Sephardic hekdesh, which maintains charity boxes at the site.

It is believed that some NIS 3 million are contributed to the site annually, only NIS 1 million of which goes to the fund maintained by the state committee.

Extreme religious groups have implemented various measures at the site, including the construction of increasingly higher walls to separate men and women in prayer areas.