Rabbinate Stalls on Protected Hospital Wing

The conflict over moving ancient human remains discovered at the construction site of an Ashkelon hospital emergency room slated to be reinforced against rockets has been resurrected.

The renewed debate follows the apparent back-tracking of the Chief Rabbinate on its decision to allow the bones, discovered at Barzilai Medical Center, to be moved to another site.

The Chief Rabbinate yesterday asked the Prime Minister's Office for a two-week extension before officially announcing its decision, originally made last week, to allow the re-interment of the ancient bones.

A source in the Chief Rabbinate said the delay was needed to "obtain further clarifications," however, the change seems due to internal ultra-Orthodox politics.

A halakhic (Jewish law) decision published yesterday by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and two other ultra-Orthodox rabbis holding by Lithuanian standards, stated that the bones should not be moved.

The decision contradicts an edict by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who two weeks ago published a decision permitting the moving of the graves.

Metzger's decision, made at the height of Operation Cast Lead, was couched in terms of pikuah nefesh - the principle that avoiding danger to human life outweighs other considerations - in this case the fact the presence of patients and their families in an unprotected structure.

The situation is particularly problematic for Metzger, who generally follows Elyashiv's authority.

Sources in the Chief Rabbinate said they have recently met with representatives of Atra Kadisha, a group that zealously protects ancient tombs.

The sources said Atra Kadisha would violently oppose the moving of the graves.

The construction of an emergency room at Barzilai, reinforced against rocket attacks, has been delayed for a year following the discovery of the ancient remains.

Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) led opposition to the construction and wants an alternative location to be found, although he also said he would leave the decision up to the chief rabbis.

"From the start I said I do not make decisions on religious law," Cohen told Haaretz recently.

With the start of the fighting in Gaza, public pressure forced the rabbinate to move ahead on a decision, which it rendered after sending a delegation to the site.

Metzger's ruling to allow the graves to be moved was supported by most of the members of the Chief Rabbinic Council, as well as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar.

The opposing decision, reported yesterday on the front page of the ultra-Orthodox daily Yated Ne'eman, states that the issue of preventing danger to life does not apply and construction will only be completed in the future.

In an effort to untangle the mess, Metzger met yesterday with senior ultra-Orthodox religious figure Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and was also expected to meet with Elyashiv.

The chairman of the Knesset's Interior and Environment Committee, MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), said that halakhic rulings to prevent construction, "destroy the foundations on which the rabbinate rests, and spell a death sentence for the hospital."

Pines added that the government and the prime minister, "need to put an end to the travesty and start building the protected wing right away."