Religious Battle Looming at Mt. Meron

Walkways for kohanim face demolition.

A battle between ultra-Orthodox and regional planning officials related to alleged ancient Jewish graves at Mt. Meron is expected to come to a head in the coming days.

Two metal walkways built over the alleged graves near the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai - one walkway for men only, the other for kohanim, men descended from the priestly caste who are barred from any contact with the dead - were supposed to have been removed by the state after the May 10-11 Lag Ba'omer holiday, when hundreds of thousands made the annual pilgrimage to the site.

But the state has not completely removed the walkways, and seems to be moving to obtain authorization for the controversial project. The local zoning board, meanwhile, says it intends to issue demolition orders for the structures within days.

In May the state spent more than NIS 1 million to build the walkways. The kohanim path was built at the demand of figures within the ultra-Orthodox community who claimed there were ancient graves under the traditional route to the tomb; kohanim are prohibited by Jewish law from all contact with the dead. The bridge is closed at present.

The Merom Galil Regional Planning and Building Committee stipulated in the temporary use permit it issued for the kohanim path that it was only for the two days of Lag Ba'omer. The same permit, and provision, apply to the males-only walkway, which was put up hastily shortly before the holiday last month.

The males-only walkway was built to facilitate the enforcement of strict gender segregation on the site, according to the ultra-Orthodox media, although the Tourism Ministry insists it was built as a safety measure.

"The bridges were issued permits for Lag Ba'omer only, and only after an engineering inspection," an official in the Merom Hagalil Regional Council said, adding: "Currently there are no use permits for the bridges and a request to dismantle them has been issued. Demolition orders will be issued within a few days."

In addition to the NIS 13 million allocated annually by the state to the site, including NIS 7 million for the two-day Lag Ba'omer celebrations, this year the Tourism Ministry, which is responsible for religious sites, added an additional NIS 2 million for what it defined as "safety projects" - and which included the two walkways.

The ministry said it had received a request "from a large group, including thousands of worshipers who regularly visit the site, especially on Rosh Hodesh [the start of each lunar month], to keep the bridges in place. As a result, and for safety purposes, the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites is in negotiation with the authorities to extend the permit. If the appropriate permits are not obtained by the end of the month [the bridges] will not be used and will be dismantled," the ministry said.

With regard to the massive spending for a two-day event, the ministry said: "About 400,000 people participated in the celebrations. When it comes to human life and safety there is no room for saving money, and to our great regret tragic events in the past have proved this. The Ministry of Tourism does not compromise on this issue, and is constantly raising the level of safety. In addition, many events in Israel are for one day only and nevertheless significant sums are spent on them for public safety."

The National Center for the Development of Holy Sites said it is waiting for the response of the planning and building committee on its request to extend the permit for the bridges by 30 days.