Tiberias Uproots Trees to Make Street Kosher for Cohanim

Municipality excavating entire width of road to create middle layer between street and underground cemeteries feared below.

The Tiberias Municipality has been transplanting trees along Hayarden Street in order to enable cohanim, descendants of ancient Jewish priests, to use the street. According to Jewish tradition, cohanim are not allowed to enter cemeteries. The municipality undertook the project because of the concern that ancient cemeteries are buried under the street. The center of the city, where Hayarden Street is located, was the Jewish burial area of the town in Talmudic times.

The work to accommodate cohanim requires excavation of its entire width and the removal of the trees there. In addition to eight impressive ficus trees that were decades old that were relocated on Wednesday, several eucalyptus trees were chopped down early this year as part of the project. The relocation of the ficus trees, which had provided shade to the southern swathe of the road, was handled in an unprofessional manner, according to David Brand, the chief forestry official at the Jewish National Fund, who said the trees were trimmed to an excessive extent two and a half months ago and the work was done without permission.

Removing trees - Gili Eliyahu - 24112011
Gili Eliyahu

The city got approval about 10 days ago to transplant the ficus trees. Although the municipality promised at the beginning of the year to relocate the trees to the northern entrance to the town, on Wednesday the ficuses ended up at the southern end of Tiberias, near the Tiberias Hot Springs. The city has committed to plant two mature palm trees at the northern entrance to the city for every eucalyptus tree that was removed.

The Tiberias Municipality said it was committed to preserve green spaces in the city and would not allow damage to them. The ficus trees were relocated with the approval of the Jewish National Fund, the municipality added.

In a letter from early this year explaining the need for the project, Yisrael Antebi who is the municipality's assistant director general and the head of the city engineering and projects department, described the plan for a thoroughfare for cohanim, explaining that the city was more than 2,000 years old and the Old City of Tiberias was flanked by cemeteries. "As a result, cohanim are not prepared to use the traffic thoroughfares in Tiberias in the center of the city. The Israeli government decided to fund roads that conform with halakha [Jewish religious law] to make it possible for cohanim to travel there," Antebi wrote.

The project requires excavation of the entire width of the road, removal of trees along its perimeter as well as underground infrastructure, and construction of installations in conformity with Jewish religious law. Halaka requires that two layers of concrete be installed under the street. The project will create a hollow cavity from which a pipe will run so the area is not sealed. Two similar projects have been completed elsewhere in the town.

One of them on Ben-Zakai Street, involved a stretch of nearly a kilometer of road. It took almost three years to complete and cost the state NIS 18 million. By comparison, the project on Hayarden Street, a portion of which has already been carried out, is less than half that length.

The controversy over cemeteries in Tiberias is as old as the town itself. The city was founded in 20 C.E. by Herod Antipas, but the Jews refused to live there because it was partially built on a cemetery. Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai later gave halakhic approval for Jews to make their homes there.