ZOA Encouraging Parallel Efforts by U.S. and Israeli Leaders To Protect the Rights of the Bereaved in Jerusalem
June 27, 2014

The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has congratulated U.S. Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY) for the successful passage of her Protect Cemeteries Act (H.R. 4028) in the House of Representatives. 

If Meng’s bill is next approved by the Senate (S. 2466) and signed by the President, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 will be amended to include cemetery desecrations anywhere in the world. International violators thus would be subject to penalties such as cuts in foreign aid, trade sanctions, and cancelled cultural and scientific exchanges. 

ZOA’s Israel Office has stepped up its advocacy lately promoting action by U.S. leaders, like that of Meng, to help Israel tackle worsening conditions in eastern Jerusalem, including in and around the Mount of Olives. ZOA Israel Director Jeff Daube had discussed the issue with Meng during her Jerusalem visit last summer, and twice subsequently in Washington, encouraging her constituents living in Israel to do the same.

ZOA, together with the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim (ICPHH) whose Israel division Daube co-chairs, is pursuing more robust intervention with Israeli leadership as well. ZOA/ICPHH has been increasing awareness among officials such as, most recently, President-elect Reuven Rivlin, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich, Tourism Minister Uzi Landau, Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, and Chief Rabbis of Israel Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau. 

ZOA/ICPHH also has been bringing victims to the Knesset to testify — ZOA friend Simon Falic, a distinguished businessman and major Jewish philanthropist, has his own unfortunate story to relate. In addition, Daube and ICPHH Israel co-chair Harvey Schwartz are conducting a series of personal on-site briefings for Knesset leaders to further inform their education about the area’s 3,000 year old Jewish history and threats to end its Jewish future.

Member of Knesset Miri Regev (Likud) has been a leader in government efforts to end the violence. More than once she told Daube, as have many other MKs across the political spectrum whom ZOA has approached, “Whatever you need for Har Hazeitim [Mt. of Olives], I’m here for you.” 

Regev, along with members of her Internal Affairs committee, is scheduled for an on-site update with ZOA/ICPHH on July 3. Immediately afterwards she will convene a hearing with police leadership about the epidemic of Arab attacks spreading in the eastern city sector. Regev understands well the Mount of Olives problem is but a ‘micro’ of the ‘macro’ Arab campaign to weaken Israeli sovereignty in all of Jerusalem.

Some progress has been made. Due to better policing, the Mount of Olives desecrations and Arab rock throwing meant to kill and maim have abated somewhat, at least for the moment. Fact is, we have witnessed a longstanding pattern of ebbing and flowing. At its worst, over the last few years and escalating further in recent months, hundreds of visitors to the area, including Americans, have been terrorized — some of them badly injured. 

Even if the status quo were to hold, that would not be satisfactory. Much more still would be needed to bring the desecrations and attacks down to, and maintained at, a level of zero tolerance. 

Regev, therefore, is thinking about introducing a Knesset bill to enhance existing legislation against rock throwing and cemetery desecrations. She asked Daube to provide U.S. state legislation that would serve as an enforcement and prevention model suitable for emulation in Israel. ZOA Center for Law and Justice Director Susan Tuchman compiled many state statutes, from which Illinois and Florida laws were selected.

Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon also is keenly interested in halting the “unacceptable” conditions. Danon has been to the Mount of Olives several times with Daube in past years, including two weeks ago, where he told a Jerusalem Post reporter, “We must have freedom of religion and safety for all people in this country, including Jews.” 

He later shared his worries about the larger picture with ZOA’s Israel Office, saying “How we deal with this issue should be of utmost concern to all Israelis who believe in a strong and united Jerusalem. If we don’t defend our sovereignty at the holiest, oldest, continuously used, Jewish cemetery in the world, then how can we expect to ensure the rest of Jerusalem remains the undivided capital of Israel?”

Daube agreed, stating “The problem’s resolution does boil down to sovereignty and control. Israel has to resist the pressures implying that Arabs with nationalist designs on Jerusalem should have their way in Jerusalem. The U.S. administration, and groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now that elicit pressure against Israel’s interests in Jerusalem in the name of a minority of American Jews, rather should acknowledge Israel’s track record of protecting religious freedom for all. That means Israel is the only party that can be trusted to guarantee access to Jerusalem’s holy sites over the long term.”

The ZOA views the depredations on the Mount of Olives not only as a serious human rights issue inflicting suffering on innocents at their most vulnerable while they are grieving, and as an example of emboldened Arab antisemitism, but as a strategic challenge for the U.S. as it is for Israel.

With these concerns in mind, ZOA’s Israel Office has been reaching out to the U.S. Jerusalem Consulate, including Consul General Michael Ratney, to whom Daube sent a letter in May, copied to the State Department’s Under Secretary Sarah Sewall and Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, among others. Ratney wrote back that “violence of any sort, directed against anyone, is absolutely unacceptable,” and invited Daube to update him at the consulate.

Daube met last Friday with Ratney (June 20), reiterating that U.S. involvement is warranted to help end the routine Arab assaults and desecrations because hundreds of Americans are buried in the Mount of Olives cemetery. That translates to numerous Americans who either are viciously attacked, narrowly escape attack, or minimally must depend on armed escorts when they visit. In an earlier meeting with Daube on another matter in November 2012, the Consul had told Daube his number one priority is protecting Americans in his jurisdiction.

Ratney agreed to ZOA’s request that he recommend the State Department look into omissions of the Mount of Olives hate crimes in its annual reporting: in the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and Country Reports on Terrorism. He agreed it was appropriate to consider officially terming the acts “antisemitic” (Daube is in touch with State Department antisemitism envoy Ira Forman as well) as only Jews are the ones being targeted. Ratney also agreed to try to obtain condemnations from the Palestinian government — stated in Arabic. 

The Consul commended the ZOA for bringing together the various U.S. diplomatic, enforcement and reporting agencies to expose and then meaningfully address the violence. ZOA’s Israel Office had begun this process in 2010 with its first having written Ratney’s predecessor, Daniel Rubinstein, and then briefed the former consulate staff in the ensuing meetings. While the security requirements at the time had proven too onerous for the consulate to partake in an on-site excursion, Ratney did accept Daube’s renewed offer and will join him on the Mount of Olives very soon.

Daube additionally raised a compelling question related to Rep. Meng’s Protect Cemeteries Act: If passed, which parties might thus be held responsible to control these cemetery abuses in Jerusalem? Ratney concurred the application of sanctions in the 1998 law, in general, and Meng’s cemetery desecrations amendment, in particular, indeed would be something for the State Department’s legal team to investigate as U.S. policy does not currently recognize Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. 

That policy, incidentally, is contrary to the will of the American people as evidenced by U.S. congressional statutes such as the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act of 1995 and Jerusalem Birthplace Act of 2002, both of which recognize all of Jerusalem as part of Israel. The former, still applicable law goes further by referring to the city as Israel’s capital since 1950.

There also is the matter of Palestinian culpability vis-à-vis the Meng bill. With the Palestinian Authority (PA) presence in Jerusalem having been prohibited by signed Oslo agreements, the manner in which it might be held responsible is not clear either. As the de facto embassy for Palestinian Arabs, the Consulate needs to explore that question, too.

The ZOA has consistently demonstrated the PA is not just an observer in the developing crisis. The PA undoubtedly shares responsibility with local Arab leadership calling the shots in Jerusalem, first of all because it is fomenting the violence via non-stop antisemitic messaging in its educational and religious institutions, and in its official media. 

Moreover, there are indications Palestinian leadership may be interfering more directly. A hoodlum caught smashing Mount of Olives headstones on camera admitted to having been hired to do that. He did not finger anyone, but knowledgeable Israeli authorities nevertheless have privately expressed suspicions linking the PA to hate crimes of this type at this location. 

One might extrapolate from proven Palestinian misbehavior elsewhere in eastern Jerusalem that something similar may be playing out on the Mount of Olives. For example, it recently was revealed that Fatah partner Hamas, in cooperation with the Arab Islamic movement in Israel, is paying hundreds of men as much as 1,440 dollars a month each to throw stones at Jews who go up to the Temple Mount. 

Rock throwing and fire bombing throughout eastern Jerusalem has reached the point that eight communities (e.g., Shuafat and Beit Hanina) at times are completely impassable for Jews. Israeli police and other city services have abdicated their responsibilities to outside contractors who, reports say, are now being directed by the PA. Jerusalem Councilman and Mount of Olives resident Arieh King has no trouble making the connection between these developments, signaling diminishing Israeli sovereignty on the ground, and the Palestinian agenda for Jerusalem.

Continuing to focus on the ‘micro,’ ZOA’s Israel Office meanwhile has been sharing reports with Knesset lawmakers about Meng’s legislation and Daube’s Jerusalem consulate and State Department meetings. We are emphasizing the Americans are also unhappy with Arab aggression in the vicinity of Judaism’s most sacred burial ground, and thus support for stronger Israeli legislative action that protects mourners and pilgrims might be counted on. 

ZOA also is encouraging Israeli leaders of all political parties to speak out more forcefully like their U.S. peers, for example Congressmen Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who (together with Daube) themselves were victims of a stoning attack on the Mount of Olives in 2012. Namely, we are asking them to demand the PA issue its own condemnations of the Mount of Olives abuses as the infringement on religious freedom they plainly are. More significantly, that the PA cease its ongoing incitement to violence which is provoking the perpetrators.

ZOA National President Morton A. Klein made reference to PA culpability as well, stating “The role of the PA in the violence and desecrations must be taken into account to effectively stop both. Its vicious anti-Jewish incitement alone is an instigator. Then you have a demonstrated style of paying agitators and terrorists to attack Jews, as the PA’s unity government with Hamas is doing elsewhere in eastern Jerusalem. And do not forget the Palestinian history of brutal sacrilege in many other Jewish holy places in Israel. All of these and other indications strongly suggest the PA bears considerable responsibility for the abuses on the Mount of Olives.”

Klein added, “It is a basic human right to honor deceased family members without being subject to terrifying attacks, or having to confront shattered or defaced gravestones. Israel itself is trying to do what it can about a very difficult situation, but enforcement activity is somewhat limited by the relentless external pressure not to upset Arab neighbors. With more understanding about the harsh realities Israel faces daily, for example support from outside parties along the lines of Congresswoman Meng and the signees of her bill, Israel would feel freer to act in the interest of its citizens and the Americans who visit.” 

Klein concluded, “We must do all we can to protect the largest and oldest Jewish cemetery in the world.”

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