Accessibility links

Ultra-Orthodox Jews Protest Grave Removal in Israel

  • Robert Berger

Religious Jews and Israel's secular government have clashed over ancient burial rights.

Angry ultra-Orthodox Jews came out to protest as Israeli authorities removed ancient graves to prepare for construction of a hospital emergency room. The demonstrators tried to disrupt the work at Barzilai Hospital in the coastal city of Ashkelon, charging that disturbing the graves is a violation of Jewish religious Law.
Police dragged the protesters away by force.

Archaeologists say the graves belonged to Christians or pagans from about 1,400 years ago, but the ultra-Orthodox insist they are Jewish bones and cannot be moved according to religious tradition.

The removal of the graves came after weeks of political wrangling. At first, Israel's Cabinet voted to leave the graves in place and relocate the emergency room, in deference to ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

But hospital officials were outraged because the proposed facility would be far away from the main hospital, posing a security threat in the event of Palestinian rocket attacks from the nearby Gaza Strip.

So the government reversed the decision.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the weekly Cabinet meeting that he regrets hurting the religious sensibilities of the ultra-Orthodox, but that the decision to remove the graves benefits the broader Israeli public.

The dispute points to a deepening religious-secular divide in Israel, and the dilemma of trying to implement ancient Jewish Law in a modern Jewish state.