The Mount of Olives pre-1899
The Mount of Olives separates the Judean Desert to the east from the city of Jerusalem. The olive trees that covered the mount in the past are responsible for its name. An alternate name for the mount cited in the Talmud and the Midrash is the Mount of Anointment, named after the anointing oil, prepared from the olives that grew there, to anoint kings and high priests.
Even before it became a Jewish cemetery, the Mount of Olives functioned as a place of prayer, even prior to the building of the Temple. King David would customarily prostrate himself there, and he earmarked the site for prayer.
The Jewish commentaries relate that for three and a half years the Divine Presence dwelled on the Mount of Olives after having left the site of the Temple Mount in the expectation that the Jewish people would do repentance. The prophets Zachariah and Ezekiel prophesied that from there it would make its return to its proper place at the Temple.
The Red Heifer ceremony was performed on the Mount of Olives. Ashes from the heifer were used to purify those defiled by contact with the dead during the Temple period and afterwards. A relay of bonfires that began from the Mount of Olives would inform the Jews of the Land of Israel as well as Jews residing in the diaspora that the new moon had been sanctified. After the Temple was destroyed, the Mount of Olives, which overlooked the Temple Mount and the site of the destroyed Temple, became a pilgrimage site and a venue for prayer and assembly, one that continued to function in that manner for many centuries. Jewish sources in particular note the pilgrimage to the Mount of Olives on Sukkot and on Hoshanna Raba (the seventh day of Sukkot), as well as on the Sabbath and weekdays. Jewish tradition holds that the dove that brought the olive branch to Noah at the end of the Flood came from the Mount of Anointment.
The Jewish Cemetery on the Mount of Olives
The Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives is the largest and most important Jewish cemetery in the world, extending over 250 dunams east of the Temple Mount and constituting in effect a national and religious pantheon for the Jewish people containing the tombs of the illustrious dead of the nation over the course of 3,000 years. The greats of the Jewish people and the state are buried there, creators from all walks of life: rabbis and dynastic leaders, the prophets Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi, David’s son Absalom, the commentator on the Mishnah Rabbi Obadiah of Bartanura, Rabbi Haim ben Atar (the Orah Hayyim), and Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (the Rashash). Others include Pinhas Rutenberg, the founder of the Israel Electric Company; fighters such as Yehiam Weitz; the authors Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Haim Hazaz; the renowned poet Uri Zvi Greenberg; Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language; the rabbis of the Sadigora, Gur, and Nadborna hassidic dynasties; the founder of Hadassah, Henrietta Szold; intellectual giants such as Professor Ephraim Ohrbach; the revered Chief Rabbi Abraham HaCohen Kook; Menachem Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize; Moshe Yoel Salomon, one of Jerusalem’s builders at the close of the nineteenth century and the founder of Petah Tikva; and myriads upon myriads of simple Jewish folk in the Yemenite, Bukharan, Georgian, Ashkenazi, Hassidic, Babylonian, and Jerusalem sections. All of them together constitute the historic backbone of the Jewish people.
The Mount of Olives (which is also sanctified in Christian and Muslim traditions) is mentioned in the visions of the prophet Ezekiel and the prophecies of Zechariah, and has a special sanctity and qualities attributed to it that exempts those buried there on the day of the resurrection of the dead from the “separation of the soul at the grave” and “migration via underground passages.”
Jewish tradition relates that the beginning of the resurrection process will take place on the mount at the end of days, as prophesied by the Jewish prophets. Many Jews believe that those buried on the mount will be the first to arise for everlasting life. The Jews of Jerusalem customarily sent soil from the Mount of Olives in bags to Jewish communities in the diaspora, and Jews outside of Israel would spread this soil on the graves of their beloved.
There are twelve separate burial locations on the mount. The deceased were Jerusalem dwellers in particular, but also included those who resided outside the city and outside the boundaries of Israel who had requested to be buried there.
The four major burial locations on the mount are:
- The ancient Sephardic burial area where all the Jews of Jerusalem from all the communities were buried beginning from the fourteenth century until 1856. After this date only Jews from Oriental communities were buried there. Nearly all the Jewish luminaries of Jerusalem from the Oriental communities who lived and worked in the city until the War of Independence in 1948 are buried in these plots.
- Most Ashkenazi Jews were interred in the cemetery of the main General Burial Society founded by the Perushim (the opponents of Hassidism) beginning in 1856 and until the War of Independence, and they included even those who were not Perushim. Following the Six-Day War, many others were buried there including Menachem Begin and his wife Aliza.
- The cemetery of the Hassidim includes the burial plots of a number of Hassidic burial societies. Burial at this cemetery began in 1856 and continued until the War of Independence. All the deceased buried there were members of Jerusalem’s Hassidic courts and include a few dynastic rabbis.
- Nearly 5,000 deceased, the majority from Jerusalem, were buried at a section of the cemetery of the General Burial Society during the years 1939-1948.
Aside from the four major burial areas that cover most of the area of the Mount of Olives, there are eight additional minor burial areas that belong generally to the Oriental community.
Jewish burial on the Mount of Olives began when Jerusalem was transformed into the Jewish people’s capital during the time of King David (circa 1,000 BCE).
The most ancient burial caves on the Mount of Olives are in the area of the contemporary Arab village of Silwan, and date from biblical times. The Carta Guide to the Mount of Olives relates that burial on the eastern ridge gathered impetus at the end of the First Temple period (the eighth to sixth centuries BCE), continued during the entire period of the Second Temple, and then expanded and reached Mount Scopus as well. At the close of the Second Temple period (circa 70 CE), the eastern ridge in the middle of the Mount of Olives became a giant burial ground with many burial caves scattered around the gardens and the olive orchards. However, out of the myriads of burial caves dating from that period, only a few survived. Most of them were plundered.
Historical sources relate that during the Arab, Crusader, and Mameluk periods, Jewish burial took place on the southern slopes and east of the Temple Mount. However, in the sixteenth century, with the beginning of Ottoman rule, the Jews returned to bury their dead on parts of the Mount of Olives.
Ibrahim Sayyed has been the Muslim caretaker of the Mount of Olives cemetery for more than 40 years. He succeeded his father and grandfather. On a typical day, Sayyed starts his work at 7 a.m. “But when you are serving the dead, there is no fixed time. A death can happen anytime, and I am on call 24/7,” says Sayyed. He says the tension between Muslims and Jews do not affect him. “Nothing is perfect in the world. I do my job and I hope for peace.”
In 2010, a new website was launched to keep a digital record of the tombs but Sayyed says, “I know each and every one of these tombs by name. Families from different parts of the world come here often to look for family member who died years ago. And if they tell me the name, I know where they are resting in peace.”
The Mount of Olives Under Jordanian Rule
On the eve of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 there were about 60,000 graves on the Mount of Olives. When hostilities were initiated by the Arabs against the Jewish community, the Jews risked their lives to continue to bury their dead on the mount. However, when the violence intensified they were forced to prepare “temporary” cemeteries in the western part of the city.
Vandalized tombstones at the Mount of Olives.
Jordan had obligated itself within the framework of the Armistice Agreement that it had signed with Israel on April 3, 1949, to allow “free access to the holy sites and cultural institutions and use of the cemeteries on the Mount of Olives,” but did not honor its obligation.
At the end of 1949, Israeli lookouts posted on Mount Zion reported that Arab residents began uprooting the tombstones and plowing the land in the cemeteries. The destruction of the cemeteries continued over the course of the 19 years that the Jordanians ruled eastern Jerusalem. Four roads were paved through the cemeteries, in the process destroying graves including those of famous persons. Skeletons and bones were strewn about and scattered. Tombstones were used as paving stones for roads in the Jordanian Army camp in Azariya, east of Jerusalem. In Azariya, a telephone booth was found built out of tombstones, and Jewish tombstones were also used as flooring for latrines. Uprooted tombstones were also used in Jordanian military positions surrounding the city. Both the newer sections and ancient graves were destroyed, some a thousand years old.
A gas station and other buildings, including the Intercontinental Hotel, were erected on top of ancient graves. Israel attempted to focus global attention and alert international institutions to the destruction that was being perpetrated, but to no avail. In 1954, Israel protested to the United Nations over the destruction of graves and the plowing up of the area.
In 1956, the Jordanians attempted to pave a new road through the cemeteries, Israel complained, and the work was halted. In July 1963, Israeli lookout posts again reported that Jordanian soldiers were destroying the tombstones. After the site was liberated in 1967, about 38,000 smashed or damaged tombstones were counted. The slow rehabilitation of the mount and the tombstones has continued until this very day, and Jewish burial at the site was renewed.
The Period of Israeli Rule
The renewed Jewish presence on the Mount of Olives guaranteed the restoration of orderly burial at the site. Nevertheless, Arab damage to Jewish tombstones and attacks on Jewish mourners has continued. Occasionally, when Israel relaxed its vigilance over the mount and the access routes to it in the belief that the area was quiet, Arab violence resumed. In periods of increased tension, especially during the first and second intifadas, more offenses of this type were recorded.
In December 1975, a number of tombstones were smashed in the section belonging to the Sephardic Community Committee on the Mount of Olives. In March 1976, 14 tombstones in the North African immigrants (Mughrabi) section were totally destroyed. In 1977, tombstones were shattered in the Tzur section opposite the Panorama Hotel and the grave of the rabbi of the Gura dynasty was desecrated. In August 1978, a small explosive charge went off near the Intercontinental Hotel next to the Jewish cemetery. In May 1979 the Jerusalem Cemetery Council reported a series of complaints by relatives of the deceased on the desecration of graves and the displacement of tombstones on the Mount of Olives.
During the course of the first intifada, the Mount of Olives became a focal point for the desecration of Jewish graves. In his book The War of the Holy Places, attorney Dr. Samuel Berkowitz recounted some of the incidents. In February 1988, the Yemenite section was desecrated and many tombstones were smashed. In May and July 1989 and June 1991, about ten large PLO flags were drawn on the support walls of the cemetery. In May 1990, 13 tombstones were shattered in the Sephardic section and crosses and hate inscriptions were drawn. In June 1990, 68 tombstones in the “Kolel Polin” section and 11 tombstones in the American section of the cemetery were smashed with heavy hammers. A year later about forty additional tombstones were found shattered in the Sephardic section on the Mount of Olives. On October 6, 1992, on the eve of Yom Kippur, 25 graves were desecrated at the burial site where Prime Minister Menachem Begin was buried, and nationalist slogans in Arabic were spray-painted.
Scores of additional incidents of this type have occurred in recent years as well. Often, the perpetrators were apprehended: bands of Palestinian youths (sometimes also adults) whose actions were motivated by nationalist and/or religious fervor. Yet these events did not come close to the massive and systematic desecration of tombstones during the period of Jordanian rule.
In the period of Israeli rule, Jewish burial parties have made their way to the mount daily, in most cases without incident. Jews visit the graves of their beloved on the mount on a daily basis and the police have provided improved security.
Extensive rehabilitation work has been performed on the mount. Access and parking have been arranged; passageways, paths, and observation points were built. Fences and thousands of graves were rehabilitated. Public toilets were installed and a promenade was erected on the top of the mount. During the nighttime hours, the view from the mount provides one of Jerusalem’s most spectacular attractions as nearly 50 acres are illuminated with special lighting. The churches of Dominus Flevit, Mary Magdalene, and the Church of All Nations – on the path of Jesus, and at the foot of the mount the ancient tombs of the prophet Zachariah, the sons’ of Hezir (the High Priests at the close of the Second Temple period), and Absalom (the son of King David) have also received the emphasis that they deserve.
The Mount of Olives in Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians
During the course of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians at the Camp David summit in 2000, President Bill Clinton broached an outline for partitioning Jerusalem based on the principle: “What is Jewish to the Jews, what is Palestinian to the Palestinians.” Israel was prepared to adopt this outline, but with reservations. During the negotiations, the Palestinians demanded sovereignty not only over the Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem, but also over additional territory including the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. Israel rejected this demand and insisted on sovereignty and Israeli security on the mount and on the roads leading to it. In the Taba discussions as well, Israel and the Palestinians stuck to their respective positions.
During the Olmert-Livni government (2006-2009), there were discussions with the Palestinians on a special regime in the “Holy Basin,” which was defined as the Old City of Jerusalem and additional areas such as Mount Zion and the Mount of Olives. As far as is known, the sides didn’t enter into the substance of the special regime, although, according to sources close to the negotiating team, Israel did not propose and did not intend to propose any Palestinian control whatsoever on the Mount of Olives.
Despite Israeli insistence on continued sovereignty and security control on the Mount of Olives and the roads leading to it, Israel agreed, both at Camp David as well as Taba, to Palestinian sovereignty and control in areas adjacent to and controlling the Mount of Olives including parts of the neighborhoods of A-Tur, Ras Al-Amud, Silwan, and parts of the Old City.
A different position was manifested by the Israeli side in the framework of the Geneva Initiative, a plan lacking binding legal force that was discussed between senior Palestinian personages and members of the Labor Party and the Israeli left. According to the plan, the Mount of Olives was to be under Palestinian sovereignty, but Israel would operate the site and retain security responsibility over the mount. Freedom of access to the mount would be preserved by organized transport from the Jewish Quarter or the Western Wall Plaza in the Old City. Israeli security would be provided but would not fly a flag while entering the Mount of Olives compound. This arrangement was part of a series of special arrangements that the Geneva Initiative prescribed for the holy places. The initiative also prescribed in reciprocity that the Christian cemetery on Mount Zion would be under Israeli sovereignty, and that Palestinian transport would arrive there as well, with the cemetery to be under Palestinian management, control, and operation.
Jewish Settlement in the Mount of Olives Region
In May 1999, work commenced on the construction of a small Jewish neighborhood of 132 housing units at the edge of the Ras Al-Amud neighborhood in an area adjacent to the “Hatzur” section of the Sephardic cemetery on the Mount of Olives. 51 Jewish families are living today at the location, called “Maale Hazeitim.” The land on which the neighborhood was built was purchased 20 years ago by the Jewish magnate Irving Moskowitz, who purchased it from two rabbinic colleges that had purchased the land at the location over a hundred years ago. The British authorities had prohibited annexing this land to the Mount of Olives for burial purposes due to its proximity to the main thoroughfare, and thus the area remained vacant of graves. In the future, the entrepreneurs are planning to expand and join the neighborhood to another adjacent area that is under Jewish control.
The Mount of Olives today
The establishment of the neighborhood was accompanied by a stormy political debate between Israel and the Palestinians and the United States. The argument voiced against Israel was that this was a provocation and it would create a perpetual source of friction. The Israeli government postponed the granting of permits for building the neighborhood for many months, but when the internal political timing in Israel was deemed suitable (following the fall of the first Netanyahu government), building commenced.
The result after nearly a decade is one of prolonged quiet. The Jews and Palestinians coexist side-by-side, without friction, but also without cooperation. It is noteworthy that construction at the site was supported by the Cemetery Council and a number of burial societies that are active in Jerusalem. The Cemetery Council submitted an opinion to the urban planning council noting that “the erection of the neighborhood would induce many whose beloved are buried on the Mount of Olives to come visit the graves of their beloved, something that is denied them from time to time due to security considerations, while the building of a neighborhood would produce a result that many people who currently were not prepared to bury their dead on the Mount of Olives due to similar apprehension, would change their positions.”
The Attitude of the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority to Jewish Holy Sites Within or Adjacent to Their Territory
The performance of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinians in everything connected to respecting and preserving the Jewish holy places within or adjacent to their territory has been poor. In September 2000, the Western Wall was targeted by a Palestinian mob that threw stones from the Temple Mount above, in the presence of religious officials and security personnel from the Palestinian Authority. Israel had allowed their presence at the site in the hope that this would help calm the situation and control it. At the same time, Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus came under a constant hail of gunfire and finally was plundered and burned by a Palestinian mob after it was evacuated by Israel on October 7, 2000. Rachel’s Tomb at the edge of Bethlehem was also attacked and had to be defended and fortified. The ancient “Peace Unto Israel” Synagogue in Jericho was plundered, and holy books and religious artifacts were set ablaze.
The Oslo agreements stipulated that the Palestinian Authority would guarantee freedom of access to all Jewish holy sites and would protect them. In the Second Oslo Agreement signed on September 28, 1995, 28 sites were defined as having “religious significance” or as “archaeological sites,” and it addressed the status of 23 Jewish holy places including the tombs of biblical figures, remnants of ancient synagogues, and ancient graveyards. The Palestinians undertook to guarantee freedom of access to these places. In practice, the Palestinians severely hampered or prevented access to these sites.
Reality as manifested in the West Bank since the Oslo Accords has demonstrated that one cannot entrust responsibility for Jewish holy places, or the access roads to the regions adjacent to them, to Palestinian hands. It is preferable to leave such responsibility in Israeli hands.
The importance and centrality of the Mount of Olives as the most important Jewish cemetery in the world and a focal point of a three-thousand-year-old Jewish tradition makes it incumbent to leave the site under full Israeli sovereignty and responsibility, especially as we are dealing with an active cemetery, where burial has not ceased.
The fact that under Jordanian rule, the obligation to provide free Jewish access to this major site was not honored, and in the course of that same period the cemetery was severely damaged and desecrated, should suffice to prevent a similar attempt in our era. It is only thanks to Israeli efforts that damage to the cemetery has declined appreciably. Continued attempts by Palestinians to harm funeral processions on the way to the mount inform us that Palestinian motivation to harm Jews and their holy places in this area still exists. Without the efforts of the Israel Police and the Israel Security Agency, the picture would be far worse.
The transfer of neighborhoods adjacent to the Mount of Olives to Palestinian sovereignty and control (A-Tur, Ras Al-Amud, and part of Silwan) would endanger the free access of the Jewish public to this ancient holy site. Even defining the location as part of the “Holy Basin,” as was done in the course of earlier negotiations, jeopardizes Jewish freedom of access to the site, as well as continued burial there, as long as it is not made clear that the State of Israel will enjoy authority there in all that concerns security, management of burial procedures, and access to the mount.
Source: Nadav Shragai.
The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem: Why Continued Israeli Control Is Vital, JCPA, (July 28, 2009);
Anjana Sankar, “Meet the Arab caretaker of largest Jewish cemetery,” Khaleej Times, (November 29, 2020).