Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox dead get proper burial

Ah, the good old days. Stealing corpses before they even got cold, right under the noses of the police and paramedics just about to take them for autopsy, bundling them in the van and driving them out to some secret place in a cemetery — still whole, uncut — for a proper Jewish burial.

Yoel Greuss, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, sits in his 19th century, impoverished home in Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim quarter, grinning as he talks of his adventures.

“A few years ago, there was a man lying dead in his bed, a Charedi [ultra-Orthodox], and the police came. They wanted to take the body for an autopsy, and everybody was inside the apartment trying to stop them, and there was a crowd outside, and somebody distracted the police, and a few of us grabbed the body, wrapped in it in the sheet, and ran outside,” says Greuss, a member of Neturei Karta, the most extreme of all the ultra-Orthodox sects, the one that hates Zionism so much its leaders buddy up with Ahmadinejad and Louis Farrakhan.

“This was in Meah Shearim with all the little alleys, right?” he goes on, sitting at his dining room table, a wall of holy books behind him. “The police run outside and ask the crowd which way we went, and they tell them, ‘That way,’ and the police run that way. Meanwhile, we went the other way. We put the body in a car and drove it to a cemetery and buried it.”

I ask him where, and he tilts his head back, a thin smile on his face — no comment.

Israel’s Charedim are known for their ability to mobilize tens,  or hundreds, of thousands of screaming protesters, to burn garbage bins, to throw stones at police, all for the sake of closing a street on Shabbat, or stopping developers from digging up ancient Jewish graves, or forcing advertisers to take down “pornographic” billboards — or advancing some other holy cause. But for the great mitzvah of preventing autopsies, which they consider a desecration of the dead, Charedi activists over the decades have gone so far as to snatch fresh corpses — usually with the help of a fired-up, intimidating crowd — before the dead could be taken to the coroner’s office in Tel Aviv. By and large a Jerusalem phenomenon, the bodies are buried in a local cemetery, the grave’s location known only to the gravediggers, a few Charedi higher-ups and the immediate family of the deceased.

In the past, this was the Charedim’s tactic of choice against autopsies. But in recent years, they’ve all but stopped stealing corpses, because they don’t have to — the police and courts don’t want riots on their hands, so now, unless an autopsy is absolutely necessary to determine the exact cause of death, an activist’s call to a police station or a court petition is usually enough to bypass the coroner’s office.

“I do not enjoy having to fight the Charedim,” Dr. Jehuda Hiss, Israel’s chief coroner since 1987, says in an interview in one of the autopsy rooms at the L. Greenberg Institute of Forensic Medicine, known to all as Abu Kabir, the gritty South Tel Aviv neighborhood where it’s located.

Fights over autopsies almost always concern a corpse of a religious Jew or Muslim; secular people don’t ordinarily object. So Hiss still has plenty of work. “We did 15 bodies today,” he said on one recent evening.

In Tel Aviv’s courthouse, Michael Gutwein, a volunteer who heads the litigious arm of the anti-autopsy crusade, explains why cutting up dead bodies is such a sin. “In the Shulchan Arukh [the main source book on Jewish law], it says that after death, the soul, which lives on inside the dead body, feels every little injury ‘like 1,000 needles.’ So you can imagine what an autopsy feels like,” he says. “That’s why we care so much — out of respect for the dead.”

He recalls a recent case that went to the Supreme Court — a construction worker in Rehovot was run over by a tractor, and state prosecutors wanted an autopsy performed on the body for insurance purposes — to see if the tractor killed him or if he died from a pre-existing heart condition. The dead man was a secular bachelor, but his next of kin were newly religious Jews. They contacted the anti-autopsy movement; Gutwein filed a court petition, and, by the next day, state prosecutors had backed off. Gutwein displays the Supreme Court ruling, which concludes, “The autopsy will not be performed,” and is signed by Justice Hanan Meltzer. The secular construction worker, his soul spared the 1,000 needles, received a proper ultra-Orthodox burial.  

Dr. Jehuda Hiss, Israel’s chief coroner since 1987. Photo by Jonathan Bloom

Charedi activists win their court petitions to stop autopsies “about 80 percent of the time,” Hiss says. The activists’ own estimates run to 90 percent. Often there’s no need to go to court; Gutwein says that after a man was killed in a recent house fire in Ramla, the police wanted to do an autopsy, so he called the Ramla police chief. “I told him, ‘The man died in a fire; what more are you going to find out from Abu Kabir?” Again, no autopsy, no needles — straight into the ground.

Gutwein points out, though, that if Charedi activists are convinced by authorities that an autopsy is necessary to help identify a murderer or stop the spread of disease, they won’t oppose it. “This is also in line with Jewish law,” he says.

At 43, Gutwein lives in Bnei Brak, Israel’s most Charedi city,  and it is his job to arrange funerals. He got involved in caring for the dead about 20 years ago. “I had a friend who drove a hearse who got injured, and he asked me to fill in for him. Things just went on from there,” he says.

Noting that he’s stopped “hundreds, if not thousands of autopsies” by peaceful, legal means, Gutwein refers to Greuss and his crew as “fanatics.” He recalls once stepping into the breach between police and a raging crowd of Neturei Karta and the like-minded Toldot Aharon sect in the Charedi town of El’ad.

“A young woman died of a drug overdose; there was no suspicion of foul play, but the police wanted to take the body for an autopsy, and Greuss had bused in a crowd from Jerusalem and Ramat Beit Shemesh [an ideological suburb of Meah Shearim]. They were in the street yelling, ‘Murderers! Nazis! Gevalt!’ — what the fanatics usually yell. 

“We negotiated with the police to call off the autopsy, and to let us have the body to drive to the cemetery so everybody would go home,” Gutwein continues. “We put the body in one of our ambulances; I start to drive away, and the crazies see me and start screaming that I’m driving it [to] Abu Kabir! I told them I’m driving the body to the cemetery, and they wouldn’t believe me; they yelled that I was lying; they broke the ambulance’s mirrors and windows.”

Back in his cluttered, peeling apartment in Meah Shearim, Greuss explains how he gets the commotion started. If police and paramedics pull up to an apartment in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Ramat Beit Shemesh or some other ultra-Orthodox community, he hears about it immediately on his beeper, cell phone, Mirs or other gadget. If the ambulance is there to pick up a dead body, Greuss calls out the troops.

“I call five guys, each of them calls five guys, and so on. In 15 minutes we have a crowd of 1,000 people,” he says.

Greuss, 38, says he ran off with his first corpse in his late teens. “I didn’t like studying in yeshiva, so I dropped out at 16. I didn’t have anything to do, then I got a job guarding graves at [Jerusalem’s] Shamgar cemetery,” he says. A couple of years later, there was a ruckus at the cemetery between police who wanted to take the body of a young Charedi man for an autopsy and the crowd that wanted to prevent it.

“This was about 1 or 2 in the morning, and in the middle of all this, the body was laying there, covered, on a gurney,” he recalls. “We have a saying — ‘no corpse, no autopsy.’ So I wheeled the body out of the cemetery, stopped a car [driven by a Charedi man], put the body in the back, and we drove away and just sat there with it. There was a court case going on against the autopsy, and people were demonstrating outside the judge’s house in the middle of the night. Next thing you know, the judge cancels the autopsy, and we drove the body back to Shamgar and they buried it.”

By now, because of the Charedim’s power in the streets and courts, the theft of dead bodies before autopsy is down to about one a year, or even less. The most notorious instance in recent years came in May 2006, when the body of 1-year-old Malka Sitner, daughter of American immigrant Charedi parents, was stolen from the refrigerator of Ashdod cemetery and driven off for burial — while some 250 police tried to hold off a crowd of more than 1,000 Charedim, some of whom were throwing stones and breaking windows.

Police had wanted the autopsy to see if the parents had been negligent in their care of the girl. Greuss, who has managed to stay out of prison but who is under police investigation for a caper or two, freely acknowledges that he was at Ashdod cemetery that day and that he dispatched a few busloads of demonstrators, but says he had nothing to do with the corpse-snatching itself.

However, he allows that during the melee, “Somebody asked me if I could give him five guys. He didn’t tell me for what, and I gave him five guys.” He also says he heard later from one of the corpse-snatchers about how it had gone down.

“One young guy stood at the entrance of the women’s bathroom, like he was guarding the women’s privacy, but inside there were a few men, and one of them had a crowbar, and he climbed up the wall, broke the window and climbed down into the next room where the refrigerator was. He broke open the refrigerator door, took out the little girl’s body, pushed it through the window down to the guys on the other side, and they ran out of the bathroom with it.

“They put it in a car and sent the car off while some other Charedim set up a decoy,” he says. “These other men loaded something that was sort of the shape of a corpse and wrapped in a prayer shawl into the back of a car and drove off. Naturally, the police followed them. When the police stopped their car and saw there was no body inside the shawl, they beat up the driver, they were so mad,” Greuss says, smiling.  

By this time, the men driving the body of Malka Sitner were headed out of Ashdod. “They were in the last car to drive out of the exit before police set up a barricade and started checking every car coming through,” he says. “You see? God protects us.”

In an unprepossessing office near Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav also smiles as he recounts how he “stole bodies from the morgue at Hadassah, we opened the front door of Abu Kabir and threw rats inside. I was young, 18.”

Meshi-Zahav, 51, who resembles a Charedi reincarnation of James Cagney, used to be the chief agitator of the Jerusalem community, organizing all the wild demonstrations against autopsies and every other abomination, but, over the years, he became legitimate. He now heads the well-respected Orthodox volunteer organization ZAKA (Hebrew acronym for “Disaster Victims Identification”), whose main work is to gather the remains of the dead for burial, notably at terror attacks, but which also coordinates the legal side of the anti-autopsy movement.  

“Autopsies are becoming a thing of the past,” he says. “It’s all going to be done noninvasively, by MRI.” Indeed, Israel’s first forensic MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine went into use in early August at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center, near Ben-Gurion Airport. In the first two weeks, six autopsies were performed, he said. ZAKA even helped raise the money to buy it, Meshi-Zahav says.

On this subject, at least, Hiss and the Charedim are in agreement. “If you use the MRI together with the CT scan, toxicological tests and tissue sampling, you can get results almost as precise as from an autopsy,” Israel’s chief coroner says. “This is the wave of the future — autopsy by non-invasive means, or ‘virtopsy,’ as it’s called.”

Virtopsy has also been used in Switzerland and England, and Hiss, 65, is greatly relieved that Israel is joining the club. “After nearly 25 years of fighting ZAKA and the Charedim, I’m worn out,” he says. “They’ve won.”