Grave situation, as youth vandalism rises in Jerusalem


This story originally ran on themedialine.org.

The Mount of Olives, a 2.2-mile ridge of three mountains to the east of Jerusalem’s Old City, is a holy site for Jews and Christians. It’s dotted with countless churches and is home to the world’s largest Jewish cemetery, with approximately 150,000 graves.

Three miles from here is the Protestant Cemetery of Mount Zion, where some of Jerusalem’s most influential Christian leaders from the 18th and 19th centuries are buried.

In recent weeks, both sites have been attacked, most recently at the Protestant cemetery, where tombstones topped with crosses were toppled by unknown vandals, leaving religious leaders worried about the state of relations among their Palestinian and Israeli constituents, even as renewed peace talks in the region are underway.

That the perpetrators are believed to be adolescents complicates matters further. Four Jewish youths were arrested following the vandalism on Mount Zion, but all were released when their alibi — that they were visiting a cistern for ritual purposes — checked out.

Search for Common Ground (SCG) is an American non-governmental organization that looks for peaceful, collaborative solutions to violent conflict and has 50 offices in 30 countries. In Israel, they have tracked every reported instance of vandalism and physical violence on holy sites since 2011. It’s unclear if such attacks are on the rise, or business as usual.

“There’s no real pattern,” Kevin Merkelz, a project coordinator for the organization in Jerusalem, told The Media Line. “Our data goes up and down. There’s troughs and there’s peaks.”

In 2013, SCG has counted five attacks on cemeteries in Jerusalem — Christian, Jewish and Muslim sites included. Compared with two attacks each in the years 2011 and 2012, attacks certainly seem to be trending upward.

Still, the jury is out. One Israeli radio station, Arutz Sheva, published a story in early September saying there was a “marked reduction” of vandalism and physical attacks on visitors to the Mount of Olives cemetery.

“There used to be many, many attacks,” Harvey Schwartz, co-chairman of the Israel branch of the International Committee for the Preservations of Har Hazeitim, as the Mount of Olives is known in Hebrew told The Media Line. “The statistics at that time seemed to show that there was a reduction of attacks — not an elimination, a reduction. Shortly after that article came out, there was an increase in attacks.”

During the recent Jewish holiday of Sukkot, for example, the preservation committee received reports of cemetery visitors being attacked with rocks, and earlier this week Shwartz got a call about another incident. A group of Arabs, he said, smashed the visitor’s car window with bricks, one of which landed in the car, next to the man’s young child. “Six inches away,” Schwartz explained.

“Everybody talks about stones and rocks. No, these are big bricks that are used to smash car windows,” he said, adding that when Jews carry out so-called “price-tag” attacks on Muslim and Christian sites, the Israeli government responds quickly, but when Jewish visitors to a Jewish holy site are attacked, the response takes much longer. The “price-tag” perpetrators are often young, disaffected Jews from communities in areas that Israel acquired in 1967 with extremist political views. They are angry about what they perceive as Israel’s concessions to the Palestinians.

“Those attacks (by Palestinians) are clearly acts of terrorism, very different from painting ‘price tag’ on a door,” Shwartz said. “They don’t seem to be paying a similar amount of attention to physical attacks against Israelis and Jews. That’s very worrisome. When those acts are committed against Jews, those acts should be called terrorism. That’s what it is.”

Schwartz indicated that there may be a correlation between the increase of attacks on holy sites and the renewed peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and said that his committee deplores vandalism of any cemetery.

“Jewish, Arab, Christian, non-denominational — no cemetery should ever be vandalized or attacked,” he said.

Jeff Taube, who serves with Schwartz as co-chair of Mount of Olives Israel committee and is Director of the Israel Office for the Zionist Organization of America, explained that vandalism within the Har HaZeitim cemetery itself – which included desecrated tombstones much like those at the Protestant Cemetery of Mt. Zion — has all but been eliminated since 142 cameras were installed to monitor the site 24/7. However, Jews are now being attacked on the drive toward the complex – where the security precautions don’t reach.

“When you squeeze a balloon in your hand on one side, it’s gonna pop on the other side,” he told The Media Line.

Some preliminary steps are being taken within the Israeli parliament to address this issue, including various committee hearings and a proposed bill. But the topic is a sensitive one for the government to deal with, as much of the vandalism and stone-throwing — at Jewish, Christian and Muslim sites — is carried out by boys between the ages of 12 and 14.

“I don’t know whether I would like to see adolescents thrown in jail with hardened criminals,” Taube said. “Perhaps what I would like to see is some system of accountability with the parents.”

At Search for Common Ground, Kevin Merkelz is coordinating the Universal Code on Holy Sites project, which lays out a plan for the protection of all sacred spots around the world. He says the documented attacks, by and large, do seem to be coming from young people.

But while it doesn’t offer a solution the youth vandalism problem, the Universal Code, by “codifying issues of definitions, access, education, sharing, establishment, reconstruction, memoriali­zation, expropriation, excavation, research and monitoring of holy sites,” could go a long way in avoiding these kinds of incidents all together.

“May it inspire the hearts and minds of all who read and support it to advance the path of peace, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation,” it reads.

Funds needed for Mt. Zion gravesites


Harry Lenzer’s massive headstone lay flat on his grave, fallen and cracked in three pieces, for who knows how long — maybe years. 

But as of Oct. 3, Lenzer’s burial site joined the handful of others that have been fixed since June as part of the restoration project at Mount Zion Cemetery in East Los Angeles, where nearly 7,000 Jews are buried and approximately 1,000 gravesites need repair work.

“There’s activity. The [construction] trucks are coming in the entire time,” said Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, the lead organizer of the restoration project and co-director of Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles.

Greenwald has been working feverishly since April to raise funds for the cemetery. Progress was slow until Shlomo Rechnitz, a Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist, donated $250,000 in late May after visiting the cemetery.

In addition, two other donors, real estate developer Izek Shomof and businessman Adi McAbian, each donated $25,000, and another real estate developer, Michael Fallas, gave $10,000.

Friends of Mount Zion Cemetery — the organization Greenwald formed to handle donations — has raised $300,000 to date, he said. According to its Web site (restoremtzion.com), the organization needs to raise $700,000 to repair all of the damaged graves and headstones.

For years, vandals and neighborhood gangs have easily trespassed onto the cemetery at night, kicking over headstones and firing bullets into them, often destroying the elegant, youthful photos of the deceased that are a part of many of the headstones. 

Immediately after Friends of Mount Zion Cemetery received Rechnitz’s gift, Greenwald hired MDM Builders Group to repair the site’s crumbling fences, replacing entire sections and lining the perimeter with barbed wire on top of the fence. Ending the vandalism, said David Librush, vice president of MDM, was the first task before any actual repair on the graves and headstones could begin.  

Greenwald said there has been no more vandalism since the time the fence was finished in June. There have been other preventative efforts as well: Greenwald asked the Los Angeles Police Department and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to fly their helicopters over the cemetery and shine lights on the area when on night patrol nearby. They agreed and have been doing so for the last several months, Greenwald said.

Librush said the vandalism appears to have ceased, and now he and his crew are working full time to return the cemetery to an acceptable state as quickly as possible. Librush, a friend of Greenwald, said that the company took on the Mount Zion project at cost. 

As the two men walked through the cemetery on a recent warm afternoon, they pointed out the graves that used to have cracked and sinking concrete, some with such severe damage that one could see into the grave. Now they have completely new concrete beds. 

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles assumed responsibility for Mount Zion Cemetery in 1969 after its original owner, Chevra Chesed Shel Emeth, was no longer able to maintain it. Over the past decade, Federation has supported it with about $25,000 annually.

For at least the past 10 years, Federation has given Home of Peace — a cemetery adjacent to Mount Zion — about $1,000 per month to perform routine maintenance on the cemetery, which opened in 1916. Federation spends an additional $13,000 per year on various other projects for the cemetery, according to Ivan Wolkind, Federation’s chief operating and financial officer. 

Since late spring, Wolkind and Greenwald have worked closely on many aspects of the project. Before beginning repair work on the graves, Wolkind said, they hired an architect to plot every grave, complete with the name and the condition of the bed and headstone. This allows MDM to know exactly how much work every plot at Mount Zion needs.

“We are working on the most seriously damaged and needy graves first,” Wolkind said in a phone interview with the Journal

One of the seriously damaged graves, which Greenwald pointed out, is that of Morris Magid, who passed away in 1930 at age 54. Marc Magid, his grandson, visited the grave for the first time about two months ago.

“I could stick my hand into the middle of his gravesite because the concrete had broken,” said Magid, 51. “It shouldn’t happen. It shouldn’t be like that.”

He added that vandals also knocked off or shot off an image of his grandmother’s face on her grave. 

Phyllis Shallman, another Los Angeles resident, has six ancestors buried at Mount Zion, which has not had any burials for at least six years. The headstone of her uncle, Robert Abrams, lies on the ground. Half of his picture is missing. Shallman took her parents to the cemetery about 13 years ago, and visited again herself this year, on the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“I can just tell you it’s a horrific thing to see so many headstones pushed off and shot at,” she said.

Greenwald said that because it’s not feasible for everybody to come to the cemetery, Friends of Mount Zion posted a video about the cemetery on its Web site so that people can “understand the scope of the damage and the work that’s being done.”

Soon, Greenwald, Wolkind and Librush hope to have the burial places of Magid, Abrams and everyone else at Mount Zion fixed.

“It’s just a matter of not running out of funds,” Librush said.

Wolkind said that he and Greenwald plan to reach out to major donors in the Jewish community and to encourage synagogues to spread the word. 

“It’s a real need, and it’s a need that I believe we will fund 100 percent,” Wolkind said. “We will fix the problem.” 

To donate to Friends of Mount Zion Cemetery, visit restoremtzion.com or send checks, payable to Friends of Mount Zion Cemetery, to 219 W. Seventh St., Suite 206, Los Angeles, CA 90014.

Mass Arab grave from 1948 war discovered in Jaffa


A mass grave holding the remains of dozens of Arabs killed during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence was unearthed at a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa.

The discovery of the mass grave — six underground rooms with the skeletons of adults and children — was made last week during renovations to the cemetery, the French news agency AFP reported.

The bodies were placed in the existing crypts of several families and were not buried in accordance with Muslim tradition, according to reports.

AFP reported that the bodies were of people killed in the south of Jaffa, now part of the Tel Aviv municipality, in the final months of the 1948 war.

Hundreds of Jewish gravestones found in Greece


Police in northern Greece have recovered hundreds of headstones from Jewish graves destroyed during the Holocaust.

The 668 fragments were found buried in a plot of land in central Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city, following a 70-year search for the remains of graves smashed when the city's main Jewish cemetery was destroyed, the Associated Press reported.

The head of the city's Jewish community, David Saltiel, said most of the marble gravestones found dated from the mid-1800s up until World War II.

An estimated 60,000 Greek Jews, most of the country's prewar Jewish population, were killed in the Holocaust.

Ukraine police nab 3 teens suspected of desecrating Jewish mass grave


Ukrainian police on Thursday arrested three teenagers suspected of desecrating a mass grave of Holocaust victims near Rivne.

A spokesperson for the Ukrainian police said police believe the suspects, aged 17-19, sprayed swastikas on the monument near the Rivne killing site in western Ukraine on June 6.

Rabbi Shneor Schneersohn, chief rabbi of Rivne, told JTA, “The attack had clearly been anti-Semitic.” He said the perpetrators sprayed anti-Semitic profanities on the monument, smashed light fixtures and floor tiles.

A spokesperson for the Ukrainian interior ministry said the suspects would be prosecuted for hooliganism. If convicted, they could face a four-year prison term.

Schneersohn, a Chabad rabbi who has been living in Rivne for eight years, said the attack was the first in five years. In 2005 perpetrators dug up graves of murdered Jews, presumably hoping to find jewelry or gold teeth.

Ukrainian authorities are eager to prevent the recurrence of anti-Semitic incidents, Schneersohn said, citing the European soccer championship matches taking place this month in Ukraine. “Anti-Semitic incidents don’t look good—especially now,” he said.

At least 17,000 Jews are believed to be buried near the monument outside Rivne. German troops massacred them with machine guns in November 1941, in one of the largest mass executions of Jews that year in the German military-administered territories.

Jewish cemetery in Riga is desecrated


Large swastikas were found painted on more than 100 gravestones in a Jewish cemetery in the capital of Latvia.

The swastikas apparently were painted in white spray paint overnight Tuesday at the New Jewish Cemetery in Riga. A cemetery guard made the discovery the next morning, according to reports. State and local police are investigating.

The same cemetery was desecrated in 2003. The five then-teenage perpetrators in 2005 received suspended prison sentences ranging from 6 months to three years.

Judge sanctions Eden Memorial owner over evidence tampering


A Los Angeles judge has sanctioned Service Corporation International (SCI), owner of Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills, after finding that the cemetery intentionally tampered with and destroyed evidence related to a class action lawsuit alleging that Eden mishandled human remains.

Judge Anthony J. Mohr of the Los Angeles Superior Court ordered that the plaintiff’s attorney will be allowed to present evidence to the jury showing that SCI willfully tampered with evidence, and the judge will inform jurors that they may reasonably conclude that the destroyed evidence could have been damaging.

The judge declined the plaintiff’s motion to automatically find SCI liable.

A spokeswoman for SCI said the company disagrees with the judge’s order and its attorneys are exploring options. SCI, based in Texas, is one of the country’s largest operators of funeral and cemetery services, with 1,500 funeral homes and 400 cemeteries.

About 40,000 people are buried in Eden, which owns 72 acres, a good portion of it still unused. The cemetery, at Sepulveda Boulevard and Rinaldi Street, has been in operation for more than 50 years. SCI purchased Eden in 1985.

The case is now in the discovery phase and is set to go to trial at the end of 2011.

Attorney Michael Avenatti of Eagan O’Malley & Avenatti in Newport Beach filed a class action suit against SCI in September 2009, alleging that the cemetery broke concrete vaults to squeeze more graves into small spaces, and that when bones fell out of the broken vaults, groundskeepers were instructed to discard the remains in the cemetery dump.

The suit also alleges that Eden secretly buried bodies in the wrong plots and misplaced or lost remains.

F. Charles Sands, whose family is buried at Eden, and 30 other people are the named plaintiffs on the suit, and more than 1,100 families have retained Avenatti’s services.

SCI has maintained that while there were a few cases of irregularities in 2007, family members were immediately informed and the situation was handled properly and respectfully. It denies allegations of any broad wrongdoing and maintains that it follows protocol and properly handles human remains.

In November 2009, California’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau reported that it found no proof that Eden was willfully engaged in grave desecration. Avenatti said the report, based on old audits and no new visits, does indeed hold proof of wrongdoing.

That report is but one piece of evidence in the lawsuit.

In September 2009, the court ordered the cemetery to preserve all evidence related to the case and provide documentation of any new damage to burial vaults or graves.

But soon after, SCI market director James Biby ordered Eden to clean up the cemetery dump, a fact that SCI doesn’t deny, according to the judge’s order.

Eden general manager Anthony Lampe then told the grounds superintendent “to get ‘the evidence,’ [his word], retrieve it, put in a dumpster, and have it taken off the property,” according to testimony cited by the judge in his order.

SCI claimed the dump clean-up was simply an effort to make the grounds look better. The plaintiff’s investigators recorded a video of the two-day cleanup of the dump, which had never been cleaned in its 20 years of use, according to the judge’s order. The judge said the video showed workers hand-picking concrete pieces out of the area.

In another instance, according to the judge’s order, the cemetery did not inform the court when, in March 2010, it found pieces of a broken vault in a section that used to be the cemetery dump. Rather, groundskeepers covered over that evidence with a new grave. SCI lawyers maintained that because the vault was not broken on that day, it did not fall under the judge’s order.

The judge’s order allowing attorneys to prove to jurors that SCI intentionally tampered with evidence could strengthen the plaintiffs’ case even without physical evidence. The plaintiffs’ case relies heavily on testimony from current and former employees.

The court also gave the plaintiffs extra time in examination and cross-examination, as well as in opening and closing arguments. The sanction bars the defendant from arguing during the trial that the plaintiffs lack physical evidence to support their allegations.

Brazilian president lays wreath at Arafat’s grave


Brazil’s president laid a wreath at Yasser Arafat’s grave after refusing to visit the grave of Theodor Herzl.

President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva met with Palestinian Authority leaders Wednesday in Ramallah.

“I dream of an independent and free Palestine living in peace in the Middle East,” Silva said while in the West Bank. “I believe the Palestinians and Israelis are going to share the land of their forefathers.”

Israel had criticized Lula’s plan to visit the grave of the PLO’s Arafat prior to the visit. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman boycotted Lula’s address to the Knesset Monday afternoon to protest his refusal to visit the grave of Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.

Lula said prior to his trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority this week that other countries, like Brazil, should help mediate between Israel and the Palestinians.