MK Aryeh Bibi At Kever Rachel: “Jewish Holy Places Must Remain Open”

(5 Towns Jewish Times) An estimated 150,000 people came to pray at the tomb of the Biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem over the length of the day on Thursday of last week. The visit, in honor of Rachel’s hilulah (yahrzeit), was spearheaded by the Jerusalem-based Mosdos Kever Rachel organization. A special focus of this year’s events was praying for the welfare of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who is currently being held prisoner by the Hamas terror organization in the Gaza Strip. Shalit has been in captivity for over 1,200 days.

A special prayer for the swift return of Shalit was distributed to all people coming to pray at the site.

Robert Weiss, a New York attorney and philanthropist, was among the sponsors of Thursday’s events. He explained, “Gilad’s safe release is a cause that all Jews must rally behind, and this is a prayer that comes from the depths of all our hearts.” He went on to say how significant it is that after over 3,000 years, hundreds of thousands of people come to celebrate the life of a remarkable woman, a progenitor of the Jewish people.

The celebration took place simultaneously with memorials for late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin around the country, prompting questions by reporters why there was no special commemoration of the slain leader at Rachel’s Tomb.

It was explained that the commemoration of the hilulah of “Mama Rachel” was a tradition dating back thousands of years and entrenched in Jewish tradition and was an event that could be agreed upon by the entire political and religious spectrum of the Jewish people. It would therefore be inappropriate to mix in anything divisive, controversial, or political with this religious occasion.

Initial estimates placed the crowd at 100,000 people, but later revisions declared that 150,000 pilgrims visited the site. A special hospitality tent was erected en route to the tomb, serving free snacks and drinks to visitors. Over 700 crates of drinks were served and a special truck was parked outside the holy site with water and juice dispensers mounted on its side.

While the tomb is situated in the middle of the ancient Jewish city of Bethlehem, its status as a city under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction has meant increasing danger for visitors in recent years. In 1998, a fortified structure was erected over the tomb and, more recently, the route through the city was itself fortified with giant concrete barriers preventing access or even a line of sight from surrounding buildings.

Bethlehem has been the center of increasing religious violence since the Palestinian Authority took over civil and military administration of the city in 1995. This was in line with the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. According to David Bedein, bureau chief of the Israel Resource News Agency “the PLO never ratified the Oslo Accord’s ‘declaration of principles,’ which required the PLO and Fatah to recognize Israel, denounce terror, and cancel the PLO/Fatah charter, which calls for Israel’s obliteration.” Since 1995, there has been a steady exodus of Christian Arabs from the city, in the face of religious persecution, street violence directed against religious minorities, and attacks against places of worship. “There is no future for Christians [here],” said former Bethlehem mayor Hanna Nasser.

Such violence makes it unsurprising that Bethlehem was used as the location for the 2009 Fatah convention, in which Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly exclaimed, “Yes, resistance [terror] is legal, and we are with this resistance. Our determination to choose the path of peace and negotiations does not mean that we have abandoned our noble path of legitimate resistance, which is based on international law.”

Due to the lawless and violent nature of Bethlehem, and the general atmosphere of religious intolerance, including a lengthy siege of the Church of the Nativity in 2002, there is always a military and police presence at the site to protect worshippers.

The concrete barriers ensure that Rachel’s Tomb will not be desecrated in the manner of Joseph’s tomb in Shechem, which was burned to the ground by an Arab mob after the Barak administration withdrew from the site in 2000.

MK Aryeh Bibi of the Kadima party came to represent the Knesset and the government of Israel. “I am here at Rachel’s Tomb because it is the day of the burial of the matriarch Rachel and I think that Jewish holy places must remain open and that Jews should be able to pray at any holy site, at every holy gravesite in all of the land of Israel, in every part of the land of Israel,” Bibi explained. Bibi concluded his prepared remarks by recounting his work as a police commander in the Jerusalem district, in cooperation with Chabad activists, in opening up Rachel’s Tomb to the public for extended hours.

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