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Rabbi Sends Archaeologists Home, Sparking Fears of Religious Interference

August 6, 1996

MODIIN, Israel (AP) _ Israel’s deputy housing minister has evicted archaeologists from the country’s largest construction site, exacerbating fears that newly elected Orthodox leaders are imposing their values on the rest of the country.

Rabbi Meir Porush, whose decision was announced Tuesday, said it is more important to protect Jewish graves than to study the Holy Land, a precedent-setting decision that could spur religious politicians to stop digs elsewhere in Israel.

``Once they stop the archaeologists from their research, we lose our ability to study history, the origins of this country. ... It affects our culture, our knowledge of history, and the ability to live a normal life in this country,″ said Yoram Tsafrir, former head of the Archaeology Department at Hebrew University.

Israel is a treasure trove of ancient artifacts. Tsafrir said he expects many digs and construction projects to be halted in the future because ``in every place in Israel you will find bones.″

Ultra-orthodox Jews believe tampering with remains of the dead violates Jewish law, and believe strongly in protecting the sanctity of graves.

Religious parties who want Jewish law to play a stronger role in Israeli society won 23 seats in the 120-member parliament in the May elections and their representatives have been appointed to key government positions. Since then, ultra-Orthodox leaders have pushed through several policies to promote their beliefs and benefit their communities.

For example, the government decided to shut down a Jerusalem thoroughfare for most of the Jewish Sabbath, and the Housing Ministry plans to build 20,000 homes for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Only about 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, about a half million people, belong to the country’s ultra-Orthodox minority. The ultra-Orthodox usually live in separate neighborhoods, obey their own rabbis and courts, and live by a strict interpretation of Jewish law.

Unlike other Jews in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox rarely serve in the army and do not attend public schools. They believe a true Jewish state will arrive only when the Messiah appears.

The dispute between archaeologists and ultra-Orthodox Jews over Jewish burial sites has flared many times in the past, often leading to violent clashes between demonstrators and police.

Until now, archaeologists have been called in to conduct salvage digs before the Housing Ministry gives the go-ahead for construction. About 200 of the 300 excavations run every year by the Israel Antiquities Authority are salvage digs at construction sites.

Porush, who is from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, on Sunday sent home archaeologists from a salvage dig at Israel’s largest construction site in Modiin, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The government plans to complete 7,000 apartments on the site over several years in the first stage of what is eventually to be Israel’s third-largest city.

``Since the construction is financed by the Housing Ministry, we have instructed that this be checked with those who know how to preserve the graves of Israel,″ Porush told Israel radio.

``If there are Jewish graves, there is no reason why the grave of my grandfather’s grandfather should be destroyed without checking if there is another way to develop the site.″

Yossi Levy, an archaeologist with the Antiquities Authority, said the decision marked the first time the Housing Ministry has halted a dig because of a suspicion that graves were in the area.

Until now, it was customary to dig up the bones and rebury them elsewhere.

Two tents used by archaeologists stood empty at the site Tuesday. Nearby, excavations revealed underground stone formations.

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