Recent Israeli governmental negotiations with the Vatican threaten to jeopardize Jewish control over Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, which, for over 2000 years, has been recognized by Jews as the site of King David’s tomb.
The Roman Catholic Church, however, also has a keen interest in the Mount, and for more than 450 years has been fighting to acquire control of the 100,000 square feet complex that houses King David’s tomb, the second floor of which is known as the Cenacle, a Christian holy site believed to be the room of Jesus’ Last Supper.
On the roof of the complex is an old minaret from a time when the building was controlled by Muslims.
Catholic Franciscan friars had control over the site in the 14th century. It came under Ottoman rule 200 years later, and after the 1967 war, Israel took control.
But while the Israeli government has been in talks with the Vatican, trying to work out terms of an agreement that might increase Christian access to the site, members of the Diaspora Yeshiva Toras Yisrael — located on the Mount, a stone’s throw from King David’s tomb — have been fighting to raise awareness, and funding, to maintain the Jewish character of the site.
David Schwartz, assistant to the Yeshiva’s dean, Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein, was in Pittsburgh last week, calling on individuals and organizations to help the Yeshiva raise the funds it needs to renew its lease on the land and maintain its presence on the Mount.
“Our rosh (head of) Yeshiva was given a 49-year lease by the director general of the Ministry of Religion, Dr. S. Z. Kahane, when he was working for Moshe Dayan in 1967,” Schwartz told the Chronicle. “Our lease is up in four years. And there is a big push by the Vatican to take over Mount Zion and King David’s tomb.”
The Diaspora Yeshiva currently is the only Jewish presence on Mount Zion, and maintains and manages King David’s tomb, as well as a Holocaust museum on the Mount.
“In early June, the Yeshiva had a meeting with the [Israeli] Foreign Affairs Committee, and they are still deciding what the involvement would be of the Catholics on Mount Zion,” Schwartz said. “The Israeli government is interested in having millions of Christian tourists there, and bringing money into the country. But the Yeshiva maybe can bring in the same number of tourists.”
Currently, Israel limits organized Christian prayers at the Cenacle to just a few times a year, and there are no crosses on the wall, and no chapel.
If the Diaspora Yeshiva does not raise the necessary funds to renew its lease for another 49 years — a lump sum of $5 million — the Vatican may be poised to buy the next 49-year lease, displace the Yeshiva, and remove Jewish control of the complex.
“There will not be peace if the question of the holy sites is not adequately resolved,” said Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Vatican’s Council for Interreligious Dialogue, late last year in Rome, as reported by the Israel National News. “The part of Jerusalem within the walls — with the holy sites of the three religions — is humanity’s heritage. The sacred and unique character of the area must be safeguarded and it can only be done with a special, internationally guaranteed statute.”
The Diaspora Yeshiva was one of the first in Israel to open its doors to those with little or no Torah knowledge. In the last three years, more than 50,000 Israeli soldiers, and more than 30,000 secular Jews have passed through the Yeshiva, according to Schwartz.
“They get a place to stay, food, and to experience Shabbat in the Old City,” he said. “They stay from Thursday through Sunday. It’s kind of like an Israeli Birthright.”
“It’s more than a yeshiva,” Schwartz said. “It is a place for Jewish heritage.”
Goldstein, 80, who has run the Yeshiva since its beginning 45 years ago, urges Diaspora Jews to show their support for Mount Zion with their presence, donations, and by “writing letters to officials to keep the status quo.”
“The Yeshiva was put here specifically on Mount Zion by Dr. S. Z. Kahane, of blessed memory, to be a place for learning Torah and teach about Jewish heritage next to King David’s tomb, and also as the guardian to protect the Jewish interest and maintain the spirituality of Mount Zion, and keep it pure,” Goldstein said. “Only as a united nation can we win this battle. It takes a global Jewish community and effort.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)