Worshippers Indicted After Entering Palestinian Areas

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published December 19, 2003, issue of December 19, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — In a move intended to deter Israelis from entering Palestinian-controlled areas, Israeli state prosecutors have filed charges against a group of Bratslav chasidim who illegally went to pray at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus last week — and were attacked by Palestinian gunmen as they left the site.

Eight of the 16 Jews who entered Nablus were indicted this week in Petach Tikvah Magistrates Court for violating a military ban on entering autonomous areas under Palestinian Authority control. The group entered the site in the pre-dawn hours of Friday, December 12, and prayed for about an hour. When leaving they came under fire and seven members were wounded, two of them seriously, including an 18 year old and a 14 year old. Their van was torched after they called on the army to rescue them.

Islamic Jihad and the Fatah Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades both claimed responsibility for the attack.

Soldiers manning a nearby roadblock had tried to prevent the unarmed group from entering the city and approaching Joseph’s Tomb, warning them it was dangerous, but the group found an alternative route.

“We told them that ‘you are going into an area that will cause terror attacks, and cause us to risk our lives to save you,’” said police spokesman Gil Kleiman. “So we weren’t going to cut them any slack when it came to being arrested, saying, ‘Oh, you’ve been through a terror attack, go home, we’ll forgive you.’ No forgiveness.”

Bratslav chasidim, known for their devotion to the graves of holy men, have repeatedly slipped into the Palestinian city of 150,000 to worship at Joseph’s Tomb in recent months, infuriating military authorities. Those caught in previous incidents were released with a warning or a small fine. This is the first time worshippers have been fired on or asked to be rescued.

The tomb, believed to be the burial site of the biblical Joseph, is located in the heart of Nablus, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, with a population of about 150,000. The site, which housed a yeshiva built after Israel occupied the city in 1967, was largely destroyed by Palestinian attackers three days after the outbreak of Palestinian violence in September 2000. In one of the most contentious incidents of the three-year conflict, a wounded Israeli soldier bled to death while Palestinians prevented Israeli troops from evacuating him. After the unit withdrew, a mob sacked the shrine.

Israel reoccupied Nablus, known in Hebrew as Shechem, during Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, but the city has remained off-limits to civilians. Jewish worshippers have been allowed to visit the tomb on only three occasions in September and October 2002, when the army brought groups of Bratslavers to the site in armored vehicles. After the last visit, during the festival of Sukkot, on October 16, Palestinian children set fire to the site.

Traditionalists rank Joseph’s Tomb as one of the holiest sites in the Holy Land, one of only three places named in the Torah as having been purchased by Jews, along with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The passage recounting Jacob’s purchase — upon his return to the Holy Land — of a field adjoining the city of Shechem (Genesis 33:18-19) was in the Torah portion read in synagogues last Shabbat, one reason cited by the Bratslav group for its visit the day before.

Rabbi Asher Weissfish, the organizer of the Bratslav excursion, told Israel Radio that what happened “was a painful blow, a very painful blow. But still, we think our way is the best way. It’s a pity… that the army and the government are not willing to listen to our complaints… and permit legal entry.” He said that as long as the government and army refuse to listen to their continuous requests to be granted legal access to the tomb, “we will continue going there. This is a promise.”

Bratslav chasidim are followers of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, an early chasidic master who died in 1810 without naming an heir. His disciples never chose a new leader, venerating their founder’s memory and visiting his grave in Ukraine in an annual fall pilgrimage that now draws thousands.

Observers say the group’s lack of authoritative leadership, combined with its intensely mystical beliefs, has made it a wild card among Israeli religious sects. The reputation for unruliness is compounded by the emergence in the last decade of a new Rabbi Nachman cult following among young Orthodox Israelis, particularly in the West Bank, who are known for their daring and defiance of authority.

“If there was rabbinic leadership which would simply straighten them up and make them behave, it would be the best way,” said Ze’ev Gries, a professor of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. “But in this case, I don’t know where the authority is. There should be some authority among the Israeli group of Bratslavers. Why they don’t force authority on the nuts to straighten them out, I don’t know. The problem is, these guys are so nuts to the point that they are willing even to get killed. They are looking for danger. They are risking their lives for nothing. That’s what happened right now.”

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