On Mount Zion, protesting the pope and preaching the status quo

Concert held to send message of Jewish unity and control of fraught religious site, but some ramp up anti-Francis rhetoric

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Far-right activists Itamar Ben-Gvir, left, Baruch Marzel, center, and Michael Ben Ari protesting the visit of Pope Francis, on Thursday, May 22, 2014 (photo credit: Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Far-right activists Itamar Ben-Gvir, left, Baruch Marzel, center, and Michael Ben Ari protesting the visit of Pope Francis, on Thursday, May 22, 2014 (photo credit: Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

A site venerated by Jews as the final resting place of the biblical King David and by Christians as where Jesus held his Last Supper has inspired passions and ignited tensions, casting a pall over a visit there by Pope Francis next week.

On Thursday night, over 1,000 Jews gathered on Mount Zion for a concert and prayer rally intended to send a message that the site would remain under Jewish control.

“We wanted to bring unity,” said event organizer Jerry Latinik, a medical supplies salesman who moved to Israel nine months ago.

“We really felt that King David was all about singing, and prayer, so instead of doing something with picket signs, we wanted to do something with love and song, that involves everybody.”

But as passions grow before the impending visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land Sunday, some elements at the concert pushed a harsh anti-Christian message, one that threatened the event organizers’ goal of Jewish unity.

The site, sitting on a ridge adjacent to Jerusalem’s Old City, is one of several religiously freighted locations in the city treading a delicate balance governed by an obligation to maintain a “status quo” set during Ottoman rule.

“This is not justice, to change the status quo, which has held for over 100 years from the time of the British. We welcome every person, the pope as well, especially as he represents millions of believers, human beings, creations of God,” said Rabbi Yitzhak Goldstein, a leading figure at the local Diaspora Yeshiva, which has been at the forefront of the struggle to keep the church from gaining increased access to the Cenacle.

The building, which also housed a mosque, is also part of a decades-old property dispute between Israel and the Vatican.

Despite official assurances that Israel does not intend to hand the site over to the Vatican’s sovereignty, the idea that Jerusalem will transfer control of the site has gained traction in some religious circles.

Israel says it is in discussions with the Vatican only over the rights of the Catholic church to hold regular masses there, something currently prohibited by the status quo.

“We are not asking for sovereignty over Mount Zion or the Tomb of David,” said Father David Neuhaus, leader of Israel’s Hebrew Catholic community. “We are asking for something very small. In view of the enormous importance of the site, we are asking for access.”

“There is no truth whatsoever to these rumors” about ceding control, said Akiva Tor, head of the Jewish Affairs and World Religions Bureau at the Foreign Ministry.

“The room of the Last Supper will remain under Israeli ownership and possession and will be operated by Israel in any future agreement. And the negotiations with the Vatican on exactly what will be the standing of the Cenacle is part of our negotiation with them… The negotiations on the economic agreement deals with many practical issues such as taxation and municipal taxes and other items related to Church property in Israel. Among the many issues discussed, there has also been discussion about appropriate arrangements for Christian prayer in the Cenaculum.”

A source, who asked not to be named, told The Times of Israel that Israel has “basically agreed to give them usage,” but because of the recent campaign by ultra-Orthodox Jews to prevent increased Catholic control on Mount Zion, Israel has decided to wait until things quiet down after the pope’s visit.

A planned mass at the site by Francis has raised hackles among some Orthodox Jews. A number of figures from the Jewish far right appeared at the rally calling for the pope to skip visiting Israel.

“We first of all want to pass a message to the government of Israel, that this kissing up to the pope is a betrayal of the Jewish people in all its generations,” Michael Ben Ari, a disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, told The Times of Israel. “The pope needs to come quietly, so no one feels him, and see that Christianity has lost in its war against the Jews. To give him a prize for coming here is a loss of values, and is a betrayal of millions of Jews who were slaughtered, who were burned, who were pursued.”

Ben Ari and several associates held signs that read, “The accursed Christianity is party to the murder of millions of Jews in various deaths, under the leadership of the Church and its heads. They dream of erasing the Jewish state. The pope is impure. Leave our holy land. Return our stolen holy vessels.”

Baruch Marzel, a far-right politician, echoed Ben Ari’s statements. “He has to stay in Rome. They did enough damage to Jews in the exile, they killed millions of Jews.

“The pope comes here to demand rights on the land of Israel, and on the tomb of King David. That is like calling a war against the Jewish people.”

But others rejected Ben Ari’s and Marzel’s anti-Christian message.

“I actually wish they didn’t bring the signs, because that’s the exact message that we’re not trying to bring about,” said Latinik. “Those are just individuals coming and expressing themselves, but it has nothing to do with our views. I am not happy those signs are there, because we want to portray a message that’s the complete opposite.”

Jewish singers who volunteered to perform at the event also were perturbed by the rumors of an impending transfer of sovereignty.

“My soul is very tied to here,” said singer Chaim Dovid. “My early years of repentance were here. So I’m very connected to this mountain and this place and King David… If the pope wants to talk to us, tell him to bring whatever is in the Vatican that belongs to us, and bring it with him, and then we’ll start to talk and get to know each other.”

Despite the political overtones of the concert, many of the teenagers at the event said they had just come for the music.

“I’m just here because I heard there’s a nice concert,” said Dalia Presser, 19.

Ali Duskis, originally from Monsey, New York, was also there for the tunes, and said she disagreed with those wanting to protest the pontiff during his visit.

“It’s not in our belief, so it’s not a party for us. But we should definitely say hi, make him feel that he’s not hated,” she said.

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