Rav Berland’s fight for Kever Yosef

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Rav Berland at Kever Yosef
Rav Berland at Kever Yosef 2012

RAV BERLAND’S FIGHT FOR KEVER YOSEF

This coming Motzae Shabbat is the 1st of Tammuz, the yahrtzeit of Yosef HaTzaddik. In a recent shiur, the Rav encouraged his followers to make every effort to visit Kever Yosef on the yahtzeit (you can hear the Rav’s comments about visiting the grave, plus some of the awesome spiritual rectifications and secrets associated with Yosef HaTzaddik (in Hebrew) by clicking HERE)

For many decades now, the Rav has been involved in an ongoing battle with the secular Israeli government to prevent them from closing down access to many of the Jewish holy places located in the West Bank, particularly Kever Yosef.

Here, we bring a brief history of the Rav’s close connection to Kever Yosef, which began more than 50 years’ ago, when Rav Berland made it a regular practice to visit Kever Yosef after the site was recaptured from the Jordanians in the Six-Day War in 1967.

“I would go there every day,” recalls the Rav. “At that time, there was a tremendous fear of the Jews. I lived in Bnei Brak then, and I’d get a bus on Jabotinsky Street to Kfar Saba that would cost me three liras. Then, I would continue on to the kever of Binyamin ben Yaakov, and I would spend an hour alone there, before traveling to Kalkilya by taxi with seven other Arabs. [The Arabs] often gestured to me as though they wanted to slit my throat, and I did it right back to them.”

The Rav continues: “I would walk for five minutes by myself through the Kasbah in Shechem, until I reached the kever of Yosef Hatzaddik. Today, I come and I see people with M16s, and I ask them why they need them…”

When Rav Yitzchak Ginzburg opened the Od Yosef Chai Yeshivah at the site of Yosef’s tomb in the 1980s, it looked like the Jews were back in Shechem to stay. The site was formally turned into a synagogue in 1997, when sifrei Torah were brought in.

Sadly, the secular Israeli government had other plans. Located as they were in the West Bank, and surrounded by hostile Arab populations, the Israeli government couldn’t accept that the spiritual benefit of enabling Jews to regularly visiting these tombs far outweighed the practical risks involved in using the IDF to secure these areas.

KEVER YOSEF AND THE OSLO ACCORDS

On December 12, 1995, control of the city of Shechem (Nablus) was handed over to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian National Authority as part of the infamous Oslo Accords, but the State of Israel was meant to retain control of several religious sites now under PA jurisdiction, including Kever Yosef.

Under Oslo, the agreement made was that: “Both sides shall respect and protect the religious rights of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Samaritans concerning the protection and free access to the holy sites as well as freedom of worship and practice.”

But that’s not exactly what happened. On September 24, 1996, the Palestinians initiated a wave of riots throughout the West Bank to protest the opening of the new Western Wall Tunnels attraction in the Old City of Jerusalem. During the riots, six Israeli soldiers were killed at Kever Yosef and the local yeshivah located next to the tomb was ransacked.

KEVER YOSEF BECOMES A FLASHPOINT FOR PALESTINIAN TERROR

Although many Jews continued to try to visit and pray at Kever Yosef, the situation at this time was very tense and complicated. Thanks to the failed Oslo Accords, the surrounding town of Shechem was now under full PA control — yet the PA proved time and again that they weren’t interested in maintaining the safety of Jews who wanted to pray at the holy sites under their jurisdiction, despite that being a clear condition of the Oslo Accords.

As time went on, Kever Yosef came under Palestinian gunfire, and was also stormed by hundreds of Palestinians, prompting the Israeli army to step in and retake partial control of the site. Thanks to Oslo, this ancient and important Jewish holy site was now effectively too dangerous for Jews to visit.

Between 1999 and 2000, the IDF, Israeli Border Police and Shin Bet asked the government to evacuate Kever Yosef and forbid Jews from visiting it — in violation of the access rights that had been negotiated as part of the failed Oslo Accords.

When the second Palestinian intifada started in September 2000, Kever Yosef was again one of the key flashpoints. A Palestinian mob broke into the deserted tomb and burned the adjacent yeshivah to the ground. The Palestinians also painted the dome of the tomb green as a defiant indication of their desire to turn Kever Yosef into a mosque.

A photo of Yosef HaTzaddik’s tomb from the early 1900s.

SECULAR VS. SPIRITUAL

As the intifada continued, a large rift developed between the secular Israeli view and the spiritual/religious view of what should be done with Kever Yosef. Following the death of another Israeli border policeman, the head of the IDF’s southern command, Brigadier-General Yom Tov Samia, threatened to resign, and told then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak that keeping Israeli control over Kever Yosef was “patently illegal.”

Clearly, Samia hadn’t read the small print of the Oslo Accords which stipulated free and safe access for Jews to Jewish holy sites under PA jurisdiction. On October 7, 2000, Barak turned control of Kever Yosef over to the Palestinians. A few short hours later, the tomb was once against burned and pillaged by the Palestinians, and a resident of the nearby Jewish village of Elon Moreh, Rabbi Hillel Lieberman, was murdered when he went to check on the damage that had been done.

The Palestinians now continued the delegitimization of the tomb as a Jewish holy site that had been started years earlier by the secular Israeli politician Shulamit Aloni, and started claiming the site as a Muslim holy place with no historical connection to Judaism.

After intense international pressure spearheaded by the United States, which was concerned that turning Kever Yosef into a mosque would spark outrage amongst the Israeli public and lead to the Oslo Accords being abandoned, the green dome of the “mosque” was repainted white. But in the meantime, Jewish access to the site seemed to have permanently ended, at least as far as the secular politicians and IDF chiefs were concerned.

FIGHTING FOR THE RIGHT TO VISIT KEVER YOSEF

But Rav Berland and his students at Shuvu Banim, together with other well-known Torah personalities like Rav Shalom Abergel, decided to fight back and keep visiting these holy places, no matter how dangerous they appeared to be.

Midnight visit to Kever Yosef, co-ordinated with the IDF in 2009

They understood that Israel’s greatest protection against Arab violence lay in prayer, and in maintaining a strong connection to the true tzaddikim. Rav Berland, and many of our other spiritual leaders including Rav Mordechai Gross, Rav Yitzchak Ginsburg, Rav Shalom Abergel and Rav Mor Golan, understood that if Kever Yosef or Kever Rachel were placed permanently off-limits to the Jewish people, as the Israeli government wanted, that would only worsen Israel’s security problems in the long run.

It’s mentioned in the holy books that in the merit of the bones of Yosef (which were brought from Egypt) the sea split and allowed the Jews to enter the Land of Israel. Furthermore, it’s brought down that it’s only in the merit of the bones of Yosef that the Jews can endure in the land.

THE STUDENTS KEEP VISITING

Although the media and the Israeli government went to great pains to portray the Rav and his students as putting their own and Israeli soldiers’ lives at risk with their clandestine visits to Kever Yosef, in truth, the Rav prepared meticulously for every single visit to the site, just as he had when taking groups of chassidim into the former USSR to visit the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev, in Uman.

Any risk the Rav took was always calculated, prayed about, and double and triple-checked with Shamayim (heaven). Over the years, the students at Shuvu Banim knew that they could only go to Kever Yosef when specifically directed to do so by Rav Berland. On those occasions, the Rav always promised them that nothing would happen and that they would see open miracles — and indeed, they did.

The students also understood that if they wanted to make the trip to Kever Yosef by themselves, i.e., not during the times when the army was escorting the public into Shechem, they first had to ask the Rav permission. Usually, the Rav would promise the students that they could make the trip safely, and that nothing bad would happen.

But there were times when the Rav specifically told his students not to go into Shechem alone. The only time a student from Shuvu Banim was seriously hurt going to Kever Yosef was when he disregarded a specific warning from the Rav to stay away.

KEVER YOSEF COMES BACK UNDER IDF CONTROL

In 2002, the IDF moved back into Shechem as part of Operation Defensive Shield. Rav Berland, his students and the other Rabbanim and visitors who had been fighting to maintain Jewish access to the site immediately requested that the IDF formally permit Jewish visitations to Kever Yosef again.

As many of the Rav’s students (and others, like the late Rav Shalom Abergel) were continuing to visit the site in any case, it can be assumed that the IDF found itself between a rock and a hard place. They unwillingly agreed to open the tomb up to Jewish visits one night every month at midnight, with the aim of preventing any more unauthorized clandestine visits.

If these “clandestine” visits hadn’t been happening, you can be sure that Kever Yosef and many of the other holy Jewish sites would have been desecrated, turned into mosques and placed permanently off-limits to Jewish visits without a peep of protest from the army or the government.

Indeed, a little while after the visits began, the IDF again closed the tomb to Jewish visits from October 2002. In 2003, a Breslov Rabbi named Aaron Klieger started lobbying the Israeli government about the ongoing desecration and vandalization that was occurring at Kever Yosef, but the IDF shrugged the matter off, claiming that guarding the site would cost too much money.

In the meantime, Kever Yosef continued to be used as a garbage dump by the local residents of Shechem for the next four years.

Yosef’s kever today, in the heart of Shchem (Nablus)

EVEN THE MKS START TO COMPLAIN

The state of the tomb deteriorated so badly that even some of the Knesset members began to be appalled by the situation. In February 2007, 35 MKs wrote to the IDF, asking them to reopen the site for Jewish visitors. In 2008, another group of MKs wrote a letter to the prime minister, asking that the tomb be renovated.

They wrote: “The tombstone is completely shattered, and the holy site is desecrated in an appalling manner, the likes of which we have not seen in Israel or anywhere else in the world.”

Initially, the Israeli government wanted the PA to cover the cost of the repairs. When that didn’t happen (and the Palestinians sent some people along to burn tires inside the tomb, instead), the renovation work was finally carried out by Jewish workers, funded by anonymous donors.

It cannot be overstated how little value the secular Israeli government officials and the IDF chiefs attribute to some of Judaism’s most holy sites.

REGULAR VISITS RESUME

In 2009, regular monthly visits to the tomb resumed under IDF protection. Rav Berland also instituted the custom of going to Kever Yosef on the night of Yesod she’b’Yesod, the 41st day of the Omer, each year. From humble beginnings, this annual visit to Kever Yosef has now become a very popular event. The IDF decided to give this visit its full support, and in 2016, more than 3,000 people came to visit Kever Yosef on this day, arriving on more than 60 buses. The visitors that year included some big names like Rav Shalom Arush, as well as the well-known Litvish posek Rav Mordechai Gross.

Thanks to the efforts of Rav Berland and the many other individuals who continued to press for Jews to be able to continue to visit Jewish holy sites in Palestinian-controlled areas, visits to Kever Yosef are now well on their way to becoming a mainstream event in the Orthodox Jewish world.

  • You can book a trip to Kever Yosef on a bullet-proof coach, co-ordinated with the IDF security forces, by visiting the following website: http://www.keveryosef.org/

Or, by calling:  02-999-9700 (the office is open between 9am and 1pm, Sunday to Thursday)

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