The Kever Rochel Controversy
Part I. Background: Brother vs. Brother
By Israel Zwick, February 24, 2014
Many Israelis often refer to their Arab neighbors as “cousins.” This is because they are believed to be descendants of the biblical Ishmael, half brother of Isaac, both sons of Abraham. It is truly regrettable that this conflict between “cousins” has endured for so long with no end in sight. When the conflict erupts into violence, it is inspiring to see the “achdut” or unity among the Israeli brothers working together and helping each other to survive the violence. However, when the violence is latent as it is now, we often see conflicts arise between brother and brother. The daily newspapers in Israel are replete with disputes between the secular and religious, the left and right, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, the workers and the managers, to name just a few.
Brother vs. Brother. Recent Jerusalem protest; clashes and arrests were reported. (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
One might understand how disputes may arise between different ideologies and interests such as the secular and religious. However, it is truly incomprehensible when brothers with similar ideologies, interests, and goals are in conflict. Then their efforts and resources become directed more to the conflict than to achieving their common goals. This is what is happening now in the conflict between Evelyn Haies and Rabbi Benny Elon over three small properties adjacent to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. Each of the protagonists is passionately devoted to reclaiming the Jewish presence in the area of Kever Rochel, as it is known in Hebrew, and developing educational and religious activities at the site. Yet for the last few years, they have been devoting their resources battling each other in court cases in Israel and New York over the rights of ownership and management of the properties. The cases are still ongoing with no resolution on the horizon. In the meantime, development of the properties is at a standstill, and has even regressed somewhat from damage to the property.
I know Evelyn Haies personally. I met her about eight years ago when I rented an apartment in her neighborhood in Arzei Habirah. I frequently took my grandchildren to the playground there, and I often encountered Evelyn as she passed through. She was eager to engage me in conversation, mostly about her activities involving Kever Rochel. It was obvious that she was passionate about the cause and devoted considerable resources in time, effort, and money to organize educational and religious activities at her Beit Bnei Rachel site adjacent to Kever Rochel. She had big plans for developing the site and tried to get me to become involved. I was impressed by her efforts to reclaim a Jewish presence at one of Judaism’s holiest sites, but at the time I had other obligations that were more urgent.
I once visited Evelyn in her modest home which was simply furnished even by Israeli standards. She didn’t own a car and traveled frequently to Kever Rochel with the #163 bus from Shmuel Hanavi. She still carries an outdated cell phone with an old battery that needs frequent recharging. Yet, she contributed over $500,000 towards the purchase of the three parcels adjacent to Kever Rochel. Apparently, this represented a major portion of her total assets. She explained that she lives by the motto, “ A penny saved is a penny LOST,” because she wanted to see her money doing something useful rather than sitting in a bank.