For years, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel have used any means at their disposal, including violence, to stop archaeological excavations on the alleged ground that ancient Jewish graves are being desecrated.
Recent elections have significantly strengthened the religious bloc in the Israeli knesset, or parliament. With 23 seats out of 120, the religious parties are now demanding that ultra-Orthodox rabbis be given authority to stop archaeological digs whenever graves are found.
These forces in Israel are also enlisting support for their position from Orthodox groups in the United States, who in turn are pressing the case with Israeli embassy officials here and with at least one important member of Congress.
Even before the Israeli elections, leading members of the American Orthodox community importuned Israeli ambassador Itamar Rabinovich in a meeting at the embassy. The group included Rabbi Melech Stern, head of the American branch of Asra Kadisha (also written Atra Qadisha), the ultra-Orthodox Committee for the Preservation of Gravesites, which has led protests in Israel against archaeological excavations. Rabbi Stern is a leader of the Satmar Hasidim, who do not recognize the State of Israel; a proper Jewish state will be established by God when the Messiah comes, they believe. The group that met with Ambassador Rabinovich also included Rabbi Ronald Greenwald, who had visited Israel as the special emissary of Congressman Benjamin I. Gilman (R-NY), the powerful chairman of the International Relations Committee.