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Israel and rabbi dig into deep dispute over Jerusalem archaelogical site

The sharpening conflict between synagogue and state in Israel has tilted in favor of the state in recent days because of legal ruling regarding a disputed archaeological dig in Jerusalem's City of David.

Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir has declared that Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren had no authority to interfere with the dig, the most important being carried out in the Holy Land.

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Rabbi Goren has contended that the site was that of a medieval Jewish cemetery and attempted to pressure Education Minister Zevulun Hammer, himself an Orthodox Jew, into rescinding the excavation license.

Mr. Zamir said it was only the planning authorities who could determine whether a site was a cemetery. Even if it is an ancient cemetery, Mr. Zamir ruled, this consideration is of lesser importance than excavation "that may be of major scientific and national importance."

The archaeological excavations are being conducted in the so-called City of David, a ridge about half a mile south of Jerusalem's walled old city. The ridge, which has been the subject of archaeological probes for more than a century, is the original site of Jerusalem.

When an archaeological expedition headed by Yigal Shilo of Hebrew University began its fourth summer of excavations at the site two months ago, a small religious organization known as Atara Kadisha, charged with the protection of ancient Jewish cemeteries, complained that Dr. Shilo had penetrated into medieval Jewish burial ground.

Although no graves were visible on the surface, Atara Kadisha had uncovered graves at depths of up to four meters nearby. Dr. Shilo denied penetrating into a cemetery area and noted that he had a permit for the site issued by the attorney general, Mr. Hammer.

Although the dispute area was only about 10 meters by 30 meters, a fraction of the entire excavation site, the issue became a matter of principle for ultra-Orthodox circles.

"Even if only one grave is desecrated, we will cry to the heavens," said one Orthodox leader. in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Sharim, almost, daily demonstrations were frequently staged at the City of David itself.

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Education Minister Hammer called on Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren for an opinion in the matter, evidently hoping that the rabbi, who has a reputation for liberal interpretation of religious law, would find a way to resolve the conflict to the satisfaction of both parties. To the astonishment of virtually the entire country, however, Rabbi Goren banned excavation not only in the disputed area but in the surrounding section as well. The section, known as Area G, contains the remains of a monumental structure from King Solomon's period, the first remains from that period ever found in Jerusalem.

Torn between his own orthodoxy and his duties as a government minister, Mr. Hammer declined to accept the rabbi's ruling. Infuriated, Rabbi Goren summoned the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which issued an edict banning excavations in the entire City of David, including those sites far from the disputed area. Goren warned that if Hammer, as an Orthodox Jew, did not accept this formal rabbinical edict and cancel Shilo's excavation license, a Ktav Seruv (order of rejection) would be issued against him.

Rabbi Goren's action infuriated the country's secular population -- about two-thirds of the total -- as well as many Orthodox Jew, some of whom have offered themselves as volunteers diggers at the excavation site.

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