Cremation: Israel’s latest religious war

MOSHAV HIBAT ZION, Israel — The charred hut and blackened chimney are all that remain of what was one of Israel’s best-kept secrets.

It was the Jewish state’s first and only crematorium. But more than that, it was a symbol. To secular Jews it meant the right to choose one’s own exit from this world. To religious Jews it was a violation of Jewish law, which requires that the dead be buried intact. And it struck a raw nerve on both sides, conjuring up images of the Holocaust ovens.

The crematorium burned down on Aug. 22, a day after ultra-Orthodox activists discovered and publicized its location. Police suspect arson, and although no arrests have been made, the affair has become the latest episode in the religious wars that have dogged Israel since its creation.

“This is a battle over the identity of the state of Israel,” said Alon Nativ, director of the Aley Shalechet funeral home. “It is unacceptable that I am a citizen who serves in the army, who pays his taxes, but who can’t make his own personal decisions about what matters most.”

Aley Shalechet, or Autumn Leaves, opened the crematorium in 2005 and advertised in newspapers, radio stations and on TV, but kept its location secret for fear of retribution.

Jewish law requires a body to be ritually cleansed and swiftly buried, wrapped in shrouds and without a coffin. Burials are handled by Hevra Kadisha, a religious, government-sanctioned charity, and the costs are covered by the state. Non-Jews are buried by their own clergy and in their own cemeteries. Alternatives exist, but Nativ’s company was the first to offer cremation.

His funeral home caters primarily to secular Israelis who prefer to bypass the religious authorities, even though it’s expensive. A full burial with coffin and tombstone costs about $4,000. Nativ charges about half that sum for a cremation.

He said he has served hundreds of clients — he would not give specific figures — whose identity is kept secret and who come from a broad range of Israeli society.

Nativ said his cremation facility in Hibat Zion, a quiet farming village in central Israel, offers clients a dignified exit, saves precious land space in a crowded country, and is more ecologically sound than burial. He said his company also can provide a traditional Jewish funeral as well as burial at sea, and can turn ashes into a diamond or even have them launched into outer space.

Hevra Kadisha’s Morris Azoulai confirms Israel is so short of burial space that in some cemeteries graves are now stacked in layers. But he says the solution is not to cremate but to build more cemeteries.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews sued Nativ’s funeral home, tried to have it shut on health grounds and initiated legislation against it in parliament. Now the fire has turned the argument into a national affair.

Among the suspects questioned is Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head of Zaka, an ultra-Orthodox rescue service best known for gathering body parts of victims of suicide bombings to assure them a proper burial. He was spotted on the scene a day before the fire. The following day, the location of the crematorium was published in an ultra-Orthodox newspaper, and the fire quickly followed.

In an interview, he confirmed he was there the day before the fire, and did nothing to dispel suspicions. “This structure was designed for burning,” he said. “Now it has fulfilled its purpose.”

Yitzhak Cohen, the minister for religious affairs from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, refused to condemn the fire. Instead, he pledged to outlaw the funeral home that “continued the legacy of the destroyers of the Jewish people.”

Meshi-Zahav said operating a crematorium in Israel was in bad taste, especially given the memories of the Holocaust.

“There are some things you just don’t do. Even in a democracy you are not allowed to hurt the feelings of so many people,” he said.

Nativ rejected the Holocaust comparisons.

“The Nazis buried far more Jews than they burned, so are we also not going to bury people?” he said. He noted that several Jewish luminaries, including Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Milton Friedman had chosen cremation.

The incident has drawn fresh attention to the Orthodox rabbinical establishment’s monopoly not just over burials but over marriage, divorce and conversions to Judaism. Zealots tend to riot when construction projects or archaeological digs near ancient Jewish graves, or when motorists drive through religious neighborhoods on the Jewish sabbath.

“Now they want to interfere with our death, too?” said Yossi Beilin, secular head of the left-wing Meretz party. “Their extremism has no limits.”

After the fire, Beilin outraged many religious Israelis by announcing he wanted to be cremated after his death, the first public Israeli figure to do so. More recently, an Israeli reserve soldier drew the army into the mix, stating that if killed in action he wished to be cremated.

Among Hibat Zion’s 150 families, both secular and religious, people were surprised to learn the crematorium was operating in the community’s small industrial area, hidden between a chicken coop and a lumberyard. Letters of protest circulated, and community leaders vowed not to let the crematorium reopen.

“We were outraged,” said Raanan Gashuri, head of the local council. “We all live here in harmony. This is not the place for something like that.”

Nativ has pledged to repair the crematorium within weeks and move it to a new secret location.

The International Cremation Federation, a veteran England-based advocacy group, has asked Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to make cremation “legally and practically available” in Israel. It also expressed its concern for Nativ’s safety. Olmert’s office declined comment.