Atra Qadisha (Aramaic for Holy Ground, or Site) is a group of fanatically orthodox Jews who in recent years have undertaken to “protect” ancient Jewish tombs. As ancient tombs and burials are encountered in Israel almost every other day, this group can cause real damage not only to archaeology but to development as well, as they attempt to block construction of buildings and roads.

Atra Qadisha does not recognize the Israel Antiquities Authority. It does not even recognize the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Atra Qadisha tends to choose sites for confrontation where major development projects are under way, as in the confrontations at Mamilla, French Hill (a main highway interchange) and Modi’in (a new city established halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv).

It should be emphasized that even as early as the Second Temple period the attitude of the Jewish sages toward tombs was entirely different from the views of the Atra Qadisha today. Cemeteries were of course located outside the city. The sages gave priority to the living people of the city over the dead. When a city expanded, however, tombs were opened and bones were collected and moved to a new location for reburial.4

The Pharisees, of whom modern Orthodox Jews are religious descendants, were pragmatic, practical people. Moreover, the Pharisaic sages did not consider the dead “holy.” On the contrary, a corpse was a prime source of the utmost impurity. In dealing with the dead, the sages were concerned not with securing their resurrection or their comfort in the afterlife but with avoiding the ritual impurity that contact with a corpse would transmit. The sages were intent on maintaining their daily life and routine in ritual purity.

The sages recognized various types of tombs, including those that were “known,” those that were “found” and those that would “impede the public” (Tosefta Ahilot 16, 9). All of these categories could be moved (however, they “leave behind” different levels of impurity). Indeed, the famous inscription of King Uzziah (eighth century B.C.E.), now in the Israel Museum, shows that his bones were moved in the Second Temple period to a new location. So we have archaeological proof of what the later rabbinic sages allowed.

Tombs and burials are frequently encountered in Israel in the course of construction and development. When this occurs, the burials are meticulously excavated by teams of archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority in what we call a “rescue dig,” that is, a dig that rescues the scientific information embedded in the site. As a rule, archaeologists do not intentionally direct their excavations with a particular aim to locate and dig tombs.

When a burial is excavated, the bones are gathered and studied by the anthropologists on site. They are then handed over as quickly as possible (in most cases on site) to a representative of the Ministry of Religious Affairs Department of Cemeteries (against a receipt!) for reburial in accordance with Israeli law.