According to a new report in Israel Hayom, very few of the over one hundred officially recognized holy sites located in Israel are fully accessible to the disabled. Among the sites that are not readily accessible to those with disabilities are the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the Cave of the Prophet Elijah (Eliyahu Hanavi) on Mount Carmel in Haifa.
The survey that was conducted by the Knesset’s Science and Information Center for MK Moshe Abutbul (Shas) and the Betsalmo organization revealed that out of around 130 sites for which the Center for the Development of the Holy Places is responsible, only 12 are fully accessible to the disabled, and one other is in the process of being made accessible. Ninety-three sites are not accessible at all to those with disabilities, and no information was available for a further 33 sites.
There are around 1.5 million people in Israel who have a disability of some kind, translating to around 17 percent of the population. Eight percent of the adult population have severe disabilities. The Law for the Equal Rights of People with Disabilities establishes that the disabled deserve access to all public spaces, even if they are under private ownership, and therefore the people administering such sites are responsible for ensuring that people with disabilities may access them.
Such sites include open-air spaces such as cemeteries and memorial sites, and the law demands that at least one main access route leading to the sites must be made disabled-friendly, without stairs, with signs indicating the location of the disabled access route, and also facilities for the disabled. Anyone who administers a public site is obligated by law to implement the changes necessary to comply with these stipulations.
People with disabilities frequently wish to visit Israel’s holy sites, whether to pray there or to explore them as tourist sites. The Center for the Development of the Holy Places is a non-profit organization under the auspices of the government; technically, it is required to: “Develop and upgrade the sites so that they conform to the same standards as tourist sites in all aspects – building layout, well-maintained surroundings, suitable electricity and water infrastructure, hygiene and cleanliness, maintenance of access routes for the disabled.” In 2019, the Center had a disposable budget of NIS 44 million, NIS 42.5 million of which was from government sources and the remainder from donations.
Among the sites that are yet to be made disabled-friendly are some of the best-known sites in Israel, including the Western Wall, the Tomb of David Hamelech (King David), the gravesite of the Rambam (Maimonides), and the ancient cemetery in Tzfat (Safed).
The response to an inquiry from Israel Hayom to the Religious Affairs Ministry noted that the Tomb of Shimon Hatzaddik (Simeon the Righteous) in Jerusalem is mostly accessible (apart from the upper level), and that many other sites, including the gravesite of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (Rabbi Chaim ben Attar) on the Mount of Olives and parts of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron, are not accessible at all.
A representative of the Center for the Development of the Holy Places noted that the Center does intend to make all sites disabled-friendly, but the project is an extremely expensive one and will take years to implement.