In June, the French government reopened a site in Jerusalem known, somewhat misleadingly, as the Tomb of the Kings, after it had been closed to visitors for nearly a decade. The tomb is the burial place of Queen Helena of Adiabene, an ancient kingdom located in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan, who converted to Judaism in the 1st century CE. Also buried there are her son Izates II and two wealthy Jerusalem notables from the same period. In the 19th century, a French archaeologist began excavating the site, insisting, contrary to the evidence, that it was the resting place of the biblical kings of Judea. Freddy Eytan and Richard Rossin explain the history of the site and France’s dubious claims to it:
The [19th-century] excavations aroused disquiet among the Jews of Jerusalem, who felt they were a desecration of Jewish graves. . . . Rabbi Shmuel Salant, Jerusalem’s [Ashkenazi] chief rabbi, asked Rabbi Lazare Isidor, the chief rabbi of France, to demand that the French government put an end to the desecration. . . . Isidor convinced Bertha Pereire, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist, to purchase the mausoleum.
In 1874, she gave her acquisition to France’s Central Jewish Consistory, [the official communal body]. . . . After her death and that of her two sons, [her cousin] Henry Pereire curiously gave the Tomb of the Kings to France, [although] he was not Bertha’s heir and had no right to give away such property without first offering it to the Consistory as its legitimate owner.
[Although] France took possession of the mausoleum in 1886, it did not stick to the contract “that in the future, no changes will be made to the actual purpose of this monument.” Since 1997, the consul repeatedly permitted Yabous, a Palestinian cultural society, to use the site for concerts, while for the rest of the year access was mostly forbidden, apart from a few pilgrims or tourists with written permission from the consulate.
The [current] president of the Consistory has questioned why a site under French sovereignty is forbidden to Jews. The will of those who acquired it should be respected. . . . Haim Berkovits, who represents the consistory in this matter, has inquired why Christian sites in Jerusalem that are also under French control are managed by Christians, but a Jewish site such as the Tomb of the Kings can’t be managed by Jews.