Holy Sites and Violence: A War of Symbols

For the last two weeks the Temple Mount, churches, and several key graves in Israel and the West Bank have been the focus of tension, fears, and minor violence.

The Temple Mount

For the lat few weeks, the Al Aqsa Foundation for Waqf and Heritage, the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade and Muslim leaders such as Ekrema Sabri, have been beating the drums, expressing fears that Jews will desecrate or take over the Temple Mount.

Muslim fears aren’t coming out of thin air. Two weeks ago around the time of Moshe Feiglin’s usual monthly attempt to enter the temple mount, unknown parties distributed flyers in the Old City calling on people “to purify the temple mount from the enemies of Israel”. Feiglin denied any involvement in the pamphlets, but the timing of the pamphlets aggravated an already tense situation. Then Monday night this week, a home with right wing extremist documents discussing the Temple Mount were discovered in a home in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

The police have worked with officials on the Temple Mount to prevent riots and personal injury, but their actions have been criticized on both the Arab and the Jewish side. On Sunday, Feb 12, the temple mount was closed to Jews. This sparked outrage by certain religious Jews and prompted the Zionist Organization of Amrica (ZOA) to send a letter to the Israeli government on Monday, Feb 13.

The ZOA letter complained that Jews who were easily identified as Jews because of dress or ownership of ritual object and prayerbooks were being subjected to unfair security measures and police suspicion. It called on the state of Israel to ensure that all religions could worship on the Temple Mount itself and not just at the Kotel below.

Israel’s Temple Mount (Har Habayit), not the Western Wall (Kotel), is Judaism’s holiest site. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) believes that unfettered access and freedom to pray at a holy site is a basic, universally recognized right, which certainly should be accorded to Jews in the Jewish State of Israel. Safe and unimpeded access to holy sites also is guaranteed under Israeli law.

More Jews have wanted to visit the Temple Mount in recent years as, increasingly, rabbinic authorities are stating publicly that Jewish law does not prohibit this. Yet, Israeli police and security personnel, hoping to appease Muslim extremists including the Wakf authority on the Temple Mount, have been engaging in blatantly discriminatory and humiliating behavior toward Jewish visitors.

A week later (Sunday, February 19), a rumor spread that a group of Jews was trying to force its way onto the Temple Mount. Some 50 persons inside the Temple Mount area beggan throwing stones at Christian tourists. In respnse about 40 Israeli police entered the temple mount with the cooperation of Muslim Temple Mount officials. They arrested a total of 18 people: 3 on the spot, another 10when they finished praying, and anther 5 as they attempted to leave the temple mount. The PA describes the incident somewhat differently. According to Ma’an News Agency

Official PA news agency Wafa said police sealed the entrances to the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), and dozens of worshipers remained inside the mosque to defend it against feared attack.

Tuesday morning, after the discovery of the flyers in Ramot police were placed on high alert in the Old City, in order to prevent Jewish Temple Mount extremists from creating any sort of conflict. The presence of som any police triggered another episode of stone throwing, this time at the police themelves. One policeman was lightly injured in the head and three Palestinians were arrested.

Local Houses of Worship

Churches and mosques have been the target of several “price tag” attacks. Vandals slashed the tires of three cars and sprayed anti-Christian graffitti on the outer walls of Baptist church in central Jerusalem was attacked Saturday night (February 18) or early Sunday morning. The words sprayed on the building include “Death to Christians”, “Price tag”, and profanities about Jesus. Prosecutors have no suspect for this attack, nor for a similar attack on a nearby Greek Orthodox monastery. The graffitti in both attacks includes the signature phrase “price tag”, so police suspect that they are the work of extremist settlers.

In the last two years, at least six mosques have also been attacked in suspected “price tag” , including one in Jerusalem and another in the village of Burkin, both this December (2011).

Such settlers believe that they can force an end to tensions by making non-Jews “pay”for any violence perpetrated on them. Judaism does not condone attacking innocent people under the guise of self-protection. Leaders across all streams of Judaism have condemned the attacks: Reform/Progressive, Conservative/Masorti, and even Religious Zionist. This doesn’t seem to bother the extremist settlers a great deal.

Tombs and Burial Sites

Tombs and Burial sites have also been the focus of recent violence as well. On Tuesday Rachel’s Tomb had to be closed to visitors after Palestinians began hurling stones.

Although two recent visits to Joseph’s tomb have passed without incident, the religious right is frustrated at the frequency of the visits which can only happen once a month and only at night with IDF and/or PA supervision. Not everyone is willing to abid by the rules and in mid-December, a group of Bratslavers attempted to sneak into the tomb. PA policemen opened fire lightly wounding one of the Hasid. The Oslo accords granted the tomb to Israel, but Israel returned the tomb to Palestinian hands in 2000. Even those who respect the rules want the tomb back in Israeli hands so they can have freeer access . MK Yuli Edelstein (Likud) and some of the Haredim are demanding that Israel take back control over the tomb.

Preoccupation with tombs can even set Israelis against Israelis. In mid December the Israeli Ministry of Tourism announced the creation of a new government authority to manage the tomb of Simon Bar Yochai. Members of the Haredi community filled the Shabbat Square (Kikar Shabbat) and the surrounding streets in Mea Shearim to protest. Although most demonstrators remained peaceful, some present began hurling stones at police and passing Egged buses, resulting in five arrests.

The Symbolism of Place

From a secular point of view, demanding access to these holy places makes little sense.  They have no strategic value. They aren’t providing a mountainous border as the Golan is. They aren’t providing a source of water as the Jordan river is. In many cases defending these holy sites so that Jewish pilgrims can visit them in fact diverts significant military resources. The monthly visit to Joseph’s Tomb requires an escort of 600 soldiers for 1000 visitors.

Religiously it makes little sense either. The classic Jewish trio is “God, Torah, and Israel”, but for many Israel is first and foremost the relationship between Jews, not the land. Jews have had a homeland in certain periods of history, and haven’t in others. The one constant for Judaism is the people themselves. Nor does land appear anywhere in the list of the three allowable reasons for matyrdom: idolatry, rape/sexual immorality, and murder.

Idolatry is not a stand-in for land. In the main, Judaism does not consider Islam idolatry. Even if some do, idolatry doesn’t explain the passion of people who are not violent nor of those who merely want to be able to pray together at the same site. The ZOA letter, for example, doesn’t ask for the Israeli government to evict the Muslims. It simply wants to be able to pray in the same spot. At the end of the letter it asks why the Temple Mount can’t be like the Cave of the Patriarches where a way has been found for both Muslims and Jews to pray.

Psychologically, insulting someone’s faith and keeping them from places that are considered spiritually significant are both ways of demoralizing someone. One could argue that symbolic warfare has security value as a strategy for demoralizing the enemy and taking away their will to fight. However, the reality is more likely that it exacerbates problems. The flyers two weeks ago threatening to enter the Temple Mount triggered Arab stoning and shoe throwing episodes, not peace.

Perhaps there is more?

Sometimes it helps to take a step back, in this case very far back. Although the Tenach has no lengthy and unambiguous discussions of the after life, archeological evidence coupled with texts suggests that early Israelite culture included an element of ancester worship. (see Judaism in Late Antiquity, Vol 1, Chapter 1, Richard Elliot Friedman and Shawna Dolansky Overton).

A tomb sealed a families relationship with land in perpetuity. Clearly biblical passages like the purchase of the case of Machpelah or Jacob and Joseph’s desire to have their bones returned to their homeland so they could rest with their forefathers. However, there is also archeological evidence that tombs formed a lasting bond with locality, for example, stone carved tombs that provide space for four generations of male relatives.

One implication of this is that veneration of tombs aren’t merely ways to connect to God or long dead ancestors. They are also ways to lay an active and existential perpetual claim to territory. If one’s ancestors are buried in a place, one must be near them to take care of them. Therefore one has rights to be in the place in the here and now. The same is true for all succeeding generations for as each generation dies, the responsibility to care for the graves of the grandparents falls on the grandchildren. Thus graves connect ownership past, present, and future into an unbroken chain. Further, if one believes that somehow the spirit or energy of a person remains connected to the place where they were buried, then a buried family member becomes an eternal presence that holds claim to the land even when the current generation is absent.

The converse is true as well. If one wants to divorce someone from the land, then one must disrupt any and all claims to memory and history associated with particular places. Without ancestors (or the buildings they built) to take care of, the bond to the land is broken. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see both Jews and Muslims from time to time claaiming that the other’s connection to the land is built on fake history.

Nor should we be surprised to see Jews and Muslims making active attempts to prevent each other worshiping in key locations. If part of the bond to the land is the obligation to take care of their graves, then one can also break the bond by preventing caretaking. For the Jew, to take care of our ancestors is to pray to the God of our ancestors. Prevent the prayer and one prevents the caretaking. Thus so long as Jews do not worship on the temple mount or at certain significant graves, any possible claim is locked in the past and the future. At best it remains a claim in potentia that can never be realized in the present. Hence it can’t be fully claimed. So long as Jews can’t pray at the Temple Mount, Jerusalem is still Islam’s. So long as Jews can’t freely visit the graves of the patriarchs, they are only visitors in the land. So long as the pilgrims and ther rabbis control the grave of Simon bar Yochai rather than the state, the land belongs to the rabbis and not state.

Israel the People, Israel the Land

The return of the people Israel to the land of Israel has once again made the ancient connection between veneration of the dead and territorial claim a possibility. But how far should we go to realize it? Is this really the way we want to lay claim to the land? And at what price?

Our history has taught us that Israel the people transcends land. Land is not a necessity for our continued existance, but people are. So long as we have people, so long as we live by our ethical values and ritual traditions, our mission in history can continue.  Our inheritance survives.  Land for peace may or may not be a viable solution, but placing land over the needs of the people and their security, never is.

Categories: Building a Just Israel, Extremism | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Holy Sites and Violence: A War of Symbols

  1. Prayers for the safety of the most important piece of real estate on Planet Earth. I like all the following names for the 150,000 sq.m. trapezoid platform in the midst of the Old City…

    The Temple Mount; Noble Santuary; House for All Nations and Centre of Unfolding Potential.

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