Friday, October 31, 2014

Don't tinker with the sacred

"You are dealing with flammable material -- It would be wise not to meddle in the business of holy places," Mustafa Abu Sway, an irenic Muslim theologian and Ghazali lecturer at al Aqsa Mosque, is quoted as saying in an article by Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner published in today's New York Times and the Boston Globe ("Israel relents after shutting access to holy site"). Now, there are threats and there are warnings. In this case, I am convinced, that we are dealing with a warning, not a threat. Dr. Abu Sway is not in the business of threats. Then why the dire warning?

In 1982, the Israeli Knesset passed a law that declared Jerusalem the eternally undivided capital of Israel (Jerusalem Basic Law). By passing that law, Israel committed itself to preserving Jerusalem whole, united and under the sovereign control of the State of Israel. It also committed itself to keeping it as the seat of government or capital of the State of Israel. It's a long story why that law was passed. Israel had already annexed Jerusalem, not once but twice. Once, late in 1949, it annexed the western parts of the city when David Ben Gurion reversed course and began to move Israeli governmental institutions from Tel Aviv, the original capital of modern Israel, to West Jerusalem, which Israel had earlier agreed to place under an international regime. This was in defiance of the UN Partition resolution of November 29, 1947, which Israel had accepted. The UN reiterated its views in 1950, after Israel violated that agreement. To be sure, the neighboring Arab states of the time did not recognize the UN Partition Resolution at all, and the Palestinian Arabs of the time had no real political voice, or rather, their major voice was that of the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, who was ignored and his return forestalled by a collusion between the departing British Mandate and the incoming Jordanian royal house. The second time Israel annexed Jerusalem was in the wake of the June 1967 war (Six Day War), when Israel captured East Jerusalem and extended civilian administration over an enlarged territory intended to stay under Israeli control forever.

The interesting bit is that, in the Jerusalem Basic Law, the Israeli government committed itself not just to perpetuating the situation created by the Six Day War but also to preserving the status quo at the holy places and provide free access to worshipers of all religions to their places of worship.
As it turns out, these last two provisions are in fact contradictory because freedom of access to members of all religions to the places they regard as holy cannot be granted without violating the status quo at the holy places. How so?

The most sensitive site in Jerusalem is the place Muslims call the Al Aqsa Mosque or the Noble Sanctuary (Haram ash-Sharif) and Jews call the Temple Mount. To maintain the status quo at that holy place means to keep Jews away from what many of them regard as their most holy place, where in ancient times their holy temple stood. In fact, many rabbis regard it as too holy for Jews to step on in a state of ritual impurity (a state that the proper ritual sacrifice of a red heifer can remedy) that they forbade Jews from treading on it. This injunction is being increasingly ignored by other Jews who have been arguing that, given Israel's guarantee of free access to the holy places, it should be permitted for them to pray on the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa. The Jewish desire to access and pray on the Temple Mount has many fathers and mothers, and not every group simply wants to assert Jewish sovereignty, bring about the coming of Messiah, or just stick it to the Palestinians, as Sharon did when he visited in 2000 with a huge police contingent for protection.

Anyone who has visited the Haram ash-Sharif, and I have done so repeatedly over the years, will have been struck by the serenity of the place. I don't really pray much anymore, but I can see why one would want to do so here, no matter one's religious affiliation. It's a beautiful place, well appointed by masterful architects working over the many centuries of Muslim rule, both before and after the place was retrieved from the Crusaders. Palestinian Muslims consider themselves the guardians of two sacred places (harameyn): the Haram of Al Quds and the Haram of El Halil, the tomb of the patriarchs. Both places are also sacred in Judaism and both are contested by Jewish national religious settlers. Both are flashpoints of violence, and the Israeli government, as the sovereign power, has the responsibility of mitigating violence. As Dr. Abu Sway rightly warns, Israel must not give up on its responsibility to maintain the status quo at the holy places. Israel must not tinker with the sacred, but the state is in a bind: because of an overreaching law that has opened the gates to all sorts of reasonable and unreasonable desires for Jewish presence at sites that are holy to Muslims and carry the utmost symbolic value for Palestinians as well. It should be a matter of dignity and respect, but it is certainly a question of prudence.

Dr. Abu Sway issues a warning to Israel because he believes Israelis understand that they have something to lose if they allow Jews desirous of status quo rectification to prevail. And he issues the warning because he knows that Palestinians will not accept it. "The average person is very upset. People are angry, and people are sad." This should be taken as a polite understatement.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Fasting on the Ninth of Av

The Roman-age Jewish historian Josephus notes that the fire that destroyed the beautiful Herodian temple in Jerusalem caught fire on exactly the same day when the Babylonians burned down the first temple. According to the Jewish calendar, this happened on the 9th of Av, which is today. The first temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, the second temple in 70 CE, 1944 year ago. That's a long time.

The reason Jews remember these events is because they are meticulously preserved in our literature, liturgy, and customs. The destruction of the first temple, a primordial political catastrophe, when the great Davidic kingdom of Judah came to an ignominious end, is enshrined in biblical literature. Prophets, historians, and poets did their utmost to prevent Jews from forgetting their past: "If I forget thee, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither," was written down in Babylon, by Jews exiled from Jerusalem, taking a vow to return and rebuild.  And rebuild they did. A mere seventy years after the destruction of the temple, the altar of sacrifice was rededicated and the city of Jerusalem founded anew.

The Roman destruction of Jerusalem was more thorough. The Roman Empire lasted longer and its policies of pacification of unruly Judea were more thorough. Not only did they (eventually) plough under Jerusalem and build a pagan city (a Roman military colony) in its place. They also banished the Jews from living in or around Jerusalem, a banishment that lasted-give and take a few exceptional years-until the seventh century, when the Romans were kicked out of Syro-Palestine by the Arabs. Meanwhile, the Jews--now living anywhere from Mesopotamia (under Sassanid Persians) to North Africa, Arabia, Asia Minor, Italy and Spain--developed a piety based on law and custom that preserved the memory of Jerusalem but left its restoration to the advent of the Messiah, G-d's davidic redeemer and restorer of the great Jewish commonwealth at the end of days. Meanwhile Jerusalem was gradually converted from a Christian pilgrimage city into a typical Muslim city: a place where many nations (people of the book, nominally subjugated but effectively tolerated by Arabo-Turkish elites) cohabited, including a Jewish colony of Rabbanites and Karaites.

Traditionally Jews left redemption to G-d. The best they could do to influence the divine machinery to move from suffering an exile toward cosmic rectification was to keep the commandments. Redemption was to come when all Jews kept two Shabbatot in a row, a pretty utopian idea but not on principle beyond human initiative.  In the modern age, Zionism famously determined that redemption was entirely up to human initiative. Im tirtsu, eyn zu aggadah: Wenn Ihr wollt ist es kein Märchen: If you want it it is not a dream. Thus the redemption of Jerusalem became a political program, patiently pursued. Zionism brought us the State of Israel with Jerusalem as the "eternally undivided capital" of Israel. Why then are we still fasting on the Ninth of Av?

Religious people fast because it is commanded. And they fast because the temple is still in ruins, so to speak. In any case, it has not been rebuilt. There may be other reasons to fast in this day and age. Maybe even perfectly secular ones. For example, fasting to acquire the wisdom necessary to preserve the modern Jewish commonwealth. Ancient Jewish politics brought down the ancient Jewish polity. I am fasting in commemoration of ancient folly and in the hope that we can learn from history.