Friday, April 1, 2016

The State of Israel needs to declare the end of Zionism

Many people think that until the advent of Zionism, sometime in the nineteenth century, Jews saw themselves in an exile ordained by God, an exile that only God could bring to an end, and the only way of moving God to bring about the end was a pious life of mitzvot and devotion. It is true that this opinion existed. It was to some extent an inevitable religious "party-line" of those who wanted to turn the negative experience of Jewish powerlessness into a motivation for religious cohesion and greater observance. Personal piety and communal conformity were important values, and if the exile could be enlisted to strengthen individual and collective resolve to maintain personal piety and communal conformity, so much the better. And of course, there was a lot of truth in this perspective. In the end, it is really only God who can bring the exile to an end. The question was, however, whether he intended to use human means to do so. Rav Amram Blau's Neturei Karta, for example, are of the opinion that only God can end the exile, and they regard the Zionist regime as blasphemous.

But it may be more accurate to say that Zionism, the political movement to establish a modern Jewish commonwealth in Palestine, is merely the most recent iteration of another time-honored Jewish position that believes that exile is not a metaphor for spiritual distance from God but literally a state of political powerlessness and distance from the Land of Israel. When the powers that be prevented Jews from living in their land, the Jews made accommodations and waited, but when the powers that be permitted or even encouraged and promoted Jewish presence in their land, there was no reason other than indolence to not pick up and move and even seek to reestablish a Jewish commonwealth. Spinoza knew this very well. He wrote of it in his Theological Political Treatise, and he did not think it extraordinary. The early nineteenth-century European parliamentarians who argued against Jewish emancipation considered it self-evident that the Jews, at the first opportunity, would seek to return to their ancient homeland and reestablish themselves as a nation. They were right.

Throughout the last two-thousand years, whenever Jews perceived that the end of the exile was near, as they periodically did, they were not too shy to act on the expectation of an imminent reversal of their collective fortune. This was as true in the days of Bar Kokhba as it was in the days of Shabtai Tzvi. Exile was not just a mystical state of affairs but a very real condition that permeated every-day Jewish life; not just because it was mentioned in every-day prayers but because Jewish every-day life was a series of indignities caused by statelessness, foreignness, and the vulnerability of a national-religious minority marked by the majority as rightly deprived of their erstwhile fortunes because of their disbelief or stubbornness. If the Jews could for a moment forget that they were in exile, their hosts would remind them in no uncertain terms.

The question is now, when is enough enough. When will the first successful Zionist movement, i.e. the present one, say dayyenu? Is it enough to have accomplished the Jewish return to the ancient homeland? Is it enough to have established a Jewish state? Is it enough for that state to be militarily and economically not just viable but of admirable prowess? Is it enough to have made the desert bloom and to have drained the swamps? Is it enough to have revived the Hebrew language as a modern idiom? Is it enough to have established cutting edge research institutions and a high-tech industry on par with the best? Is it enough to have made peace with Egypt and Jordan? Is it enough to have established a society that, despite all flaws, is based on the rule of law, where non-Jewish minorities enjoy the rights of citizens? What else does this movement need to fulfill itself? What is the endgame?

There are people who believe that "secular Zionism" (as if Z. was ever completely secular) was merely the human instrument to hasten divine redemption. Divine redemption is incomplete. In order for divine redemption to be complete, some people think that the Temple needs to be rebuilt (speedily, in our days). This will either be accomplished by the Messiah or it will need to be done by the Jews themselves so as to hasten the coming of King Messiah who will then abolish the secular Jewish state and rule forever.

This may sound absurd and "fringe-y." But it is not absurd to those who believe it. For those who believe that the State of Israel is merely an unwitting instrument of divine redemption, Zionism's mission is incomplete. It is not enough to have a sovereign Jewish state. It is not enough for Jews to live in an internationally recognized commonwealth of their own. It is not enough to have conquered Judea and Samaria and to have held on to united Jerusalem for nearly half a century. After forty years of settling Judea and Samaria, the goal is to hold on to Judea and Samaria and not to let it slip away. And after attaining de facto sovereignty over Jerusalem (something not officially recognized by the international community), the goal of this post-Zionist Zionism or romantic neo-Zionism or religious Zionism is to hold on to Jerusalem, including the Old City, including the Temple Mount, forever. This much is actually a broad consensus for many, not just on the right but at the center of Israeli society and certainly many Jews abroad.

But the pressure for complete redemption is building for a further status-quo-rectification: either to allow Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount (i.e., the holy mosque of Al-Aqsa) in the name of democratic values and the freedom of religion, or in form of a final messianic push to build the Third Temple. What presently stands in the way of the completion of this messianic project is not the Muslim buildings or world opinion, but the State of Israel and its interest in self-preservation. The state is obliged to resist Jewish pressures to hasten the end. This turns the state into the enemy of a potent messianic movement. Right now it looks as if the state is strong enough to resist these pressures and to prevent them from acting on their beliefs. But support is building for the idea of allowing Jewish prayer on the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary. Right wing politicians willing to support this, in the name of the freedom of religion or in whatever other name, are playing with fire. Israel owes it to its citizens, to its neighbors, and to the world to declare its intentions. Israel needs to declare the end of Zionism: mission accomplished. No more forced demographic corrections; no more territorial expansion; no status quo rectification on the Temple Mount. Take the Temple Mount out of the political discourse. Leave the Temple to the Messiah, and end all support to people who undermine the status quo. Jews may pray for the rebuilding of the temple, but they may not act on it. Not until Messiah comes. Not as long as the State of Israel exists.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Jerusalem holy places: a final status issue that should not be postponed


At our meeting in London of March 9, 2016, one of the topics discussed in small groups was religion. How does religion fit into the Two States One Homeland (TSOH) scheme? How and at what stage should it be brought into the discussion? How can the status quo of the holy places be addressed without causing anxiety? Is there something TSOH can say or project about the religious aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is novel and can lead beyond the current impass, which-as was repeatedly stated at the meeting-is driven, in part, by fear: fear of hidden intentions of the other party, a source of insurmountable distrust. The crucial question is therefore how to build trust in regard to the issue of the holy places. The answer is that TSOH needs to have a clear statement on intentions regarding holy places. How will Israelis and Palestinians handle mutually exclusive claims to sacred space and holy places?

TSOH’s statement on Jerusalem currently eludes this issue by invoking the possibility of an international regime for the holy places. Any future regime, including one involving members of the international community, requires mutually recognized principles on holy places between the principal members of the envisaged confederation as a basis for mediation of any and all differences and a mitigation of any conflict between the parties.

Jerusalem is the crucial issue when it comes to religion and the Israeli Palestinian conflict. It would be insufficient for TSOH to deal with questions of sovereignty, territorial redivision, policing, or the status of Jerusalem as a dual capital and a joint municipality without also addressing the holy places.

As the TSOH initiative does with regard to the Land of Israel/Palestine as a whole, TSOH also has the potential to move the parties beyond the current impass with regard to the holy places by being honest about long-term intentions and mindful of the facts on the ground.  

The current impasse with regard to the holy places consists in the inability (not just unwillingness) of each side to recognize the legitimate attachment of the other party to holy places they claim as their own by divine right or obligation. In contrast to the land as a whole (whose boundaries are only vaguely defined in Jewish and Muslim tradition) the status of Jerusalem is unquestionably one of extraordinary holiness to both Jews and Muslims. Attachment to the holy places should not be argued from history alone but must be considered as founded on religious beliefs about the status of Jews and Muslims within their respective narratives of sacred history.

TSOH is based on a mutual recognition of Jewish and Arab claims to historic rights of presence and legitimate claims to “ownership” of the Land of Israel/Palestine as a whole. There should be a similar mutual recognition that Jews and Muslims have not just historic rights, but identity-forming religious memories, aspirations, and obligations with regard to Jerusalem as a sacred space and to some of the very same holy places within it, most notably to the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif of Jerusalem.

Some peace proposals (including the Geneva Accords) include suggestions with regard to sovereignty and control over the Temple Mt/Haram complex. These schemes are based on the current status quo, established by Israeli governments since June 1967, a status quo that has not been accepted as legitimate by Palestinians or Muslims. The current status quo includes Waqf control of the surface area and Israeli control of the Western Wall plaza. Geneva Accords etc suggest that in a final status regulation, Israel would exert control over the airspace above the plaza as well as retain oversight over any subterranean building or archaeological activity in the area, while the state of Palestine would wield sovereignty over the surface area and buildings on the Haram ash-Sharif. What these political schemes fail to address are the mutually exclusive religious sentiments, hopes, aspirations, and obligations with regard to guardianship, management, and presence on the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif, an area currently under the control of the Waqf but that Jews hope will once again be the place of the Holy Temple (beyt ha-miqdash/bays al-maqdis). For Muslims the status quo (Waqf control) is final and perennial, for Jews the current status quo is temporary. This deep difference with regard to the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif is a source of mutual distrust and a flashpoint of violence that plays into the respective apocalyptic imaginary of Jews, Muslims, and Christians around the world.

Recent years have seen a mainstreaming of Jewish political, educational, propagandistic, and grass-roots activism aimed at changing the status quo on the Temple Mt/Haram area, conducted under the guise of traditional piety. Instrumentalization of Jewish sentiments vis-à-vis the Third Temple is a dangerous gamble. TSOH has an opportunity to speak to an issue that reaches deeply into the self-understanding of Israel as a Jewish state in contemporary Palestine, where Jews are not alone, and where the Jewishness of the state remains open to democratic collective determination. It is clear that the TSOH initiative will force the determination of hitherto avoided constitutional issues not just in regard to Jewish Arab coexistence but also in regard to religion and state in general, and the status of traditional Jewish beliefs and obligations in the Jewish state in particular.

This issue cannot and must not be avoided. The recent push of ever-more mainstreamed Jewish pressure groups to promote private or public Jewish prayer on the Haram plaza has given rise to a growing fear among Muslims in Palestine and around the world that Israel aims to change the status quo at this most sensitive of holy places in Jerusalem. Rumors as to such intentions triggered the ongoing “knife” intifada that broke out around the fall 2015 Jewish high holidays. It is in Israel’s best self-interest to address this matter openly and decisively.

A joint declaration and hence clarification of Jewish and Muslim intentions with regard to the holy places would go a long way toward building confidence, especially by making each side’s “endgame” with regard to the holy places explicit. Such a declaration might be difficult to attain, as TSOH is largely driven by secular interests. It will require Jewish and Muslim experts to weigh in on questions of law and belief. But TSOH has already developed a new language to address the sticky issue of the conurrent attachment of Israelis and Palestinians to the entire One Homeland, and is making suggestions on other final status issues, such as Palestinian refugees and the fate of the settlements. The Holy Places should not be excluded from consideration. Rather, TSOH may find a way of moving Israelis and Palestinians beyond the obstacle of religion to a place where mutual trust can be cultivated on final intentions with regard to the holy places. TSOH currently envisages the city as open (without walls), bi-national (two capitals in one city), and jointly administered on the municipal level, but it does not yet address the holy places.

TSOH needs to proceed from the realization that in the eyes of Muslims, the status quo at the holy places was already violated when, in 1967, Israel razed the Mughrabi quarter and established an orthodox open-air synagogue along the exposed section of the Western Wall. No doubt, a final settlement will require for Muslims to accept this new status quo as legitimate. But this is not sufficient. While the Wall is of sentimental value for historical reasons, it is of no ultimate religious significance in Jewish tradition. The place of ultimate significance is the Temple Mount itself, as the place of the past and future temple Jews have prayed for every day for two thousand years that it be rebuilt “speedily in our days.” Denials of the prior existence of Jewish temples on the Herodian platform, as expressed in various Muslim sources and Palestinian statements remain unaccceptable and are not conducive to building Jewish confidence in Palestinian good will.

Zionism, in its religious roots, is an activist movement aiming to rectify the status quo of Jewish exile symbolized in the absence of the Temple. In this sense, Zionism is incomplete and unfulfilled as long as the Temple is not rebuilt. Any political settlement of the status quo of Jerusalem and its holy places will need to articulate openly the intention of the Jewish state with regard to the two-thousand-year-old hopes of the Jews to end the exile, return the Jews to their land, and rebuild the temple, as the sign of divine blessing and presence. The reason why this needs to be addressed is that the State of Israel, in order to achieve a stable relationship between Jews and Muslims in Israel/Palestine needs to declare its intentions and its end-goals with regard to the religious hopes and aspirations of the Jews. Without doing so, the state will not achieve the trust of its Muslim Palestinian partners. This is as much about religion and state relations within the Jewish state itself as it is about building confidence and stable arrangements between Israel and Palestine. A clear and binding declaration is needed to avoid any further abuse of religion as a wedge issue.

TSOH should articulate a mechanism by which Jewish messianic claims and aspirations for the rebuilding of the Third Temple can be recognized by both Jews and Muslims as religiously valid while also spelling out the commitment of both states to maintaining the status quo, notwithstanding all religious hopes and aspirations. TSOH will need to articulate why the State of Israel will remain committed to resisting to its own interpretation as the “Beginning of Redemption.” In other words, TSOH will need to deal with the character of Israel as a Jewish nation state and its place within the larger age-old Jewish imagination regarding exile and return. One could argue-as various rabbis have argued with respect to settlements in Judea and Samaria-that it is for the sake of peace (a halakhic principle) that the Jewish state needs to respect the need of Muslim Palestinians to be free of fear of any practical Jewish attempts (aside from prayer) to change the status quo at the holy places. Any change of the status quo at the holy places must be mutually agreed. In this way, both states declare that the status quo may be changed in the future (for example, at the advent of the messiah) while excluding any unilateral action. Such a messianic proviso could be written into the constitution of the Israeli-Palestinian confederation.

A few more notes on Haram v. Temple Mount
When it comes to outreach and communication, there are a few standard objections that invariably come up when one speaks with Jewish opponents of compromise on the status of the holy places. Here are a few thoughts on these objections and how to meet them.

1.     Jews have a longer, deeper, more existential attachment to Jerusalem than Muslims.
a.     It is crucial for Muslims to recognize Jewish attachment to Jerusalem as genuine and based on history as well as on religion. Denying the facts is obscurantist and seems needlessly defensive.
b.    Israel needs to restore full scientific integrity to the practice of archaeological excavation and display of Jerusalem history. Archaeology should not be a tool of propaganda and brainwashing.
c.     Jews also need to be better educated on the status of the two sanctuaries (el harameyn) of Jerusalem and Hebron in Palestinian history and folklore. (Lit: Gerber, H., Remembering and Imagining Palestine: Identity and Nationalism from the Crusades to the Present (Palgrave 2008).
2.    Jerusalem is not even mentioned in the Qur’an, but it is mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible.
a.     This is true, but it is also not mentioned in the Torah.
b.    The status of bayt al-maqdis is firmly established in the Sira of the Prophet Muhammad where the Night Journey and Ascent narratives are of central importance in establishing Muhammad’s place in the lineage of prophets and apostles (messengers).
c.     Jerusalem is therefore not marginal but central to Islam’s self-understanding as the renewal of the true religion of Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
3.    Jerusalem is the most holy city to Jews, but only the third-most holy city in Islam.
a.     This is based on a Muslim tradition that says, you should only set out to three places: Mecca, Medinah, and Jerusalem. This in turn is a tradition that means to contravene the proliferation of holy places, a phenomenon that has its parallels in Judaism and Christianity, where the tombs of saints became pilgrimage sites for popular religion.
b.    Judaism likewise recognizes other sacred places, including Hebron and Safed, and pilgrimage to the tombs of saints are common.
c.     Inter-communal polemic should not have a place in modern society.