Monday, December 12, 2011

Muezzin Law-A noise complaint that was waiting to happen

Haaretz and other media are reporting on a law, proposed in the Israeli parliament, the Knesseth, to ban the Muslim call to public prayers ("Muezzin Law"). It is worthwhile studying this closely for the responses of members of the public arguing for and against banning a practice that was always designed to be intrusive, but that is not without its charms if one is willing to befriend it. - We recently spent some time in Istanbul, in a relatively poor, ancient neighborhood on the verge of gentrification but still dominated by the small neighborhood mosques that begin to blare their calls to prayer very early in the morning. The problem, I thought this summer, when I felt miserably awakened way before dawn and way before I was ready to get up, are the loudspeakers. They amplify the call to prayer to super-human strength. To be sure, as a tourist I was inclined to be charmed as well, similar to how I felt in Chiapas and elsewhere in Mexico, where religious processions started early, carried on for a long time, and where accompanied by loudspeakers. The loudspeaker, a mid-twentieth century technology still dominates the air-space across the developing world, creating a particular sounds-scape of strong passions proclaimed by coarse and clumsy means. -- The charm of the muezzins of Istanbul was evident from their attention to one another. Broadcasting their really quite haunting intonations of the ever-same words, proclaiming the one-ness of Allah and the prophethood of Muhammad in call-and-response fashion made one listen not just for the call from the nearest loudspeaker but for the others as well, namely, for the interplay, the weaving of a tapestry of transcendence over hills and valleys of a sleep-drunken city. -- None of this is to say that it is not worth regulating the decibels of the output and making sure pious tradition conforms with the overall sense of decorum. To be sure, in Jerusalem and Israel more broadly, there are overtones that will likely make it difficult to regulate anything stepping on the toes of any religious community and its traditions. -- It may be worth remembering that the medieval Muslim rulers forbade Christians, long the majority of Jerusalemites, the ringing of church bells. To this day, the Armenian St. James Cathedral has its deacon hammer on a large beam of wood when it is time to call the faithful to prayer. The regulation of religious noise has long been a complicated issue and it has always been fraught with the desire to dominate.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Women should be seen and heard in Jerusalem

The New Israel Fund is sponsoring an action to counter the ongoing push of Ultra-Orthodox groups to banish women from view in Jerusalem. For details about this action and on how you can contribute or participate, see HERE.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Great Debate: Who Wins? Who Loses?

Bob Zelnick declared tonight's "Great Debate" on Who is to blame for the elusive peace: Israel or the Palestinians?, held at BU's Tsai Performance Center, a draw; even though the majority had ambled over to the side that thought Israel was to blame. Bob simply confused which side represented which of the arguments. The people who meant to indicate that they voted on behalf of the Palestinian grievances against Israel protested politely, in typical BU fashion, when Zelnick first declared the Israeli side the winner. In the end, all acquiesced in the Zel/omon/ic/k judgment.

This is what really happened: the winner was the audience! Not few of us gravitated toward the middle, perhaps because we thought that both sides were right, or both sides at least made important points that had been worth stating and that had been stated well. As neutral observers we simply wanted both sides to be heard! The audience won by being treated to eloquent expositions of both sides' grievances. Hussein Ibish, Senior Research Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, demythologized many of the apologetic saws presented by the other side and eloquently zeroed in on the one thing that matters if we are concerned with human dignity, namely, the fact that there's no equality between Palestinians and Israelis as long as one of these people lives under occupation and the other one doesn't (or does the occupying). On the other side, Robert Lieber, Professor of Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University, passionately articulated the sense of dread that prevents Israelis and Jews from trusting even the moderates among the Palestinians. Geoffrey Aronson and Joshua Muravchik as well as a student speaker on each side of the debate also added valuable points, although the eloquence of Justin Bourke, who described for us the indignities suffered by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, was not matched by Phillip Kisubika who tried valiantly but failed to capture the Israeli psyche; this was done later by a member of the audience who described the terror suffered by his friends who live under the constant threat of random rocket attacks launched from Gaza.

Both sides had a point. Hearing both sides mattered. But the audience felt, I believe, that debating the conflict in this manner was ultimately unhelpful. Arguments on both sides have become routinized. They can be rehearsed and reproduced; much like in a family feud, it's the same old complaints one side hurls at the other. What was missing was any mention of mediation.

It became clear that, without mediation, the parties to this conflict may not be expected to generate the political will to settle their dispute along lines that have long been determined in numerous agreements, documents, and road maps. We know more or less that the only acceptable (though surely painful) solution to the conflict is the two-state-solution. So what's the problem? The elephant in the room seemed the realization that if both Palestinians and Israelis may be equally blamed for the current stalemate, and if neither can resolve it, then perhaps international mediation is required? But where is that mediation? What is the role of the US today? Why has Obama failed to make progress? Is it because of Iran and changes in the balance of power in the region emanating from an Iran boasting nuclear weapons, or is it because of the fickle US electorate that no decisive steps can be taken by anyone at this moment? Unfortunately, no one said this at this great debate. In that sense the audience lost.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Museum on the Seam, Jerusalem

A virtual tour of a unique exhibition space, curated by Raphie Etgar. The link to the Museum of the Seam was submitted by Andrea Berlin, Boston University. (Thanks, Andrea!)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Social Divisions in Jerusalem

Those were the days ...

Who would have thought that we might be pining for Ehud Olmert one day? See this reminiscence of a peace-pace conference, not too long ago where Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Abe Foxman joined Kofi Annan and other eminent people to urge Israel to pick up the pace of negotiations.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The hermeneutics of a holy city

Attachment to Jerusalem, I’ve written elsewhere, differs in kind from tradition to tradition, group to group. Just as there’s no “essence” of Jerusalem, there’s no essential attitude or attachment. The city means different things to different people, and different people relate to it differently, though not necessarily at a lesser degree of emotional intensity. (What one actually relates to as “the city” within the larger conglomerate we call Jerusalem, also differs.)

The same is true with regard to pilgrimage. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all honor Jerusalem (Al Quds, Yerushalayim) by making pilgrimage. This has been true at least since all three traditions have been present in the city, i.e., since late antiquity. Christian pilgrimage became a mass phenomenon in the 4th century, when Constantine or his mother Helena Augusta remade Jerusalem, or rather Aelia Capitolina, as a place where one could encounter testimony to the truth of the gospel. Such testimony, other than that provided by the Holy Spirit, namely physical evidence of the resurrection as proof of our immortality, had not hitherto been widely required. Christianity had been the religion of the chosen few, a faith that rendered men and women, free-born and slaves, Jews and Greeks, rich and poor into saints, namely, those whose willingness to imitate and share the suffering of Christ made them one with their LORD. Christian pilgrimage—to the Holy City (hagiapolis hierousalem), to the graves of saints, to reliquaries of any sort, receptacles and remnants of the spiritual and eternal that had touched the material and ephemeral—always was and remains a problematic middle path between the pagan, nearly pantheistic attitude toward the divine as always residing in proximity to the natural and the gnostic attitude toward the divine as always radically opposed to the material world. Christian Orthodoxy is the embrace of the miracle of incarnation, of God becoming man, of the eternal residing in the temporal, as the church as a corpus permixtum. This is what Jerusalem represents to the Orthodox Christian: the holy city embodies and attests to the fact that God appeared (epiphainei) to the world in a particular place and at a particular time and in a particular body. But there were always equally orthodox Christians who felt faintly or strongly put off by the glorification of the mortal and material remnants of Christ, Christians who were willing to accept the historia of Scripture only if and when it could be shown to support the theoria, literally, when Scripture could be made perspicacious enough so as to enable us to see God. Those who put too much stock in the realia of Scripture, such as the Jewish birth of Christ’s body and the saints and heroes of the Old Testament were considered carnal and as “Judaizers.”

What is the Jewish attitude to pilgrimage to Jerusalem? What is it one makes pilgrimage to? Is it the token or promise of resurrection? And if so, is resurrection primarily a symbol of individual immortality or of collective restoration, as it originally is in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones?

The normative Jewish hope, enshrined in ritual prayer recited by the ordinary Jew every day of his or her life and reiterated throughout the centuries of exile, is for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, more precisely, for the rebuilding of her walls and of the temple. If the walls represent political safety and independence, the temple represents the physical presence of God. The Jewish attachment to Jerusalem thus inevitably preserves an element of the ancient pagan belief in the proximity between God and human; in distinction to the pagan world from which it set itself apart, the Jewish God, to be sure, resides not in proximity of nature any longer (though elements of natural religion are aplenty in biblical rites and symbols) but rather in proximity to the political fate of the nation. Jewish pilgrimage to Jerusalem, though long suffused in mystical imagery of individual attachment (devekut), is ultimately a matter of forcing the hand of the divine persona to restore its strength to perform the miracle of old: the return of the Jews and the rebuilding of walls and temple. Divine perfection diminished by Jewish transgression is restored by Jewish life according to the Torah but the redemption wrought by such observance is not just personal and individual but collective, millenarian, and miraculous.

What of Muslim pilgrimage? The haj, one of the five pillars, was said to have been disrupted and diverted by the revolutionary Abd al-Malik, builder of the Dome of the Rock, for political reasons. This rationalization, forged at an age when the Umayyads had fallen out of favor with Baghdad-based Sunni theologians of (Shiites never thought of the Umayyads as legitimate successors of the Prophet), obscures that for a short period at least Muslim rulers seated in Damascus attempted to forge Islam in the image of Byzantine Christianity. Jerusalem (or rather Madinat bayt al-maqdis, city of the holy house) came in handy. Abd al-Malik—to his own mind, but also to the mind of chagrined Christians and elated Jews—rebuilt the temple of Solomon in its place, seeking to confirm the legitimacy of Islam as a restoration of Abraham’s religion. But pilgrimage remained centered in Mecca. What Roman Aelia/Byzantine Hagiapolis represented to the early Muslims was not initially a token of resurrection and judgment in the afterlife but evidence of divine sanction of rule. To visit Ilya and contemplate the truth of the Prophet’s message of submission meant to marvel at the wisdom of God and the folly of men who, even when granted divine revelation, tended to spoil it by their own pride and self-sufficiency. Jerusalem was a place to contemplate divine purpose and weigh it against human ends; a place of divine stories, rather than providential history. In this respect, Islamic attitudes toward Jerusalem (as expressed in hadith and fadail al-quds literature) resemble Jewish wisdom literature (some of which explicitly linked to King Solomon and hence to truths one could learn by living and observing actual life in Jerusalem; or any city) more than Jewish prophetic oracles about the fate of the city. The only fate that matters is expressed in the mythological account of the end: of judgment, of passage across a narrow bridge, when the wicked will fall into Jehennam forever and only the righteous will make it across to the gates of paradise, located in the cave under the rock, though now hidden  … The holy city’s place is marginal in the taxonomy of human pilgrimage as an obligation to be performed at least once in a lifetime; but it is of unsurpassed importance in the scenario of ultimate resolution: in the end Mecca will make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the place of the final judgment, attesting to the fact that Islam is not an Arabic religion but the affirmation of a first and oldest expression of belief in a single God and creator of the universe. Jerusalem’s overcoming of Mecca is thus also Mecca’s overcoming of Jerusalem, the rationality and universality of the divine asserting itself over all historical particularity.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In anticipation of the meeting between President Obama and PM Netanyahu

In anticipation of the upcoming meeting between US President Obama and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, JStreet distributed the attached flyer, with the following introduction:

On the eve of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, more and more prominent Israelis are calling for recognizing a Palestinian state now and for negotiating with that state to achieve peace and security. They are calling it an “existential Israeli interest.”

Today, they ran unprecedented ads in Israeli papers making their case, signed by 18 retired generals and 27 winners of the prestigious Israel Prize, among others.
Their effort could not be coming at a more important time for Israel and the region.

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday and President Obama laying out his own Middle East strategy in a speech tomorrow, we've got to make sure decision makers in America, in Israel, and in the Palestinian territories hear their message loud and clear.
To support JStreet's ad campain, go to their website.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

US Supreme Court Decides to Hear Case Concerning Jerusalem Birth

The third branch of the US government decided to get involved in the ongoing dispute between Congress and the Executive Office concerning the status of Jerusalem. Can an American citizen born in Jerusalem officially claim to have been born in Israel? Yes, says Congress. No says the Secretary of State. Here are some legal details concerning this case, as submitted to "Unholycity" by Prof. Pnina Lahav (BU LAW):
• M.B.Z. v. Clinton, No. 10-699. Does the "political question doctrine" deprive a federal court of jurisdiction to enforce a federal statute that directs the secretary of state how to record the birthplace of a Jerusalem-born American citizen on a Consular Report of Birth Abroad and on a passport? Also, does Section 214 of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2003, impermissibly infringe the president's power to recognize foreign sovereigns? Section 214 provides a congressional statement of policy with respect to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and specifically provides in subsection (d) that the secretary of state shall, upon a citizen's or guardian's request, record the birthplace of a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem, for purposes of registering or certifying the birth or issuing a passport, record the place of birth as Israel.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Center and Periphery

Center and periphery are mutually constitutive, but Jerusalem has not always been central to the same periphery. As the periphery changes, the character of the center changes as well. Nor was Jerusalem always central. According to the archaeological record, Jerusalem was an insignificant dependence rather than a center for the kings of the Israelite kingdom, and it remained so for the later Samaritans (populations in the northern regions of central Palestine that consider themselves descendents of the ancient Israelites and at times maintained a central sanctuary on Mt. Garizim, near modern day Nablus). Jerusalem’s rise to the status of a small imperial center with a significant periphery presupposed the destruction of the northern Israelite kingdom (722 BCE). The ideological or religious rhetoric of Jerusalem’s unique status, found in prophetic and hymnic literature of the late first temple period, is similar to the imperial rhetoric of exlusiveness (“I am He and there is no Other”) employed by the Assyrians. But the periphery of Jerusalem’s political, economic, and military power certainly never extended beyond the boundaries of the map drawn up to describe the fantastical boundaries of the empire of King Solomon at the height of his power (see 1 Kings 4:21). In the ancient Judahite imagination, even at its most extensive, the deity who had chosen the Israelites, the House of David, and the city of Jerusalem as the place, from among all the tribes, for his name to reside, never extended beyond the land of Canaan and its periphery. But, once established, the rhetoric of centrality could be extended as needed and as the purview expanded within which biblical texts were read. The rhetoric of centrality remained, but it took on new meaning as the world perceived by the committed readers of Scripture expanded their horizon to an ecumenical and, ultimately, cosmic range.
            But the correlation of center and periphery is not limited to cultic centers or sacred places. Today, much of the wrangling in and over Jerusalem as a municipality and a capital can be described in terms of this correlation. Until June 1967 and from the perspective of the state of Israel, Jerusalem was a cul-de-sac capital, at the end of a corridor, divided in half, and surrounded by Jordanian territory. Its political and religious centrality was called into question by the marginality of its location, which was central only if it was mapped on the area of mandatory Palestine and if the Green Line drawn at the time of the cease-fire agreement of 1949 was considered tenuous rather than final. Jerusalem’s de facto marginal position within the Israel of 1949 to 1967 boosted Tel Aviv as an alternate center, reducing the government town of Jerusalem to the periphery. Even in religious terms, with the Temple Mount, the Jewish Quarter, and the Wailing Wall out of reach, Israeli Jerusalem offered little to Jewish, Christian, or Muslim tourists and pilgrims. The Israeli part of the city was economically peripheral to Tel Aviv and religiously peripheral to Arab Al Quds.
            Arab Al Quds was, in fact, not as much a divided city than an amputated one, even though it was cut off from its western hinterland. The Old City, core of Palestinian life and central to Palestinian identity remained in tact even when Palestine was divided. Nevertheless, due to the Arab-Israeli conflict and heavy-handed Jordanian policies, Jerusalem suffered a reduction in status. It was no longer the capital of Palestine, its elites were in many ways prevented from fulfilling their traditional roles within the governance of the country, and Amman—the Ankara of the Hashemite Kingdom—begrudged rather than enhanced Al Quds its status as the Istanbul of Palestine, which remained a major center of historical research and religious tourism for Christians and Muslims, though no longer for Jews.
            Today, with the separation wall sneaking through the hills of the Judean desert east of the city and cutting away Arab villages that had always constituted the hinterland and immediate surrounding of the city (an important and time-honored correlation of center and periphery), the correlation between center and periphery itself has become the most contentious issue. As a “final status issue” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jerusalem is all about whether Jerusalem can simultaneously function as a center to a plurality of peripheries.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Goodbye, Shepherd Hotel

We bid goodbye to another landmark of Palestinian Al Quds, the Shepherd Hotel. Yesterday, bulldozers moved in and demolished part of the building. Meirav Zonszein, an Israeli-American journalist and a regular contributor to +972, which offers "independent commentary from Israel and the Palestinian territories," points out that the demolition coincided with a moment when American media were distracted by the tragic shooting in Arizona. You can read her brief report HERE.

Background: The Shepherd Hotel was built in the 1930s, when Jerusalem was the capital of British mandatory Palestine, by Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Palestine and representative of the Muslim community of the country. Originally planned as a residence, the building was later used as a hotel but remained in the hands of the Husseini family, one of the notable families who already played a major role in the life of Arab Al Quds when the city was ruled by the Ottomans. Though Hajj Amin became persona non grata after 1936, when he made himself the reluctant leader of the anti-Zionist Arab revolt that had broken out in response to massive Jewish immigration from Europe, he was originally a loyal civil servant, appointed by non other than Sir Herbert Samuel, and believed, as did all the notables, that the British would deliver Arab independence as promised in the Husayn-MacMahon correspondence of 1915. Much ink has been spilt over the Mufti's later alliance with Hitler in Berlin, a fact that was again emphasized at the occasion of the demolition of his erstwhile residence, as was mentioned in the NYT report on the event, today.

After 1967, the State of Israel took possession of the hotel under the "absentee ownership law" that has played a major role in the expropriation of Arab lands in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Later, the property was sold to Irving Moscovitz, an American Jewish gambling millionaire, who has been supporting the radical Jewish settler group Ateret Cohanim and others who aimed to implement the program, first publicly expressed by Ariel Sharon at the time of the first Intifada, that there should be no neighborhood of Jerusalem without Jewish residents. As Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat is reported to have commented, the move on Israel's part to destroy the hotel in Sheikh Jarrah and make room for a new Jewish housing development in the middle of one of the first Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem built outside of the Old City is politically motivated. According to NYT,

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said in a statement that the demolition “is part of the political program of the Israeli government to pre-empt any solution on Jerusalem.”

He added: “Israel continues to change the landscape of Jerusalem, aiming to change its status and turn it into an exclusive Jewish city.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton roundly condemned the destruction of the Shepherd Hotel as detrimental to the piece process.

More background to the Shepherd Hotel:
An older but still illuminating article by Gershom Gorenberg, published in the American Prospect in 2009.

Laura Rozen in the Politico-blog of January 10, 2010, on Irving Moscowitz's contributions to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the new GOP chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

A Jerusalem Post report from January 10, 2011,on the affair, with many quotations of opinions on the controversy.