Friday, October 28, 2016

Should the US President Get Re-engaged in Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations? Duh.

Should President Obama encourage Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking? Of course he should, as indeed he did when he authorized Secretary of State John Kerry to make a major push to persuade the parties to resume direct negotiations. Why were they not persuaded? Why has the peace-process stalled that started in the early 1990’s and went on until 2008, when then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert affirmed the parameters of a bilateral final status agreement made by his predecessor Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000 and confirmed by President Clinton and subsequent administrations? Alan Dershowitz (“Obama, slow your roll on Mideast peace process,” in the Boston Globe of October 26, 2016) is right when he suggests that once again, a lame-duck president may be expected to give it a last push to help birth a peace agreement. At a recent Harvard Program on Negotiations panel on what the US can do to help revive the two-state-solution, Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher and Palestinian survey researcher Khalil Shikaki agreed that this is exactly what President Obama should do. Professor Dershowitz agrees that PM Netanyahu and President Abbas should sit down and engage in direct talks. But he wants the US president to refrain from making a statement that might boost UN involvement in the negotiations. Dershowitz fails to say what, short of international diplomatic pressure, might induce the two parties to resume negotiations. Gilead Sher and Khalil Shikaki agreed that the current lack of political will is eroding hope and mutual trust among the Israelis and the Palestinians. Sher was specifically worried that inaction has placed Israel on a slippery slope to a binational Apartheid state. According to Shikaki, a “no-partner-syndrome” is prevailing that is eroding Palestinian trust in its own secular nationalists. If the two parties in this interminable conflict cannot get to the table, someone else will need to step in. If Dershowitz doesn’t want it to be the American president, French and Russian presidents are waiting in the wings.

As a footnote: In a paragraph on the “multitude of complex and contentious issues (…) that must be thoroughly addressed in order to achieve a lasting peace,” Alan Dershowitz reflexively refers to the “so-called Palestinian refugees.” It may not be that important how Professor Dershowitz feels about the Palestinian refugees but that he felt the need to question the genuineness of their refugee status in a paragraph on issues to be resolved draws attention to where he stands and what he cares about the most. Like Bernard Avishai in a presentation at Boston University in 2011 (see, Alan Dershowitz seems to worry most about the refugee issue. To delegitimize Palestinian refugees may be in the long-term strategic interest of Israel as a Jewish state, but it needlessly muddies the waters if it is flagged as the single-most intractable issue among the “multitude of complex and contentious issues.” It is also a tactically problematic, needlessly partisan move. To dissuade the American president from taking a stand and encourage the parties to get back to the negotiating table, Dershowitz needs to provide Mr. Obama with arguments. Instead he suggests a policy position: a return of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel is - in Dershowitz's view - non-negotiable. Fine. He has a right to his opinion. But he expresses it in a way that is insulting to the very Palestinians he hopes will be persuaded to return to direct negotiations, even though he doesn’t want the US or the UN do the persuading. In other words, Dershowitz strengthens the hands of those who want the decisions over the future of one of the parties to be made by the other party, while that other party is not supposed to put any preconditions on the table. This is precisely the reason why these negotiations have long since stalled. One must conclude that Alan Dershowitz is not sincere in his wish for direct negotiations, not unless the table is stacked against the Palestinians from the very start.

A shorter version of this blog entry appeared as Letter to the Editor, Boston Globe of October 28, 2016 (print edition p. A15)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Rabin in His Own Words"

Yesterday, the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University held its fourth annual Yitzhak Rabin memorial event by screening Erez Laufer's bio-pic "Rabin in His Own Words," followed by a talk-back with the director. In conversation afterwards Laufer explained that the film had been timed to be released on the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister and long-time military and public figure and broadcast on a minor Israeli docu-channel. Laufer worked on the film for about fifteen months, pretty much around the clock, using extensive archival recordings publicly available at the Rabin Center, among other sources. Among his notable revelations were the extraordinary statements Rabin made on the settlements as a "cancer" on Israeli society and the premonition of an Israeli Apartheid state if they were allowed to grow. Laufer told us that Rabin had included some of these statements in the draft of his autobiography but they were expunged by the political censor. While he had to leave them out of the Hebrew version of his book he went on and leaked them to the New York Times so they became public knowledge after all.

The film is moving. It provides a history of the modern state of Israel from the British Mandate period where Rabin came of age as the son of Russian immigrants and a young Palmachnik charged with helping immigrant survivors of the Shoah to enter Palestine illegally, acts for which he was detained by the British along with his father, who had nothing to do with it and did everything to help his son not to feel guilty about it. The narrative moves through the great moments of Israel's history: the run-up to the war of independence in '48, when Rabin was a commander in Jerusalem who helped a Haganah convoy to break the blockade of the city but helplessly witnessed the demise of a group of 14 to 16 year-old recruits and the evacuation of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City; the re-capture of the Old City in 1967 that was both filmed and simulcast on Israeli radio; the horrors of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the subsequent demise of the labor party elite and the ugly power struggle between himself and Shimon Peres; his first stint as Prime Minister that ended in scandal and the elections of Menachem Begin as Prime Minister; his stint as Secretary of Defense in a national unity government in the late eighties that saw the rise of Palestinian violence in the occupied territories; his pivot toward the PLO ("Ashaf") in the nineties; his vilification by the opposition; and his final moments.

In between, Laufer mounts scenes Rabin took with his small old-fashioned film camera, home movies that allow you to see the world through Rabin's eyes in addition to hearing his spoken and written voice. These scenes, mostly of his wife and children, his father and sister, at home, in Washington D.C. during his stint as ambassador, and on vacation, are sweet and gentle, contrasting with the seriousness of the sepia-toned documentary moments of struggle, and stark television footage of terrorist violence, political demonstrations, and prime-ministerial statements.

What emerges is a consistent character. Without the aid of voice-over and with minimal explanatory panels that reference dates, places, and events - presupposing viewer familiarity with the general story - we get acquainted with a very curious, very Israeli, very shy leader, who loves his stern mother, his caring father, his sister, and his children, serves his country in several distinguised positions of leadership, weathers threats and crises, and in a certain way never changes. He is always the same loving, terse, shy person who does what he believes is right and good for his people and his country. No wonder, Bill Clinton is proud to have called him haver, friend. One gets the sense one meets an antique hero, a simple man who rose through the ranks of service and took on the leadership of his country in times of need. An old-fashioned patriot who doesn't excel through rhetoric, who is not a politician but a leader, a reflective do-er.

Arabs make scant appearances in this documentary, as if they played a marginal role in Rabin's life. With the exception of a few leaders such as Egypt's president Anwar al-Sadat, King Hussein of Jordan, and Yasser Araft, they only appear as collectives, in contexts of war, expulsion, and in visual cues such as areal shots of villages and landscapes. We hear only a few Arab voices and they only speak Hebrew or English: a student from Nazareth who asks why Israel is not negotiating with the PLO (this was before the 90's); construction workers demanding living wages but also respond to the star-power of the moment of interaction with the Prime Minister; King Hussein in 1994, on a diplomatic occasion. The film shows the document in which Rabin - at then-PM Ben Gurion's command - orders the evacuation of the Arabs of Lod, leading to acts of violence that persuade the Arabs of neighboring Ramle, which is next on the list, to leave voluntarily. He then orders his men to clean up the mess before an imminent Red Cross inspection. In a pivotal statement about Gush Emunim and the settlements, he berates them for having turned something that should be a matter of government or politics (mediniyut) into a matter of value (inyan erki). He is incensed. The opposition runs deep. He has the first settlements cleared, but then he loses power and is sidelined, while Begin reaps the benefits of Rabin's policies of reconciliation with Egypt and makes the settlements a matter of policy. Rabin pays the ultimate price for applying his belief in legitimate coexistence between Israel and its Arab neighbors to the Palestinians. But it is not clear what he was thinking or who he was talking to. He merely appears dogged in his pursuit of the peace process (tahalikh ha-shalom) in the face of terror. Who were the Arabs that gave him the confidence that such a historic reconciliation was possible? Who did he listen to? Who gave him advice? What did he really think? Or was he as abstract in his thinking as he comes across toward the end, when his statements become even more terse, when he is booed and vilified by the opposition and can show his face in public only under security protection. We don't hear. The last word, btw, is not the assassination. Rabin has nothing to say about it, so it would be dramatically inappropriate. It is not the speech he gave in Tel Aviv in 1995 but Rabin's boyish smile and a gentle interaction with a teen he passes, who does not want to look at him nor get out of his way, with whom Rabin interacts gently.

By using Rabin's voice and because Rabin was not much of a talker, the film gives only a few hints to the most painful moments in Rabin's life: the loss of his mother; the guilt about his father's internment and failing to make it back from D.C. before he died; his collapse in the run-up to the June '67 war that made him wonder why he didn't have what it took, as chief of staff, to stop a war he thought could be avoided; his beloved wife's public disgrace because of a harmless financial oversight; seeing his society destroyed by the perils of peace and security that emanated from fanatics exploited by opposition politicians. One would have wished this timely film a stronger response in Israel, but perhaps it is still not the moment for soul-searching. The cancer is still growing. The fever may need to run its course. I would not be surprised if this film will be rediscovered before long and exert the effect of its quiet, complicated, morally ambivalent message and allow for Rabin to reemerge, as he did so many times during his lifetime, as a posthumous icon of what is right, even though it is not always good.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Rare papyrus from the 7th century mentions Jerusalem

A link forwarded by my former student Danielle Liberman reports on the finding of a rare 7th century papyrus fragment that refers to a wine consignment for a person of high station in Jerusalem. Ancient Hebrew manuscripts are very rare. What excites the reporter is that it mentions Jerusalem (in the common biblical and more ancient spelling of the name "yerushalem," not the later popular "yerushalayim"). What excites me is that the servant of the king sending the wine is a woman, herself clearly an important person.
See the article HERE.
The significance of the difference in the spelling of the name is that it attests to the antiquity of the way in which it is spelled in most biblical references to the city by that name. The later and now common pronunciation (Yerushalayim) is a grammatical dual and indicates the mythological notion (found among others in St. Paul's letters and in rabbinic literature) that Jerusalem exists twice, namely, above and below. As the rabbis put it: yerushalayim shel mata and yerushalayim shel ma'la.
"Yerushalem" - the city's biblical name, now further attested in the newly identified papyrus - indicates that the biblical Judahites did not rename the city when they occupied it and made it the seat of their kingdom but simply continued calling it by its ancient Amorite/Hittite/Canaanite name, an homage to the "evening star"shalem (twin-brother of the "morning star").
BTW, the article also reports that the papyrus was discovered during a sting operation that busted a ring of "looters" who were offering archaeological artifacts on the vast black market that exists for such items. The fourteen "looters" were apparently condemned to 18 years in prison, which sounds harsh to me. As long as they don't destroy the artifacts, perhaps they should be enlisted rather than punished. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

What is worse: no hope or no trust?

This was one of the audience questions at tonight's Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation event with a proposal statement by Gilead Sher and a commentary by Khalil Shikaki, followed by discussion moderated by the event's host and program director, Robert Mnookin. (See HERE.)
Sher and Shikaki disagreed in their answer, as they did on much - though not everything - else. For Shikaki, a prominent survey researcher and regular Brandeis University Crown Center for Middle East Studies lecturer from Ramallah, it is the prevailing distrust among Palestinian and Israeli majorities that sustains a "no-partner-syndrome," which is the main reason why final status negotiations have stalled. For Sher, a prominent Tel Aviv lawyer and formerly chief negotiator on Jerusalem under Ehud Barak at Camp David, worse than distrust is hopelessness. The difference between these views speaks volumes. It illuminates the policy disagreement between Sher and Shikaki. Both are troubled by the stalled negotiations. For Sher, who emphasized his Zionist credentials as someone who believes in Israel as the nation state of the Jews and as a liberal democracy, the threat emanating from the lack of leadership is the slippery slope toward a one-state solution that threatens both, Israel's demographic Jewishness and its democratic constitution. In the absence of negotiations and to avoid for things getting only more complex and intractable, suggests Sher, Israel needs to prepare for the only plausible solution, the two state solution, by taking wise, practical policy steps that help to prepare the ground for two states, if need be unilaterally, with interim agreements and as much cooperation with the Palestinians and the international community as possible. Such concrete steps would presuppose the Clinton parameters of December 2000, which include the assumption that Israel would annex the major settlement blocs, compensate the Palestinians through land-swaps, and retain security positions along the perimeter of the West Bank and in strategic locations. It also includes reaching out to settlers living outside the major settlement blocs to persuade them, through positive and negative incentives, to resettle in the Negev, the Galilee or elsewhere in Israel. Instead of removing them by force, as was done during the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, they should be commended for having achieved what they set out to do, but then "to come home." In other words, Sher is interested in building consensus with rather than against the settler-community, as such a consensus within the complex Israeli society is the precondition for any peaceful resolution that achieves the desired result: the preservation of the Zionist vision - as Sher understands it - of Israel as a democratic nation state of the Jews. Without such policies and the will to implement them, Sher implied, there is no hope for Zionism. The bi-national Apartheit state that is the inevitable consequence of the ever more openly advocated annexation of the West Bank would be the end of Zionism.

Khalil Shikaki disagreed. The unilateralism suggested by Sher would play into the hands of the religious extremists among the Palestinians. Unilateralism assumes, there is no partner, and thus while perhaps conducive to achieving the Zionist vision of a Jewish democratic nation state in the long run, it would undermine the partner there is, namely secular Palestinian nationalists, rewarding those who believe that Israelis only understand the language of force and hence result in more violence, at least in the short term.

For a secular Palestinian nationalist like Shikaki, Sher's solution spells a further erosion of his own place within Palestinian society. It dismisses moderate Palestinians while holding on to the idea that moderate and liberal Israelis can somehow regain momentum within their own society, not for the sake of the Palestinians but for their own sake. Audience questions sounded a skeptical note. Some called for more practical suggestions and better strategies in place of rehashing the history of failed negotiations that took up much of Sher's time. Others challenged Sher to explain how he imagined the Knesset to be composed in order to approve the very reasonable measures he suggested.

When challenged to suggest something more concrete Sher pointed to the work he initiated together with Admiral Amichai Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet, an initiative they call "Blue-White Future", which brings together different stake-holders, including radical settlers and their rabbis, to work on building consensus for the kind of policy initiatives that Sher knows will require broad support across all factions of Israeli society.

The speakers and the audience agreed that a strong policy statement by the US president would be useful and help guide Israeli and Palestinian societies in their internal dialogues, as well as provide hope and strengthen trust, but they also agreed that it was unlikely such a statement was forthcoming before the elections.

Friday, October 14, 2016

On the UNESCO Executive Board declaration on the "status quo" at the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif)

As reported by Reuters, the UNESCO Executive Board recently put out a statement that repeats verbatim what that same board has been saying for years. The declaration is published under the heading "Occupied Palestine" and deals - among other subjects - with the status quo at the most important Muslim site in Jerusalem, the Noble Sanctuary or Haram al-Sharif. 

The story caught my attention. I went to the UNESCO website – which seems super-busy and is not easy to find one’s way around on – to find the actual text of the declaration. (It is HERE).   The document does not deny Jewish history and its connections to the Haram al-Sharif. It simply does not mention Jewish history or Jewish sentiments. It speaks about the historical status quo, meaning the guardianship and practices associated with the place as it was before 1967, and takes exception at Israel’s interference with that status. By failing to mention Jewish attachment to the site, UNESCO's Executive Board is widely criticized (including by the director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova) for failing to maintain its humanitarian mission and making itself a political proxy for the Palestinian National Authority, which uses its membership status in UNESCO to draw public attention to the ongoing “occupation” of East Jerusalem, putting diplomatic pressure on the Israelis.

The short-term Israeli concern is that talk of Israel’s “change in the status quo” at a Muslim holy place is not just false but stokes Muslim fears internationally and increases the ongoing sporadic violence locally. The long-term Israeli concern is that the language used in the declaration undermines the long-standing Jewish attachment to the place, an attachment that Israel has been using to justify its desire to hold on to Jerusalem as the "eternally undivided capital" of Israel (Basic Law Jerusalem 1980).

In the past, Israel justified its claim to remain in charge of the holy places in the name of better guardianship (a kind of mission civilatrice, or “Orientalist” argument), in the name of freedom of religion, etc. Since the late nineties and early oughts, the rhetoric has become more “Jewish,” appealing to the national religious base of the governing coalition’s electorate and supporters abroad. 

The rhetoric of outrage against the UNESCO declaration that’s been making the rounds in the English-language Jewish and Israeli print and social media seems aimed at closing the ranks between diaspora and Israel, where Dov Waxman (“Trouble in the Tribe”) and others like Peter Beinart have been showing an increasing rift between the Israeli national-religious right and the younger generation of diaspora Jews, especially in the US. The Temple Mount/Western Wall issue is very potent, as it is perhaps one of the few things on which Jews can viscerally agree.

You should go some time and see for yourself both the extraordinary devotion of the ultraorthodox but also the the grotesque sentimental hysteria of Birthright groups manipulated into religious experiences at the Western Wall. Conversely, you should also visit the Haram al-Sharif on days when ordinary Muslim Jerusalemites outnumber western tourists or when the place is closed to tourists, and experience the serenity and relaxation, especially of women and children, in a space that is – to a significant extent – devoid of the trappings of Israeli occupation. The Haram is, most of the time, a safe space and a retreat.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Scholarship and punditry

Ever since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 a crisis of conscience has haunted the western students of eastern affairs, especially of Arabic or Middle Eastern/North African affairs. This crisis of conscience calls into question the validity of the efforts, spearheaded by many individual scholars and schools of thought that flourished in many countries and languages over the last five hundred years and produced the questions and approaches, linguistic and methodological tools, editions, translations, and studies on which “we” depend in our feeble attempts to study, understand, and appreciate eastern civilizations and see them for what they “are.” Said’s critique of the field focuses on western (particularly French and British) approaches to the study of the Middle East, Arabic language and literature, and Islam, and insinuates that western academics and the products of their scholarship are not just inherently biased (they study another culture from an “etic” or outside point of view) but implicated in the modern imperialist project of domination, which uses intimate knowledge of a civilization as a means of its control. In this reading, scholarly objectivity turns into a kind of pathology and the work of the most well-meaning and empathetic scholars of Islam and Arab civilization is inevitably politicized in one direction or another. Western scholarship of Middle Eastern and Muslim civilizations veers either toward polemics or toward apologetics; tertium non datur.

In For Lust of Knowing (2006), a spirited defense of the disparaged discipline and the men and more recently also the women who pursued it, the novellist and Bernard-Lewis-student Robert Irwin attacks Said on scholarly and ideological grounds. Irwin points to Said’s narrow definition of the field in question, i.e., his focus on Arabists and scholars of Islam, but admits that this definition suits his own purpose well, which is to retell the same story from a less polemical point of view and in more comprehensive a scope. Irwin argues that Said’s purview is too limited even when one allows for the narrowing of the field to the antecedents of modern Middle Eastern studies. According to Irwin, Said egregiously ignores entire centuries of antecedent work and many individuals and schools of thought (especially from the rich German philolological tradition) that contributed to the study of “oriental” civilizations. In Irwin’s view, the field began to develop in the age of European Humanism and was pursued by a range of specialists, amateurs, memoirists, and polemicists who produced the lexicons of the Arabic language, editions and translations of texts, travelogs, and studies on which rests every serious attempt to “understand” the array of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other “oriental” civilizations, and especially on which every serious attempt of non-Muslims and Muslims alike depends a more than superficial appreciation of these civilizations in their linguistic and cultural particularity. Irwin revels in scurrilous details and cherishes the idiosyncrasies of the personages that produced mountains of acribic research and he does not hide ideological bias or polemic agendas that attached to the work of some of the most accomplished scholars and their schools. Yet he argues that Said’s attack on this entire tradition of work for its implicit or explicit biases has significantly damaged the field and contributed to its demise by “discrediting and demoralizing an entire tradition of scholarship.” (p. 276) Of course, it was not Said alone who single-handedly accomplished this. Some of it is credited to the general decline of funding for the study of languages, the displacement of acdaemic specializations by interdisciplinary “area studies,” and the odious “publish-or-perish” that makes it virtually impossible for scholars to produce the kinds of learned tomes on which our fields used to be based.

One must wonder how a single individual or a single and in many ways deficient book can have such a thoroughgoing effect on a field now ploughed by thousands of graduate students and established scholars across the globe. Said’s book was certainly a harbinger of modern anthropological studies of academics as members of tribes. Academic scholarship does not occur in a vacuum. Individuals choose their careers on the basis of their personal commitments and predelections that sustain them in the long and arduous path of scholarship. Individuals, schools, programs, journals, and scholarly associations all have their cultural contexts that can be described and that most scholars are in fact acutely aware of, as they need to situate themselves successfully in these contexts in order to have a career. Irwin acknowledges that progress in the western study of Middle Eastern languages and civilizations was not just hard-one but usually accomplished by stark scholarly polemic, mutual recrimination, and expressions of contempt against which pales Said’s elegant prose. What has changed is that, after Said and the postmodernist turn to social theory, the inevitable personal bias has been politicized. It is now an object of study in its own right, and it raises doubts about what remains of the claim to the production of knowledge in the humanities.

All of this gives me pause as I am engaged in an oriental study of my own, namely, the writing of a brief history of Jerusalem. No one can be a specialist on such a general topic. What, then, are my options? How do I avoid the most egregious errors of fact or dangerously reductive interpretations? I can do so, or at least try, only by relying on the best available scholarship on many relevant and specialized subjects, including the recent scholarly discoveries and debates in each of these many fields. In light of Said I must realize that not just I but the sources on which I rely are inherently biased, that the traditions of scholarship and the many scholars that have produced it and continue to produce, are inherently biased and fail to deliver the goods. Humanistic scholarship as such – not only in this particular area – seems to constitute more of a kind of soliloquy than a dialogue between subjects and objects, mind and matter, observer and observed, and the like. This is the “demoralizing” effect of Said’s broadside, as observed by Irwin. The self-knowledge it triggered seems futile, unproductive, dispiriting. What do we do if we are not anthropologists who thrive on the possibilities released by turning scholarly clans into objects of investigation and description, or sociologists interested in academic communities and their interactions with political and economic elites? Where do we turn if we remain interested in a particular phenomenon in human affairs? We turn to description of what we see (through whatever lens), admitting that we make no claim on what these phenomena “are” unto themselves. We share with others what we see as eloquently as we can, trying to persuade them of our viewpoint and knowing full well that the best result we can hope for is a thoughtful response that attests that our observations made someone else think harder or see better, which in turn makes us question our own observations, and so on. While this may not seem like much, especially when measured by the concreteness of progress in science and technoloy, we must break a lance for our way of producing knowledge or else we must perish. Who will fund the future dialogues of scholarship devoted to nuance and articulation? More acutely, can western Oriental studies thrive when western commitments and obligations implied in the unravelling of the very order imposed by western “orientalist” imperial forces vitiate against all pretenses of scholarly objectivity? To name an example that is relevant for me as someone writing about Jerusalem, as a German- and American-educated scholar invested in the future of Jewish life on this earth, how objective can I be in handling questions of Palestinian history and Muslim attachment to Jerusalem? If I foreground this history and its implications for Palestinian and Muslim rights to Jerusalem and its holy places, will I not automatically lose the trust of Jewish and Christian readers?  Will I fall under Irwin’s verdict on John Esposito whose work on Islam he calls “pollyannish?” If I show Jewish commitments to Jerusalem long before the rise of modern Zionism and describe the latter as anything other than an imperialist colonial settler movement, will I not be branded as a pro-Israel propagandist? On the other hand, if I show that extremist Jewish attachments to Jerusalem’s Muslim holy places has been a pawn in the hand of right-wing national religious parties and are cynically exploited by the current government to stir unrest, shame the Palestinians, distract from the ongoing settlement activities, and curry favor with an increasingly divided electorate, will I not be called a Nestbeschmutzer, a disloyal self-hating Jew?

Said teaches me that scholarly objectivity is not possible, but that does not mean fairness isn’t. No one in the west will doubt that the study of the languages, literatures, and histories of the people of the Middle East and North Africa, including Israel and the Jews, is useful and even urgently necessary in an age that continues to depend on fossil fuel and that confronts the unravelling of the political order established in the wake of Christian imperialist deconstruction of the Ottoman Empire. Scholarly objectivity may not be possible but it remains a cherished ideal. It is true: as a scholar of religion I cannot be neutral when I see people exploit every opportunity to gain an advantage on their competitors and where I see religion implicated in such struggles. While I cannot be neutral I can try to be fair and describe what I see as accurately as I can, without needless polemics, and remaining open to being corrected where I am wrong. I don’t need to adjudicate what is not my own struggle. I am sympathetic toward those on either side who are trying to find a peaceful, just, speedy, and lasting resolution to the conflict. Much of what goes on in the Middle East plays out not just locally but globally, through mass media of information and persuasion. Scholars have an important role to play here. Our responsibility is not to fuel the conflict but help those on the inside and on the outside imagine how it could be resolved.

In this sense I accept the charge that scholarship on contemporary issues and even on cultural history in general inevitably veers toward persuasive speech. This is particularly obvious when we try to articulate an insight into the causes of a modern conflict. The line between contemporary history and political punditry is very thin, but there is still a line. The historian answers first and foremost to his own conscience: the primary question is whether what you say is true. Where truth eludes you, at least you are aiming for accuracy. For the pundit, the pressure is to have something to say that sounds like an explanation. You need to sound competent and persuasive, and you need to make an argument and stick to your guns. The historian tries to get it right and hopes to be proved wrong.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Some thoughts on a painting by Jan Provost

In his chatty propography of the Orientalists (For Lust of Knowing), Robert Irwin remarks on the nineteenth-century Prussian scholar of the Qur’an and Arabic literature Theodor Noeldeke, who harbored contempt for Islam as he did for all religions, that “in at least one respect (…) he belonged to” a “grand tradition (…): he had never been to the Middle East and he could not actually speak Arabic.” This reminded me of the fact that most of the Old Testament scholars I studied with in Germany didn’t speak Hebrew. That did not necessarily make them bad scholars but it colored their scholarship. My teacher Rolf Rendtorff was exceptional in that he really appreciated his Israeli colleagues and brought some of them, including the Qumran scholar Shemaryahu Talmon, to Heidelberg and he encouraged his students to study in Israel and to learn modern and rabbinic Hebrew. Others were afraid that students might get the wrong idea and cited the case of Georg Fohrer who had converted to orthodox Judaism and moved to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Others dismissed the relevance of Israeli scholarship, spoken Hebrew, or even rabbinic exegesis because they thought it irrelevant to an understanding of the Bible. Far more important to them were Ugaritic, Akkadian, and even Egyptian hieroglyphic, languages that– since the nineteenth century – were used to interpret biblical literature “backwards,” i.e., to make educated guesses about what went into making these texts, rather than “forwards,” i.e., to study what the readers of the texts made of them. Most of my German teachers read the texts as hints to what was before and behind them. Teasing out the cultural assumptions, putative oral traditions, and historical circumstances that the texts presupposed allowed these scholars to reconstruct a history of Israel and its religious practices that the texts obscured because those who produced or edited and canonized those texts were ideologically committed to a monolatric framework for their society and condemned all prior official and popular cultic practices as idolatrous. In this reading there is no real difference between Israelite and Jewish religion and the superstitions that preceded it, and the only progress in religion that really mattered was introduced by Jesus of Nazareth.

Many leading mid-twentieth-century Israeli biblical scholars followed instead the lead of Yehezkel Kaufmann who surmised that the veneration of a single deity was as ancient as the biblical patriarchs, just as described in the Book of Genesis, and that the religion of Israel was therefore indeed a sui generis phenomenon in the history of the Ancient Near East. While this reading of the biblical tradition appealed to conservative Jewish and Christian exegetes, it was not taken very seriously by my German teachers who thought it lacked the historical critical rigor of their own training and inclination. The commitment to Judaism as a great tradition and the assumption of a continuity between biblical Israel and modern Judaism implied by Kaufmann were also hardly to their liking. Clearly, Noeldeke harbored a similar Germanic antipathy toward the subject of his Arabic studies and even concluded that the effort entailed in reconstructing the exact meaning of Arabic poetry was not really worth it. This strikes me as an extreme case of the alienation of a philologist from the humanity behind the text, a humanism that has completed and exhausted itself in approach and method, a humanism that takes the notion of “scholarly disinterest” to its extreme.

Irwin’s remark about Noeldeke also reminded me of something else. I had recently seen the reproduction of a painting attributed to the “Flemish primitive” artist Jan Provost, a Crucifixion that had long languished unrecognized but now hangs in the Groenige Museum in Bruge, where a Boston University doctoral student and Humanities Fellow saw it who brought it to my attention. (Thanks, Eva Pascal!) The reason she liked it was that artist had painted the Roman soldiers in charge of the crufixion as “Muslims.” The painting was made around 1505, and crusading was never far from the European Christians’ mind, so that seemed to make some sense. When I looked at the painting I noticed something else. The urban landscape of Jerusalem in the background of the scene looked realistic to me. I noticed the tomb of the virgin just behind the Dome of the rock, and the overall placement of buildings and natural features made sense. Provost had depicted the very “village with monumental buildings” that Dominican friar Felix Fabri had seen and described just a short while before the painting was made. I wondered whether artist had seen the city with his own eyes or painted from another realistic depiction. A little bit of research revealed that Provost had made the pilgrimage himself and joined a brotherhood of such pilgrims. He had painted the city from autopsy. The Roman soldiers of his Crucifixion were indeed Mamluks, proud horsemen, exactly as he had seen them in Jerusalem, or Caesarea, or somewhere else on the way. (See HERE. The pilgrimage took place around 1500, in any case before the Ottoman conquest. Provost’s Jerusalem is therefore without walls, as it was at the time.)

Provost was one of the first to give us an accurate picture of the actual Jerusalem as it existed at his time. This does not deprive his depiction of the biblical scene of theological content. The fact that Jesus is crucified by Mamluks fits in with the crusading spirit and with the artistic tradition of identifying the Muslim rulers of the holy land as enemies of Christ. A fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript of William of Tyre’s account of the fall of Jerusalem currently on display at the MET Museum’s Jerusalem exhibition places the crucifixion on the inside of Jerusalem at the moment of the conquest of 1099. Here the crusaders literally take the holy city at the moment when Christ (and the Christians) are being tortured and killed.

There are striking differences between the manuscript illumination and Provost’s image. The Jerusalem of the manuscript looks like a Gothic cathedral (as Barbara Drake Boehm, chief medieval curator of the MET Museum, pointed out in a recent conversation). It invites the reader to see Jerusalem as if it were in France. It is not an alien place but right here. In contrast, Provost depicts Jerusalem as it really is. To him it is no longer an alien and he wants the viewer to get acquainted with Jerualem as it really is is even though the suffering Christ is still at the center of the scene. Yet the Mamluks are not depicted as evil. They are realistic, individualized, and impressive. They are also everywhere, and there are many horses, and the horsemen don’t all wear turbans. It is a lively scene, and the hanging itself is noted only by those immediately in its vicinity. It is ignored by the procession that leaves Golgotha (here placed in the vicinity where General Gordon was to find it, in the northern outskirts of the city). Hence while the symbolic juxtaposition of Saracen and suffering Christ nods to the crusading tradition, the realism of the depiction takes the image to a place beyond the preaching of a new crusade. It does not merely instruct, it also informs and hence opens up the possibility of encounter. In fact, the crucifixion recedes into the background once one focuses on the horsemen. Provost seems to attest to the fact that the pilgrim who sought to encounter the place of the death and resurrection of Christ found something else, too, something no less real or fascinating, and so would you if you went there. It is a painting that heralds a new attitude toward the east, one of curiosity rather than contempt. The MET Museum’s exhibition implies that this attitude itself may not have been entirely new in the early 16th century but it may have been novel to make it so evident in so visible a place as a religious painting.

[To view an image of Provost’s 1505 Crucifixion online, go to and click on the image to launch the image viewer.]

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Jerusalem, a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural metropolis, c. 1300

I just spent a lovely day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where I saw not just one but two exhibits related to the Holy City. Before you even reach the really amazing "Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven" and its dazzling display of artifacts that attest to the vibrant exchange of wares and ideas that made 11th to 15th century Jerusalem a caleidoscope of medieval civiliations from Paris to Gujarat and beyond, you can step into a small and serenely monochromatic  exhibit of photographs that Auguste Salzmann took of Jerusalem in 1854.

The contrast between these two Jerusalems could not be starker. Where curators Melanie Holcomb and Barbara Drake Boehm show a living city (then and now), Salzmann meticulously recorded walls, gates, sites, and places, with no human being or trace of human activity in sight, excepting the archaeological remains of bygone eras. Salzmann's images document an important moment in the life of the city, just before the end of the Crimean War, after which Jerusalem began to grow and develop at a pace not seen, well, since the Mamluk times documented in "Every People Under Heaven." Only after 1856 did Jerusalem become, once again, the vibrant multi-national and multi-cultural metropolis it once was.

"Every People Under Heaven" is compelling for many reasons. The curators are to be commended for avoiding the two most obvious and at the same time most misleading ways of presenting the medieval city, namely, chronology and religion. By grouping their material by themes such as trade, patronage, drumbeat of war, etc. instead, they are able to show shared values, exchange of goods and ideas, and common concerns of the various people of that age, including Armenians, Georgians, Samaritans, Karaites, Rabbanites, Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopian Christians, Frankish knights and emperors, Ayyubid and Mamluk sultans, and the many scribes and savants who left behind pilgrimage accounts, letters, prayerbooks, hymnals, travelogs, treatises, holy texts, and more in many languages and scripts and the artists who illuminated them; not to forget the artisans and craftsmen who produced the beautiful glass and earthenware, brass and precious metal and other material objects, assembled in this stupendous and yet lucidly annotated and accessible exhibition. The show juxtaposes the historical material with a few well-chosen brief video interviews that shed light on the organizing themes, as well as images of the Old City today, indicating continuity between the past and the present. A beautifully produced catalogue documents this extraordinary effort to do justice to such a complex cultural phenomenon.

The exhibition has been reviewed in the New York Times and in the New Yorker. But you should go and see for yourself.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Jerusalem and Trump

On September 25, the Associated Press reported that Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At that meeting, according to this report, as seen in the New York Times online edition of September 25, 2016, Mr. Trump ”repeated his pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv if he's elected to the White House.”

Of all the things Mr. Trump could have talked about with the Prime Minister, why did he raise the US embassy issue? Mr. Trump obviously meant to curry favor with Jewish voters ahead of the upcoming presidential elections. Advised by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, the owner and publisher of the conservative New York Observer, Mr. Trump chose to lend his support to an issue that may appear largely symbolic. What does it matter whether the US embassy is in Tel Aviv or in Jerusalem? 

It would not be the apocalypse, but it would spell the end of an era in US politics in the Middle East. It would mean that the US, under a Trump administration, would give up its role as an honest broker and take a position that would effectively and officially end US support of the Oslo Process.

In the Jerusalem Embassy Act (1995), Congress mandated the State Department to move the US embassy from its current location in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Every US president has since declined to follow suit. Instead, every six months, the president signed a statement reaffirming that the US will not preempt the diplomatic settlement of the Jerusalem question but leaves it to final status negotiations between the two major parties, the State of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) who are signatories of the Oslo Accords of 1993. 

While perhaps merely pandering to Jewish voters, if Trump is elected and if, as president, he implemented the Jerusalem Embassy Act, as promised to PM Netanyahu, this would herald a major change in US policy. It would mean the end of US support for the two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

If we care about Jerusalem, which is as much a Muslim and a Christian city as it is a Jewish one, and if we care about a peaceful and equitable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must not be swayed by one-sided, short-sighted declarations on the city's future.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Bye, bye, Rockefeller

Human rights organization "Emek Shaveh. Archaeology in the Shadow of the Conflict" failed to prevail at the Israeli Supreme Court which sided instead with the view of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, that it had the right to remove the library and archaeological artifacts from the Rockefeller Museum. At issue in this case is the question whether the Israeli authority has the right to cultural assets housed in an East Jerusalem institution. Emek Shaveh had argued that the highly prized books and manuscripts housed at the Rockefeller Museum since its founding in 1936 under the British Mandate and in its location just outside the Old City walls, as well as archaeological finds from across the West Bank (esp. from Sebaste, the old Israelite capital Samaria), are cultural assets of an occupied territory (East Jerusalem was captured by Israel in 1967) and hence forbidden from being transferred by international law. The Israeli Supreme Court, in its decision 3556/16 of July 19, 2016, rejected that view and asserted that international law does not apply in this case, which falls instead under the general ordinance for the Israeli Antiquities Authority, whose mandate it is "to manage and hold a scientific library for the archaeology and history of the land of Israel and its neighborhoods."  Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut pointed out that artifacts had been removed on prior occasions and that therefore any kind of "freeze" in the handling of East Jerusalem archaeological assets was unrealistic. Finally, the justice invoked Israeli law, including the "Jerusalem Basic Law," to assert that Israeli law applies to East Jerusalem and international law has no standing when it comes to the inner affairs of the country.

For Emek Shaveh's petition not to transfer the Rockefeller Museum library and assets to West Jerusalem see

For the Supreme Court decision (in Hebrew) see

For a background article on "nationalization and cultural avoidance" (in Hebrew) see, posted by Professor Orna Ben-Naftali, The Emile Zola Chair for Human Rights at the Striks School of Law at the College of Management – Academic Studies (COMAS) and its former Dean.

(Thanks to Prof. Pnina Lahav, BU-LAW, for drawing my attention to this case.)

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.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Two States, One Homeland, and what's new about this

"You need to address the barking dogs in your cellar," as neuroscientist and public psychologist Hamira Riaz put it today at a session on the 2 states 1 homeland initiative at Millbank House in Westminster, catty-corner from the House of Lords, convened by Andrew Lord Stone of Blackheath. What Dr. Riaz meant was that you need to be able to explain, clearly and succinctly, to those not already persuaded what is different about this initiative, and why it can work. Clearly, not everyone who came to hear what initiators Meron Rappoport and Awni al-Mashni (who joined via Skype) had to say left persuaded. To some, their presentation sounded like the same old same old: too much like the long since discarded binational state idea, and frankly too late to sway the majority of Israelis who are either too confident in their ability to manage the conflict or too fearful of the Palestinian "giants" in the land. The analogy with the biblical spy story and their fear of the inhabitants of the land they were about to dispossess evoked an amused and at the same time exasperated response from the only other Palestinian present at the gathering whose name I failed to catch. The only thing that's giant about him, he said was that he was overweight. Palestinians are no real threat to Israeli security. Exasperated, because as the ones occupied it sounds absurd to them to hear about the fears and apprehensions of the occupiers. Others were skeptical because the idea of a return and resettlement or compensation of six million Palestinian refugees and the freedom of movement of Palestinians will be unacceptable to those who believe that Israel must retain not just a relative but an absolute Jewish majority, or else lose its character as a Jewish state. For Mehri Niknam, executive director of the Joseph Interfaith Foundation, this was the salient point. No Jew will voluntarily relinquish the notion of the Jewishness of Israel in demographic terms. It simply won't fly.

But it is exactly with regard to the most intractable questions that the 2 states 1 homeland initiative is making a difference. Instead of leaving the most difficult problems for last, instead of ignoring them, this grassroots movement puts them on the table. Because if you do otherwise, if you ignore the most difficult issues or leave them for later you fail to do the most important thing. You fail to say what you really want, what you really need, and what you really think, and hence you fail to build mutual trust. Trust requires honesty. If Israelis and Palestinians could be honest about the end game of their political dreams, they could start to hammer out a compromise that might actual work. Neither side will have everything, but both may gain something they don't have now, most importantly a perspective and hope for a future beyond war, population control, occupation, human rights violation, and fear.

Andrew Stone left the meeting with a mandate for the participants to work out proposals for the most pressing issues the initiative will need to address in order to gain traction and support. Some participants pledged to work on a constitutional draft, some on media and communication, some on religion, among other subjects. My contribution to the conversation was to suggest to put the most unpleasant subject on the table right away and not to leave Jerusalem for last. Meron Rappoport thought that Jerusalem may actually provide a showcase on how to solve the larger issues of territory, sovereignty, policing, freedom of movement etc. I suggested that this will require addressing the most thorny issue right away, which is spelling out Jewish and Muslim views and expectations regarding the status quo at the holy places, most notably the Temple Mount/Haram al-sharif. I suggested adding a messianic clause to any agreement. Just as the Jewish elders appointed Simon Maccabee as prince and king in all but name until such time as a prophetic might arise to sort out such questions, so Israel and Palestine could come to a status quo agreement on prayer at the most holy places without preempting the divine prerogative. Muslims and Jews all over the world will need to be part of this conversation. There is no reason why this cannot be done. Now we only need to show how it can be done.

Stay tuned.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Two States, One Homeland

While in Jerusalem this blustery January I sat down with Israeli journalist Meron Rapoport, Fatah political council member Awni al-Mashni, British businessman and member of the House of Lords Andrew Stone, and social entrepreneur Avner Haramati who had brought us together. In this gathering I learned about a new grass-roots initiative called "Two States, One Homeland."

This initiative has been around for about a year and it has as yet to find the open support of any of the political parties on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side. In fact, at this stage, the program is attacked from all sides, which means it does not fit comfortably in any of the usual categories of Left and Right, secular and religious, settlers and peaceniks. Since it does not advocate for a removal of the settlements it seems to Palestinians and BDS activists to promote normalization and acquiescence in the occupation. At the same time, it would require of the settlers to give up their privileged position in the framework of a confederation that confers the same freedom of movement and settlement anywhere in Israel-Palestine to the Palestinians, including those currently residing outside the country. Just as Jews from all over the world enjoy the right of return and are encouraged to claim Israel as their patrimony, Palestinians from all over the world would enjoy the right of return and should feel welcome to make their home in Israel-Palestine. Israel would remain a Jewish state in its historic homeland that comprises the entire Land of Israel, just as Palestine would comprise the entire territory now depicted on every Palestinian map. In other words: two states, one homeland.

The plan recognizes that the attachment of the Jews to their land is not a right-wing issue but an issue of Jewish religious and historical sentiment. The initiative requires for Israelis to accept that Palestinians as well claim all of historic Palestine as rightfully theirs. In place of a physical or geographic division of the land, which would be a loss to both sides, the plan thinks of the division in the legal terms of citizenship and institutions, not place of residence.

The initiative takes into account some of the big obstacles that have hitherto stood in the way of any peaceful resolution of the conflict, most notably the Israeli settlements and the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. Right now, most Palestinians object to accepting any Jewish settlements beyond the Green Line as legitimate. As Awni al-Mashni points out, however, it is unrealistic for the Palestinians to think that 350,000 settlers would ever be evacuated under any peace agreement. He also believes that Israelis will need to come to terms with the fact that the Palestinians will not go away. The urgency of this initiative arises for him from the fact that Palestinians tend to think that Israel is a temporary entity, that it will eventually collapse or be defeated and that the Palestinians can simply wait until that happens. For al-Mashni, this is a self-defeating, fatalistic, and troubling attitude that will result in many more years of needless Palestinian suffering. Palestinians, he says, will have to accept that the settlers won't go away and that Israel won't go away. Palestinians will have to learn that Jews have as much right to access and residence near the Tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron as they do. By the same token Israelis will need to recognize that Palestinians have every right to seek residency in Jaffa, the "pearl of Palestine," without therefore needing to claim citizenship in Israel.

As a matter of policy, Two States/One Homeland decided not to accept foreign funding. They made this decision even before the recent push in the Knesset to Israeli human rights groups that receive financial support from foreign governments. They are nevertheless interested in raising international awareness for their initiative. Andrew Stone is planning a working session of the group at the House of Lords in March and the initiators are also planning to visit the US and speak to interested parties in New York, Boston and D.C. According to Lord Stone, the most important piece that is missing is a draft constitution that can help skeptics envisage how such a confederacy might be enacted. His own advocacy for a political solution takes into account that economic opportunity and aid alone will not be sufficient to build up Palestinian society. In his view, in order to become persuasive, the idea of a confederation of Israel and Palestine will require a workable legal framework, something he wants to encourage some of his colleagues in the British parliament to get in involved in producing.

A cursory search for this initiative on Google yielded this article by Lily Galili, as well as a video documenting the founding conference (see HERE). The group is also on Facebook.

Walking away from this meeting this blustering January in Jerusalem, I was uncertain what to make of the things I had just heard but I had no time to think about it. Instead I hurried to catch up with a group of students that was waiting for me to visit the Haram ash-Sharif. Waiting in line, I saw that the old rabbinic injunction is still posted that prohibits Jews from entering this hallowed ground for fear of desecration. The Old City was pretty empty, but the Haram was bustling with local Muslim families who were taking time out to relax with their small children in a safe place, without harassment. Jerusalem's Arabs are under siege. They are slowly encroached upon from every direction by infrastructure and neighborhood developments that they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as solely aimed at asserting Jewish presence at the expense of the Palestinians. Systemic impersonal repression along with the ever more frequent eruption of anti-Arab violence call forth the foolish acts of youthful daring that we have seen in recent months. In turn, these feed into Jewish fear of Palestinian terror. At this point, both sides are in despair. How can this cycle be broken?

I was impressed by the mutual respect that prevails between the members of this group. Awni al-Mashni spent twelve years of his life in Israeli jails. And yet, he has become an advocate for peace. As one of the participants in the 2015 founding conference, Dr. Merav Alush Levron (cited in the posted video) put it, the initiative is a matter of "morality" and "mutual recognition." What this fledgling initiative provides at this stage is a way of speaking about a shared future in a homeland that both nations care about. Recognizing that both care about the same homeland is an auspicious starting point not just for those who must find a way of coexistence but for us on the outside who tend to take sides in a conflict that cannot be resolved if either side loses. There has got to be a way for both to win, for both to feel that the presence of the other is a plus, not a loss.