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.

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