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Politics Sparks Religious Conflict in Jerusalem

Ira Chernus

Arabs revere it as the "Noble Sanctuary." Jews revere it as the "Temple Mount." Everyone worries about it -- or should worry about it -- as a potential flashpoint for renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

It's actually not much more than a hill, but it's the highest point in the old city of Jerusalem. In biblical times, the Judeans built a sanctuary atop it to the god YHWH. The Romans destroyed that structure. When Muslims conquered Jerusalem centuries later they built two structures of their own on the hill -- the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque -- which remains two of Islam's most sacred sites.

Right now, the most important fact to know about the hill is that major clashes occurred there this October between Palestinians and the Israeli police force. Though there were relatively few injuries, Israelis and Palestinians who support the peace process worry that more such incidents could kill off the already fragile chances for a negotiated peace.  As Israel's most respected newspaper, Ha'aretz, recently editorialized, "the Temple Mount is behaving like an active, simmering volcano; the timing of its next major eruption is impossible to gauge."

Ha'aretz explained the source of the trouble to its mostly-Jewish readers this way:  "There have been repeated rumors among Palestinians that Jewish extremists are planning on harming the holy site. No such attempt has been made." The Jewish Telegraphic Agency also reported that "the rumors have proven to be unfounded."  The Washington Post agreed.  Attributing the trouble to Muslim charges of "Israeli plots to damage them or let Jews pray in the compound," the Post added: "There was no evidence to support either claim."  Period.

But the reality is rather more complex, as other news reports explained.  According to The New York Times, "Israeli police chief, David Cohen, said the disturbances were precipitated by calls from right-wing Jewish activists and an Islamist group." More specifically, the widely-read Israeli website reported that, "according to police, there was ... a call on Jews by extreme-right elements to arrive at the compound."

That last point is the crux of the matter for Palestinian Muslims.  Though there has been no overt attempt yet by Jews to harm the Muslim holy sites, there is a growing effort by Jewish extremists to stake some claim to what they call the Temple Mount.

More than a decade ago, a fringe right-wing group brought a cornerstone for a new Jewish temple to the Temple Mount. Though their movement has continued to grow, it is still quite small.  But now there is a larger movement calling for Jews to pray and observe religious rituals on the Mount, with some seeing it as a step toward rebuilding the Jewish Temple. A "publicist for far-right organizations" told commentator Gershon Gorenberg that "hundreds of Jews have been visiting the site weekly, usually in organized groups."

In early October, just before the Jews' highest holy day, Yom Kippur, notices were posted announcing that Jews planned to visit the Temple Mount on the eve of the holiday.  "The police knew about this," said Sheikh Azzam Al-Khatib, the head of the Waqf (the Muslim organization that supervises the holy sites). He warned the Israeli authorities not to open the Temple Mount to Jewish worshipers. When the police let a group of tourists into the compound, Muslims began hurling stones at them, apparently assuming that these were the Jewish worshippers making good on their promise to gain access to the site for religious observances.  

At the same time, Israeli police were imposing restrictions on Muslims wanting to pray in Al-Aqsa mosque.

After the most recent disturbances, a gathering of right-wing Jews, led by what Ha'aretz called "top religious Zionist leaders," called for "Jewish ascent to the Temple Mount. It's hard to remember when was the last time Israel saw such a unity between its religious Zionist leaders." Five members of the Knesset and other conservative political leaders joined the gathering too.

Rabbi Yaakov Medan told the crowd to "keep coming to the Temple Mount. ... And I'm not talking about a few people here. I'm talking about hundreds and thousands. " Professor Hillel Weiss of Bar Ilan University demanded that the Jewish Temple "must be built now. The mosques do not have to be destroyed in order for us to do this." But many Muslims, including Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, doubt the assurance that the mosques would remain.

Rabbi Yuval Sherlo says that the religious rightists demand "equality at the least" between Jews and Arabs on the sacred hill.  "At the least"? Those are understandably frightening words for Palestinians, who have seen Israel encroach upon their land and their rights, more and more, for decades now.

Feeding their doubt is the latest call from the Rabbinical Council of Judea and Samaria for the Temple Mount to be permanently closed to Arabs. A statement by the council accused the Arabs of "turning the most holy place to the Jewish people into a base of terror and violence" -- a sharp reminder that, although the conflict is sparked by conflicting claims to a sacred site, and the immediate participants on both sides may well be moved by religious concerns, it would be a mistake to write it off as just a matter of religious fanaticism. It's mainly about politics.

There is nothing in Orthodox Judaism that necessarily mandates laying claim to any rights on the Temple Mount. On the contrary, Orthodox Jews have traditionally stayed away from the Mount, fearing that they would violate the purity laws that have governed the site since biblical times.  Even now, many Orthodox rabbis are critical of the move to bring Jews back to the site for religious observances.

And it's no coincidence that so many of the rabbis who support the return to the Temple Mount are associated with the Jewish West Bank settlements. They see the Obama administration's call for stopping all settlement expansion and creating a Palestinian state as a direct threat to their whole enterprise. Laying claim to the Temple Mount is just one part of a much larger strategy to resist the changes they fear.

The connection between settlements and this Temple Mount movement is not lost on Palestinians. The movement is largely ignored by Israeli news sources, because most Israeli Jews consider it a fringe (many would say lunatic fringe) movement. But there was a time when the idea of putting Jewish settlements in the West Bank was also just a lunatic fringe idea. Had Palestinians organized powerfully to resist that idea before the first groundbreaking for the first settlement, the whole Israeli-Palestinian situation might be radically different -- perhaps radically better -- today.

From the Palestinian vantage point, stout resistance before the first concrete actions occur is simply common sense -- not necessarily for reasons of religious devotion, but because they can see how the Temple Mount has become, for some Jews, a prime symbol of nationalistic pride and self-assertion. 

On the Palestinian side, too, this seemingly religious issue is part of an essentially secular nationalistic conflict. Muslim leaders' calls to resist Jewish encroachment are being echoed by the secular authorities of the Palestinian Authority, all members of the avowedly secular Fatah party.

According to one report , PA prime Salam Fayyad has called the Jewish movement "a provocation planned in advance that was aimed at sabotaging the peace process and derailing President Obama's peace initiative."

The Ha'aretz editorial agreed that there are political motives at work: "The Israeli government views these events as just another competitive front between Israel and the Palestinians. [It] views strengthening the Jewish hold on the Temple Mount and its environs as a political and diplomatic objective." And that "is likely to foment a violent outburst which will ignite the entire Middle East." 

As if to back up these charges of Jewish political motivation, Rabbi Medan told the right-wing Jewish gathering that he recently met with a "top defense official" and discussed the sparse presence of Jews in the Temple Mount. The defense official "spoke of the significance of Jews ascending the Temple Mount, and said that he already got us permits to ascend. ‘Where are you?,' he asked. He sees this as an existential struggle, and believes we must recruit more people."

On both sides, then, a powerful set of religious symbols and groups of sincerely (some would say fanatically) religious people are caught up in a larger conflict that is essentially between two competing secular nationalisms. As Gershon Gorenberg wrote, "when a fire begins at the Mount, it is always fueled by wider issues. Right now those issues include continued Palestinian disappointment with American diplomacy and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas's precipitous loss of public credibility."

It seems clear that both sides are focusing on this religious symbolism in response to the Obama administration's call for an end to settlement expansion and rapid movement toward a final-status, two-state agreement.

The sparks that have ignited October's clash, and could (here religious people may want to say "God forbid") set off much more serious conflict in the months ahead, were originally lit in the White House. Obama's words have raised and then dashed hopes among Palestinians, while they have raised fears that are as high as ever among right-wing Jewish Israelis.   

"When diplomacy appears deadlocked, the chances of violence rise, and Jerusalem's most holy space is always available as a pretext," Gorenberg rightly observes. "If Netanyahu, Abbas and Obama are looking for a practical way to avoid a new blow-up in Jerusalem, they need to restore faith in peace negotiations as an alternative."

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Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of"American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and American Jews on his blog.

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