Saturday, October 29, 2011

Season of Tolerance, Season of Intolerance: Vandalism of Sacred and Historic Sites in the Middle East

During the season of the Jewish High Holidays, we heard the shocking news that vandals—apparently Jewish extremists—had set fire to and vandalized a mosque and its holy books in Tuba-Zangariyye, in northern Israel (video here). Israeli political and religious leaders were swift to condemn the crime in the strongest terms. President Shimon Peres spoke out against the incident in the context of a High Holiday message, and then visited the site in the company of an interfaith delegation, declaring,
I am filled with shame for this hateful act. I came here, to this burnt Mosque, and I am shocked to the depths of my soul. This is desecrating the holy. One cannot put up with this abomination and I believe that there is not one Israeli who is not ashamed by this arson attack. This evil act is not only against the law, it is against Judaism, morality and spirit. We will not rest and will not be silent until we apprehend the culprits and they will be punished.
The Sephardic Chief Rabbi said, "This is a desecration of God's name, a desecration of the State of Israel, and a desecration of all peoples and religions. All of us must raise our voices against terror." The Prime Minister's office described Benjamin Netanyahu as "furious," quoting him as saying, "The pictures are horrifying and have no place in Israel," whose values of "freedom of religion" the incident flagrantly contradicted.

Arab voices, both in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority, laid the ultimate blame at the foot of what they saw as an insufficiently sharp response to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab incitement. Some commentators thought they saw a reflection of that concern in Peres's remarks, as well. And opposition leader Tzipi Livni said, "Such serious incidents obligate us to conduct a national self-examination."

The situation seemed to worsen when, soon afterward, there were reports of vandalism of Muslim and Christian cemeteries in Jaffa, followed by the firebombing of a synagogue there. Political and religious leaders from all communities condemned the new attacks and called for calm. (1, 2)  (Although some foreign publications such as the Guardian were quick to ascribe blame to "settlers," the actual scenarios and identities of perpetrators were not clear 1, 2, 3).

What got far less attention was the desecration of the Jewish sanctuary at Joseph's Tomb, in Nablus (Palestinian Authority). IDF troops preparing the site for worship during the High Holidays found the interior defaced with swastikas. The Nablus area has been identified with the biblical Shechem, where, according to tradition, key episodes in the lives of the Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob took place and Joseph was buried after his descendants brought his body out of Egypt during the Exodus.

Joseph's Tomb: lithograph by David Roberts (Brussels, 1849)
Most scholars question the identification of the edifice with Joseph, though that is beside the point in this context. The historical veracity of traditions associated with many holy sites of various faiths is, after all, tenuous at best.

The left-wing peace activist group Gush Shalom condemned the attack as follows:
“The swastika is a vile symbol of racist, murderous ideology, and it is clear that drawing this symbol anywhere in the world is a vile deed – especially in a Jewish religious holy place,” Gush Shalom spokesperson Adam Keller said.

“Joseph’s Tomb in the heart of the city of Shechem is a holy place for Judaism and the desire of religious Jews to visit it is perfectly legitimate,” he added.
Keller went on to note that some such sites, especially those located in the Palestinian Authority, were sacred to more than one faith, and that Jewish worshipers needed to be sensitive to local rules.

Although the vandalism was quickly repaired and the building was not permanently harmed, the incident was nonetheless at least as noteworthy as the attack on the mosque. First, by contrast, it earned no public criticism from leading Palestinian and Muslim figures (a call from the ADL for a condemnation notwithstanding), and no comparable outcry—or even coverage—in the world press. Second, it formed part of a long-standing pattern affecting both the Tomb and Jewish sacred and historic sites in general.

Joseph's Tomb has been the site of repeated vandalism and even violence (photos of the most recent incident, half a year ago, here). The Palestinian Ma'an News Agency, citing AFP, summarized:
Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, the site was to remain under Israeli control. But the Israeli army evacuated the premises in October 2000 shortly after the start of the second intifada, or uprising, and it was immediately destroyed and burnt by the Palestinians.
The restoration of the tomb was completed recently, and following improved security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, the army allows Jewish worshipers to make monthly nocturnal pilgrimages to the site.
In 2001, Columbia anthropologist Nadia Abu El Haj provoked controversy with a book on the politics of Israeli archaeology that won plaudits in some fashionable political and non-specialist academic circles but little respect from serious field archaeologists and historians of the topic. Among its most controversial aspects was her willingness to legitimize what she coyly calls "looting" of historic and archaeological resources as: "a form of resistance to the Israeli state and an archaeological project, understood by many Palestinians, to stand at the very heart of Zionist historical claims to the land.” Exhibit number 1, cited in her conclusion:  the destruction of Joseph's Tomb. Abu El Haj's book is but the hyper-theoretical, sophisticated, and "kinder, gentler" form of a disturbing tendency toward denial of the historical and archaeological record of an ancient and continuous Jewish presence (e.g. 1, 2, 3).

An ironic pendant to the Tomb desecration was the story of a Libyan Jew who returned from exile in Italy to support the ongoing revolution. When, citing the long heritage of the Jewish community, he also announced plans to renovate and reopen an abandoned and desecrated historic synagogue, he was threatened, told that he was persona non grata, and forced to leave.

The point, of course, is not to cite one example in order to diminish the others, and on the contrary, to reaffirm the simple truth that all such attacks and desecrations are hateful and equally deserving of attention and condemnation. It is alarming that, in a conflict in which competing political claims are closely linked with competing historical narratives or complicated by outright historical denial, irreplaceable historical and archaeological resources have increasingly become the focus of violence and erasure.

Just this week, conflict flared up again over the revived Israeli plan to construct a new access ramp (said to be necessitated by earthquake damage) to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The controversy dates to 2007, when the initial proposal and concomitant archaeological salvage excavations provoked a firestorm of criticism. Then as now, there was room for debate: The public process has arguably been truncated and bungled. Some Israeli archaeologists have expressed the professional concern that large-scale new construction is unnecessary and would jeopardize historic resources in the ground. Muslim and Arab leaders, by contrast, raise the by now predictable charge that this is all part of a sustained plot to destroy the Al Aqsa mosque and pave the way for the building of a synagogue or even the restoration of the Temple. The Al Aqsa Foundation for Waqf and Heritage is described as saying the latest plan "would lead to the demolition of a section of the mosque itself." Israeli journalist Nadav Shragai cites such charges as yet another example of the vociferous and increasingly entrenched Muslim "denial of the Jewish bond to Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and the Temple." (further background: 1, 2, 3, 4)

It need not be this way, for it was not always this way. Although neither the recent nor the distant past was some idyllic interfaith paradise, the fact remains that such acts of outright denial and destruction, like fundamentalism itself, are a modern rather than an ancient phenomenon.

Back in 2007, Israel scaled back and then postponed the Mughrabi Bridge project, but it first took several unusual steps to address the concerns. In addition to inviting the public to witness the salvage work in person and via webams, it sought the mediation of Turkey, then still a friend. This prompted the following recollection from Yehuda Litani about a hitherto unknown but typical episode of Jewish-Muslim cooperation under Ottoman rule. In 1992-93, when Jordan financed the restoration of the spectacular golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, he was privileged to view an artifact that had not seen the light of day for nearly a century:
The Dome of the Rock was surrounded with scaffolding, and before ascending one of them a friend of mine drew my attention to an iron panel that lay on the floor and was inscribed in French. The foreman of the Irish construction company said the panel had been found between the two halves of the crescents at on top of the mosque, and was temporarily dismantled so that the dome could be coated in gold.

The words in French revealed that the Mosque had been renovated in 1899 during Turkish rule, and that the works had been assisted by the Jewish community in Jerusalem led by a public figure called Avraham (Albert) Entebbe, who among his numerous other activities was also the principal of the city's "Kol Israel Haverim" school.

Entebbe, who was the undersigned on the French inscription, was known for his courageous ties with the heads of the Ottoman rule, and the inscription noted that for the purpose of renovating the mosques on the Temple Mount five acclaimed Jewish artists had been invited to Jerusalem. The Jewish stone carvers, wood carvers and iron mongers from various cities in the Mediterranean basin, shared their skills with their Muslim brothers during months of work.

The inscription also noted that all the students at Entebbe's school were given a three-month leave in order to assist their Muslim brothers in the renovations works on Temple Mount. In the last lines of the inscription, Entebbe described the ideal cooperation and understanding that prevailed between Jews and Muslims in the Holy City, which reached its zenith when the Jews undertook renovations of the Temple Mount mosques in 1899.
When he asked to have a photograph made and returned the next day, the panel had disappeared. (Read the rest: "Friendship on the Temple Mount. The wonderful story of Jewish-Muslim cooperation under Turkish rule."

On the one hand: an inspiring story from the past. On the other: yet another crucial historical artifact needlessly lost, and with it, both evidence and the lesson that it could teach. It's tragic in more ways than one.

[update: new arrest in mosque arson attack]

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