Jerusalem and its holy sites

November 13, 2010
Richard Kuper


“Would Muslims Give Up Control of Mecca?”

Jeremiah Haber, 11 November 2010

That’s the question that Jeffrey Goldberg asks in a blogpost. He writes:

…What does “Jerusalem” mean as a practical matter? Does it mean neighborhoods far from the Temple Mount that have been Arab for hundreds of years? Does it mean neighborhoods far from the Temple Mount that no Jew visits? I don’t believe Israel should give up control of its holiest sites — would Muslims give up control of Mecca? — But the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem aren’t holy, at least in my understanding of the notion.

Before I disagree with Goldberg, let me state where I obviously agree: Israel should not be building in many neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

Indeed, the proper response to Bibi’s “Jerusalem is not a ‘settlement'” line is “Settlements are not ‘Jerusalem’.” The municipal borders of present day Jerusalem do not constitute Jerusalem – certainly not the historical Jerusalem to which Jews faced when praying, nor the Jerusalem that was supposed to be internationalized according to the Partition Plan, nor the Jerusalem of the cease-fire lines of 1949. Herein lies the biggest deceit that Israel has perpetrated in Jerusalem: It has expanded Jerusalem to maximize territory and neighborhoods over the Green Line (Ramot, Giloh, French Hill, Ramat Eshkol, Givat ha-Mivtar, Har Homah, etc.), encouraged tens of thousands to settle in these neighborhoods, and has then called those neighborhoods “Jerusalem, the Rock of our Existence.” If it were up to the city, Jerusalem’s borders would extend to the wealthy Mevasseret Ziyyon suburb in the west, so that its yuppy denizens would subsidize the haredi male population between 20 and 45 who don’t pay municipal taxes. (Full disclosure: I am writing this from a Jerusalem neighborhood from which the Arabs were ethnically cleansed in 1948)

So here are problems with how Goldberg frames the question, “Would Muslims Give Up Control of Mecca?”

First, nobody has asked “Jews” to cede control of their holy sites – if by “control” one means Jewish administration. The issue is not administration but sovereignty. The Jews shouldn’t have to give up control; but both sides may have to give up claims for sovereignty.

Second, the Jewish holy sites in Israel are almost all Muslim holy sites. You will answer, “Ah, but the Jews considered them holy first.” Yet there is no evidence for that at all, at least for most of the sites. The idea that the Land of Israel has permanent “holy sites” is unheard of in the Bible and the Talmud, except, of course for the Temple. It becomes prominent, if I am not mistaken, in the Byzantine period by Christians, and then later, by Muslims and Jews (I am referring to sites like Rachel’s Tomb, the Cave of the Machpelah, King David’s Tomb, etc.) Now, I personally don’t care who was there first; both religions see these sites as important for them, and so arrangements should be made that they be shared. And if that cannot be done except through partitioning the site (such as in the Machpelah Cave in Hebron, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem), so be it.

Third, as for the Temple Mount, may I remind my better-known blogger that this is also a holy site for Muslims – the Noble Sanctuary. And since it is of no interest to me who came first when it comes to holy sites, or their relevant importance, something creative will have to be worked out there – e.g., Jewish administration over the Western Wall area; Muslim administration over the Noble Sanctuary. That involves a concession on both sides, and both sides have to figure out how to make it work, with the help of their friends.

Fourth, none of this has anything to do with sovereignty. Judging from the abysmal record of both sides, the Jewish and the Arab, when in control of the others’ holy sites, places of worship, and cemeteries, the best solution would be to give sovereignty to neither. If they can work out joint sovereignty, fine. But the Western Wall is a part of the Noble Mount, and hence is also a Muslim holy site.

Hat tip to Ali Gharib, who reads the Atlantic.

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