A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Patriarchal Dynamite: The Hebron/Bethlehem Heritage Sites Issue

Father Abraham, Avraham Avinu, Ibrahim Khalil Allah, the kids are fighting over the will again.

There is probably no place in the highly explosive Israeli-Palestinian theater, other than the Haram al-Sharif/Har ha-Bayit (Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount) in Jerusalem itself, more potentially explosive than the massive Herodian tomb-structure (left) rising over Hebron known to Israelis as the Tombs of the Patriarchs (or, Biblically, as the Cave of Machphelah, Me'arat Machpelah) and to Muslims as the Haram al-Khalil or al-Haram al-Ibrahimi. (Khalil, meaning "friend" as in the Friend of God, is a Muslim sobriquet for Abraham, and also the name for the city of Hebron.) It is surely one of the few places on earth (the only one I can think of just now, but I may be forgetting something) where a synagogue and a mosque exist and function within the same very ancient site. In 1994 it was the site where Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein took an automatic weapon and killed 29 Muslims at prayer in the mosque. It's an enormous, amazing place, and perhaps even more than Jerusalem itself, a symbol of the fratricidal nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, since Abraham is the founder of both peoples by their own testimony. But it, and another holy site in Bethlehem, Rachel's tomb, though both beyond the Green Line, have now been named Israeli Heritage Sites, at this difficult moment in the peace process, and the results are predictable.

Since both Judaism and Islam claim Abraham as their founder, in today's context conflict is inevitable. Since ancient tradition insists this is the site of the burial places of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah, buried in the Cave of Machphelah (and indeed, there are caves beneath the monuments), this is a holy place to all three Abrahamic religions, though relatively few Christian pilgrims visit it. (Some Muslims say Joseph is buried here too, though Jewish tradition venerates his tomb near Nablus.) In other words, patriarchically speaking, pretty much a straight flush. The big six.

On the other hand, it's Leah who's buried with Jacob in Hebron, and generally speaking Rachel is considered the matriarch of record for Jacob, who had two wives, since she's the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, and thus of the main line of Jewish tradition (though Leah bore the patriarchs of the other ten tribes). Biblical tradition placed her tomb a couple of places, but one of the most visited and revered was on the northwestern edge of Bethlehem. Bethlehem, like Hebron, is of course in the West Bank, in territory Israel only occupied in 1967. And Bethlehem and its neighboring towns and the big refugee camp nearby make that area one of the more populous in the West Bank. Rachel's Tomb (pictured) was originally on the Palestinian side of the Separation Wall, but lately an adjacent house has been annexed and walled off and the separation wall has been extended to include the tomb.

Beyond the fact that the Separation Wall itself raises a great many issues, I think it worth just looking at this GoogleEarth picture on the right (copyright by Google fully acknowledged please don't come after me) and noting that the wall actually goes down either side of a road to enclose the tomb in a sort of enclave (below left center of the picture) that really makes its artificiality obvious. You used to go right by it driving into Bethlehem.

And since these patriarchs play a major role in Islam as well — Ibrahim (Abraham), Ishaq (Isaac), and Ya‘qub (Jacob) are common Muslim names still — the tombs of the patriarchs/Haram al-Khalil and the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem are two flashpoints which have troubled Jewish/Muslim and Israeli/Palestinian relations since 1967. (But of course all these names belong to all three monotheistic traditions. My mother and my daughter were both named Sarah.)

So why, nearly 43 years after the 1967 war, did Israel wait until this past Sunday to declare these two explosive holy places Israeli National Heritage Sites? Netanyahu said he did it at the persuasion of the religious party Shas. Not surprisingly, Palestinians are protesting and throwing stones in Hebron and elsewhere; the UN's against it, and there's talk of a new restoration plan for the sites. PA officials are protesting, Jordan is protesting — but this happens whenever there is a change in the status quo of religious sites. The question is why was this done now?

Given recent actions by the Netanyahu government it really is getting hard to assume that this is all just poor judgment or ideological purity (why not sooner?), and to assume that there is actually an intention to provoke. I'm trying to find an explanation in my own mind for why this was done now. It seems to have set off a Palestinian reaction — both officially and in the streets where stones are being thrown again — and almost makes me wonder, does Netanyahu want a third intifada? Netanyahu could have done this years ago if it was purely a commitment to ideology: everyone understands the sanctity of these two sites to both Muslims and Jews, and for that reason efforts to change the status quo have been few since the creation of the synagogue inside the mosque.

I fully recognize the veneration both Jews and Muslims have for these sites (especially Hebron), but doing this right now, more than 40 years after the six day war, has a feel of provocation rather than affirmation.

Abraham, that wandering Aramaean as the Bible itself calls him, would, I trust, prefer not to be fought over quite in this way. But this particular time I have to say the Israelis seem to be the provocateurs. And I'm not sure why at this time. They control the sites, and long have. Why change the status now?

No comments: