A synagogue stripped of its Torah scroll, Holy Ark, and even the Mezuzah on the doorframe, is no longer a synagogue. It is not a "holy place", unless, perhaps, hundreds of years of history have imbued the structure with some special significance. The same goes for former mosques and churches. Moreover, a single building can serve as both a mosque and a synagogue, as in Hebron's Machpelah Cave, or a church and a synagogue, as I've seen in New York. The point is, for the most part these are just buildings. It is their content and their usage that give them religious significance.
Seen in this context, the Israeli cabinet's decision to leave the Gaza synagogues to the Palestinians, rather than Israel dismantling them as originally planned, reflected cynical political calculations and pressures, and nothing more. The structures will either be destroyed, thereby staining the honor of the Palestinian Authority, or they will be preserved, giving Gaza settler diehards a target for irredentist yearnings. Over the decades, Israel has been no kinder in its treatment of several score abandoned mosques than the Palestinian mobs were last week in their attitude toward the synagogues of Netzarim and Neve Dkalim. So much cynicism, so little real religion.
Because religion so easily becomes extremism in this part of the world, I have always believed that God is best left out of the efforts to end our conflict. Yet rabbis who support a peace process based on compromise take a radically different view. They argue that the Oslo framers made a serious mistake in not recruiting prominent religious figures from both sides to give their blessing to the 1993 declaration of principles. Essentially, they argue, you can't get God out of the Arab-Israel conflict because so much of it is saturated with religion and religious sites, and because identity in the Middle East is inexorably linked to religion; better, then, to recruit God on the side of the peacemakers rather than allowing the anti-compromise forces to maintain exclusive religious sanction for their positions.
Throughout recent years of expanded contacts between Israelis and Arabs, many constructive instances of interfaith dialogue between religious figures on both sides have been undertaken. In the diaspora, too, Jews, Muslims, and Christians have been "dialoguing" as never before. While it is hard to point to any concrete political fruits of Jewish-Muslim and other contacts, this religious stream of the peace process can hardly be blamed for what the mainstream political dialogue has also failed to accomplish.
Yet these efforts appear negligible when viewed against the backdrop of extremist religious activity on all sides that seeks to exacerbate the conflict rather than alleviate it, and that advances mutually incompatible agendas. The overwhelming mass of religious energy currently being invested in the Israeli-Palestinian (and, at a more abstract level, Israel-Arab) conflict constitutes a very dangerous zero-sum game. Religious sites, such as Hebron and Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, are at the vanguard of the territorial dispute, and in some cases (such as the Jerusalem security fence protruding into Bethlehem to include Rachel's Tomb) define it.
The ultimate disputed religious site is the Temple Mount/ Harem al-Sharif. The one serious attempt to engage this issue, at Camp David II in July 2000 and thereafter, culminating in the Sharon visit to the Mount and the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada in September of that year, showed just how volatile and incendiary the status of this site is.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, probably the greatest leader of the entire peace process, wanted to build a religious sanctuary in Sinai for all three major monotheistic religions. The idea of a holy site uniting rather than dividing Jews and Muslims (and Christians) is an intriguing one. Perhaps this is something that religious Jews and Muslims--those who seek to facilitate peace rather than disrupt it for their own cynical ends--could devote their energies to.- Published 19/9/2005 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Buildings formerly known as synagogues
by Ghassan Khatib
The last-minute Israeli decision to leave behind buildings that had formerly functioned as synagogues in Israeli settlements in Gaza put a spotlight on the role of religious sites in the conflict.
This is something that has historically been a deeply divisive and controversial issue from the way mosques and other religious sites were treated in the part of Palestine the Israeli state was built on in 1948 to the way similar sites have been treated in areas occupied by Israel in 1967. In this latter respect, especially important are acts in and against the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
The issue of religious sites has two dimensions: one is religious; the other is legal and political. Religiously speaking, all parties must respect the rights of any religion and the rights of believers to worship freely and maintain and preserve the sanctity of their respective religious sites, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim. That has to be a basic rule respected by everybody. In this regard, religious sites and the right to worship at these sites must be respected regardless of the location and the sovereignty over that location.
What must be avoided is using religious sites and issues as a way to achieve political objectives or chalk up political scores. After 1948, during the establishment of Israel and in an attempt to erase Palestinian villages and other formerly populated areas, many mosques were treated in an unacceptable way, whether they were demolished or used for purposes not compatible with their religious nature. That was done in order to achieve political objectives and create realities on the ground for political reasons.
The recent controversy over the buildings in ex-Gaza settlements can also be considered a crisis created for political reasons. The two sides had earlier agreed that Israel would leave intact only buildings or assets that the Palestinian side would be in need of and would agree to take over. But at the last minute, Israel decided to leave behind these buildings, a move perceived by the Palestinian side as an attempt at embarrassing the Palestinian Authority, which would have difficulty protecting them and difficulties if it failed to protect them. Fortunately, most of the relevant third parties did not try to justify this Israeli step and accepted the Palestinian argument that it was unnecessary and only created problems for the Palestinian leadership.
Practically speaking, the Palestinian side dealt with these places as "buildings once used as synagogues", especially since, before the withdrawal, Jewish religious personages removed all holy artifacts and performed rites to de-sanctify the buildings. After that, even Israeli officials referred to these buildings as buildings that used to be synagogues. Since, furthermore, no Jewish community remains there to use them; since leaving them behind was a unilateral Israeli decision; since they were not needed by the Palestinian side; and since the Palestinian side decided the areas in question would not be used as population centers but only for agriculture and industry in accordance with the land use plan to integrate the areas of the settlements within the overall Gaza land use plan--the Palestinian side has not felt any overriding need to preserve these buildings, nor any moral imperative to try. - Published 19/9/2005 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the Palestinian Authority minister of planning and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
An opening to ties between our peoples
by Menachem Froman
The Almighty is greater (Allahu Akbar), hence in his presence we must subdue our heart and acknowledge that our thoughts cannot comprehend his ways. We must open our eyes and see things that we could not contemplate, just as G-d opened the eyes of Hagar and she saw the well of springing water. Where did the Almighty take the water from? From a place we would not have thought of: from the heart of the parched desert.
We must also open our heart and our eyes to the unilateral disengagement. Perhaps G-d will open our eyes and we'll find there a hope for peace. And where will peace emerge there? G-d willing, from the place we would not have thought of: from the difficult problem of the synagogues.
We have seen that as soon as the decision was made on the political issue of the land in Gaza, the religious issue of the synagogues arose. The moment the Jewish residents of the Gaza Strip were removed, the rabbis began to be concerned about the remaining synagogues. The demand to sanctify the synagogues unites the most important rabbis of all political persuasions: Zionists and non-Zionists, those who resolutely opposed disengagement as well as those who supported it and even participated in the government that carried it out. For the problem of the synagogues is perceived by the rabbis as a religious rather than a political issue. Traditional Jewish law (halacha) determines that synagogues retain their sanctity when they are deserted and even when they have been damaged. G-d forbids destroying synagogues, because these houses are reserved for worshiping G-d, blessed be he. (In terms of finding a solution to this issue it is important to note from the outset that the same halachic prohibition applies to mosques, since according to halacha they are special houses for the worship of G-d, blessed be he.)
Initially the entire government of Israel opposed the rabbis' demand. But after President Moshe Katzav expressed his view that on a religious issue like the fate of the synagogues the rabbis' view must be taken into account, the government too adopted a different approach and, at the last minute, turned the synagogues over to the Palestinians together with the land.
What will the Palestinians do with the synagogues? Having dealt at length with the issue, I am fully aware that the Palestinian leadership resolutely opposed taking possession of the synagogues, and I understand its reasons. But sometimes the Almighty finds good in places we never contemplated. Perhaps G-d will open our eyes and the Palestinian government will discover that it can profit greatly from having the synagogues forced upon it.
At present, in order to prevent any further destruction of the synagogues, the most important rabbis in Israel are appealing to the Palestinian government. For years, the Almighty, blessed be he, caused me to think that one of the important reasons why so many efforts to bring peace have failed is that the religious leaders on both sides have barely participated in the process. The pioneers of peace--those truly possessed by the vision of peace--are usually secular; hence peace plans usually lack sufficient sensitivity to the world of religion. The religious publics among both peoples have generally been left out of peace efforts, and in any case usually oppose them. Yet the views of the religious leaderships have a critical influence on the success of peace efforts.
The synagogues issue could, G-d willing, provide an opening to ties between our two peoples. In response to a Palestinian proposal, I recently sent a letter in the name of the rabbis to the president and prime minister of Palestine and the minister of interior (security), in which the rabbis requested to meet with the Palestinians to discuss the fate of the synagogues under their control. The Palestinian leadership, aware of the damage inflicted on Palestinian honor by the pictures of burning synagogues being broadcast worldwide, can now replace those pictures with images of the honorable reception awarded to a rabbinical delegation.
What can the Palestinians do with the synagogues? A proposal that I am currently discussing with religious and political leaders is for the religious leadership of both peoples to immediately establish a joint committee to maintain the abandoned synagogues that are under Palestinian rule--as well as the abandoned mosques under Israeli rule. Such a committee not only offers a way for the Palestinian government to show that it is concerned over a painful issue for many Muslims: the integrity of abandoned mosques in Israel. It would also be an important step forward on an issue that for years has in my view been decisive for the fate of contemporary Jewish-Arab peace: mutual respect between religions and cultures.
There is no peace without respect. Peace is not only a political arrangement. Political peace requires a religious and cultural basis. The Oslo agreements collapsed primarily because the decision to end armed struggle did not enjoy sufficient support among the Palestinian masses. Establishing a joint committee made up of the important religious leaders of the two peoples could, G-d willing, be a decisive step toward providing legitimacy in the consciousness of both peoples for the possibility of peace based on mutual respect for one another's culture.
Years before the 9/11 terror attack on the United States and its response in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was clear that mutual respect between Islamic and western culture is a precondition for world peace. Here our two little peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, can, G-d willing, fill an important function. They can show the entire world how Islam and the West can respect one another. If Israelis and Palestinians succeed in building Jerusalem/al-Quds as their joint capital, in which the West and Islam show respect for one another, then Jerusalem/al-Quds can, G-d willing, become the peace capital of the world.
The beginning, G-d willing, can take the form of maintaining the integrity of the abandoned mosques under Israeli control and the abandoned synagogues under Palestinian rule. There are huge obstacles in the way, but the Almighty is greater, Allahu Akbar, and he can do far more than we can imagine if only we submit to him.- Published 19/9/2005 © bitterlemons.org
Rabbi Menachem Froman is the rabbi of Tekoa, a settlement in the Judean Desert. In recent years he has maintained contacts with senior Palestinian leaders, including the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and President Yasser Arafat.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
A long and bitter experience
an interview with Saleh Abdel Jawad
bitterlemons: How do you feel the issue of the synagogues left behind in ex-settlements in the Gaza Strip was handled?
Abdel Jawad: I would have preferred if the Palestinian Authority had behaved differently. In Muslim civilization, tolerance was always one of the supreme values. I would have preferred, especially since everyone knew that the issue of the synagogues would be exploited politically by Israel, that they had been left intact, at least for the moment.
But there are mitigating circumstances. First, the Israeli army's rabbi had already performed rites over these buildings to de-sanctify them a few days before the withdrawal. Secondly, these synagogues were built on occupied lands and from the start they should not have been there. Third, we can't separate these synagogues from their political and geographic context. They were, after all, part of settlements that made the lives of the people around them not only difficult but almost unbearable.
Finally, part of the popular Palestinian reaction was informed by bitter experience with Israeli practices in the past and the present vis-a-vis Palestinian religious sites. After 1948, Israel destroyed around 418 villages. In a few cases, because of the intervention of individuals, some mosques, I can think of 20, maximum 30, remained intact. But in each of these 418 villages there was at least one mosque or church. In other cases, mosques were turned into bars. To name just two, I can think of one in Cesaria and one in old Jaffa. I saw a mosque in Zakaria that is now being used as a garbage dump. Several mosques were also turned into stables for horses.
bitterlemons: Yet you say you wished the PA had handled things differently. How exactly?
Abdel Jawad: I would have liked that, despite everything I said above, we had saved these synagogues. Perhaps we could have used them as places of social benefit. At least I think they should have been left for the moment until their future was determined. The PA knew that Israel wanted to make an issue out of this, and I think it was foolish to have allowed them to do so.
bitterlemons: But could the PA have protected them in view of the obvious passion of people on the ground at the time of withdrawal?
Abdel Jawad: Yes, I think it could. I know they only had 48 hours to prepare, but no one discussed things properly. I understand there were fears that if the synagogues remained they might have been claimed in the future by Israel. Nevertheless, even if the PA had decided to destroy these buildings, I think they should at least have preserved them until proper plans were laid.
I understand there was a lot of passion on the ground, but I think the PA could have preserved the buildings. They did so with some of the greenhouses. I heard some people put forward arguments that since Israel in the past has destroyed mosques and was only leaving the synagogues as a political trap, the buildings had no claim to protection, but I would have handled it differently.
bitterlemons: In other words, you felt that the fact that Israel has destroyed mosques does not provide justification for not protecting synagogues?
Abdel Jawad: I don't accept the argument that because they destroyed our mosques we can destroy their synagogues. What is at stake here is religious liberty. For years, I haven't been able to go to Jerusalem to pray at Al Aqsa. That is my right and one I want to preserve. While these synagogues do not have the same historical connotation, even for the settlers themselves, all religious sites must be treated with respect.- Published 19/9/2005 © bitterlemons.org
Saleh Abdel Jawad is a a political scientist at Birzeit University. He is currently working on a history of Israeli massacres of Palestinians in 1948 for the Max Planck Institute.
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