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Friction Where Heaven Meets Earth

Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade
Edited by Oleg Graber and Benjamin Z. Kedar
University of Texas Press, 412 pages, $75.

This book of authoritative essays, artwork and photographs is a labor of scholarly love that, through the joint intellectual efforts of Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars, brings down to earth the heavenly concerns surrounding the Sacred Esplanade; 150,000 square meters, holy to three religions for the past three millennia. The very fact of this joint project of scholars from Hebrew University, Al-Quds University — the main Palestinian university in Jerusalem and the West Bank — and the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise de Jerusalem proves that even if the Israelis and Palestinians, or Jews, Muslims and Christians, cannot agree on a shared narrative about this spot, they can all present their disagreements in reasoned, readable, concise prose.

There is probably no piece of real estate in the world today that inflames such passions among the three great religions. For Jews, this Esplanade, known as the Temple Mount, is the site of the Western Wall, the Kotel. It was home to the Solomonic and Herodian temples and where, messianists believe, a third Temple will stand someday. For Christians, it is the site of the Herodian Temple visited by Jesus. For Muslims, this is Haram al-Sharif, where the Prophet Muhammad made his ascent to heaven, home both to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

In modern days, tensions have ebbed and flowed here since Jerusalem was reunited following the 1967 Six Day War and Israeli law was extended to East Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, though the Waqf, or Islamic authorities, rejected Israeli civilian law, proclaiming unilaterally that Jordanian law would continue on the site as it had since 1948. And, for about 20 years, this tacit understanding basically held until the first intifada, in 1987, led to more religious radicalization by Jews and Muslims. Finally, the 1996 Israeli decision to open the northern exit of the Western Wall Tunnel under Haram al-Sharif and the Temple Mount really caused violent demonstrations. Muslims feared that this new act would have a negative impact on the Islamic character of the area and, more concretely, suspected that it had also caused cracks in the walls of Islamic holy buildings near the Western Wall.

The area in question was made into a tinderbox by a combination of Israeli state action and incitement by both Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists. On September 28, 2000, the conflict was touched off by then prime minister candidate Ariel Sharon’s walk on the Esplanade, igniting the second intifada.

So, can human rationality prevail?

Al-Quds University’s president, Sari Nusseibeh, a well-regarded philosopher and member of a prominent Jerusalem family, invokes God in hoping the answer is yes. In his essay, he discusses the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, believed to have taken place on the site of the Dome of the Rock, also the place of the Prophet Muhammad’s supposed ascension. Arguing that a place becomes sacred through practice — not through divine decree — he wonders if God, who halted Abraham from sacrificing his first born, could “be made to feel better by men fighting over that spot, killing and getting killed over it, dismantling or demolishing it…. In the final analysis, spilling (human) blood over the rock can only be a secular practice, not a divine wish or command!”

Indeed, blueprints for sharing the site exist in recommendations put forward by former president Bill Clinton and the extra-parliamentary group, the Geneva Initiative, a joint group of Israelis and Palestinians. Both call for an open Old City. Geneva offers a detailed scenario, calling for a multinational presence to monitor, verify and assist in maintaining the openness of the Old City; there would also be a security and conservation unit to maintain safety and upkeep. Israeli soldiers and police would not be left to handle crowd control; an international regiment acceptable to both sides, with an endowment from donors around the world, would diffuse tensions.

These recommendations are less stark than some that preceded them. One of the editors, Oleg Graber, shares tantalizing tidbits, like when, in 1953, he visited what is now known as the Western Wall Tunnel with the Jordanian inspector of antiquities in Jerusalem, and they discussed developing discotheques in the space as a lure for tourists! The author points out that noted religious scholar Yeshayahu Leibowitz echoed this proposal in Haaretz in 1967, after Israel captured the area, to turn the prayer plaza in front of the Kotel into Israel’s largest discotheque, to be named “The Divine Presence Discotheque.” Meanwhile, Kedar tells us, in 1960, Egyptian engineers in charge of restoring the Dome of the Rock suggested transforming the “Stables of Solomon,” now the Marwain Mosque, into a parking lot. These musings show how far the situation has moved, going from one of man-made history to one of celestial antagonism.

Indeed, the question that must be asked by the politicians who, after all, will decide what happens to this divine space, is whether the sharing of this sacred space takes away from its holiness for any one religion. In a terrifically spirited personal account, Hebrew University’s president, Menachem Magidor, an agnostic, asks: “Why does a space which is dedicated to man’s access to God arouse in me, and in many of my secular friends, such deep emotions?… There are very few places that are so central to the joint narrative of my people… [but] I did not feel bothered by the fact that another religion was dominating the site… though the feeling of continuity, of being part of a long chain, is overwhelming.”

For in the end, it is mortals, not God, who dominate this Esplanade; we can only hope that rationality and wisdom will dominate the plan for the Esplanade’s next millennia, as they do in this valuable collection of essays.

Jo-Ann Mort writes frequently about Israeli and Palestinian issues. Her essay on Jerusalem is in the Winter 2010 issue of Dissent magazine.

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