Losing legitimacy in the Jewish Quarter

In our greed to lay claim to all Jerusalem, we are now in danger of losing legitimate control over those parts which should never have been in contention.

The first day of Pessah is a good time to pray at the Kotel if you want to experience the festival atmosphere on the one hand, but avoid the crowds that tend to pray there on most other festivals. A late-night Seder the previous night means many regular worshippers give this particular morning a miss, and you can even find an orderly prayer group (minyan) with enough space and relative privacy to participate with appropriate contemplation.
Like most other worshippers that morning, we returned via the Jewish Quarter in order to get a glimpse of the newly refurbished Hurva Synagogue, which was rededicated the previous week with much fanfare. The synagogue has been rebuilt to perfection, closely resembling the structure which was destroyed in 1948 – beautiful, grand and, at the same time, simple. The synagogue was full of local worshippers, a mixture of haredim and national religious, having to compete with the hundreds of others who just came for five minutes to have a look, listen to the cantor, and move on.
There is no logical reason why there should have been such political opposition to the rebuilding of the Hurva Synagogue. Located in the center of the Jewish Quarter, originally constructed as early as the first half of the nineteenth century by Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, and brutally destroyed during the War of Independence, this is one place the rebuilding of which did not require a lot of justification. Why it took over 40 years for the reconstruction to take place is not clear, although the ruined site – with its famous rainbow pillar – had been used as a place for tourists and schoolchildren to visit.
THERE WAS a short period back in 1979 when I resided close to the Hurva ruins. It was a period when the first major reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter was taking place, conducted by a mixture of national religious and secular Israelis, and when everything was done on a less lavish scale than today. There was a desire on the part of many Israelis to return to normal residence in the Jewish Quarter, without the blatant public demonstrations of national grandeur that is so common in many of today’s edifices. At that time, few people questioned Israel’s right to return to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
Thirty years ago, the more nationalist groups had yet to move in on the area, to change its residential and religious character and, from that point, start expanding into neighboring parts of the Muslim Quarter, other parts of east Jerusalem close to the Old City, such as Silwan, the City of David and, most recently, parts of the Sheikh Jarrakh neighborhood.
It is this ceaseless attempt to expand, to create exclusive rather than shared spaces, that has backfired on Israel, as even the most obvious claims to the Jewish Quarter are now being questioned. In our greed to lay claim to ever-wider parts of the city, we are now in danger of losing legitimate control over those parts around which there should never have been a debate – and the Arab opposition to the rededication of the Hurva synagogue is clear evidence of this process. Remember the famous proverb that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
It is a saying which the ultra-nationalists among us have never learned, and by so doing we now have to defend the right to return to a place which was unquestionably Jewish for a long uninterrupted period prior to the establishment of the state.
All observers of the Israel-Palestine conflict are aware that, howeverdifficult it is to resolve, the question of Jerusalem is 100 times moredifficult. By that they are referring to the ultimate control of theOld City, its sites holy to three religions and the freedom andequality of access by all peoples. The question of Jerusalem outsidethe Old City is less problematic – there are distinct Jewish/Israeliand Muslim/Palestinian neighborhoods, many of which have now beendivided physically by the terrible scar of the security barrier – anational border – constructed by the past two Israeli governments.
Whilewe may like to argue that the city of Jerusalem remains an eternalJewish city, never to be divided again, it is our own centrist andright-wing governments which have done more than anyone to create thephysical separation and prepare the conditions for two states to createrespective capital cities and administrative centers either side of thebarrier.
There is no way that this sort of internal physicalbarrier will ever be constructed inside the Old City. We don’t justcontest different quarters and neighborhoods within the crowded alleysof the Old City, we contest the same micro spaces – not least the siteof the Temple, now occupied by the Dome of the Rock. There is noultimate political solution to this based on one side having politicalsovereignty. The only realistic solution is one in which themonotheistic religions share this sacred space – a sharing which canonly work if religion is detached from nationalist sentiment, and ifreligious leaders preach respect for the “other” religions and theirworshippers, regardless of whether they believe in their tenets andrituals.
The rebuilt Hurva synagogue should have been acceptedby the Palestinians as an essentially religious site in the JewishQuarter, but only to the same extent that Israel accepts the Muslimcharacter of the Muslim neighborhoods and their own religious sites.
Byattempting to expand beyond the confines, by attributing the rebuildingof the Hurva synagogue to the national struggle for control, we standin danger of losing even those places and sites about which there hadnever been a problem.
The writer is Professor of political Geography at Ben Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.