Ownership and control of holy places is very much in the news these days in Israel. Whether from committees sitting thousands of miles away or from local populations, hegemony over Israel’s holy sites is on the table. Why people seek to “own” these sites is an interesting phenomenon and, I believe, fulfills a fundamental human need.
The human condition is bleak – we are born, live and accomplish little, and die – quite depressing actually. From the beginning, people have looked for a more optimistic picture. The belief in something grander than oneself, whether that belief manifests itself as a religious faith or a belief in a cause, helps us overcome our own objective worthlessness. Touching something physical which represents that ideal is a way to make tangible our connection to those beliefs. Whether it was pilgrims chipping away at the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher in the past or today’s marcher saving the flag from the most recent Gay Pride Parade, physical reminders of our causes tie us to them more strongly.
Earlier this month UNESCO declared that the center of Hebron, the Cave of the Patriarchs is an endangered Palestinian World Heritage site. The Cave of the Patriarchs is the final resting place of the founders of monotheism: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. This declaration is one more step in distancing Jews from their holy sites, by declaring that Jewish hegemony is “dangerous” to the site.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Hebron’s Old City and holy site is (sic) under threat due to the irresponsible, illegal, and highly damaging actions of Israel, the occupying Power, which maintains a regime of separation and discrimination in the city based on ethnic background and religion.”
The battle over controlling holy sites is nothing new in Hebron. The structure over the cave was built by Herod as a fortress with a mostly empty center. In this courtyard, the Byzantines constructed a church. Unique for the Byzantines, who persecuted the Jews and banned them from Jerusalem altogether, here, in Hebron, they actually allowed Jews access to a part.
On the eve of the Moslem conquest in 638 C.E., the Byzantines destroyed the church and tried to fill in and hide the entrance to the cave to prevent the Moslems from discovering the tombs. Perhaps to bargain for some ownership, the Jews divulged the location of the cave to Omar ibn Hattib, the Moslem leader. In appreciation, he allowed the Jews to build a synagogue in the courtyard, next to the newly-constructed mosque.
This Jewish-Moslem partnership lasted until 1100 C.E. when both the mosque and the synagogue were destroyed by Godfrey of Bouillon. The Crusaders built a church and a monastery, and banned Jews and Moslems from Hebron completely.
History is fickle and in 1266 C.E. Baybars, the Mameluke, turned his sights on this Crusader outpost, capturing it and denying entrance to all non-Moslems. Jews who wanted to touch the place where their forefathers were buried were delegated to ascending towards the building no farther than the seventh step. Few Jews entered the building in the next 700 years.
After the Six Day War in 1967, the State of Israel claimed ownership and opened the building to all. In February, 1994, a Jewish terrorist open fired into a group of Moslems praying at the site. He was killed on the spot, and his actions denounced by the State of Israel. Jewish religious leadership condemned this terror attack. The State of Israel, in order to provide safety and security, negotiated a division of the building, whereby everyone has (almost constant) access to parts of the building, but in separate areas.
In the light of history, one has to wonder what the UN’s agenda is in the matter of Hebron. Claiming that it is Israel who “maintains a regime of separation and discrimination in the city based on ethnic background and religion” is ignoring history and distorting facts. I think the UN should be protecting the rights of all who call Abraham their father to visit this site. After all, touching holy places is fundamental for us all.