Spring 2001, Vol. 4, No. 1

Spring 2001

Related Articles:
"Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage", Religion in the News, Summer 2000

"Covering Israel’s Religious Wars", Religion in the News, Fall 1999

Other articles
in this issue:

Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return

Palestinians and Israelis:
Oh, Jerusalem!

Faith-Based Ambivalence

Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On

What Would Moses Do?:
Debt Relief in the Jubilee Year

Hide, Jesse, Hide

Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight

Aum Alone

Left Behind at the Box Office

The Voucher Circus

Puffing Exorcism








































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From the Editor: Sacred is as Sacred Does
by Mark Silk

If the collapsed Oslo peace process accomplished anything in the past year, it was to frame the Israeli-Palestinian struggle in more overtly religious terms than ever before.

Jerusalem had always been, religiously speaking, the elephant in the parlor. By seeking a comprehensive settlement, Israel’s now ex-prime minister Ehud Barak forced both sides to consider what the world’s most important religious locality meant to them.

Jerusalem’s own Jerusalem is the dusty protuberance where (Jews, Christians, and archeologists believe) the Second Temple stood until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.—the Temple Mount. It is now partially occupied by the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, and is known to Muslims (some of whom claim no Jewish Temple ever existed there) as Haram al-Sharif, the "noble sanctuary."

As Yoel Cohen shows in this issue, Israeli Jews (as distinct from Israeli Arabs) found the idea of surrendering the Temple Mount to Palestinian sovereignty very hard to swallow—even though Orthodox Judaism holds that the place is too holy for any Jew to set foot on (yet). Meanwhile, for the Palestinians, the right of refugees to return to their former homes inside Israel assumed a sacred significance equal to the imperative to control Haram al-Sharif—even though (or, as Rachel Stroumsa argues below, precisely because) such a right of return is unattached to any particular religious tradition.

This is not a simple situation.

The American news media readily acknowledged the religious core of the Jerusalem issue. Indeed, it became a commonplace: The Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif was a site "sacred to both sides." But it was not often that anyone tried to unpack this assertion—in part, perhaps, because neither side possessed a single position. Just how was Haram al-Sharif sacred to the Christian Palestinian minority? Just how was the Temple Mount sacred to the secular Israeli majority?

By contrast, acknowledgement of a sacred Palestinian right of return came slowly and reluctantly. The sacralization of this dimension of the struggle was picked up during Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Holy Land last year by Deborah Sontag of the New York Times and Deborah Trounson of the Los Angeles Times. In March 23 dispatches both took note of the fact that Yasir Arafat contrived to chat with the pope in a school courtyard in a West Bank refugee camp under a banner that read, "The right of return is a sacred right." Two days later Sontag noted, "In Mr. Arafat’s oratory, the right of return of the refugees is still a sacred and primary demand."

But American correspondents, Sontag included, took the view that this was merely a bargaining position—that in the end Arafat and company would compromise on it in order to achieve their Palestinian State. That, however, seemed less likely when Arab leaders meeting in Cairo at the beginning of January themselves embraced the claim that the Palestinian right of return was sacred.

Even so, the reporters declined to accord this right of return full religious honors. Generally it was hedged between quotation marks indicating the direct discourse of Palestinian interviewees—as in Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qorei’s comment to the Boston Globe’s Charles Sennott January 28: "Our position is very firm that the ‘right of return’ is sacred."

In a word, there is sacred and then there is sacred. The sacredness of the Palestinian right of return can be understood as something akin to George Washington’s injunction, in his Farewell Address, that the Constitution be "sacredly maintained." That is, it a civil religious matter, very seriously taken up and even something to die for, but not "real religion."

The same cannot exactly be said of the Jewish "right of return" to the Israeli State, upon which the Palestinian claim is in some measure modeled. Coming back to the Land of Israel—whether from Egypt or Babylon—is a central motif in the Hebrew Bible, and in Rabbinic Judaism Jews look forward to the messianic age when they will return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. And that’s to say nothing of the Christian apocalyptic belief that the ingathering of the Jews in the Holy Land is a necessary precondition for the Millennium.

The Jewish right of return would thus seem to belong to the same species of sacred as the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif—except, of course, when it comes to Palestinian Christians and secular Israelis, for whom the place is merely, well, sacred.

If it makes any difference.

See companion articles:

Related Articles:

"Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage", Religion in the News, Summer 2000

"Covering Israel’s Religious Wars", Religion in the News, Fall 1999