Summer 2001, Vol. 4, No. 2

Summer 2001

Quick Links:
Related Articles
Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return
, Religion in the News, Spring 2001

Palestinians and Israelis:
Oh, Jerusalem!
, Religion in the News, Spring 2001

Sacred is as Sacred Does, Religion in the News, Spring 2001

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

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

Quick Links:
Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor: The Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate

Idol Threats

Purging Ourselves of Timothy McVeigh

The Pope Among the Orthodox

Faith-Based Update: Bipartisan Breakdown

The Perils of Polling

The Rael Deal.

Superceding the Jews

Jamming the Jews

Evangelism in a Chilly Climate



Correspondence: Palestinians and Israelis

To the editor:

Religion in the News is to be commended for trying to explain the religious issues dividing Palestinians and Israelis. Unfortunately, you only got a third of the way there.  Israeli Yoel Cohen summarized different Jewish perspectives but Rachel Stroumsa, formerly of the Jerusalem Post, did not do her homework and fell short on Christian and Muslim views and concerns. Consider some points in her essay ["Rites of Return," Spring 2001]:

Stroumsa says the Palestinian press reported that Yasser Arafat’s presence at a Christmas Eve mass was to express "unity" with Christianity but this is not correct. "The Christians I spoke with" felt that Arafat exhibited "disrespect" for Christianity and arrived at exactly 12:00 to identify himself with "the Christian expectation of Christ’s arrival at midnight." Really? At midnight? For Arafat to make such a claim about the greatest of all prophets, other than the final one, would be a great haram (sin), doubly so since Muslims also expect Christ’s return.

Stroumsa says the Al Aqsa mosque is "built on the site where, Muslims believe, Muhammad landed after a miraculous single night’s journey from Mecca." No Muslim believes this. Mohammed landed at the base of the mount, where the Western Wall is. The Moughrabi neighborhood was there before it was leveled by the Israelis immediately after the 1967 War to expand their worship area. Muslims call that place The Burraq Wall in honor of the steed that carried the prophet and was tethered at that site. It was a place of reverence for Muslims before their removal.

Stroumsa says references to Israelis have been replaced in Palestinian broadcasts by references to "the Jews," showing a religious mindset. In fact, Palestinians routinely refer to people in the Jewish state as yehudi (Jews). This is not new, nor is it hostile.

Stroumsa says the Palestinian right to return has been "sacralized" and "transformed…into a religious issue…" The evidence? The Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem Michael (sic) Sabbah not only calls himself a refugee [he is] but drew a parallel between Palestinian refugees and the plight of Jesus "who lived as a refugee in a cave." Any Christian would know that the family of Jesus fled as refugees into Egypt and would not find such a reference unusual. A Palestinian Christian (or even an American tourist in Egypt) could probably identify the sites where tradition says the Holy Family hid. A Christian theologian would understand the concept of the Incarnation and how it links the suffering of Jesus to the suffering of people everywhere. Apparently not familiar with Christian traditions, Stroumsa heard these comments as political rhetoric.

Regarding Muslims, Stroumsa says "some newspaper columnists" declare the return of refugees to be fardh ayn or a personal obligation under Islam. She says, "a refugee who does not attempt to return to his ancestral home is transgressing a religious law." There is not a single Muslim in the world who believes newspaper columnists have the right to make rulings on religious law. This is reserved for the religious scholars.

On why negotiations over the return of refugees fell apart, Stroumsa says resolving that problem would shift attention to Jerusalem and "Jerusalem tends to bring to the fore tensions between Christians and Muslims Palestinians." She says "agreements on compensation were achieved" but a Jerusalem cleric ruled that refugees cannot be forced to take money if they prefer to return home. Leaving aside the fact that many refugees are Christians, it is highly unlikely that even a single exiled Palestinian in any of the camps would see Christian-Muslim disputes in Jerusalem as relevant to their right to return.

Finally, Stroumsa seems not to understand that when Arafat’s Islamist opponents call for Islamic government they specifically exempt Christian holy sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When the Caliph Omar (whom she mentions) visited Jerusalem in 636 he guaranteed Christian autonomy and incorporated Christian religious rights into Islamic law. Every Muslim knows this. The Hamas charter specifically refers to Omar and his policies, as did Patriarch Michel Sabbah in a recent statement. There is no Islamic plan to take over Christian holy sites.

Stroumsa is correct that the religious impulse is on the rise. It might be useful to have more knowledgeable specialists discuss why this is true.

Ron Stockton
Professor of Political Science
The University of Michigan-Dearborn

Rachel Stroumsa replies:

I am grateful for Professor Stockton’s close attention, but feel it is a pity that he did not respond to the main issue raised in the article. My contention was (and still is) that by manipulating various religious beliefs and traditions, elements in the Palestinian Authority have attempted to endow the right of return with a pan-religious aura. As Professor Stockton correctly indicates, many of the Palestinian refugees are Christians. My purpose in the article was to show that because of this, the right of return serves as a unifying point for Palestinians in a way that the overtly religious issue of Jerusalem cannot.

While I did not, in fact, contend that there is "an Islamic plan to take over the Christian holy sites" in Jerusalem, it seems at best naïve to pretend that there are no tensions between Christian and Muslim Palestinians. These tensions manifested themselves on the Israeli side of the Green Line in Nazareth during the spring of 2000, and are also attested to by the long-standing reluctance of Christian authorities in Jerusalem to declare themselves in favor of PA rule over the Christian quarter. Given these underlying tensions, the sacralization of the right of return displays political savvy.

For the sake of brevity I will address only a few of Professor Stockton’s other concerns. My intention was not to analyze the complex topography of the Haram al-Sharif and its meaning, but I would point out that while educated and folk traditions regarding specific sites within the Haram differ, they commonly say that the Western Wall was not the point of the Prophet’s ascension (although some say that the mare al-Buraq was tethered there).

In general, Professor Stockton does not distinguish among claims made in the Palestinian press, opinions voiced by religious or political key figures, and popular views. Thus, while he is correct that Palestinians routinely refer to Israelis as Jews, my argument was based on the observation that this usage has recently become common on Palestinian television and radio broadcasts. Professor Stockton thinks this does not denote hostility; although I am inclined to differ, the article itself did not venture a view; it simply pointed out that this has contributed to casting the national struggle in a religious light.

Palestinian national identity is built within the context of an evolving national struggle. I attempted to identify new trends within the current situation. Professor Stockton is right in saying that I have seen comments using religious traditions by Palestinian authorities as political rhetoric. That is precisely because I believe religion is being used to further political aims.

With respect to the spelling of Patriarch Michel Sabbah’s first name, I thank Professor Stockton for correcting my oversight.

Rachel Stroumsa
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Related Articles:

Palestinians and Israelis: Rites of Return, Religion in the News, Spring 2001

Palestinians and Israelis: Oh, Jerusalem!, Religion in the News, Spring 2001

Sacred is as Sacred Does", Religion in the News, Spring 2001

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

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


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