Protecting Israeli Holy Sites Leads to Outrage

On Wednesday afternoon, Rabbi Amy Eilberg published a post in the “Your Voices” column in the Star Tribune, titled “Religion as a Source of Peace?” In the piece, she says that she is

“[T]roubled about [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement on Sunday that two sites of deep religious significance to both Jews and Muslims were added to the list of national “heritage sites” that the Israeli government plans to develop.”

Machpela Cave

The two sites in question are the Machpelah Cave, also known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs – the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah, which the Jewish Virtual Library calls “the world’s most ancient Jewish site and the second holiest place for the Jewish people, after [the] Temple Mount in Jerusalem” – and Rachel’s Tomb – the final resting place of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, and a pilgrimage site for Jewish singles seeking love and for women who are unable to bear children.

Rachel's Tomb in 1910

Just to be clear, as many newspapers have reported, Israel made an announcement that it will invest $106.4 million over the next six years to renovate 150 heritage sites. So this is not a case of Israel just suddenly deciding to renovate these two sites.
The issue is that the two sites out of 150 are holy to both Muslims and Jews, and happen to be located in the West Bank.
If anything, personally, I think it is a positive sign that Israel has chosen to include two sites that include large and prominent mosques in them, and are located in the West Bank. We must remember that while Israel has a majority Jewish population, it is still a country with citizens of every faith, and personally, if I were part of Israel’s 17% Muslim population, I would be rather bummed out if Israel had chosen only “purely” Jewish sites, with no significance to Muslims, to honor as parts of its historical and national heritage.
So I’m having a little bit of a hard time understanding Rabbi Amy Eilberg’s complaint on this issue.
These sites are certainly part of Israel’s, and all of our, “historical heritage” – as Jews, this really is our history – that is indisputable. Adding them to a “historical trail” certainly makes sense – they are part of our history.
And these sites certainly need preservation and care. Certainly they are in a currently disputed area. However, they are far older, and far more important, than some temporary disagreement over who owns what piece of land exactly. Should we let every important historical site crumble and get ruined if there happens to be some modern political disagreement in the area?
I still remember the incredible, crushing loss of the giant Afghan Buddah statues, which had stood for thousands of years, and were destroyed in a fit of political pique by a flash-in-the-pan government. They were a tremendous loss to the entire world – a loss to culture, history, and religion – and I would not want to see anything remotely like that happen to our own heritage and our 3,000 year old sites because of border disagreements.
It is also beyond dispute that Israel has always offered the highest respect and level to access for all to any holy sites belonging to any religion, be it Muslim, Christian, Baha’i, or any other. Israel has always protected these places, as evidenced by the numerous active mosques calling to prayer daily all over Israel, and all people enjoy access to those places. In fact, Israel even has a “Protection of Holy Places Law,” stating that

“Holy Places shall be protected from desecration and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places.”

To my mind, that is certainly preferable to the treatment that Jewish holy sites have received in the past when under Muslim control (in the interest of space, I will point merely to the desecration  and destruction of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus in 2000, violating explicit previous agreements to protect holy sites, and the denial of all access to the Western Wall for Israeli Jews when it was under the control of Jordan between 1948 and 1967, again in violation of explicit promises of access).
As reported in the Christian Science Monitor, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has called Israel’s announcement regarding the holy sites a “serious provocation which may lead to a religious war.”
Hamas is currently calling on Palestinians to launch a new intifada in protest. The saying this brings to my mind is “tempest in a teapot.” I mean, really? Including two holy sites in a list of 150 sites to be protected is such a complete affront as to be a good cause for starting major violence and a “religious war”? And do we really want to support that sort of response with columns expressing our “understanding” of how right they are to get so upset over this? I am generally a very understanding person, and can usually see the other person’s point of view in just about any matter, but I have a very hard time backing any sort of response to a non-violent act that starts with “we’re so outraged, we’re going to go out there and kill people…”
I’m going to go out a wildly optimistic limb here, but just think – if the Palestinian Authority and Hamas care as much about these sites as they claim to, think how nice it would be if instead of shouting their outrage, they reached out to Israel, and said

“Alright, we all really care about these sites, they are an important part of our shared heritage, so how about we work together to make sure they are respected, restored, and protected, with deference to all of our religious feelings, and to ensure full access for all to those sites in the future, not matter how the borders shake out?”

But for some reason – and I wonder why – it somehow sounds completely implausible to me that such a response might actually come from all of these very reasonable people who are currently so “outraged” over the protection of these two holy sites.
Finally, I would like to address Rabbi Amy Eilberg’s closing comments.
She writes that “The Judaism that I practice and teach is a religion of peace and justice…[This is] a gross distortion of the religion that I love.” With all due respect (and that respect in this case is truly great), the Judaism that *I* practice teaches that it is not for one person to define our shared faith, or the proper expression thereof. It has been my experience that it is from the attempts to define “my Judaism” as “the right Judaism,” and “your Judaism” as “a gross distortion” that our most bitter divisions and inter-denominational conflicts are born. And so it is my sincere hope that someone of this writer’s caliber would be able to transcend such sentiments, in the spirit of being one people, with no “right” way to be a Jew.
[Photos: Wikipedia, Wikipedia]