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]

About Jenna Mitelman

Jenna is a transplant to Minnesota from sunny California, where she graduated from UC Berkeley. She lives and works in Minneapolis, but secretly loves St. Paul. She is a former Human Rights Commissioner for the City of Plymouth and a regular speaker on the Arab-Israeli conflict with the JCRC Speakers' Bureau. She is also a big fan of Minnesota lakes and forests, and can regularly be found kayaking and snowshoeing up north, when she isn't rock climbing out west.

Comments. Add Yours!


  1. Bravo, Jenna, for articulating how misguided this dreadful editorial was in attacking Israel’s brave and compassionate attempts to preserve Holy sites for all people in the Middle East.

    A look at the ugly comments that anti-Israel readers have since added to the end of Rabbi Eilberg’s Star Tribune editorial online suggests how her editorial plays into the hands of those who have publicly embraced the destruction of the Jewish state — criticizing Israel’s every move while ignoring the intolerance and bigotry of the Hamas-led Palestinians.

    I read Rabbi Eilberg’s original editorial slamming Israel with growing shock and disbelief. Perhaps the Rabbi’s most puzzling comment was this: “It does not surprise me that Palestinian leaders were outraged.” Well, Palestinian outrage, terrorist attacks and violence by Hamas no longer “surprise” me either — but given the fact that Arab and islamic groups have stood by while Holy sites are desecrated and destroyed, to then condemn Israel’s courageous effort to actually preserve these holy sites, is deeply disappointing.

    The fact remains — the Palestinian leadership has made it clear what they desire is not peace, but the death of and exile of Jews from Israel. Steps taken by Israel to safeguard Holy sites will neither hinder nor advance the “peace process”, as long as Palestinians enthusiastically plan for a Jew-free Middle East. I am so proud of Israel’s decision to protect these historic sites.

  2. As usual, Jenna’s unassailable logic provides a thoughtful response. If only the PA leadership could see this rebuilding of historic sites as an opportunity to work cooperatively with Israel on a project that benefits all. Imagine the number of tourists that would flock to these sites if safety were no longer an issue! The issue of where the final borders lie will get resolved, eventually. In the meantime, the work of preservation is important, and as Paul Maccabee expressed so well in his reply, preservation is not the obstacle here to peace.

  3. Thank you for well thought out response Jenna. First I must say that I’m so very glad Rabbi Eilberg has come along to elucidate real Judaism for the rest of us. When she speaks of the chutzpah of Israel renovating holy sites I remember Yassar Arafat’s chutzpah when denying any Jewish history at the site of the Temple Mount. Also everyone should read the J-Post article about Ezekiel’s Tomb in Iraq ( The issue with holy sites can only be viewed through something called Sacred Space Theory. This basically says that competing sects (or religions broadly) within a religious framework will battle over a defined and restricted space of religious legitimacy (much as the way armies in the past have battled over limited physical space and resources). Holy places (and often nationalism) are physical expressions of religious space, thus we now have the battle over the Temple Mount with Islam on the one hand a supersessionist religion which claims to be the final and perfected fulfillment of the true religion (as opposed to the perverted form of Judaism) and on the other side you have Judaism with truth claims as the original and pure form (unbroken tradition), with Jewish opposition to Muhammad’s supposed perversion of the true religion (Judaism). That being said it’s not surprising the fight over national space, based upon the legitimacy of religious and sacred suppositions in relation to physical constructs, is breaking out between the two sides. I think Judaism was well ahead of it’s time when it envisioned the temple would be a house of prayer for all nations, unlike Mecca in Saudi Arabia where all non-Muslims are banned under the threat of punishment. I just wish Amy would ask any of her Muslim friends if they feel that that Jaffa, I mean Tel Aviv, is any less occupied that lets say a Hebron or Ariel? Then we might just find out that religion like nationalism can be the source for just as much war as peace, and that Judaism like Islam has always been an “unholy mixture” of religion and politics.

  4. Holly Brod Farber

    Jenna –

    Thank you for your response – as I read both Amy Eilberg and you on this issue I come away believing that the voice of reason and compassion belongs to you. What a step in the right direction it would be for the Palestinian Authorities and Israeli Authorities to use this funding to create a better future for everyone in the region, and not as a horrible pretext to violence. I pray for that day.

  5. Thank you all for your comments!

    Paul – I wanted to highlight something you had brought up. I think you are absolutely right to highlight that it is extremely important to consider not only what these editorials say, but also how they will be perceived, or potentially used by others.

    Just as when I write something supporting Israel on some particular point, people will jump to the conclusion that I must support any action Israel’s government might ever take (be assures that I most certainly do not); likewise, anything that Rabbi Eilberg writes, however well-intentioned, can and does get used to support a much more extremist, and often more violent ideology than she would perhaps intend.

    Under those circumstances, I think it would be incumbent upon any writer of Rabbi Eilberg’s prominence to consider the ways in which her words may be misused, and used to support potentially awful things, and I believe she has the responsibility to phrase things accordingly, saying not only exactly what’s on her mind, but also presenting her ideas in context, so as to minimize how much they might be misused. Not doing so is, in my opinion, frankly irresponsible, and can lead to some unfortunately consequences.