Posts Tagged 'Palestinians'

Trump’s Pro-Muslim Dog Whistle

Whoever crafted President Trump’s Jerusalem address was well-informed. Trump’s speech aimed to sooth hurt Palestinian feelings and to assure them that even though he is diverging from previous U.S. policy, he would care for what was most important to them.

While recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump took care to mention that the final borders of Israeli sovereignty in the city are at the moment disputed and should be determined by both parties.

However, what was most significant for Palestinian and Muslim ears was the president’s emphasis, twice, on the current status of Jerusalem’s holiest and most contested site. Trump directly called for maintaining the “status quo” at “the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif.” Moreover, addressing the future, he noted that “Jerusalem is today and must remain a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall … and where Muslims worship at al-Aqsa Mosque.”

For the Western audience, these words seem like a banal affirmation of the obvious. For the Muslim world, and especially for Palestinians, they are of immense importance.

Trump’s words imply that as far as the United States is concerned, Jews will not be able to pray on the Temple Mount. In signaling that the current arrangement on the holy mountain will continue, Trump actually used, perhaps for the first time, a pro-Muslim dog whistle.

Trump’s gesture seems aimed to minimize the chances of a violent outburst from the Palestinian population. The president’s team knows that the core interests of Palestinians are connected directly to the holy site, quite above and beyond Jerusalem as a whole. The White House knows that the threat of change to the status quo on the site — which allows Jews to visit the mountain but not to engage in any religious activity there — served as a significant motivation for the violent cycles Israel experienced in the summers of 2014 and 2015. This July, another outburst was barely evaded only after Israel removed metal detectors it had placed at the entrances to the site.

The point is this: Concerning Jerusalem (and often the Middle East in general), it’s not about politics, but about identity. The Palestinian national identity is linked fundamentally to Haram al-Sharif. Its origins are rooted in the Ayyubid period (12th to 13th centuries), when the land’s Muslim rulers encouraged Islamic migration to Jerusalem, while providing a binding ethos: The city’s Muslim populace, veteran and recent, will become its holy site’s protectors. Since then, the Arabs around the holy city have conceived of themselves as defenders of the faith’s sacred site.

Furthermore, with Israel neutralizing the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem — closing its institutions, dismissing its leaders — the Palestinian population in and around the city has become depoliticized, underscoring Palestinians’ religious identity instead and further emphasizing their connection to the great mosque. Thus, whenever the impression arises that al-Aqsa is threatened, they react. The president’s words, therefore, aim to assure them that there is no such threat.

On the Jewish side, things are a bit more complicated. For most of the Zionist movement leaders in the past, the Temple Mount carried no specific appeal. Even after Israel’s conquest of the ancient city in the 1967 war, 50 years ago, what interested Israel’s leaders and Jewish populace was the Wailing Wall, not the mountain above it. Over the past two decades, however, the situation has dramatically changed, with the Temple Mount becoming for the secular right and the religious Zionists a focal point of nationalistic feelings and identity. The shift is correlated to the looming threat, from their point of view, of political compromise in Jerusalem as part of a peace initiative, and is parallel to a growing disappointment concerning the settlement project as a secure, reliable way to execute control over the land. For many, the Temple Mount has substituted the settlements as the central project and primary symbol of Israel’s sovereignty.

Accordingly, growing numbers of Israeli Jews ascend the Temple Mount, in a clearly stated attempt to exert domination on the site. The status quo, agreed upon since 1967, forbids Jewish worship at the site. But this point has become the focus of contention, with Temple Mount activists attempting to undermine it. These attempts contributed to violent escalations in the past. Indeed, in October 2015, after a wave of Palestinian terrorism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to state clearly, “Muslims will pray on the Temple Mount, and non-Muslims will visit there.” That was the first time an Israeli prime minister had voiced a clear vocal agreement to the discriminatory conditions, as far as Jews are concerned, of the site’s status quo.

Trump’s words are the first such spoken from the president of the United States. They promise the Muslim world, and especially the Palestinians, that what is most important for them will be protected. For Israel, they represent a blow to any attempt to open the conditions of the arrangement on the Temple Mount. It seems that in exchange for a symbolic declaration concerning Israel’s capital, Trump has given the Palestinians actual achievement on al-Aqsa.

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Published in the Washington Post

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Liberty for All

Perhaps the most wonderful mystery of human nature is also one of its most banal characteristics. It is the peculiar but considerably gladdening fact that people wish to be good. The desire to be just, to do well, to prove oneself morally worthy, is an obviously common fact, but nevertheless an immense marvel. Why indeed should it be so? But it is so, and while conceptions of “the good” vary wildly, the wish to align with these conceptions is prevalent.

Enter slavery. A commonplace phenomenon in ancient times, slavery had to be justified. Since it was clear that subjugated people were not happy about it, the social institution of slavery was in need of legitimization. People wanted to know that they were doing the right thing when buying, selling, and shackling others.

Thus we read in Theognis, the Greek poet of the 6th century BCE, that “A slave’s head is never upright, but always bent, and he has a slanting neck” (translation by Bernard Williams). Here inborn, physical difference is used to explain and justify slavery.

In the Bible (Genesis 9), we find Noah angry at his sons after they have seen him naked, and cursing, of all people, his yet-unborn grandson, Canaan: “Cursed be Canaan! the lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers!” Here an ancient curse is inserted into a holy text in an obvious ploy to explain future enslavement by the Israelites. Even the mighty Pharaoh, when conspiring to enslave the Children of Israel, had to justify himself and explain that it would only be wise to subdue the Israelites or else “they become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, join our enemies” (Exodus 1).

As generations passed, it was not only the forms of slavery that changed, but also the explanations used to justify them. In a word, both became more elaborate. Modern ethical sensitivities will not permit outright chattel slavery, but we are all aware of the existence of sweatshops, child labor, and prostitution. We use complicated ways to circumvent and explain these and other forms of exploitation around us, as well as the benefit we derive from exploitation taking place at a distance. We do wish to be good.

It is an immense tribute to the Jewish tradition that the fight against slavery in modern times has been waged under the inspiration of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Indeed, the biblical narrative of the liberation of the People of Israel has inspired freedom movements and ideologies of liberation throughout history and all over the world. As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote, “Israel’s exodus from Egypt will remain forever the spring of the entire world.”

It is indeed hard to imagine our civilization without that specific myth and the ethos all of us inherited from it. The magnitude of our cultural debt to the story of the Exodus undoubtedly explains the immense popularity of Passover among all Jews, non-religious as much as religious.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, and as such demands a reckoning. We can no longer pretend that the occupation of the Palestinian people, which began 50 years ago, is an inadvertent accident in the history of the State of Israel. Indeed, even Israel’s formal description of the occupation as “temporary” lacks genuine force of conviction.

The State of Israel has been subjugating millions of non-citizens for more than two-and-a-half times the number of years that it hasn’t. It is a bitter, vicious tragedy that the people who bequeathed humanity with the ultimate story of liberation are the last people on earth who control a population without allowing it either equal legal rights or the political independence to determine its own destiny.

We do, of course, have our reasons. Good ones. There are always explanations. We will find elaborate ways of giving the current situation legitimation. After all, we do wish to be good. But the brutal fact remains, and after all excuses and explanations, the fact remains brutal. Its perpetuation will mean that Jewish history will be forever stained by the occupation, and it will retroactively color the Jewish tradition. Passover, our celebration of liberty, will acquire an ironic, rancorous twist.

On this, the fiftieth year of the occupation, we at SISO created The Jubilee Haggadah, which conjoins the Jubilee commandment – "Sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants" – with the celebration of Passover, the festival of liberty. Thirty authors, artists and thinkers from throughout the Jewish world have joined together — in commentary, song, and moral outcry — and proposed contemporary interpretations to the Haggadah. We can no longer celebrate our liberty while deigning the liberty of others. Our freedom will not be complete, until their freedom will be complete.

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Published in Haaretz

The Jubilee Haggadah can be seen here in English, purchased through Amazon or downloaded (in the Hebrew version) here.


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Tomer Persico

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