Efforts by Israel’s Jewish majority at holy sites build a more inclusive society

Thomas Toghramadjian, Columns Editor

Thursdays with Thomas

As clearly as it is the world’s most revered holy place, Jerusalem is one of its most fought-over. The city, where Christians believe Jesus Christ was resurrected after his crucifixion, where Jews constructed their First and Second Temples, and Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad briefly ascended to heaven, has been “destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked an additional 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times” over its nearly seven-thousand years of existence, according to a count by Columbia historian Eric Cline.

These events range across the span of documented human history, from the Old Testament account of King David conquering the city approximately a millennium before the birth of Christ, to the 1967 Six Day War, when Israeli forces under General Moshe Dayan stormed the Jordanian-held Old City. Jerusalem’s very architecture bears witness to its conflicted past; up to the present, the Old City has been surrounded by stone walls for nearly all of modern history.

Competing claims to the city and its holy sites create a perennial question for each religious or national group within it; to what degree it will pursue its own interests at the expense of the others? Some, in the recent past, have opted to wield their power in the city bluntly. For instance, under Jordanian authority between 1949 and 1967, the Old City was made inaccessible to Jews and Israeli citizens. Today, however, while land tension between religious groups certainly remains, access to holy sites is not a major point of conflict. Rather, it is Israeli-Palestinian strife and a prevailingly insular mindset among a part of the city’s Orthodox Jewish population which currently drives sectarian tensions in Jerusalem.

Pullquote Photo

It is Israeli-Palestinian strife and a prevailingly insular mindset among a part of the city’s Orthodox Jewish population which currently drives sectarian tensions in Jerusalem.

— Columns Editor, Thomas Toghramadjian

There is, however, one preeminent conflict of religious access in the city. It centers around the Temple Mount, the historical site of both ancient Jewish temples, the world’s largest Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock, which dates to the seventh century. While non-Muslim visitors have been accepted there since the end of the second Palestinian intifada in 2003, the Jewish government discourages Jews from praying there, for fear of sparking tensions with Palestinian Muslims.

Many of the country’s rabbis have also discouraged Jewish faithful from ascending the Temple Mount, for fear that they will unknowingly walk over the ruins of the inner temple sanctuary, where only high priests were permitted to enter. Instead, Jews worship at the Western Wall—the sole remaining remnant of the Second Temple. However, the question of access to the Temple Mount remains significant, if only for the political ammunition it provides to conservative politicians. As Rueven Hazan, professor of political science at Hebrew University put it to National Public Radio, “beating the drums of the Temple Mount rallies the troops on the hard right. It means they’ll keep doing it, because it serves their political interest.”

While it has far less potential to touch off violence, animosity between Jews and Christians is growing in Jerusalem as well. In one particularly striking example, it has become a custom among ultra-Orthodox Jews to spit at Christian clergy while passing them in the street. Far from consisting of isolated incidents, the Jerusalem Post and Jerusalem World News report, that the spitting has become a veritable epidemic. “My impression is that Christian clergymen are being spat at in the Old City virtually every day. This has been constantly increasing over the last decade,” Daniel Rossing, head of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, told the Post. “They walk past me and spit,” a 78 year old Greek Orthodox priest said. “Mostly I ignore it, but it’s difficult.”

While clergy quoted in both stories emphasized their understanding that the harassment comes from only a radical minority, and their general feeling of safety in Israel, the spitting underlines a consequential trend–increasing marginalization of Christians.  “In the old days there were ministers and a mayor in Jerusalem who took the Christian minority seriously,” said Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee. “But now virtually everyone dealing with them is a third-tier official, and while these individuals may have wonderful intentions, they have no authority.”

Increasing difficulty for Christian minorities relates, in many ways, to more serious Israeli-Palestinian issues. Palestinians—Muslim, Christian, and Druze alike—face laws preventing them from certain residential areas, full political participation, and equal access to state resources. According to the Adalah Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights. The Centre is presently petitioning the Israeli Supreme Court to repeal a law allowing local committees to deny families from community housing on the basis of their “social suitability.” Additionally, the irrepressible advancement of settlements into the West Bank—where 350,000 Israelis now live—as well as recurring violence between IDF forces and Hamas indicates that harmony between Israelis and their internal neighbors is a long way off.

For all these issues, however, there have been sincere efforts by members of Israel’s Jewish majority to build a more inclusive society. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled discrimination in housing admission based on ethnicity or religion unconstitutional—an important judicial precedent which promises further improvements to the country’s legal code. When I visited Jerusalem last March, I had the opportunity to see the city’s Symphony Orchestra perform a concert in remembrance of the Armenian Genocide; a great show of amity between Israeli Jews and an important minority.

This column was updated to the most recent draft on 4/3/2015.