Sacred to the Nation

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men stand in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City on October 12, 2015. 

Just before Benjamin Netanyahu took off for Washington, he flew straight into a political storm at home. Israel's prime minister announced his choice of Ran Baratz for the post of public diplomacy director—the government's spin czar, responsible for Israeli PR globally. Netanyahu and Baratz, a right-wing Internet pundit and ex-philosophy professor, had hit it off personally and politically. No one at the Prime Minister's Office bothered with an obscure vetting tool called Google.

Reporters did use that tool, however, and immediately turned up provocative pronouncements on Baratz's Facebook page and in op-eds in the mainstream media. Netanyahu canceled plans to bring Baratz with him to Washington, dissociated himself from the statements, and said he'd deal with the mess when he got home. None of this erased the impression that Baratz writes the thoughts that Netanyahu represses.

Here's a quiz. Below are four of Baratz's controversial comments. Please underline the one that you think is the biggest headache for Netanyahu. Then circle the one that sheds the most light on long-term issues affecting Israel's situation:

a) On John Kerry: "After his term as secretary of state, he has a promising career as a stand-up comedian in a club in Kansas City."

b) On President Reuven Rivlin, Israel's ceremonial head of state, known for not-so-veiled criticism of Netanyahu's anti-democratic tendencies: "I think it says a lot that the president flies economy class ... mainly that he's such a marginal figure that there's no threat to his life."

c) On President Obama: "His response to Netanyahu's speech [to Congress in March] is what modern anti-Semitism looks like in liberal Western countries."

d) On Jerusalem's most contested holy site: "The Temple Mount is the place most sacred to the Jewish nation, not to religious Jews. The Temple ... is the principle symbol not just of religion but of sovereignty. ... The desire to build the Third Temple is worthy, Jewish, and Zionist on the first order."

If you answered d to both questions, you aced the quiz.

In the immediate context of Palestinian terror attacks, Netanyahu's choice of a national spokesman who's on record as wanting to build the Third Temple couldn't be more damaging. The location would be the same as that of the ancient First and Second Temples—the Temple Mount, the raised expanse in Jerusalem's Old City. For Muslims, that same space is Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary—or Al-Aqsa, using the name of the mosque there for the entire compound.

Friction at the Mount, that is, Al-Aqsa, helped set off the latest wave of violence. The wide Palestinian consensus appears to be that Israel is changing the delicate status quo at the site to limit Muslim worship and to allow Jewish worship, putting the future of Al-Aqsa in doubt.

In principle, the quasi-formal rules set down by Israel after it conquered the Old City in 1967 remain in force: Jews pray at the Western Wall, a historic place of Jewish worship, alongside and below the Mount. Muslims administer and worship at the Haram. Jews may visit but not worship there. The subtext is that the two religions get separate holy space, but Jews who want to visit the Mount out of historical interest or fascination may do so.

Feeding Palestinian fears have been visits by Israeli politicians who belong to the governing coalition and a rise in the once-tiny trickle of religious Jews entering the compound, some with the intent of working in a defiant, or provocative, act of worship. One element of what used to maintain a fragile balance at Al-Aqsa, which is to say the Mount, was a consensus among Orthodox rabbis that Jews should not set foot there. (The reasons took me a good part of a book to explain.) Ultra-Orthodox still adamantly maintain that ban. But the most nationalistic of other rabbis have shifted position.

In a bid to reduce tensions, Kerry met last month with Netanyahu, then with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah. Afterward, Netanyahu promised to maintain the status quo, and banned members of parliament from entering the holy site. Almost immediately, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, a rising star in Netanyahu's Likud Party, said on television that Israel should raise its flag on the Temple Mount, since "this is the center of Israeli sovereignty ... the holiest place to the Jewish nation." Netanyahu censured her. Then he chose Baratz as national spinmeister.

But Baratz's comment is even more important as a clue to what has driven the conflict over the Temple Mount for the past century. That's because Baratz himself identifies as a secular Jew, and his stance isn't a religious one.

This doesn't fit a common media narrative that the tension at Al-Aqsa reflects a transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a religious struggle—and therefore an intractable one, since for many people "religious" is a synonym for irrational and inflexible.

The narrative is wrong several times over. Religion isn't a new element in the conflict; it's been there all along. But so has the use of formerly religious symbols and myths by secular nationalists whose program was to be done with God and replace faith communities with national communities. Their ideas seeped back into religion, which is actually quite protean.

The Temple Mount has been the object of national tensions at least since Britain took Palestine from the Ottomans in World War I. When Britain appointed Hajj Amin al-Husseini as mufti of Jerusalem, it was trying—unsuccessfully—to co-opt a nationalist firebrand. Instead, he used the Jewish efforts to ease Ottoman-era restrictions on prayer at the Western Wall—and the supposed threat to Al-Aqsa—to build Arab opposition to the British and Zionism. Meanwhile, the Western Wall activists came mainly, if not entirely, from the secular Zionist right.

Conquerors have seen control of Jerusalem's holy places as somehow demonstrating the truth of their religion since there was a Jerusalem. Modern nationalism added the powerful illusion that a holy place's "true" identity, and ownership of it, demonstrated a nation's claim to sovereignty over the whole land. In 1967, right-wing songwriter Naomi Shemer's ballad "Jerusalem of Gold" portrayed Israel's conquest of the Temple Mount as the climax of Jews' return to their homeland.

For the vast majority of Israelis, even on the right, this never meant that Jews had to pray on the Mount, much less evict the Muslims. But the extreme fringe that wanted to do exactly that initially sprung from the remains of the pre-state radical right. Gershon Salomon, who created the Temple Mount Faithful, was a secular rightist who imagined the Mount as the setting for grand-national pageantry.

Ideas and feelings leak back and forth across the uncertain border between religion and modern political ideologies. Today's far-right Israeli activists concerned with the Mount are mostly religious. But they represent the stream of Israeli Judaism that has most thoroughly absorbed radical nationalism's concern with power, glory, and territory.

And the secular hard right hasn't lost interest. One of the politicians leading the demand for a change at the Temple Mount (Al-Aqsa) is the Likud's rabble-rousing Culture Minister Miri Regev. Then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon's tour of the Mount in September 2000 asserted his dedication to permanent Israeli sovereignty there. It was the immediate spark for the Second Intifada. Soon after, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Sharon crassly dismissed any Islamic connection to the place.

On the Palestinian side, Al-Husseini's contemporary successor is Sheikh Raed Salah, who has built his hardline faction of the Islamic Movement in Israel on the slogan, "Al-Aqsa Is in Danger." But in a rally in the Israeli Arab town of Sakhnin in October, a Knesset member from Balad, a secular party in the old pan-Arabist mold, joined in warnings about Israeli government actions at the mosque compound. Soon afterward, a Christian Arab Knesset Member defied Netanyahu's ban to visit Al-Aqsa.

Holy places are symbols, and symbols act like parabolic mirrors: They reflect energy and focus it on a single overheated spot. On the Israeli right, the Temple Mount has become a symbol of the gap between what it thought that possession of the homeland would mean and the reality of dealing with another people. For Palestinians, Al-Aqsa is a symbol of Palestine under occupation and threat. These are nationalist sentiments. When re-absorbed into religion, they produce harsher religions. To describe the conflict around the contested holy site, and the contested country, as a battle of religions is to miss much of what is happening and to make it seem much more comfortably distant from modern Western ideologies than it is. 

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