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Israel doesn’t often use religious arguments while discussing Judea and Samaria. You will often hear arguments regarding security issues (which I plan to discuss in Part 4) or legal arguments (Hopefully in Part 5), but you will almost never hear religious reasons quoted as a reason for our presence in Judea and Samaria. It may be because Israel is led by secular leaders who do not feel a religious connection to Judaism’s holy sites, but rather a cultural one. Or perhaps it is because we live in a largely secular world and Israel’s spokespersons do not believe they can garner any sympathy for a religious argument, especially when there is no other country in the world which follows our religion, Judaism. Nevertheless, the religious issue is there and must be understood in order to understand Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria.
The term “Holy Land” or “Promised Land” is not foreign to non-Jewish readers. Judaism’s “Book of Books”, which describes God’s promise to Judaism’s three founding fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Old Testament, is accepted by Christianity as well, and partially accepted by Islam. Judaism believes that the Land of Israel was promised to the children of Israel, the Jewish people. The heart of that land is Judea and Samaria. How this promise is to be kept is not specified, but one of the central commentators on the Bible (Ramban- Rabbi Moshe Ben Nahman) asks why the Torah begins with the story of creation rather than beginning with the story of the children of Israel or the first commandments. The answer given is that this is in order to lay down a basic premise: The world was created by God and belongs to God, and that therefore, God has the right to give land and take land as he pleases.
Although most Israelis do not identify as “religious” or Orthodox, most Israelis do incorporate at least some part of Judaism in their lives, be it belief in God, celebration of Jewish holidays etc. One must also take into account that a large part of the 362,000 Jews currently living in Judea and Samaria do belong to the “National Religious” community (for a brief explanation of Jewish religious groups in Israel, see my post Judaism in Israel: Diversity and Collectivism).
In addition to the divine promise, there are Judaism’s holy sites.
The Temple Mount
The holiest site to Judaism is the Temple Mount, the site where King Solomon built the First Temple as the permanent resting place for the Ark of the Covenant. It is believed that the site was chosen, because it is where Abraham was told to sacrifice his son Isaac. Another Jewish story tells of two brothers, who, unbeknownst to each other, each gave some of their wheat to the other, each believing that the other was more needy. According to this story, the site for the Temple was chosen as a site of charity and of human kindness and love.
The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians (586 BCE) and was rebuilt by the Jews 70 years later. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. According to Jewish belief, when the Messiah comes, the Temple will be rebuilt for the third and final time.
Most Jewish authorities agree that the Temple Mount is so holy that it is forbidden for Jews to enter it while they are impure, as a result of coming in contact with a corpse (or coming in contact with someone else who came in contact with a corpse, and so on), a condition which can only be rectified by the Biblical Red Heifer. However, in recent years, there has been a growing number of Rabbis who permit Jews to ascend the Temple Mount with proper preparation. The closest place to the Holy of Holies where Jews are allowed to pray regularly is the Western Wall, outside of the Temple Mount, which served as a foundation for the plaza on which the Temple stood. The Western Wall (The “Kotel” in Hebrew) is not holy in itself, but rather a temporary ‘substitute’ for the site of the Temple.
The Temple Mount is inside the Old City of Jerusalem in an area which is beyond the “Green Line” (I will be discussing the Green Line in more detail in Part 5). The golden dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex now stands where the Temple once stood. Although numerous court orders and government decrees have forbidden it, the Jordanian Muslim Waqf (Religious trust) which runs the Temple Mount de-facto, has been carrying out renovations deep underneath the Temple Mount, which include removal of earth, and the destruction of thousands of ancient archaeological relics from the time of the Temple. No amount of Jewish outcry has been able to stop this over the past years.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus
Judaism considers death to be impure, or unclean. However, certain groups in Judaism believe that it is useful to pray to God while enlisting the ‘help’ of a “Tzadik” (a righteous person). As a result, an entire subculture of groups going to pray on the tombs of famous rabbis has sprouted up. Others maintain that this is a concept foreign to Judaism, with roots in Christianity (the idea of salvation for humanity because of the righteousness of one man) and even Islam (for instance, at the tomb of Rabbi Yonatan Ben Uziel at Amuka, where many Jews go to pray for a match, it is customary to tie rags on the trees surrounding the tomb, a purely Islamic tradition). However, the tombs of the founding fathers of the children of Israel are widely considered to be holy sites.
This includes three sites:
The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is considered the most important of the three. According to Jewish tradition, Avraham (Abraham) and Sarah, Yitzhak (Isaac) and Rivkah (Rebecca), and Yaakov (Jacob) and Leah are all buried there. The site is also considered holy to Islam because Abraham is also the forefather of the Arab world (Ishmael is believed by Jews and Muslims to be the father of the Arabs).
Based on agreements with the Palestinian Authority, the entire complex is under Israeli sovereignty. Jacob’s Tomb is used as a Jewish Synagogue, while Isaac’s Tomb serves as a Muslim Mosque. There are ten days every year during which the entire complex is reserved for Jewish prayer and ten days a year during which the entire complex is reserved for Muslim prayer.
Rachel’s Tomb is in the northern section of Bethlehem, which is just south of Jerusalem. The site has been a place of Jewish prayer and worship for hundreds of years. During the Jordanian occupation, Jews could not visit the site, but since 1967, Jews have come there to pray regularly. In 1995, as part of the Oslo agreement with the Palestinians, the site was left under Israeli control. Since then, it has come under attack numerous times by Palestinians, who also renamed it the “Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque”, after the first Muslim Muezzin, in an attempt to erase Jewish claims on the site.
Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus is an enclave under Israeli control, according to the Oslo accords. However, it has also been attacked numerous times since then. Jews can visit the site only with prior coordination with the IDF. In 2011, a number of Jews attempted to visit the tomb without coordinating their visit in advance. They were attacked by Palestinians and one of them, a nephew of Israel’s Minister of Culture, Limor Livnat, was killed, after which Palestinians set fire to the site.
For Jewish believers, this is a story of continued intolerance and desecration of religious sites and artifacts. While Muslims are free to worship at their holy sites, with minimal restrictions, such as the arrangements at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Jews are barred from most of their holy sites, which are desecrated on a daily basis. Any final agreement with the Palestinians will have to take into account their atrocious track record of upholding religious freedom, and that extremists on both sides, the most likely catalysts of renewed hostilities, will most likely be motivated by religious zeal. Therefore, a final solution must allow Jews and Muslims freedom of access and worship at their holy sites.
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