Matters of Identity: The Wall, Women and a Cause for Wailing

Posted on Thu, Feb 14, 2013 @ 11:01 PM


wailing wall

For some time now challenges have been directed at the ultra-Orthodox way of life especially when it comes to the role of women.

Last Monday's arrest of 10 members of Women of the Wall, including two female American rabbis, was not the first time the group has met opposition at the Western or Wailing Wall. They have been protesting their exclusion from worshipping there in the traditional prayer shawl for 24 years.

Back in 1989, they were attacked by ultra-Orthodox men wielding metal chairs. The then Director General of the Ministry of Religious Affairs said nothing could be done to help the women hold prayer servicesthe prohibition against them doing so, he said, "is tradition in Israel, and this tradition is law and can't be changed."

This time, the group of about 200 were supported by Israeli paratrooper veterans from the 67 War. The Jewish Agency's Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet Jewish dissident, is trying to resolve the conflict at P.M. Netanyahu's request. He admits it will not be easy"we Jews chose to be not-easy people, and to live in a not-easy place, and to do not-easy religion.”

This is one more example of clashes over matters of identity with religious and ideological roots. The Western Wall has long been the center of such struggles. In the past, it was the entire Jewish community in Palestine that wanted access and only slowly over the years did that come about, most notably as a result of the '67 War. Now that the State of Israel has possession, contention over the Wall comes from a group within its own tradition.

Tags: jerusalem, 1967 Six Day War, identity, ultra-orthodox, peace, israel, western wall

Identity, Ideology and Israel's Latest Election

Posted on Wed, Jan 30, 2013 @ 09:45 AM
Yair Lapid   portraitSm
 Yair Lapid, leader of Israel's new Yesh Atid party.

The secular mainstream in Israel scored in the recent elections with the success of the new party Yesh Atid (There is a Future), led by talk-show host Yair Lapid. Though Benjamin Netanyahu’s party won, Lapid emerged as a power broker. One of the planks in his platform is the demand that ultra-Orthodox students serve in the military or suffer sanctions. The Supreme Court has already nixed a law giving exemption to such students, but the government has not followed through on bringing them into the military.

This is only part of the battle that has been developing in Israel over the role of ultra-Orthodox religion in civil society. Other related issues include  gender equality, taxes and government aid. Though its adherents (Haredim) represent only about 10% of the Jewish population in Israel, they wield disproportionate political influence. The polity is split into many fragments such that no single party can gain a clear majority, but the ultra-orthodox parties have been present in most coalitions since 1977. This time around two Haredi parties have a combined seat total of 18 to Lapid’s 19. This suggests that if Lapid pursues an aggressive secular agenda at the expense of the ultra-Orthodox, he will face a lot of opposition and deepen a growing rift in Israeli society

His position on Jerusalem could also become an issue. In the campaign he took up the traditional Israeli election rhetoric of “undivided Jerusalem.” This wins votes. Yet his record shows a different side. In 2008 he gave an interview to Der Spiegel indicating support for the division of the city with the Palestinians. This past week one of his security advisors, Jacob Perry, answered a question about Lapid’s inviolability of Jerusalem stance indicating that it may be the starting point for negotiations. In other words, compromise may be necessary. 

There is much to be said on either side of the debate over Jerusalem. Both Israelis/Jews and Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims have staked a claim. Identity and ideology play vital roles for all concerned. Can ideologies be modified and identities change? Yes. But only with new perspectives on the human condition.

Tags: jerusalem, palestinians, identity, israel, Palestine

Latent Forces of Identity and Ideology Released by 1967 June War

Posted on Wed, May 09, 2007 @ 03:51 PM
A new watershed in the Middle East conflict came with the capture of East Jerusalem.

Shlomo Goren blows the shofar on the  Temple MountGeneral Shlomo Goren, military chaplain, was one of the first Israelis to reach the Temple Mount in 1967. Two years later, he became Israel’s chief rabbi (1969–79). On June 7th he blew the shofar and prayed intensely. He also suggested to Major General Uzi Narkiss that the latter could go down in history by taking a hundred kilos of explosive and destroying the Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock.

This was revealed thirty years later when Narkiss was dying and told a newspaper reporter the story. The power of identity and the power of the historic moment possessed Goren. He said to Narkiss: “You don’t grasp the immense meaning of this. This is an opportunity that can be exploited now, this minute. Tomorrow it will be impossible.”

 It was Goren’s conviction that the Jewish temple should be rebuilt. In this he was supported by the minister of religious affairs, Zerach Warhaftig, who held that the Jews own the Temple Mount as a result of the Israelite King David’s purchase from Araunah the Jebusite.

The capture of the Old City set in motion many radical changes to meet the Israelis’ newly released latent identification with their holy places. Using the language of latency and identification, Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua wrote, “The Six Day War was labelled ‘the Jewish War,’ and with good reason, for the old Jewish spirit within us was roused like a ghost.”

On June 19, Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban addressed the U.N. General Assembly. He spoke in detail about the origins of the war and its outcome. With respect to Jerusalem he said:

"In our nation’s long history there have been few hours more intensely moving than the hour of our reunion with the Western Wall. A people had come back to the cradle of its birth. It has renewed its link with the mystery of its origin and continuity. How long and deep are the memories which that reunion evokes."

Evidence of the power of identity and ideological elements when they reemerge after long periods is found in the reactions of many Israelis who visited the Wall soon after its capture. Israeli scholar, Arthur Hertzberg wrote:

"Within hours of the conquest of the Old City, generals who had seldom, if ever, been to synagogue were disregarding snipers’ bullets and walking toward the Western Wall. They were not embarrassed to follow the time-honored custom of writing prayers on chits of paper and pushing them into the crevices of the Western Wall or of kissing its stones."

Since 1967 the Wall has become a national icon for most Israelis, the location of civil and national ceremonies, concerts, and the swearing in of elite army units. Revering the Wall, the Temple Mount and historic Jerusalem is, for most, not a matter of practicing the Jewish religion but rather an essential aspect of national identity rooted in the history and religious tradition of the Jewish people.

David Hulme


Tags: jerusalem, middle east, Dome of the Rock, identity, Old City, conflict, 1967 June War, Israeli, Palestinian, Shlomo Goren

Jerusalem at the Heart of the Middle East Conflict

Posted on Mon, May 07, 2007 @ 03:53 PM
The upcoming anniversary of the 1967 June War, or the Six Day War, is an opportunity to reflect on the power of identity and ideology.
IDF Soldiers at the Western Wall, June 7, 1967

Israeli paratroopers (Zion Karasenti, Yitzak Yifat and Haim Oshri) at the Western Wall on June 10, 1967. Photograph by David Rubinger. Licensed for by Getty Images Editorial.

A significant reminder of the ongoing Middle East conflict comes with the 40th anniversary of the day the Old City of Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Israel Defense Forces on June 7, 1967. Israelis will commemorate Jerusalem Day on May 15-16, the equivalent date on the Hebrew calendar this year. From the perspective of Jerusalem, nothing was more significant in the war than the Israeli capture of its eastern half, including the Temple Mount. 

According to Ha'aretz journalist and novelist Amos Elon, the Western or Wailing Wall suddenly became “a monument in the domain of memory and of faith” for the Israeli people. Within Israel, the capture of the Temple Mount catalyzed the desire to make something profoundly religious out of the otherwise political. Even the nonreligious became religious that day.  

On June 7, three Israeli military leaders strode through the Lion’s Gate and made their way to the Western or Wailing Wall—Uzi Narkiss, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin. Dayan was defense minister and an avowed secularist. But he was soon announcing, “We have returned to all that is holy in our land. We have returned never to be parted from it again.”  

The power of historical identity motivated many Israelis at the time. In the words of Jerusalem’s former deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti, “[We felt] that we were joining hands with our ancestors.”  

Colonel Mordechai “Motta” Gur had been born in the Old City and led the paratroopers who were the first soldiers to arrive at the Temple Mount. He told the soldiers who had gathered at the Wall, “It is impossible to express what we feel in words. We have been waiting for this moment for so many years.” When he paid his own visit to the Western Wall, he connected with his past. He wrote: "Despite the great congregation, I had to undergo my own private experience. I did not listen to the prayers, but raised my eyes to the stones. . . .

"I remembered our family visits at the wall. Twenty-five years ago, as a child, I had walked through the narrow alleys and markets. The impression made on me by the praying at the wall never left me. My memories blended in with the pictures that I had seen at a later age of Jews, with long white beards, wearing frock coats and black hats. They and the wall were one."

On June 12, he assembled with his paratroopers on the Temple Mount and spoke to them even more pointedly in the language of identity: "You restored the Mount to the bosom of the nation. The Western Wall—the heartbeat of every Jew, the place to which every Jewish heart yearns—is once more in our hands." 

Gur continued, "During the War of Liberation, mighty efforts were made to recover for the nation its heart—the Old City, the Western Wall. These efforts failed. 

"The great privilege of finishing the circle at long last, of giving back to the nation its capital, its center of sanctity, has been given to you."

Much of this material, its sources and much more is covered in Identity, Ideology and the Future of Jerusalem.

Next time, Uzi Narkiss rejects a suggestion from a religious leader to destroy the Muslim shrine, The Dome of the Rock.

Tags: identity, conflict, israel, Palestine, Temple Mount, Amos Elon, ideology, Jerusalem Day, Moshe Dayan, Wailing Wall

Iranian President Fuels More Middle East Conflict

Posted on Fri, Apr 06, 2007 @ 03:56 PM
Ideological fervor again at root of identity clashes over Palestinian-Israeli conflict

According to Simon Barrett of International Media Intelligence Analysis, despite President Ahmadinejad of Iran’s sudden release of the 15 British sailors taken by force in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway and held for 13 days, the regime has not changed its confrontational ways.

Within the last 18 months, the president has stated, “We don’t shy away from declaring that Islam is ready to rule the world” and “The real cure for the [Middle East] conflict is elimination of the Zionist regime.”  It comes as no surprise that a man who questions what historians know to be true—the Nazi Holocaust did bring unspeakably violent death to approximately 6 million innocent Jewish men, women, and children—should stand ready to obliterate the State of Israel.

As we have noted many times before in this blog and elsewhere, ideological fervor is often at the root of violence, planned or accomplished. President Ahmadinejad is preparing for the return of the Shiite messiah, the Mahdi, and considers Islam “a universal ideology that leads the world to justice.” Yet, the justice he envisions for the Israelis is far from that practiced by the original model of submission to God’s will (“islam”), Abraham, the father of Isaac and Ishmael.

These themes remind me of a conversation I had several years ago with a Palestinian tour guide at the Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount in Jerusalem. I asked when he expected the Mahdi would come. He cautioned me sternly saying that I should not ask such a question, adding, “only the God, He is knowing.” In this he reflected the words of Jesus when He was asked similar questions in Jerusalem—“when will these things be? And what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?” His reply—“of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.”

As covered extensively in my book, Identity, Ideology and the Future of Jerusalem, the Haram/Temple Mount is respected by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University, the only Arab university in Jerusalem, has written about the way to peace, using the ancient site as a model. He explains that for Muhammad there was but one faith, not three monotheistic systems. Muhammad viewed Judaism, Christianity and Islam as manifestations of this primary religion in their own time. Seeking out commonality through mutual respect of origins, Nusseibeh proposes: 

[T]he more we see ourselves as belonging to different religions—the more monotheism is a tritheism—the harder the chances for reconciliation, and the more Jerusalem will be a potential source of diffusion and destruction. . . . It will be a source of unity, on the other hand, and will shine as the true jewel it is, if it made [sic] us aware of the unity of our faith. If the unity of our faith is properly perceived as I have described, then our respective claims on Jerusalem as our political capitals can be regarded as a celebration of this unity, rather than as a point of selfish contention between two ethno-centric tribes.

Perhaps the Iranian president could arrange to meet the wise and moderate former PLO chief representative in Jerusalem (2001-2), Sari Nusseibeh.

Tags: jerusalem, identity, President Ahmadinejad, Simon Barrett, Middle East Conflict, Temple Mount, ideology, Haram, Mahdi, Sari Nusseibeh

When Archeology is Made Political

Posted on Mon, Feb 26, 2007 @ 04:06 PM
Are the Israelis Undermining Al-Aqsa Mosque and other Haram/Temple Mount Structures?
Al-Aqsa Mosque and excavations at southwest corner of Temple  Mount

The latest actor to weigh in on the need to check the safety of the Israeli Mughrabi Gate project is UNESCO. Rightly so. The Old City of Jerusalem is a World Heritage site and falls under the auspices of the UN body. The Israelis have welcomed the proposed visit to ascertain whether the ongoing archeological project just outside the gate in the western wall of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount endangers the mosque within the compound.  

It seems highly unlikely. 

A greater potential danger was surely present in 1968 when Hebrew University archeology professor Benjamin Mazar began to excavate around the south-western corner of the Temple Mount/Haram. Part of the site was much closer to the mosque than the present dig. In fact, Al-Aqsa Mosque was towering above us when I worked there as a student during the summer of 1970.  

The Herodian masonry blocks supporting the mosque’s southern wall are massive. It is still not clear how such giant ashlars were moved into place with such precision. But they have been there, solidly in place, for the past 2000 years. Suffice it to say, there was no damage to the mosque from the archeological project, which continued under Mazar for 10 years. But there were significant finds from Muslim, Christian and Jewish perspectives.  

Today, Mazar’s work is evident in a vast archeological park that contains, among other important discoveries, a giant stairway that led into the temple of Jesus’ time, underground cisterns, a first century Herodian street complete with shops, evidence of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, when stones from the Temple Mount walls were thrown down to the pavement below, and the remains of an Umayyad palace.

In 1970, I was digging alongside Palestinians, Israelis and a large number of international students. East Jerusalem was in Israeli hands after the 1967 war and some of us lived in a hotel owned and operated by the Palestinian notable family, the Husaynis. Their New Orient House Hotel eventually closed and became Orient House, the center for the Palestinian political presence in Jerusalem under the late Faysal al-Husayni. 

It was possible then to work together to discover artifacts of interest to all sides. What has happened in the years since? More ideological division and despair over threats to identity (see Identity, Ideology and the Future of Jerusalem). Is the Mughrabi project not worthy of the support of all for the benefit of all?  


Tags: jerusalem, arab-israeli conflict, identity, ideology, mughrabi gate, the old city, world heritage site

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Passion Generated by Identity and Ideology

Posted on Sun, Dec 31, 2006 @ 04:19 PM
People’s identities and ideologies explain their actions in respect of the Arab-Israeli conflict

The daily news reports of terror, the televised sound bites from devastated Palestinian towns and villages, Israeli shopping malls, markets, and buses, are about people and the conflict and passion generated by identity and ideology. Thinking about how people’s identities and ideologies explain their actions in respect of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Jerusalem Question yields some important conclusions.

One of my goals in “Identity, Ideology and the Future of Jerusalem” was to look again at individuals in leadership and follower roles in the context of their identities and ideologies.

What do the Palestinians desire in respect of the city? Why have successive Israeli leaders failed to come to agreement with them over the city’s sovereignty? Despite different stated policy positions, why is there so little apparent distinction between Israel’s Kadima, Likud and Labor parties when it comes down to the resolution of the problem?

Erik Erikson, the “father of identity studies,” has much to offer by way of explanation of the dynamics involved. His conceptualization of identity and ideology as essentially two sides of the same coin helps. But more importantly, he shows that identity is more malleable than we think and modification occurs across the entire human life span. Everyone can change and it is never too late to change.

There is hope for what seems the world’s most intractable problem.

Tags: arab-israeli conflict, israeli-palestinian conflict, identity, Middle East Conflict, ideology, Jerusalem question

Jerusalem is the head, the heart of the Palestinian state—the heart of the Palestinian identity.

Posted on Fri, Dec 22, 2006 @ 04:21 PM
Nothing in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been so contentious as the issue of Jerusalem

“The problem of Jerusalem is one of the most emotional and explosive issues in the world,” wrote Palestinian international jurist Henry Cattan in 1981.

In the same year, prominent Israeli novelist and commentator “Aleph Bet” Yehoshua noted that “in a period of violent religious renaissance [Jerusalem] is a dangerous political explosive which could give rise to an uncontrollable conflagration.”

Fourteen years later, Palestinian scholar Ghada Karmi commented that “nothing in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been so contentious as the issue of Jerusalem.”

And in 1999 the Israeli negotiator of the Oslo Agreements, Uri Savir, told me, “The issue of Jerusalem . . . can easily become a public explosion . . . not just between Palestinians and Israelis, but between the Arab world and Israel, between the Islamic world and the Jewish world.”

Explosive, contentious, capable of drawing in much of the world community—this is the pervasive nature of the problem. Illustrating this point, in 1999 two of the foremost actors in the Oslo peace process commented on Jerusalem as a final-settlement issue.

The Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council at the time, Ahmad Quray‘ (also known as Abu Ala’), explained that Jerusalem . . . is the head, the heart of the Palestinian state—the heart of the Palestinian identity. Without Jerusalem, I don’t think peace will be achieved. Therefore, this is the most important element of the peace process.

At the same time the then Speaker of the Knesset, Shimon Peres, said: Jerusalem may be the only issue on the Israeli position which escapes strategy and politics. This is the only place that has the aura of holiness. And the difference between politics and holiness is that when holiness begins, compromise stops.

Both statements reflect the language and underlying strength of identity and ideology as a nexus and invite consideration of the dynamic that seems to bring either stasis or momentum over the Jerusalem Question.

Tags: jerusalem, arab-israeli conflict, identity, Israeli, Palestinian, ideology, Jerusalem question

The Middle East

Posted on Mon, Dec 18, 2006 @ 04:27 PM
Conflicting passions invite the luxury of lazy generalizations

The Middle East is a region whose enduring and conflicting passions invite the luxury of lazy generalizations. But sooner or later most who study the extraordinary complexity and nuance of its modern history and politics come to the conclusion that its problems are not given to simple solutions.

Part of the reason, they learn, is that for thousands of years the people of the Middle East have suffered the almost constant imposition of outside power and outside ideas. Yet within the Gordian knot of alternative histories and contending claims in the broad sweep of its lands from North Africa to Saudi Arabia to Iran, Iraq and Turkey, there are core issues that may respond to fresh analysis in the search for solutions.

For example, the apparent intractability of the Middle East’s most vexing problem may be illuminated when examined through the familiar though underutilized prism of identity studies. According to Shibley Telhami and Michael Barnett, “No student of Middle Eastern international politics can begin to understand the region without taking into account the ebb and flow of identity politics” (Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East).

The contemporary heart of the region’s great geographic and cultural arc is the center of the more-than-100-year conflict between the Arabs and the Zionists. Henry Kissinger has characterized the conflict as an anachronism—a seventeenth-century-style religious war three hundred years too late.

Europe’s last religious war spanned thirty years (1618–1648); though the Arab-Zionist conflict has lasted much longer, its vicious dynamic relies on similar intransigent attitudes and approaches. And while the conflict has religious elements, the Palestinian and Israeli people of the early twenty-first century are caught up in not so much a religious war but more precisely a clash of two personal and collective identities (to be continued).

Tags: middle east, identity, crisis, conflict