It’s not easy for a religious Jew to feel civilized these days. On the streets near occupied Nablus, an Orthodox Jewish settler, earlocks waving, has just been seen handing out candy to celebrate the fatal shooting of an unarmed 23-year-old Palestinian last Thursday–whose apparent crime was getting in the way of another settler’s car. Meanwhile, one of Israel’s top politicians is publicly blaming the young Palestinian for the bullet that killed him: “Any one of us, as a parent, as a citizen, would have acted” as the gunman did, said Education Minister Naftali Bennett, another yarmulke-wearing Jew, while the Orthodox rabbinate looked on in approving silence.
After all, it’s almost “Jerusalem Day”–Israel’s annual orgy of self-congratulation over its seizure of East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, 50 years ago–and in the spirit of the day, “religious” Jews seem determined to prove Bennett’s point. Occupation? No problem. Ethnic cleansing? Fine with us. We’re all settlers now. Savagery has gone mainstream.
So please do not expect any kind words from me over the latest attempt to distract newspaper readers from the advancing flood of Israeli apartheid–I mean, the spat over whether or not Donald Trump thinks the Western Wall is in Israel. Not that The Donald–who has referred to Belgium as “a beautiful city”–is anyone’s idea of an authority on geography. The real question is why anyone would think the retaining wall of the Second Temple complex, built by Herod (not Solomon) as part of an urban renewal project meant to broadcast his own glory, was worth a war.
For that matter, who could imagine that this pile of stones, or anything like it, would ever justify 50 years of military occupation?
I know, I know. I’ve seen and heard all the kitsch there is about that spot–including the impromptu consecration of a war zone by Rabbi Shlomo Goren on June 7, 1967. Is this really supposed to be impressive? Heavily armed Israeli soldiers recited a blessing of thanksgiving when they reached the Western Wall, having just seized another piece of Palestinian property for the Jewish State. Yet the Talmud rules that a Jew who sees that site must tear his clothes in mourning for the ruined Temple–hardly a triumphal gesture. The breathless sentimentality with which Israeli propaganda has invested this bit of stolen architecture is as untraditional as it is vulgar.
Nor did anyone, before the advent of Zionism, consider the Wall a proper place for communal Jewish worship. To quote Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, “The Kotel was never a synagogue; nor should it ever become one.”
In fact, wondering aloud whether “we Jews” have “gone mad,” that honest Orthodox scholar has argued that we “must free the Western Wall of all denominations and abolish all synagogue services at the site, including bar and bat mitzva celebrations” so that the site can be reserved “solely for individual prayer and meditation, just as our ancestors treated it throughout our long history.”
I say amen; I would only add that, first and foremost, the property should be restored to its rightful owners–the indigenous Palestinian population–honoring the ethical principles that animated those same Jewish ancestors.
Yet popular mythology dies hard. When I wrote a column a year ago critical of “Jerusalem Day” festivities, the Jewish periodical the Forward was kind enough to publish it–for which I am grateful. But without my knowledge the editors rewrote a sentence, softening my insistence that the conquest of East Jerusalem shouldn’t be granted any sort of religious status. “Access to the holy sites is worth celebrating,” the revised passage reads, “but it wasn’t a miracle.”
Indeed it wasn’t. But allow me to add–for this is my actual opinion — that “access to the holy sites” isn’t worth celebrating either, if “access” means military conquest. (As early as April 1949, Jordan agreed to grant access to the religious Jewish sites in East Jerusalem, refusing to implement the agreement only when it became clear that Israel would not repatriate any of the refugees it had driven into Jordan during the war.)
I’m also repelled by the implication that “access to the holy sites” means only Jewish sites, and only access by Jews. Israel’s arbitrary and often brutal curtailment of Palestinian worship at the mosque on the same ground is a matter of record, but evidently this is not supposed to figure in the public discourse about the “reunification of Jerusalem,” as Israel’s continued occupation is typically described in Jewish media.
Speaking of Jewish media, I cannot discuss Jerusalem Day without mentioning the outright fraud that gets recycled at this time each year. In 2015, in honor of the occasion, a Times of Israel blog contained this litany of myths-as-facts:
“Forty eight years ago…Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon amassed forces on their borders, getting ready to storm the Jewish State and destroy her for good. Radio broadcasts in Israel and abroad were full of the same grim tidings – cries by Arab leaders for the Jews to be driven into the Mediterranean Sea…and the especially terrifying declaration by Israeli rabanim [rabbis] that every public park in the country would be a graveyard, in an effort to prepare for the bloody onslaught.”
In fact, as scholars like Norman Finkelstein have decisively shown, the two Egyptian divisions in the Sinai (the only ones seriously in question) remained in a defensive posture, as Israel’s Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin reported at the time, and in any case “would not have been enough to unleash an offensive.” Mossad chief Meir Amit similarly concluded weeks before Israel’s attack that “Egypt was not ready for a war, and Nasser did not want a war.” Besides, both Israeli and U.S. intelligence experts predicted that even in the unlikely event that several Arab countries attacked in concert, Israel would easily defeat them all within ten days. Israel’s claim that it faced serious danger in 1967 was “a bluff,” according to General Mattityahu Peled, one of the architects of the Israeli assault.
Knowing all this, how can any decent Jew celebrate Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of that violent “bluff”? Or exult at its tragic epicenter, the Western Wall?
For the record, I visited the famous Wall on the first night of my one visit to Israel some years ago. I was unsettled by the theme-park look of the place – the beaming floodlights, the polished stone “plaza” built to accommodate crowds of tourists – and by the proximity of the elevated parapet marking off the Al-Aqsa mosque, where in 1990 Israeli soldiers massacred some 18 unarmed worshipers. Only afterward did I realize that I had literally been standing on a crime scene: days after Israel’s capture of the Old City the army had demolished the homes of at least 600 Palestinian civilians to clear the space next to the Western Wall, killing one and injuring several others.
Naturally I don’t intend to return to that site – a place of shame for me, as it should be for any Jew, so long as it remains under occupation.
But staying away isn’t enough.
Because the real trouble isn’t about a wall. It’s about an ideology. An ideology of Jewish ethnic supremacy carefully crafted to purge memories of Jewish vulnerability. An ideology that defies religion yet makes icons out of religious texts. An ideology that replaces history with myth, that denies human rights and dehumanizes an entire people, that reduces Judaism to a cynical real estate hustle.
As a religious Jew, I pray for the speedy demise of any such ideology. And I mourn what Jews have done, in the name of religion, to the Western Wall – and to Judaism.