This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Israel has closed the Al Aqsa mosque. The occupation is tightening the noose. Of a Palestine on its last legs?
Lesson for us all? Religious rights – however regulated – cannot be sustained without political rights. Arguing for religious rights without pursuing political rights is hypocrisy – on all sides.
So Mahmoud Abbas is wrong. Closing Al Aqsa is not Israel declaring war against the Palestinian people. That war was declared in the founding of Israel. Closing Al Aqsa is Israel’s continuation of the war against Palestinians.
John Kerry was also wrong. It isn’t a matter of reopening Al Aqsa and urging restraint on all sides. Kerry needs to argue for real and effective Palestinian rights which can only be guaranteed in a real and effective Palestinian state.
Thus those arguing for the reopening of Al Aqsa on grounds of religious freedom, as important as religious freedom is, are wrong. Religious freedom is impossible without political freedom.
In some circumstance religious freedom becomes a trap. As Jerusalem has been occupied, “unified,” and Judaized, Al Aqsa has remained open. Al Aqsa is one of the last entities in Jerusalem that is controlled by Palestinians – or, in reality, partially controlled by Palestinians. Like Palestinians throughout the land, Al Aqsa is surrounded by Israelis and Israeli power.
So, in line with his overall take on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Kerry’s plea for a return to the status quo is misguided:
I am extremely concerned by escalating tensions across Jerusalem and particularly surrounding the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. It is absolutely critical that all sides exercise restraint, refrain from provocative actions and rhetoric, and preserve the historic status quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount – in word and in practice. The continued commitment by Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians to preserve the historic status quo at this holy site is critical; any decisions or actions to change it would be both provocative and dangerous. The Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount must be re-opened to Muslim worshipers and I support the long-standing practices regarding non-Muslim visitors to the site, consistent with respect for the status quo arrangements governing religious observance there.
I am in close touch with senior Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian leaders to try to deescalate the situation. I urge the leaders of all three parties to exercise decisive leadership and work cooperatively together to lower tensions and discourage violence, alleviate restrictions on Muslim worshipers, and reinvigorate long-standing coordination mechanisms and relationships that have served over the decades to preserve the historic status quo as it pertains to religious observance and access to the site.
Is there a more apolitical statement possible?
Kerry – but there are others on all sides – seeks to respond to an overtly political move by Israel by asserting religious rights. But here, expanding on Karl Marx’s take on religion – religious liberty can become the opiate of the people. It can become a tool of the political powers who seek to diminish what Palestinians have a right to – political freedom.
Al Aqsa is yet another redline violation. How many more are there? The thought is that if this redline is violated, then then the house of Israeli cards falls. It’s the Muslim world against a small but nuclear Jewish state. Perhaps. But then if Israel backtracks as it surely will at least for now, what are the Palestinians left with? A partially controlled historic mosque in the center of Jerusalem surrounded by Israeli power.
Al Aqsa is the last leg of institutional Palestinian life in Jerusalem. Its fate is dire – but not for religious reasons.