In the Beginning, Again

Monday was the final day of the holidays, Thursday it rained for the first time this autumn, and tomorrow we’ll change our clocks.  Autumn has arrived in Israel.  I do miss the changing colors of the season, but Israel has its own charms.  Fall and winter are greener and brighter (and wetter!) than summer.  Spring, as everywhere, is the season of awakening.

We’ve come to a new year with Rosh Hashana, we cleared our spiritual account with Yom Kippur, we reminded ourselves that everything is temporary during Sukkot, and as a final preparation for the upcoming year, we start reading the Torah again from the beginning.

reading-torah

Every week a portion of the Torah is read along with a relevant passage from the Prophets.  The Torah refers only to the Five Books of Moses; the whole of the Bible is referred to as the Tanakh, an acronym of Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings).  The Torah portion is read aloud in the synagogue and studied during the week.  This goes on for the whole year and at the end of Sukkot, they begin again.

A cynic’s view is that you have to have something to do every week.  But the more philosophical view is that every time you read the passages, you learn something new or have a new insight or see in a new way how it applies in your life.  The value is in the process of learning, not in the reading itself.

The Torah in the synagogue is a scroll.  It’s hand-written with a quill on parchment by a specially trained person who writes the Torah with full focus, intention, and concentration.  It really is a work of art.  However, unlike a book, you can’t just flip back to the beginning.  The most interesting and amazing Simhat Torah (the name of this holiday) I spent was at Hillel.  We unrolled the whole Torah and looked at the beauty of this work of art unrolled completely on several long tables.  We sang some joyous songs and then we rolled it back up.  The tradition is to read the last words of the Torah and then after it’s rolled back up, read the beginning lines.  It’s feels less like an end and a beginning, but rather like the completion of a circle.

“Circle of Life” – The Lion King (yep, I went there)

***

UNESCO, Again

In other events that happen over and over, UNESCO had another vote this week on the resolution on the Old City of Jerusalem and the “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif.”  This version still does not use the phrase “The Temple Mount” and removed the phrase saying that Jerusalem was important to the three monotheistic religions.

It passed, again.  I don’t think that reading and re-reading the text will give us any new understandings of the intent of the document.  However, keeping with the theme of circles, we can be sure that “what goes around comes around.”

UNESCO Rewrites History

Mom told me a story once about her mother and how she had once been a history teacher in the Soviet Union.  She was helping her students prepare for a big exam and reminding them how a certain general was a “hero of the people.”  During the week of preparations, this general became an “enemy of the people,” so all the questions about him were changed to reflect his new status.  Grandma was disillusioned and changed careers to become an accountant.

That was the Soviet Union then.  This is now.

This week a UNESCO resolution is trying to rewrite history and suggest that Jews and Christians have no connection to the Old City of Jerusalem.  I mentioned the resolution in a blog post in July and discussed very briefly the postmodern idea of “narratives of history” in May.

The main problem (among many others) with the resolution is that it purposely eliminates or minimizes the Jewish names of the holy sites:  Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif is never referred to as the Temple Mount and Buraq Plaza is the name for the “Western Wall Plaza” (quotation marks in original).  Full text is reprinted here.

The “Buraq Plaza” of 1916-1917 – not much of a plaza and not a Muslim site.

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Source

The Office of Foreign Affairs posted this on their Facebook page to highlight the changing of history aspect of the purposeful elimination of names.

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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a statement that said:

To say Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the pyramids. With this absurd decision, UNESCO has lost the modicum of legitimacy it had left.

And he followed it up with this tweet.

tweet
In my opinion, the most worrisome thing is the vote.  The resolution was approved in committee 24 for and 6 against, with 26 abstentions.  The countries that stood up to vote against this resolution were: Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States.  I applaud their strength!  I wonder about the countries that abstained.  They chose not to vote yes, but could not bring themselves to vote no.  Abstaining doesn’t mean they get to pretend this resolution didn’t happen.

UNESCO’s Director-General issued a lukewarm statement mentioning that all three monotheistic religions have a connection to the Old City, but did not cancel or condemn the resolution.

In response, Israel’s government has suspended cooperation with UNESCO at this time.  And rightly so.

Being a UNESCO Heritage Site used to be a badge of honor.  But if UNESCO can vote on and pass resolutions that skew and twist history to suit a particular agenda, doesn’t it call into question all of UNESCO’s decisions and resolutions?  Is UNESCO a new totalitarian regime telling us what history is?

How History will remember

There’s a theory that the same amount of bad things are happening in the world as there ever were, but now that we live in a global village and the media coverage is instantaneous, we simply hear about it sooner and more often.  I’m not sure that is true, but I do wish that we would demand that the media stop functioning on a 24-hour news cycle that drops stories as soon as something bloodier comes along.  The terror attack in Nice is today’s top story, but how quickly will we move to the next thing?  France plans to mourn for 3 days.  Will we?  Or will something else catch our attention?

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Headline scanning means that we’ll only catch the big stories and so seemingly little stories get swept aside.  I imagine that very few people know that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, this week.

Istanbul
I am not an expert on the workings of UNESCO and this is not meant to be deep research.  I just want to point out a few facts and try to put them into context.  I’ve provided links at the end of the post.

UNESCO – United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization – was on the news radar in Israel in April because of a draft resolution that subtly denied Jewish connections to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.  The headlines were pretty bold, but when I went to the document itself (which no news site linked to) it refers to Israel as “Israel, the Occupying Power,” does not once use the term “Temple Mount” but only “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif,” and mentions the “Buraq Plaza ‘Western Wall Plaza’.”  This draft didn’t pass – of 58 votes, 33 were for, 17 abstentions, 6 against (the other 2 were not in attendance).  Another draft related to the Old City and its Walls uses the same terminology, except refers to “Buraq Plaza (Western Wall Plaza).”

At the conference this week the item was pulled off the agenda at the last minute because of the uncertainty of the votes and it’s pretty unlikely that the resolutions will pass.  So, no big deal, right? Well, I’m not so sure about that.

The present is the future’s past

As a historian, I’m thinking about researchers going through documents at some unspecified time in the future.  Let’s say, at least 150 years from now.  UNESCO doesn’t decide what history is, but as the arbiter of World Heritage Sites and a name that suggests global neutrality, how will historians see these documents in the future?

First of all, if you go through the documents, you will find references to Jerusalem in the “Arab States” section of the agenda.  Other geographical designations are Europe and North America, Latin America and Caribbean, Africa, Asia and Pacific.

Screenshot agenda
As an academic editor, I know that quotation marks are used for quotations, of course, but they are also used as a substitute for the words so-called, which suggest a distance from the term.  Above, I’m using quotation marks because I’m quoting the text.  Within the resolution, the only reason to use quotation marks (also known as scare quotes, I don’t know why) is to say the so-called Western Wall Plaza.  If you say the words so-called in front of anything, your voice naturally picks up a sarcastic tone.  It’s even more sarcastic if you make air quotes with your fingers.  So here we have a UNESCO draft resolution that gives Arabic names with capital letters, but Jewish names with quotation marks or in parentheses.

How we got from there to here

There may be those that say, “Well, you know, that big golden dome is up there now and possession is 9/10ths of the law.”  Since the Jordanian Waqf administers the site and forbids Jews to pray there, I think that point is moot.  Even subtly rejecting any Jewish connection is simply changing history.  Before Islam, there were two Jewish Temples that stood on that site.  Without the Temple, Jesus would have had no place to overturn the tables and attack the money lenders.  Titus’ Arch in Rome would have no story to tell.  Millions of Jews coming to Israel to visit a bunch of stones, a retaining wall actually, would also seem a bit weird if they lack a connection.

The point I want to make is that it matters now and today how we respond.  US Jews were very happy to have a mixed-gender prayer site created at the Western Wall, but in the big picture isn’t it a more important issue if UNESCO votes to effectively erase the Jewish connection to any part of the area?  Can UNESCO be allowed to vote on the narrative of history? If we decide to lay out narratives next to each other, we can say that there is indeed a Muslim connection to the site (third holiest site), but we must say that there is a Jewish (most important site) and Christian (Jesus’ final days) connection to the site.

What will our researcher find 150 years in the future when looking through the UNESCO documents? I hope she finds a multi-colored patchwork of truth and not obvious propaganda.

Epilogue:  The UNESCO response to Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) bombing parts of Palmyra, a World Heritage Site in Syria, was that the head of UNESCO did declare the acts war crimes, but after UNESCO experts went in, their preliminary finding was that it wasn’t as bad as they thought.  A language comparison of the two resolutions is enlightening.  Daesh is just Daesh, not an Occupying Power or anything else.  Their actions are condemned, but Israel’s actions are strongly condemned, firmly deplored, deeply decried, and disapproved.

Draft resolution on the Al-Haram Al-Sharif and its surroundings.

Decision on Jerusalem and its Walls from 2015.

Report on the vote in April.

Possible revision to the drafts.

An in-depth review of the issue.

Draft resolution on Palmyra.

Press release on Palmyra.

Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall

Here are the mandalas from this week.  This is also an experiment to see which pictures Facebook will post as links to the blog post.

Mandalas of the week (and experiments for the Facebook post)

Mandalas of the week (and experiments for the Facebook post)

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Rain

Here in Jerusalem it rained.  I went out with an umbrella a few times and it was just an average October for me.  After sunny and hot for months, I was pretty happy about the rain.

Rainy day and a pot of jasmine green tea

Rainy day and a pot of jasmine green tea

Down in the valley it was apparently apocalyptic.  Record setting rainfall.  Floods.  Power outages.  Some wanted to declare a state of emergency.  Keep in mind this is about 60 km (40 miles) away from Jerusalem, but 800 (2,600) meters difference in elevation.  For pictures and video.

Morgan Freeman in the House!

In awesome news this week, Morgan Freeman came to Jerusalem to film his documentary “The Story of God.”  But he didn’t just come to Jerusalem.  In these really tense times, he went to the Old City and filmed at the Western Wall and at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Of course he had body guards, but as a celebrity, he would have had guards anyway.  He didn’t make a statement about the situation, but his actions said that he wasn’t going to stop filming because of the tense situation.  That’s good enough for me.  (The documentary is due out in April 2016.)

Screen shot from the Times of Israel

Screen shot from the Times of Israel

A Word of Hebrew

The word “matsav” means situation.  It can be used as an informal greeting, “ma hamatsav?” (what’s going on?) – though it usually sounds like “ma matsav?”  It can also be literal as “ma hamatsav po?” (what is the situation here?) when you are asking for an evaluation of a situation.

Matsav is also a kind of euphemistic term Israelis use when referring to everything going on in Israel at any given time.  Even English speakers will throw it in an English sentence because it’s so heavy with additional nuance.  “The matsav is just terrible.”  “What is the government doing about the matsav?”

A Few Words about the Matsav

Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a press conference last Saturday and stated four main points:

  1.  Israel respects Jordan’s special role as custodian of the site (via the Waqf).
  2.  The historical status quo will be maintained, that is, Muslims pray there, non-Muslims visit.
  3.  Israel has no interest in dividing the site and rejects any attempts to do so.
  4.  Israel welcomes increased coordination between Israel and Jordan to ensure restraint and respect on the site.

The takeaway is that it is not Israel’s policy to change the status quo on the Temple Mount.  There are Israelis who are actively campaigning for the right to pray there, but that does not make it Israel’s policy.  In fact, there is disagreement among the Jewish community itself about praying on the Temple Mount – for religious reasons, not political ones.

The other takeaway from these points is that the Temple Mount is administered by Jordan via the Waqf.  The Palestinian Authority is not involved and never was, even before 1967.  Israel does not administer the site, but is in charge of the security.  It’s complicated and messy.  So when Jews try to pray near the Al Aqsa Mosque, they are arrested by Israeli police.

Netanyahu also said that he would welcome CCTV on the Temple Mount (Jordan’s idea) to be able to respond to incitement from either side and possibly prevent violence before it happens. Full article.

Who is against the idea of CCTV on the Temple Mount?  Palestinian leadership and the Jewish activists who want to pray on the Temple Mount.

Why does it matter?

Sheik Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the guy in charge of Al Aqsa, got on Israeli TV news this week and announced that there has never been any Jewish Temple on the site – not 3,000 years ago, not 30,000 years ago.  Al Aqsa Mosque has been on the site since the beginning of time.  It was apparently built by angels in the time of Adam.

Huh?

Let’s say for a minute that he means it spiritually; Al Aqsa has been there spiritually since time immemorial.  But he rejects any evidence that there has ever been a Jewish presence there.  Biblical references.  Rejected.  Archeological evidence.  Rejected.  Historical documentary evidence.  Rejected. What he actually means is that the Jewish people were never here and have no connection to the land and thus, Israel has no right to exist in this space for any reason.

Is the current wave of stabbings because of Temple Mount?  Not really. (Palestinian leaders have said so.)  Is the Temple Mount important in the big picture?  Absolutely.

And that’s the matsav from here.

Let’s all have a Shabbat shalom and a great rainy weekend!

And for everyone who’s celebrating, Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween from the Dark Knight!

Happy Halloween from the Dark Knight!