On the cusp of a slippery slope

In spite of what you see on the news, I still feel quite safe in Jerusalem. However, I’m not crazy and I won’t be reporting live from the Temple Mount.

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Unless you’ve been too wrapped up in the drama at the White House, you might have noticed that the Temple Mount has been in the news lately.  This post won’t be a point by point explanation of that, nor will I get into all the vitriol.  The salient facts are:

  • On July 14, two Druze border police officers were gunned down near the Lions’ Gate by terrorists who had homemade guns hidden in the compound of the Temple Mount aka the Haram al Sharif.
  • Jews consider the Temple Mount the holiest site in Judaism. Muslims consider the Haram al Sharif the third holiest site in Islam.
  • Jews and other non-Muslims are only allowed to enter through one gate and I believe they have to go through security (it’s been a long time since I’ve been there). Muslims have access to several gates and undergo spot checks at most.
  • Israel is responsible for the security and the Waqf, a Jordanian organization, administers the site. So when Israel put up security measures (metal detectors and cameras), the Waqf refused to enter and called on all Muslims to boycott the site.
  • Muslims prayed outside the compound, but it was not all “Kumbaya” and strumming guitars in the name of peace, love, and understanding.
  • Israel took down all the security measures and the Waqf still was not satisfied and Palestinian leaders were calling for a “day of rage.” But as of this writing on Friday, prayers on the Temple Mount ended peacefully – though there were plenty of clashes elsewhere.
  • I’m leaving out the attack on the Israeli embassy in Jordan, and the murders of three family members by a knife-wielding terrorist in their house, among other things, which are apparently directly linked to the anger about the security measures.

I’d like to jump out of the 24-hour news cycle and try to look at the big picture.  I’ve written about the UNESCO decisions before (here and here) and I continue to be troubled.

  • I finally found the hundreds of pages of documentation on the Hebron decision and in skimming them, I did not find anything that was blatantly false. One questionable element was that Hebron is in a country called Palestine.

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Screen capture

  • Israel is always slamming these decisions of World Heritage Sites in Danger and I wondered how sites get nominated. Why doesn’t Israel nominate sites?
    • I found out that a state that has signed on to the World Heritage Convention can nominate sites within its boundaries. Both Israel and Palestine are states that are recognized to have signed on to the convention.
    • That means that in spite of Israel’s Knesset law annexing and unifying Jerusalem, Jordan is the nominating country for the Old City of Jerusalem (though it is listed without a country).
    • In that case, Hebron should technically also be nominated by Jordan, yet the documentation shows that it is nominated by “Palestine.”
    • Alternatively, shouldn’t either one of the parties disputing the territory be allowed to nominate?
    • In both cases, Jerusalem and Hebron are not recognized as being in Israel.
  • The Hebron decision, by the way, was schedule for next year, but they moved it to this year under special circumstances. It seems like UNESCO is de facto recognizing that Hebron is in the boundaries of a country called Palestine, thus recognizing both the country and its general borders.  They also recognize Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Battir as part of Palestine too.  As far as I know, there has not yet been a final status agreement between the parties on where the borders would be should Palestine be created in the disputed territory on the west bank of the Jordan River.

Jerusalem and its Walls are a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Danger.  In skimming the conservation report for 2017 prepared by Jordan and Palestine for UNESCO, Israel is accused of breaking the “status quo” all the time.  So two weeks ago, putting in security measures violated the status quo, which is a strict constructionist view of how to maintain the status quo.  The security measures weren’t there in 1967, thus they should not be there now.  Security is trumped by the politics of the status quo.

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Screen capture from the conservation report

Here’s my final point about the status quo and why we have to be so much more diligent about paying attention to UNESCO.  Buried in a footnote on page 39 of the conservation report is this:

Under the terms of the Status Quo on holy sites, a decree fixed the Ottoman Sultan in 1757 and codified in more detail by a British government Commission in 1922, 1929 and 1933 the Wall is a Muslim Waqf property and the Waqf owns the Buraq Wall and the Buraq Plaza in front of the wall. In these decrees, Jews have the right to stand on the pavement in front of it and pray. (Emphasis added.)

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This is what is considered the “status quo.”

So according to documents accepted by UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization – Jerusalem is not in Israel, the Cave of the Patriarchs is an excellent example of first century CE architecture, and the Western Wall is the western wall of the compound of the Haram al Sharif. Oh, and Jews and Christians might have some connections there.

By the way, next week is Tisha B’Av, a day on the Hebrew calendar that marks the destruction of both Temples among other major tragedies for the Jewish people.  I guess we’ll have to see what happens next Tuesday.

Links for more information

Breakdown of what’s happening on the Temple Mount – op-ed.

Old City of Jerusalem listed under Jerusalem – not under any country – and noted that it is nominated by Jordan.

Hebron/Al Khalil Old Town listed in Palestine.


It’s not about the Wall

You know when you have an argument with a loved one about something and it turns into a really ugly fight and later you realize that this huge fight was not even about whatever you were fighting about?  It’s actually about something deeper in your relationship.  I think that’s what’s happening this week among the Jewish People with regard to the Kotel (the Western Wall).

What happened?

Prime Minister Netanyahu suspended the plan to expand the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.  The English language press in Israel went bananas and Jewish leaders in the US issued strongly worded statements of disappointment.  Op-eds were written that suggested Netanyahu snubbed the whole of Diaspora Jewry and is a liar, that this act will turn into a security threat because US Jewry will no longer support Israel and thus not push the US government to continue to support Israel, that US Jewry will pull their charitable giving, and on and on.

The Israeli press noted that the decision happened and moved on.

A little background

What is the Kotel actually?  It is an exposed remnant of the retaining wall that holds up the Temple Mount complex, where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa now stand.  It is *not* a remnant of the Temple itself.


Screencap: Source

Why do Jews face Jerusalem to pray? Jews pray toward where the Temple once stood; they are not praying to a retaining wall.  People place prayers in the Wall, but the Spirit of the Lord does not actually reside there.  He just picks up His messages from time to time.

When did the Plaza become a synagogue? In 1967, when Jerusalem was reunified, the alleyway that was in front of the exposed section was expanded and became the Western Wall Plaza.  That small section of the retaining wall was conveniently located and it was turned into an open-air Orthodox synagogue (it was not a synagogue before).

How holy is it? Based on the logic of holiness bestowed upon the Western Wall, every part of the retaining wall should be considered equally holy: the southern wall (I’ve seen people praying there), the eastern section (on the Mount of Olives side), the Via Dolorosa (the first few Stations of the Cross starting at the Lion’s Gate), the route of the Tunnel tours, and even a little alley called “The Little Kotel,” which is apparently even closer to where the Temple stood.

So what’s the question? Why should anyone demand that an open-air Orthodox synagogue near an exposed section of a retaining wall accommodate Reform and Conservative practice? To my knowledge, no one has blasted into the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem and demanded that it be converted to accommodate Reform and Conservative practices.  There is a Conservative synagogue across the street and everyone seems to be fine with that.

Perhaps we should ask a different question? Why is there any kind of synagogue at all?  Why not just keep the practice of individual contemplation and personal prayer for all people of all denominations of all religions?

The bottom line

This kerfuffle is not really about access to the Kotel.  Just like the fight you had last week with your loved one wasn’t about who would put the dishes in the dishwasher and how you always do it wrong.

This is about acknowledgement and acceptance.

It could start with the rabbinical authority in Israel acknowledging that there are other visions of Judaism – they may need to negotiate about the different ideas of halakha (Jewish law) – but they should also try to square it a bit more closely with the Law of Return (anyone with a Jewish grandparent on either side is entitled to Israeli citizenship, which is not the halakhic definition of a Jew).

Jews living outside of Israel will also have to accept that Jews living in Israel have their own ideas about how to run the country and preserve holy sites and that donations to Israel and putting your name on buildings doesn’t actually bestow the right to dictate policy here.

Fiddler on the Roof starts with Tradition (video above) and by the end a few things get changed in line with the times.  But we keep our balance, like a fiddler on the roof!

My radical proposal

The question of acknowledgement and acceptance is real and I don’t want to minimize it.  It is symbolized in the questions of access to the Western Wall and that is indeed legitimate.

However, the bigger issue facing all of the Jewish people is that UNESCO continuously and repeatedly calls the Western Wall Plaza “The Al-Buraq Plaza” and calls the Temple Mount only by its Muslim name.  If we want to continue our internal family discussions about access to the Western Wall, we need to ensure that it remains a Jewish site.  And we must also remember that the Temple Mount – where Jews are forbidden to pray and are arrested for doing so – is the actual holy site.

A Hill in Jerusalem

With a hat tip to MR for telling me to write about this, I’m taking a page (well, a book really) from James Michener and will share the history of a particular hill in Jerusalem.  Today this beautiful overlook south of the Old City is called Armon HaNatziv.


Like Michener, let’s start at the beginning of recorded time.  One of the first things to happen on this hill was Abraham telling his servants to wait for him while he and his son Isaac went to Mt. Moriah (Genesis 22:5). I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what happened then.

David’s son Absalom started a conspiracy and went to war against David.  He apparently got some bad advice somewhere to the south of the City of David.  Absalom’s tomb is in the valley below the Temple Mount (II Samuel 15-18).  So while it’s not quite on Armon HaNatiziv, it’s pretty close.

There seems to be some thought that King Solomon let his foreign wives build a temple on this hill to foreign gods.  And this turned Solomon away from the Lord.  (See I Kings:11.)

King Herod decided that he needed to get water to Jerusalem. He managed to build a water system that brought water uphill to Jerusalem from Bethlehem.  Rather than go over this big hill to the south of the city, he dug through it.

Around the same time, Judas met with some Pharisees on a hill to the south of Jerusalem where they were plotting to get rid of Jesus.  With the 30 pieces of silver he got, he bought some property on the top of the hill where he “burst open” and died.  From that point on, the place of conspiracy was known as the Hill of Evil Counsel and the place where Judas burst was called the Field of Blood. (See John 11:47-53 and Acts 1:18-19.)

In 70 CE, Jerusalem fell and Jews were flung to the four corners of the earth.  I’m sure more things happened on the hill, but we’ll jump forward in time to the British Mandatory period.

View from Armon HaNatziv at night.

After World War I, the Ottoman lands were divided up and Britain came in to rule Palestine.  Their office was at first in Augusta Victoria, but there was this very nice place on a hill to the south of the city with an excellent view so they built their main offices there.

Yehuda Avner, z’’l, former ambassador and author of the book The Prime Ministers, wrote an article about David Ben-Gurion meeting with the British High Commissioner at their headquarters in 1937.  The British wanted Ben-Gurion to stop bringing in Jews, especially from Germany.  He felt there were plenty here already and would Ben-Gurion just halt the inflow temporarily?  Well, you can imagine how that conversation went.  And it gives you a brief insight into the fact that Jews in Europe were getting into a position of having nowhere to go.  (It’s an interesting article and worth a moment to read.)

When Jerusalem was Hebraizing names for neighborhoods they translated Government House into Hebrew and got Armon HaNatziv (the literal translation is Palace of the Governor).

In 1948, the UN was looking for an office and somehow decided to take over the British offices.  So today, the UN Observer Headquarters is on Armon HaNatziv, also known as the Hill of Evil Counsel. According to their website, though, the place is located on Jabel Mukaber – where a caliph shouted Allahu Akbar.

With the blatant bias of various UN and UN committee decisions recently (I’ve discussed the UNESCO decisions here and here), it seems like a pretty odd coincidence indeed that the UN headquarters in Jerusalem would be on a hill with so much difficult history.

(Christian sources come from here; various internet searches led me to other information; some information is just from my own knowledge; but any mistakes are my own.)

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.


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)



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.”

Jerusalem Lovefest, I mean, Parade

After last week’s UNESCO vote, the Jerusalem Parade is extremely well-timed.  There will be a new vote on the UNESCO resolution, but it feels like rumblings rather than outright condemnations of an obviously biased document.

During Sukkot, Jerusalem is filled with both Jewish and Christian tourists from all around the world.  The streets are filled with families, restaurants have sukkahs (booths) outside, and there is a festival atmosphere throughout the city during the whole week.

For many years, I thought the parade was primarily a Christian thing, but it turns out that the first parade was in 1955 during Passover.  Then after 1980 when the Christian Embassy was founded in Jerusalem the parade evolved into what we have today.  The parade begins with Israeli groups – banks, insurance companies, army units, corporate groups, and others – and then the Christian groups from around the world join in.

The Christian groups are often singing songs in Hebrew to show their support.  Not being Hebrew-speakers they tend to choose the ones with simple and repetitive lyrics, but strong messages.  “Am Israel, Am Israel, Am Israel, Chai!” (The people of Israel live!) “Havenu Shalom Aleichem” (We wish you peace) “Ya’aseh Shalom, Shalom Aleinu v’Al Kol Israel” (May He bring peace, peace to us and all Israel).

Here are a few pictures from the parade.  I chose them based on the ones that turned out rather than any other criteria.

The Chinese took the phrase “Go Big or Go Home” to heart and had the biggest flags and banners and also brought along the Ark of the Covenant with trumpeting angels.


Hungary had its own group, but the Gipsy nation came on its own.

All the northern countries were represented, but these were two signs I caught.

All around the world is not an exaggeration:  Fiji, New Zealand, Bolivia, Thailand, Taiwan, Zambia, Kenya, South Africa, France, Germany, UK, Ireland, US, Canada, and more and more and more.

My wish for this holiday season is that all these people would call their UN representatives and let UNESCO know that they came to Israel to strengthen their Jewish and Christian connections to the land.

*Note:  Christians are not allowed to proselytize in Israel.  They are not permitted to hand out any religious material at all.  So this event is a surprisingly non-political, non-religious event that is very simply an expression of support and love for Israel the country, not its government or policies.

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.



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

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.

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?


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.

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.