Benjamin Netanyahu Hebron Israel Israeli Arabs

The “Heritage Trail” need not be exclusively Jewish

Netanyahu’s decision to include two religious sites in the West Bank in a national Heritage Trail has provoked a predictable political firestorm. This gesture, involving Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem and the burial place of the patriarchs in Hebron, is more than just another attempt by Netanyahu to placate his right wing. It also reveals something important about Israeli Jews’ attitudes towards other cultures both east and west of the Green Line.

Moshe Yaroni (the nom de plum of a left-wing American Jewish activist) has a valuable post on this point:

..The National Heritage list includes only Jewish sites. Sites which have significance to other faiths as well as Judaism are treated only in terms of their Jewish importance. So, what nation is it whose heritage is being claimed here? Obviously, the Jewish nation. That seems natural for the Jewish state, of course.

The problem is that while Israel may be the Jewish state, it is not only Jewish. One-fifth of its population is not Jewish, and they are a part of the state. This is not a small problem. As geographer Oren Yiftachel said, the exclusive nature of this Heritage Plan is “a small but very symbolic step to the effect that the dominant group is not capable of maturely including the other groups that live here… If the dominant group were surer of itself, then what would it care if they preserved the mosque in Be’er Sheva?”…

…The Jewish connection and Zionist claim to the “Land of Israel” or to the territory that was once known as “Palestine” is undeniably real. Yet no matter what historical period you look at, this was never an exclusively Jewish (or, in ancient days, Hebrew) land. What validated the Zionist claim was not that this land was exclusively “Jewish,” but that there was no other land that could credibly be connected to the Jews as a homeland…

…The issue at hand is very much the character of the Israeli state. Yiftachel’s point is crucial in its implications: Israel need not sacrifice its Jewish character nor its place as the worldwide center of Jewish self-determination and expression in order to embrace the other cultures that make up the fabric of the country. It can be both Jewish and multicultural.

Nor, for that matter, does Israel need to own all that is Jewish in the area to sustain itself. Without a doubt, any future that holds a workable permanent status agreement with the Palestinians cannot exclude Israeli-Jewish access to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. One of the most difficult memories to overcome in the Israeli mind is the period from 1948-1967 when Jews could not get to the holiest and most meaningful places in Jerusalem under Jordanian rule.

If Israel needs international guarantees backed by the United States to ensure that access, then it should have them. Just as Israel is responsible to ensure that Christians can get to Nazareth or Tiberias (or, at this time, to the Via Dolorosa), the Palestinians must be responsible for Jewish access to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Yiftachel’s point is that Israel is now a strong and established country and society. It must overcome its own insecurities and accept that the state is multicultural, with a Jewish majority that sets a tone for the country.

In the same ecumenical spirit, Avraham Burg has a suggestion:

Netanyahu could not even think of the possibility of cooperation in the Cave of the Patriarchs, because just like many others he cannot enjoy the site’s sanctity if local Muslims sanctify the graves of our shared forefathers…

What would happen, or more accurately, would anything bad happen had Israel’s prime minister called Palestine’s president and said: “My friend, at this time we are about to resume negotiations. Let’s do something symbolic and significant together. Let’s jointly renovate the Cave of the Patriarchs, the synagogue, and the mosque, and change the access and worship procedures at the site so that it will change from a controversial place to a symbol of peace, dialogue, and friendship in the spirit of Abraham, the forefather of both nations.”

Is this groundless? Is it impossible? Is it too foolish? I don’t think so. It’s a matter of psychology and religious zealotry that has taken over the political thought process of Israel’s prime minister too.

However, it’s not too late yet. Some people sanctify sites and stones. I respect their faith but this faith does not have to come at the expense of others or, heaven forbid, claim human life. It’s still possible to do it differently.

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