Rights and Wrongs in a Troubled Jerusalem

The city dodged a bullet with the election of new chief rabbis for the first time in 11 years, but tension in Jerusalem is at its highest since the end of the second intifada.

Anshel Pfeffer
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The Temple Mount.Credit: Nir Kafri
Anshel Pfeffer

There was just one bit of good news in Jerusalem this week. It wasn’t actually something that happened, but rather something that didn’t. In these times, though, averting disaster is the best we can hope for.

The fortunate occasion was the election of the capital’s new chief rabbis in which the eloquent, highly intelligent and openly racist Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu came second, failing in his attempt to become Jerusalem’s Sephardi chief rabbi. Not that the appointment of the more mild-mannered Shlomo Amar and his Ashkenazi counterpart Aryeh Stern will make any difference in a city that has got along for 11 years with no chief rabbis, without any discernible change to its religious fervor. No town in the world has more rabbis than Jerusalem, none of whom, with the exception of flunkies on the payroll of the local religious council will have any allegiance to the new chief rabbis. Their election and benign presence will have no effect whatsoever on life in the capital, but at least they will cause no harm.

Eliyahu would have been another matter. The irony is that in the quarter-century he has been chief rabbi of Safed, he has proved himself as being that rare creature, a fantastic community rabbi, capable of engaging with every section of the local population, deeply involved in the everyday aspects – and not just the religious ones – of the lives of his constituents. But then there is his deep and open antipathy to Arabs; his famous edict against selling or renting homes to Arabs is just the best known of his numerous anti-Arab statements. Of course there is no shortage of fiercely racist rabbis in Jerusalem, but having as its chief rabbi someone who is so openly racist and so capable of reaching wide audiences is the last thing the torn city needs.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has twice tried to prevent Eliyahu’s attempts to upgrade his rabbinical position, last year when he unsuccessfully ran for chief rabbi of Israel and again this week. In both cases he warned the electors of the legal implications of Eliyahu’s possible election that could well be struck down by the Supreme Court. Weinstein probably had little influence over the electors - most of them voted as they were planning to anyway and Eliyahu, though losing, got nearly 40 percent of the vote. Not only was Weinstein’s intervention ineffectual, but it begged the question: If Eliyahu’s past utterances make him unfit to be chief rabbi of Israel or Jerusalem, why is he still receiving a public salary as chief rabbi of Safed? Is it okay to be a public servant taking advantage of your pulpit to make racist statements as long as your doing it in the Upper Galilee? The answer shamefully seems to be yes. But at least Jerusalem has been spared his presence.

Violence and hypocrisy in the capital

So we dodged a bullet there, but meanwhile tension in Jerusalem is at its highest since the end of the second intifada. The death of 3-month-old Haya Zissel Brown on Wednesday in what looks like yet another intentional hit-and-run attack is just the last round of a growing cycle of nasty nationalist violence in Jerusalem, which began in July with the murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, in retaliation for the West Bank kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. For the government and its supporters, Jewish violence against Palestinians is an aberration, while the murder of Israelis is further proof of the Palestinians’ true intentions. The left wing prefers to portray the Palestinian acts as eruptions of spontaneous anger and point to recent acquisition of homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan and attempts by Jewish groups to pray on the Temple Mount as key factors leading to the recent escalation.

There is a degree of causation here, though certainly not justification of the Palestinian violence. But in their condemnations of the entry of Jews to Silwan and Jewish fundamentalist designs on the Mount, the Israeli left and Western governments and organizations are doing no favors for the cause of peace in this land.

While building settlements on the West Bank with government backing is illegal by most (though not all) interpretations of international law, privately buying homes in Silwan is not.

I’ve no argument with those who say that the settlers living in Silwan are basically troublemakers whose principle aim is to prevent any feasible diplomatic solution between Israel and the Palestinians and, of course Palestinians are by and large prevented from doing the same in Jewish neighborhoods on the other side of the Green Line. I personally wish they weren’t doing it, but whatever their intentions, the basic fact remains that while they remain within the law they are engaged in a non-violent, perfectly legal endeavour and have their right to reside in lawfully purchased property. Those who demand that the Israeli government prevent such actions are saying that Jews should not be allowed to buy homes in certain areas. That is racism. As damaging as the settlers’ presence is in Silwan – and it is deeply damaging – they do have every right to buy and occupy those homes.

The same is true of their desire to pray on the Temple Mount. The current prohibition on Jews praying there, which is rigorously enforced by the police, evicting Jews walking in the Al-Aqsa compound the moment they are even seen muttering a few lines of prayer, is in direct breach of freedom of worship. And no, the fact that frequently during periods of tension, Palestinian men under the age of 60 are also prevented from entering Al-Aqsa (as are all non-Muslims) doesn’t cancel that out. Two denials of civil rights don’t make either one okay. The Temple Mount is the only place in Jerusalem I have never visited. I have no desire to cause a disturbance by my presence. Nor is venerating stones and ancient shrines my idea of Judaism. But if I chose to go, why should anyone prevent me from entering because I’m Jewish or kick me out for reciting a psalm under my breath?

It should be the duty of those who claim to uphold human rights to speak out against any and all limits put on fundamental rights of property, residence and worship. Doing so is more, not less of an imperative when you totally disagree with the views and motives of those whose rights are being infringed. The current position of the Israeli left wing is hypocritical and the fact that they didn’t denounce Mahmoud Abbas’ speech last week in which he accused Jews of “defiling” Al-Aqsa is disgraceful. Israel currently has a massive advantage over the Palestinians by virtue of the fact that they are the occupiers, but that doesn’t change the fact that the peace agreement, when it is finally achieved, will also have to take into consideration Jewish and Israeli rights in Jerusalem. Ignoring those now makes such an agreement even more remote.

Certainly, hundreds of far-right Israelis living in Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and congregating on the Temple Mount make it that much more difficult to reach a viable two-state solution, which will have to include sharing Jerusalem. But in denying the civil rights of their political rivals, left-wingers only losing credibility among the wider Israeli public – the very public they have to convince if they are to have any chance of bringing about the outcome they desire.

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