Religion is not the root of the problem

By Menachem Klein, October 7, 2014
Christians, Jews and Muslims in the West Bank village of Walajeh near Bethlehem join in prayer calling for rain, November 2010

Christians, Jews and Muslims in the West Bank village of Walajeh near Bethlehem join in prayer calling for rain, November 2010

Is it possible to imagine Jews and Muslims living shared lives in the Middle East, sharing holy sites and celebrating religious holidays together? The conflicts on Temple Mount and the mutual desecration of holy sites and cemeteries lead many to the conclusion that national and religious identities are inseparable. The unbridgeable religious divide precludes political compromise. Many Muslims, Jews and Christians go further still and believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just a case of tension spawned by Israeli occupation and the Palestinian liberation movement, backed by religious sentiment; it is first and foremost a holy war against Islam. ISIS's brutal fanaticism seems to have fortified this conclusion.

However, close examination of Jewish and Palestinian sources on the region from the late 19th to the mid-20th century counters this perception. Towards the turn of the century, for example, both Muslim and Christian families frequently participated in the pilgrimage to the tomb of Shimon HaTsadik (Simon the Just) in Jerusalem on Lag B'Omer. One such pilgrimage, in 1892, was attended by everyone in the nearby neighbourhoods, Jews and Muslims of all classes, as well as black slaves.

During the Mandate period, according to a Jewish memoir, "masses of Arabs" celebrated the pilgrimage, "just like the Jews, with food and sweets." Another festival was held for Simon the Just in the autumn, on the traditional date of his death, and Jews and Muslims would pray for his intercession in bringing rain during the coming winter.

A similar role was attributed to the prophet Samuel. Followers of all three Abrahamic religions believed he could assure the arrival of the rains, and Jews and Muslims from the Jerusalem region had made a pilgrimage to the prophet's tomb, Nebi Samuel, since the 12th century. Jews and Muslims would go to the tomb and pray side by side for the prophet's intercession.

Many members of Jerusalem's Jewish community, including its leaders, took part in receiving the processions of Muslim pilgrims who arrived from Hebron and Nablus to take part in the traditional festivities held at Nebi Musa, near Jericho. According to Ya'akov Yehoshua, the father of Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua, Jews displayed a combination of indulgence, arrogance, and understanding towards the Muslim belief that this was the site of Moses's burial (according to the Torah, Moses never crossed the Jordan and his burial site is unknown). The Jews nevertheless found a place for the Muslim tradition in their own lives, and to a large extent identified with it, making it part of a common experience with their Muslim neighbours.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is neither a jihad nor a Judeo- Christian crusade. It’s a clash between two national movements

Jerusalem's Jews felt a special tie to the pilgrims from Hebron. "We imagined," Yehoshua wrote in the 1920s, "that the inhabitants of Hebron and its surrounding villages, who, according to legend, were the descendants of the Jews who had remained in the Holy Land after the destruction of the Second Temple, were making their pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem."

Jews avoided walking by the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre in the Easter season, fearing that they would be attacked. It was the time when tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and in the minds of many of these pilgrims the Jews were responsible for Jesus's crucifixion. But during the Nebi Musa festival, Yehoshua wrote: "a warm and happy atmosphere prevailed among us. We knew that they [Muslim pilgrims] were honouring the memory of a prophet and man of God whom we also accepted."

Hebron's Jews also turned out to welcome the Muslims returning from Nebi Musa and strode with them along the city's streets, singing and dancing. "As the birq [the banners of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, kept in the Tomb of the Patriarchs and taken out for this event] crossed the city's streets, all the inhabitants, Arabs and Jews, stood along the way. The procession entered the Makhpelah Cave where a special service was held, and the celebrants dispersed," Hebron inhabitant Menasheh Mani wrote in the early 20th century. "When the pilgrims returned home, an atmosphere of festivity spread through the city, in the Jewish compound and outside it, and the Jews would then go out to walk along the main road to Jerusalem, and along the roads, on the hills, clusters of families ate and drank."

I n Jaffa, too, there are stories of mutual participation in religious celebrations. An important annual event for Jaffa's Muslims was a visit to Nebi Rubin - the burial place, according to tradition, of Reuben (Rubin in Arabic, Reuven in Hebrew), the patriarch Jacob's oldest son - nine miles south of Jaffa. The inhabitants of the port city visited the site after the orange harvest and the season of tending the citrus groves - sometime between July and September.

Festivities lasted between three and four weeks, and featured a mixture of Muslim religious rituals, such as circumcisions, prayer services, and supplications to the prophet Rubin for help with men's issues, such as impotency and fertility, along with other, more mundane activities, and often some quite sensual celebrations too, such as belly dancing. But Jews frequently took part in the festivities as well, as Yair Hamburger reported in Hamaggid in 1867:

"The Jews, too, can go in this month to that place without fear, and the Ishmaelites [Arabs] esteem the Jews and treat them with respect when they arrive there, especially anyone named Reuven, and ask them to come pray also at the tomb of Reuven, saying that he was 'one of the sons of your patriarch Jacob'."

The Nebi Rubin festivities were of great interest to the Yishuv, as attested to by articles depicting it that appeared in Davar, the daily newspaper of the labour movement, in 1928 and 1930. The Jaffa riots of 1921, and the tension that preceded and followed the riots of 1929, did not prevent Davar from taking an interest in the festival and providing objective accounts of it. Neither did the nationalist slogans and Palestinian flags that appeared in the processions from Jaffa to Nebi Rubin in the 1920s and 1930s.

I do not idealise history and ignore, for instance, the 1929 riots. Culminating in the deaths of 133 Jews and 116 Arabs (a further 339 Jews and 232 Arabs were injured) the riots were triggered by necessary but unauthorised changes Jews made in Wailing Wall prayer regulations, such as putting out benches for the elderly. But they spread throughout the country because of the heated national-religious atmosphere and earlier Zionist-Palestinian clashes.

Yet it's worth seeing the whole picture. Up to the eve of the 1948 war, Jews and Arabs lived shared lives in mixed cities. Day to day, they experienced both friendship and violence. It was not the Jewish–Muslim religious divide that created national animosity and bloodshed; this was an animosity engendered by national conflict; religious sites that were once symbols of commonality became those of exclusion.

T oday, the tomb of Shimon HaTsadik is a purely Jewish holy site. The surrounding neighbourhood is now a place where Jewish settlers live in guarded compounds, with zero interaction with the Palestinians in the next building.

The last Nabi Musa celebration was held in 1946. By the following summer, the impending war was in the air and, after its conclusion, Israel confiscated the land where the festival had been held and the mosque was demolished - but its minaret remained standing. At the beginning of the 1990s, Charedi Jews took over the tomb, rebuilt it, and began a tradition of pilgrimage in mid-December (the Jewish month of Kislev) to the tomb of "the saint Reuven ben Ya'akov [Reuben, son of Jacob]." Soon after the Charedi pilgrimage began, the minaret collapsed, which the Jewish devotees viewed as a sign from heaven that the site now belonged to the Jews.

When Israel conquered Nebi Samuel in the month of Iyar, 1967, national-religious Jews saw this as a sign from heaven, an invitation to return to the tomb, re-establish it as a Jewish site, and push the Muslim presence to its margins. In 1995, Israel converted a large area around the tomb, one that included Palestinian homes, into a national park, imposing considerable restrictions on the daily lives of the residents. The separation fence built by Israel during the 2000s encircles Nebi Samuel, and, though the site was never formally annexed by Israel, local Palestinians do not have free access to this Muslim holy site.

One optimistic conclusion can be drawn from the above cases. Religion is not the main source of the Middle East's problems. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is neither a Jihad nor a Judeo-Christian Crusade. It's a clash between two national movements, flamed by religious motivations. Introducing religious claims to national conflict, however, make it even more tortuous. Finding a solution will not become any easier until the role of religion in the conflict is minimised.

Menachem Klein teaches in the department of Political Science, Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and was a team member of the Geneva Initiative negotiations in 2003. His latest book is 'Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron' (Hurst, £20)

Last updated: 3:36pm, October 7 2014