The inevitable tragic outcome of Jerusalem’s sacred space problem?
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The inevitable tragic outcome of Jerusalem’s sacred space problem?

There are humans who claim that certain real estate plots are special. They call them “Blessed” in English, “Qadosh” in Hebrew or “Muqadas” in Arabic; they all mean meaning sacred, holy, spiritual, inviolable. The sacredness of the designated space sets it apart from the profane nearby environs.

Often in our human societies, groups of like-minded persons, tribes of believers, gather at the sites to perform rituals, sacrifices of animals or grains, inspiring singing of psalms, bowings and prostrations, and to hear orations of the wise elders.

The faithful declare that the grounds, the stones and the structures of these places are holy for them and all who believe as they do can come and perform the sacred acts together with them. Those who do not believe in the inherent unique character of the space usually are not invited in and sometimes they are barred from entry.

These “sacred spaces” then are exclusive club houses for members only. In our American South they can be buildings called Protestant churches. In the Northeast they can be called Catholic cathedrals. In some parts of the country they can be called country clubs, maintaining the exclusivity of membership without the overlay of claims of (too much) sanctity.

Mostly this idea that one address is sacred and members-only, while others are profane and open to the public, is not a dangerous or harmful notion. In fact, the idea of setting apart parks for amusement and calling them “magic kingdoms” or inviting people to join in and have “fun — so come on over” is an enterprising American variation on the notion of special spaces.

You would think that the world is a big enough place to accommodate plenty of separate designated locations of numinous sanctity for those who want to set them up, fence them off, and gather in situ around the holy grounds and stones and trees and walls and altars, and to bow and sing and sway and chant constantly or daily or seasonally, in peace and harmony with their neighbors.

We Americans are heirs to the idea of the great frontier — the notion that there is space out there for all who want it. “Space — the final frontier” was the slogan of Star Trek, our greatest science fiction TV series.

So, we Yankees think, what problem can there be over space?

The tragic fact is that in many places in our wide world people have decided that it’s not a big enough place to worship side-by-side in peace. Their claims for the same space compete. Tragically, this plays out in two bad scenarios. First, when each of two or more stubborn tribes decide that one place belongs to them — and exclusively to them. Second, and more dangerous, when angry warriors take over the tribal leadership and decide to use the sacred space for a battleground, for a launch-pad of strife instead of sanctum of sanctuary.

Then, as they say in that totally different space program, “Houston, we have a problem.”

We have such a problem now at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem Israel.

It’s not a new problem. Two thousand years ago, competing Jewish religious tribes with conflicting claims about who controls its sanctity fought at this holy place.

Let’s look briefly at the history of the conflict. It did not end well. To quash the unrest, the Roman government made many arrests and meted out vicious punishments — first through crucifixions of some vocal (and famous) leaders. Later on, as years and decades of strife did not end, they continued the reprisals through the expulsion of the entire population from the “sacred” city. Jerusalem — city that means linguistically “inheritance of peace” — was emptied of its exiled population. The Temple and the city were destroyed, and the area was plowed over.

After more than 100 years of strife, rebellion, and insurrection, the Roman emperor Hadrian (d. 138 C.E.) leveled the ruins of Jerusalem and sowed the land with salt. He maintained the sacred character of the city with the ultimate irony. He built on the site a Roman city called “Aelia Capitolina” in honor of the imperial family and the Roman god Jupiter Capitolina.

Folks, it sounds so hollow and trivial to say we need to learn from history so that we do not repeat its tragedies. Civilization has progressed over the past two millennia and we have learned many positive lessons. Right?

We should have learned that stockpiling stones and haranguing one another over a small piece of land is not a productive way forward. We ought to have concluded that tear gas and rubber bullets are not helpful answers.

Our history lessons and our inherent sanity must have taught us not to go sadly careening forward to the closure to everyone — to Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others — of the “sacred spaces” of Jerusalem by the secular governing authorities.

But it looks to me like we did not learn — that they too will be forced to close it all down and to sow the soil with salt. Because we still have not learned that what is sacred and special to humanity is not this or that rock or wall or clod of earth.

It is stability and peace.

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck was a professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Minnesota, where he won the distinguished teaching award in 1985. He is the author of more than a dozen books on the history and sacred texts of Judaism.

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