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Profane Acts, Profound Consequences

October 04, 2000|JEAN E. ROSENFELD | Jean E. Rosenfeld, a historian of religions at UCLA Center for the Study of Religion, is author of a book on religious conflict, "The Island Broken in Two Halves," (1999, Pennsylvania State University Press)

How to resolve the claims of Jews and Muslims to the same sacred space is the most intractable and volatile issue of the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.

Symbolic conflicts over sacred ground often lead to war. Israel claims Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem as the site of Yahweh's house, built by Solomon, destroyed by Babylonia, rebuilt by Herod, and destroyed a second time by the Romans. All that remains is the Second Temple's Western Wall, which is now the holiest site in Judaism.

Separated from the Western Wall by only a boundary line is the Sacred Precinct of Palestinian Muslims, the Haram al Sharif, where Mohammad ascended to heaven. Religious Jews claim this same space as the Temple Mount, the abode of Yahweh and center of their ancient sacrificial cult.

Much of this is known, but it is not understood in real terms. To those who wield political power, the Temple Mount is no different from any other place in Israel and the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, where boundaries separate land claimed by Jews from land claimed by Muslims.

In fact, sacred space is as different from ordinary space as heaven is from Earth. Governments and security forces that are ignorant of this difference may stride blindly into disaster. Violating a sacred space is regarded as an abomination punishable by God.

When Ariel Sharon, architect of the Jewish settlements policy affecting the West Bank, crossed the line from the Western Wall to the Haram al Sharif, he violated a sacred prohibition and tripped the wire that blew up the current Arab-Israeli peace process. Only the purified may cross a sacred boundary. An impure person will incur divine retribution. Sharon is not only impure, but he crossed the line to plant Israel's flag on the Sacred Precinct. By his own admission, his act asserted Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Invariably, declaring sovereignty over another's sacred space is, in religious terms, an act of war. The government of Ehud Barak allowed Sharon to cross the line. It believed its security forces could contain any violence set off by his act.

Barak and Sharon share responsibility for the destabilizing riots that followed. The government misread Sharon's initiative as a "merely symbolic" act. Politicians and police are realists who do not understand that a merely symbolic act can be a real offense against religion.

In this case, the symbolic act violated a divine law. Divine law is absolute and divine retribution is inevitable. Muslims reacted spontaneously and predictably with violent fervor. Because Israeli authorities misunderstood the power of religion, they underestimated the consequences of Sharon's act and overestimated their ability to neutralize them. Sharon denies responsibility for the deaths and injuries that followed, but he deliberately crossed the line on the eve of the Jewish New Year--a time when a new era, in this case God's reign, begins.

Sharon's political constituency includes Jewish messianists who expect God to return the Temple Mount to them imminently. These apocalypticists believe that Israel, including Judea, Samaria (the West Bank) and the Temple Mount, constitute the messianic kingdom. They believe that God is now acting to bring his temple and his kingdom to their land.

Sharon's declaration of sovereignty over the Temple Mount sends a signal to the messianists that the fulfillment of their prophecy is at hand. Jewish apocalyptic prophecy envisions a war between the forces of light and the forces of darkness before God's reign can be established and the messiah rules. Thus, the Muslim uprising in the wake of Sharon's trespass may be interpreted as the final war by Jewish messianists, who expect God to reclaim the Haram al Sharif.

The secular Jewish politicians and security forces did not foresee the intense response to Sharon's crossing of the line between the sacred and the profane. They were blindsided by their ignorance of the strategic importance of sacred space, sacred dates and messianic expectations.

Similarly, secular authorities were caught off guard by a messianist who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the architect of the peace process, several years ago. This terrorist act facilitated the rise of messianic politics in Israel.

Barak's belief that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat encouraged the Muslim response to strengthen his negotiation position in the stalled peace tasks is naive. The Palestinian Muslims reacted to the crossing of a sacred boundary in an utterly predictable manner.

In an era when religion fuels the hopes and governs the intensity of human reactions to perceived abominations, governments must understand how and why religion is the most important factor in contemporary politics. To avoid violence and enhance peace, they must tread carefully around issues of religion. Foolishly, Sharon went where angels feared, and, foolishly, the Israeli government issued him a passport.

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