"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 17 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Who's Buried in Joseph's Tomb?


I suppose a broken window is not symbolic,
unless symbolic means broken, which I think it sorta does...
— David Berman

To understand the age-old ethnic conflict between Arabs and Westerners that has prompted the European-led Israeli government to massacre the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas party, whose members are of Arabic origin ... wait, why didn't that happen? ... That is, to understand the age-old religious conflict between Muslim and Jews that has caused so much death, suffering and hot air-blowing among nonreligious Jews and Christian Arabs, um, that is, wait...what's going on here again? That would be Israelis (a nationality) backed by Jews (a religion or an ethnicity — you decide) versus Palestinians (a statement of origins, like being from Ohio, compounded by shared experiences; or even a nationality — Arafat decides) backed by Arabs (an ethnicity conveniently packaged into European-made nation-states) and Muslims (as if the Pakistanis don't have other things to worry about). Sufficiently confusing? Not if you listen to wise men sort it all out for us, smushing together of the "age-old confrontation between Islam and the West" and the emphatically secular pan-Arabism of a few decades ago. That all sounds good until we read back and remember that those "age-old" conflicts seem to change definition every few decades. We can only be sure that the wise men will come and go but generally stay out of the way of the rocks.

Indeed, if there's one thing that both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to be suspicious of, it's wise men and leaders who paint such big, clean pictures, emptying them of day-to-day, human-level experience and confusing real estate and nation states with God.

If the Palestinians were, as some Israeli leaders liked to imagine, a blank slate without a history or identity, it's clear that by now Israel would have given them one (Indeed, the last word on the subject is that although the idea of a Palestinean state was very much formed in reaction to the Israeli one, both had territorial and cultural identies stretching back thousands of years before). If the Palestinians had somehow been severed from all their cultural memories, it's an interesting thought experiment to guess what symbols they'd have chosen to represent their longing to return to a sacred place they feel has been stolen from them. Like the African slaves imported to America, it's a safe bet they'd use the Bible: Its images of exodus, exile and return have stayed fresh for thousands of years. Indeed, they'd be in good company among Muslims, whose Qur'an takes much of its cast of characters from the Old and New Testaments — not even stinting at the Virgin Mary, who returned the favor by appearing to thousands of Muslims in Zeitoun, Egypt between 1968 and 1971. Some of the most potent and even virulent images occur in Psalm 137, which some Orthodox prayerbooks suggest saying after every weekday meal. It's a song about losing the power to sing or even communicate at all:

"If I forget you, Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget how to play
let my tongue stick to my cheek
if I stop thinking of you,
if I don't set Jerusalem above my highest joy..."

It's a song that demands to be cut off if the singer ever forgets his loss: Dwelling on the scene of his victimization becomes his only reason to continue living. It finishes on an even more resounding note, in an address to his captor, "fair Babylon:"
"Happy is the one who pays you
for the payback you paid us
Happy is he who grabs
and smashes your babies on the rocks."

An excellent digestive aid, to be sure.

The wordplay of the psalm's last lines, with its James Brownean language of Big Payback, is even more disturbingly relevant in Hebrew, something like "happy is he who finally pays you off for the payback you paid us back with" So it's striking to note that Jerusalem, this symbol (Ariel Sharon: "Jerusalem is...a symbol!") is inarguably arbitrary for all three faiths. To begin with, the Torah doesn't talk about Jerusalem at all: The Jews hadn't gotten to Israel at that point in the story. It's in the prophets that God is said to have "picked" Jerusalem for Israel's capitol (it's unclear if he might also have picked Nablus and Samaria at other points in the story), and the Biblical histories tell how it was conquered from its previous owners. This is backed up by cold historical fact: The name probably came from the well-known Canaanite deity Shalem, meaning something like "Shalemsville." And sitting in the Berlin museum right now are letters on clay tablets written by the first known king of Jerusalem from the 14th century BCE; he bears the old-school pagan name Abdi-Heba, "Servant of [the Hurrian goddess] Heba." Arafat may continue, X-Files-style, to deny that the ruins of the Jewish Temple are anything but a trick on the part of alien visitors (in much the same way Golda Meir used to say the same thing about the Palestinians themselves); the fact is that the Jews arrived, and had over a millennium of history here.

But what is always more important than the fact of Jerusalem's history is the way that history is deployed: A hundred years ago, most Orthodox religious authorities thought it was blasphemy even to return to Israel, let alone walk on the Temple mount. How did something forbidden become something permitted, even commanded? A combination of religious reinterpretations and historical "facts on the ground." And if it was God's choice (and not Hepat's or Shalem's?) to take over Jerusalem, and the Romans' choice to occupy it and destroy its Temple, then it was the choice of Muslim leaders to make it so sacred to Islam.

The place Ariel Sharon quite deliberately and provocatively entered was forbidden to Jews by the greatest figure in Jewish law after Moses, the medieval scholar Maimonides (who, it is good to recall, was a native speaker of Arabic). But its sacredness to Muslims is also the result of Gumbylike flexibility in religious interpretation: The only reference to it in the Qur'an is in the Sura entitled "the Night Journey," a reference to Muhammad's visionary ascent to heaven (whose parallels in Hadith with both Jewish Mysticism and UFO abduction should make us take all three more seriously, rather than remain in denial about their power). All it says is that he was taken from the "sacred temple", Mecca, to the "farther temple," (Masjid al-Aqsa) — Jerusalem. Whereupon, the Umayyid Caliph Abd al-Malik simply built a new temple named "the farther temple", right smack dab on the rock where Abraham is supposed to have sacrificed Isaac and the Jewish Temple had been. A brilliant literalization of religious texts, it created a "fact on the ground" where there had only been popular tradition and ruins; it also helped him in his own struggles for authority over the area. And if, as Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor points out, the Caliph's building spoke to Jews by its location, it spoke to Christians by its interior decoration: jewels and pillars plundered from the churches that the crafty Byzantine monarchs had used to wow the local desert Arabs. This pervasive and utterly ecumenical phenomenon of interfaith snatching leads to a disturbing conclusion: in at least some sense these holy places are holy precisely because they've been taken away from somebody else.

Today, the adjectives used by religious and irreligious Jewish nationalists to describe Jerusalem — "one, eternal, indivisible" — are stolen from the traditional description of God. Settlers build armed enclaves in Nablus around a sheik's grave. The subsequent Jewish sacralization and Palestinian destruction of this old, ultimately anonymous holy place make for great narrative but ignore the raw experience: settler guard dogs snarling at villagers, guys with guns setting up camp in your back yard. If it's just theft as far back as the eye can see, if the religious symbols of all sides draw a terrifying power from their ability to ooze further and further into other people's safety zones under cover of the Unchanging, does it really matter who is buried in Joseph's tomb?

Unfortunately, yes, because they're still real. Each new event makes for another chapter in the history of Israel-Palestine, one that will be referred back to, remembered and drawn on. Like the ancient history we cited above, it's a question of how the book gets written and how those memories are made. And here there is a strong possibility that the events of the past few weeks will only work to heighten the world's ignorance. A few years ago it was fashionable to dwell on how much trouble Arafat was having with the (originally Israeli-funded) Hamas, and the wisest of the wise men would occasionally scratch their heads, recalling how Hamas itself grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, who gave radically secular pan-Arab nationalist leaders like Nassir a real pain in the ass in the 60's. But today, in a mirror image of the old nationalist-fascist fantasy of a unified people acting with a single hive mind, Palestinian leaders and people, pacifists, victims and mob killers, get blurred into one big "violent" lump.

And just as Abd el-Malik helped make himself immortal and Jerusalem sacred in the face of his enemies, the big-ticket symbols don't act on their own. They're pawns in a game played by very distinct players at very different levels: Sharon pitches from the Temple Mount, Palestinian mobs catch in Nablus, Israeli cops step up to the plate in Nazareth and unlucky draft victims swing. People who don't vote, who have no choice about where the government sees fit to provide electricity and plumbing or where settlers plant their bulletproof buses and guard dogs, are afraid rioting may be the only chance they have for a political voice. And for all the intolerable horror, the only people who weren't "surprised" at the violence and repression were the ones who had already lived it in such a boring, everyday way. And so, while many on all sides have friends and family who've been harmed, it strikes us that there are people for whom the symbols matter less. The national-religious mobs, whether Jewish or Egyptian, calling for "war" of some sort or another, are squarely in the realm of mediation through symbols and leaders, the various memories and scams we've hinted at above. But for people whose frustration grows out of grinding, humiliating, unmediated daily life, the symbols are almost a luxury: They have more immediate things to get mad about, and they will continue to get mad until their options look a hell of a lot better than they do now.


courtesy of Hypatia Sanders


pictures Terry Colon

Hypatia Sanders