Israel’s decision to invest resources in restoring and upgrading “heritage sites” has aroused much debate about the sensitive politics of geography.
On the one hand, the international community has criticized Israel for including sites in the West Bank, namely the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the Tomb of Rachel near Bethlehem. Others have been critical of the government for only dealing with sites that have significance for Jewish and Zionist history, while ignoring important sites associated with the country’s Arab population.
A soon-to-be-published book, edited by Marshall Breger, a U.S. legal scholar and former adviser to Republican administrations, examines the role of holy places in Israel and Palestinian territories. The diverse chapters examine the legal status of these sites, the role they play in the formation and perpetuation of national identities and the popular legends that surround many of them. The authors show how the holy sites have been a focus of both conflict and cooperation.
Place is an important component in the way national myths evolve over time. Calling it a myth does not necessarily mean a story is untrue, but that much greater importance has been attached to it than it really deserves.
The story is given a meaning disproportionate to its significance at the time the event occurred, and it has been manipulated in such a way to serve a social or political objective that is relevant today.
In situations of conflict — such as in the Israeli-Palestinian one — the use of historical and geographical myth by both sides is so developed that it becomes difficult to separate historical fact from the mythical significance with which it has been imbued.
Perhaps the classic example in contemporary Israel is the Masada myth, a story that has become the foundation stone for heroism and defense of the homeland.
Yet, as Yael Zerubavel showed in “Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition”, Masada represented only the minority zealot population who held out against the Romans until the last man, woman and child before committing collective suicide. This contrasted with the majority of the Jewish people at the time, who went with Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai to Yavne and ensured the continuation of the Jewish people. Had everyone followed the Masada example, there would not be a Jewish people today.
The list of sites put forward by the government Feb. 21 is of two types: those of recent significance, focusing on events and places dating back as far as 120 years, and those that have ancient Jewish connotations.
The latter include those in dispute. These are places which we assume are the burial sites of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel and their families, and which correspond to the biblical narrative — but we have no absolute proof that these are indeed the precise locations.
Nevertheless, these burial sites, which have also taken on religious and historical importance within Muslim tradition and are therefore much more contested than the more recent Israeli sites, have become accepted within Judaism as the next most holy places in the land after Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
What makes a place sacred for specific peoples beyond its mythical significance and manipulation for political objectives?
Some of the foremost rabbinical commentators argue that physical places do not have any inherent sanctity — even if they are the stones of the Western Wall or the two tablets Moses is said to have brought down from Mount Sinai.
In both religious Jewish tradition as well as contemporary Israeli-Zionist experience, the land of Israel is not so much a special land simply because of its location or its history, but it takes on a special significance as a result of the deeds of the people residing within this territory.
Otherwise, argues the famous 19th century Lithuanian commentator Rabbi Meir Simcha Cohen of Dvinsk, Moses would not have had the right to shatter the tablets — surely a most holy artifact — when he saw the people dancing around the Golden Calf. In his world outlook, the idolatrous deeds of the people had rendered the two tablets nothing more than a pair of worthless stones.
So too, argues Bar-Ilan University geographer Yosef Shilhav, places in the Land of Israel take on special significance only if the behavior of the people residing therein merit it.
It is a lesson worth thinking about before we spend too much time and resources memorializing sites of specific historical events. Obviously, places have to be treated with respect and preserved, especially if they have particular mythical meaning for specific groups, or if people have given up their lives at these sites as part of the national struggle.
But if they are being promoted as a way to strengthen the political claims of one side while ignoring the places important to the other — or as a means of making a political statement concerning the control of land — then it is highly questionable whether we are in fact sanctifying or desecrating these places.
If, through our choice of sites, we only throw additional fuel on the flames of conflict, then we have achieved exactly the opposite of what the government set out to do.
David Newman is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University, and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. This piece first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.