03 March 2010

The Dangers of Heritage Lists: The Tomb of the Patriarchs

The dark side of national heritage lists was illustrated Monday week in the West Bank (AFP via Juan Cole):

As they do every year on the Jewish holiday of Purim, the settlers donned costumes -- one was a clown, another a Palestinian -- and drank and danced to celebrate a biblical miracle that saved the Jews from the ancient Persians.

But this year the holiday comes amid growing unrest over an Israeli plan to renovate the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a flashpoint holy site revered by Jews and Muslims in the heart of the town of more than 160,000 Palestinian Muslims.

There have been days of clashes since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he wanted to include the burial site of the biblical figure Abraham in a national heritage plan.

The move has sparked international outrage and the United States has attacked it as a "provocative" act that could further imperil its hope of relaunching Israeli-Palestinian peace talks suspended during the Gaza war over a year ago.

As Juan Cole points out, Al-Khalil/Hebron cannot be an Israeli heritage site, since it is not part of Israel (though it has been militarily occupied by Israel since 1967). This is not to detract from the obvious Jewish heritage at the site, but to point out the difference between religion and nation-state. I'm just going to quote Cole's article at length, since I have nothing to say that improves on it.

Palestinians are afraid that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's action is a prelude to an Israeli claim on the annexation of al-Khalil to Israel. The town of 150,000 is completely made up of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, though 400 Israeli settlers, some of them armed and all under the protection of the Israeli military, reside there. There have been constant frictions between the small Israeli colony and the Palestinian townspeople.
The choice of Purim for listing the Tomb of the Patriarchs was insensitive, to say the least:
But Purim in al-Khalil has other connotations, since it was the day on which Dr. Baruch Goldstein opened fire on innocent worshipers at the Mosque of Abraham, shooting 179 in cold blood, and killing 29 of those. This site gives you an idea of how Palestinians remember the incident. Israeli apologists often refer to Goldstein as deranged, but people who met him before his attack deny this charge. He is more likely to have simply been the Israeli equivalent of a suicide bomber, i.e. acting out of ideological conviction.

Anyway, the coincidence of the anniversary of the Goldstein massacre with the designation of the tomb complex an Israeli heritage site was enough to inspire fear, outrage and anger in the Palestinian residents of the city. The cabinet of the Palestine Authority is meeting in al-Kahlil/ Hebron on Monday, just to reaffirm its sovereignty or at least future sovereignty over the town.
Amid the nationalist posturing on both sides, I like Cole's reflections on the historical nitty-gritty behind the figure of Abraham.
That is, historians are aware that the Tomb of the Patriarchs has been sacred to Muslims for 1400 years and they have been going on pilgrimage to it for much of that period, combining visits to Jerusalem and Hebron with their pilgrimage to Mecca. (If you were living in Turkey, Northern Iran or coastal Syria, Jerusalem and Hebron are on the way to Mecca by a popular route.)

It is worth noting that the figure of Abraham as described in the Bible is in any case not historical. Abraham is said to have been the forebear of the twelve tribes of Israel, including that of Benjamin or Bin Yamin. But the Banu Yamin are mentioned in clay tablets in the area dated to 2000 BC, so they precede Abraham's alleged advent. The kings he is said to have met don't correspond to any known historical figures. He is said to have bought the Caves which allegedly became his tomb from a Hittite, but the Hittites did not then exist and they didn't come to geographical Palestine until the 1400s BC. He is said to have been a monotheist, but there is no evidence in the archeology of anything but polytheists in Palestine (then Egyptian-ruled Canaan or Retenu) for many centuries after he supposedly lived.

Moreover, if Abraham were from south Iraq (Ur in what is now Dhi Qar) he would have likely been ethnically Sumerian, whereas the genetic signature of a majority of Jewish men most resembles that of Palestinians and Lebanese, not of southern Iraqis. For the same reason, he is not the direct male ancestor of the Hijazi Arabs. (If he existed at all and lived 4000 years ago and if his descendants flourished, he would likely be an ancestor of most people in the greater Mediterranean by now, I.e. Arabs and Europeans and Jews from both worlds; note that only uninterrupted descent in the male line would show up in the Y chromosome.)

But the Abraham stories are no more historical than those of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim, other ancient Middle Eastern mythical figures. The jumbled stories about him were written down in the Babylonian exile, when scribes made an attempt to establish a historical timeline into which he could be asserted. Ur was a classy place to be from, as Shlomo Sands points out, and so the Babylonian Jewish authors of the written Bible endowed themselves with a distinquished Iraqi parentage.

It is modern nationalism that lies behind the current tensions over Abraham's tomb and the Haram Sharif. Jews and Muslims shared pilgrimage sites all through history, most often amicably. Israeli, Arab and Palestinian nationalisms are reconfiguring sacred space as sites of national authenticity and as exclusive.

The Palestine Authority should declare itself a state and offer citizenship to the 400 or so Jews in al-Khalil/ Hebron. And there are lots of Palestinian heritage sites it could then designate inside Israel. And ideally the two would share them, and allow free circulation and pilgrimage, including for international religious tourism, which would be good for the economy. I predict that eventually all these things will come to pass. It may however be decades.
Read the rest of Cole's article here.

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