Dispute over wine festival in Be’er Sheva mosque: ‘Muslim rage’ or Israeli hypocrisy?

Controversy erupted after local Arab residents complained that the Salut Wine and Beer Festival would be held on the grounds of a mosque-turned-museum. The public outcry from the festival-goers reveals both a fear of the ‘re-Islamification of Be’er Sheva,’ as well as a liberal approach that takes for granted the ways in which the state religion affects the daily lives of its non-Jewish citizens.

By Nasser Rego

There has been some brouhaha about Arabs whining about wine. The sixth annual Salut Wine and Beer Festival was scheduled to take place in Be’er Sheva on September 5-6. Attendees were promised a smorgasbord of wine, unique cheese and meat, along with cozy seating and other surprises. Little wonder, then, that they were miffed when local Arabs and advocacy groups, on account of the event being staged in the compound of a mosque-turned-museum, began to complain about the offense to the sanctity of a holy site. Suddenly, the once assured luxury chocolate offerings alongside flamenco star Perla Malcus seemed in jeopardy.

There seem two principal outcries of the public. The first is a “re-Islamification of Be’er Sheva,” modelled on, it can only be assumed, the YouTube smash among bigots, ‘The Islamification of Europe.” The second is a softer outcry, but a nonetheless audible chorus of disapproval. Framed as a culture clash of modern versus traditional, it is the liberal lamentation of the conservative pangs of Arab society. And it poses a follow-up question, “if this is the festival’s sixth year, why has there been silence until now?”

The champion of the first position was Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman. Not too long ago, however, he was awarded the dubious honor of having penned possibly the most inaccurate accounting of international law for a widely-read newspaper. On that note, I conclude it safe to skip engaging with his article. I turn to the second account, not uncommon in 972-country code liberal circles – one that pits the liberal, secular, progressive ethos against the religious, intolerant, fundamentalist one.

While the prohibition on alcohol consumption is clear in Islam (as it is in the Baha’i faith), the staging of a festival of alcohol in the area of the mosque is considered a violation of the sanctity of the site. Common sense would dictate that staging a wine festival in a mosque compound would probably be as good an idea as brandishing “a porkchop in a synagogue,” i.e. not very.

The mosque in question is the only one in the city of Be’er Sheva – a city that served as a capital for the Palestinian Bedouin pre-1948. The mosque was built by the Ottomans in 1906, together with local community investment. However, in 1948 the Israeli authorities assumed control and for a few years following, it was converted into a prison and later a court house. It was used subsequently as a museum until 1991, when it was, as has been the fate of many Palestinian religious sites, left empty, neglected and closed to worship. And herein is the crux of the matter that the chastising public have not, and probably refuse to, come to terms with.

The reason why things “were silent” over the past five festivals was because community members and advocacy groups were engaged in a legal battle in the courts to open the mosque for prayer. Following numerous requests to the authorities since the 70s, in 2002 the community petitioned Israel’s High Court to open the mosque to make it accessible to Muslims, 100,000 of whom lived in its surrounding environs and regularly visited the city. The municipality was opposed to the request, fearing it would “disturb the public peace” and “lead to violence.” In July 2011, although refuting the municipality’s fears, the court did not rule to open the mosque for prayer, but instead that it be a museum for “Islamic culture.”  The municipality did not comply. Instead, the newly christened “Archaeological Museum” was dedicated to British colonial-era public buildings and architecture, and Mandate-era English and Israeli mannequins, dressed in khaki army finery, were conscripted to fill in empty space. In short, the purported “silence” is simply a case of people not listening.

Two further points the critics should come to terms with. The “wine path plan,” a tourist initiative purportedly running along what was once the “Nabatean Incense Road,” which sells the tale of pioneering desert laborers, is a government initiative that allots tens of thousands of dunams to single Jewish family farms in the Negev, often with building licenses issued after the fact. Official reasons for their institution are “to preserve state lands… [as] solutions for demographic issues.” That 70,000 Naqab Bedouin live in unrecognized villages, which are refused basic services, makes it unsurprising that wine is already a sore point with the community.

Second, the liberal complaint that certain Islamic practices impinge on secular freedoms, seems to take for granted a non-Islamic religion manifesting in the daily lives of citizens. Therefore, there seems to be non-engagement with how religious proclivities and sensitivities inform, and some may say impinge on, rights or liberties. In the 972 country code, religious tradition dictates that roads close on special occasions, that people can only marry those of the same faith and in particular, non-civilian institutional settings, and that even legal cases are decided on in the spirit of religious principles.

A few days before the countdown to Salut, I undertook a little tourist escapade on the wine path plan, and brought along a local Palestinian Bedouin friend to “get to know the neighbors.” The absurdity of it all came to the fore during our drop-in at a local winery offering a Cabarnet Sauvignon tasting. As Kylie Minogue “The Loco-Motion” jingled in the background, the winery’s Jewish pioneer/owner and I exchanged notes on the bouquet. He then produced an English-language tourist map of Ramat Hanegev to suggest other wineries and exotic cheeses. My local friend and I noted the map contained no mention whatsoever of the Palestinian Bedouin community. And there we were – the owner and I – two North Americans, him reminiscing about wine-consuming Nabateans, and me narrating about Canada. And standing next to us, a non-wine consuming Nabatean, and native of the land, observing in silence – much like the silence of his place on that tourist map and that of his community and their history.

By the grace of the secular world, in the end, the festival was staged outside the mosque’s compound, and concluded without disturbance. Indeed, satisfied visitors remarked that the merrymaking ran in “perfect silence.”

Nasser Rego is a local civil society activist and doctoral student in law at Osgoode Hall Law School. Although none of his ideas are his own, they certainly cannot be attributed to any institution to which he belongs/is employed.