Response to Abbas: We’ll be together in Jerusalem forever

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech at the International Conference on Jerusalem in Doha on Saturday set off the most proverbial alarm bells in Israel.

Caveat: Without actually seeing the full text of the speech, or being at the conference, I am dependent on excerpts in news reports that seem designed to reinforce auto-pilot rallying cries of each side.

Abbas’ general theme seemed to be raising awareness of the grave injustices perpetrated on the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem, such as Israel’s attempt to build walls to keep them in or out, Judaize the eastern part, and use archeological/historical research to justify the Jewish claim to the city. His speech was quoted by Ma’an news agency, and picked up by the Jerusalem Post whose article was republished on the website of the conference:


The Israeli occupation authorities are using the ugliest and most dangerous means to implement plans to erase and remove the Arab-Islamic and the Christian character of east Jerusalem.” The Palestinian Authority president accused Israel of “surrounding Jerusalem with an Apartheid wall and a band of settlements in order to isolate the city from its surroundings in the West Bank.” Abbas slammed Israeli authorities for setting up barriers preventing Palestinians from entering Jerusalem without “almost impossible to obtain” permits.


On cue, Prime Minister Netanyahu called the speech “lies” and “severe incitement.”

Mainstream Jewish and Israeli readers can shut their eyes here: that quote is justified and correct; I have seen it with my own eyes. It is true, it is wrong and must be stopped, full stop.

But this morning’s print Yediot Ahronot (which bears little relation to the parsimonious English Ynet piece) bothered me more. The headline read: “Abu Mazen: Israel wants to establish the Temple on the ruins of al-Aqsa.” This sounds like unnecessary religious incitement. The article’s first line went on to state:


Jews have no relation to Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been an Arab city for 3000 years; the story of the existence of the Temple is an unsubstantiated Israeli claim – these are some of the claims heard yesterday at the conference…”


None of that opening part quoted Abu Mazen, but the implication is that he was responsible for these statements. Indeed, the article goes on to say [my translation]:


Abu Mazen, who spoke at the opening of the session, cast doubt about the links of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, and to the Temple Mount itself. He accused Israel of preparing models to erect the Temple on the ruins of the Al-Aqsa mosque, and accused it of conducting archeological digs in Jerusalem that threaten the mosques and are designed to prove the Jewish Israeli narrative. ‘Israel is deluding itself that it can replace the mosques and the Muslim history in Jerusalem with a story of legends, through which they want to invent a history that will cancel the religious and historical facts of Jerusalem.’


Haaretz also noted that he cast doubt on the existence of the Temple, but the article did not provide direct quotes.

Abu Mazen, presumably to drive home his two-state vision, was then quoted in Yediot as stating “East Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Palestinian state.”

Now other readers will find their reasons to criticize me: I am not sympathetic to claims that there is no Jewish connection to Jerusalem, that the Temple is a fiction and by implication, that Jerusalem belongs only to Muslims and Christians. Leaving the Jewish heritage out of his UN speech was one thing; actively denying the Jewish spiritual connection is another.

Surely stalwart seculars will ask why I should care about the Temple. The response should be clear: It’s time to stop this absurd belief that ancient historical facts are at issue. Peoplehood, the weight of history, emotional bonds to a cultural, spiritual and yes, religious axis mundi are at issue and I believe passionately in the need for Jews to accept those aspects of Palestinian life. It is fair to desire the same understanding from the people with whom I hope to live peacefully, when they are un-occupied, under any form of just political solution that will be reached.

I can already hear the voices saying that Israeli Jews have no right to criticize as long as the asymmetrical occupation makes life intolerable for the Palestinian population; that it’s just too bad if the occupier doesn’t like how its victims resist. Why should the oppressed care?

But that’s just it. We are on the same side, and we need each other. Let’s cast off the notion of a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians already, which I sometimes feel is a brilliant decoy of the far right. The truth is, we have long been in a conflict between extremists and moderates, between hateful and compassionates, between exclusivists and inclusivists. A genuine liberal universalist approach must accept that even those who believe in universal rights have a national, religious, cultural and spiritual identity they cherish (perhaps not surprisingly, Israeli scholar-cum-politician Yuli Tamir is a prominent thinker on this issue).

Whether we end with one, two or twenty states, we’ll be together in Jerusalem for eternity. That should be something to look forward to, and I do not accept that it has to be an ongoing source of conflict.