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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

The Synagogue of Destruction [UPDATED]

For those of you interested in Jerusalem and its place in this conflict, Akiva Eldar posted an editorial in Haaretz today that I think is spot on:…

Thanks for all of your participation.  My blogging time has been cut to a minimum for a host of pressing reasions and I apologize for neglecting the comments section.

Events in Jerusalem this week have focused on the [re]dedication of a synagogue, aptly named Hurva, a term associated with the destruction of ancient Jerusalem and of both Temples.  The synagogue in question was first built in the middle of the Jewish Quarter of the walled city at the turn of the 18th century, though its location has been linked archaeologically to a series of synagogues dating back to the 2nd century CE.  Soon after its establishment, the community that founded it sought to expand it, but due to expensive bribes to the Ottoman authorities and escalating construction costs, its leaders were forced to borrow from Muslims.  In 1720, after losing patience with their Jewish debtors, these Muslim creditors burned it down.  Its remains became known as the “Hurva,” linking this contemporary catastrophe to ancient ones referred to traditionally as the “hurban.”  In the early 19th century, a group of Jews began a decades long effort to obtain permission from Istanbul to rebuild the synagogue, despite the community’s outstanding debts.  In 1836, Muhammad Ali of Egypt annexed the city and permitted reconstruction, but the Jews built only a small structure at the edge of the ruined compound.  Two decades later, they commenced construction of the synagogue itself.  The resulting domed structure dominated the Jewish Quarter until 1948, when it was demolished along with the rest of the area by the Jordanian Arab Legion after its inhabitants surrendered and left the Old City.  

In June 1967, Israel captured the Old City in the Six Day War and began to rebuild its Jewish Quarter.  But the synagogue was only represented by an arch erected out of its ruins in the plaza where it had stood until recent efforts that used photographs and oral histories for its reconstruction.  Though it was rebuilt exactly where a series of synagogues have stood for centuries, and according to some evidence millenia, in the middle of the Jewish Quarter, it has been manipulated by religious nationalists on both sides.  Though no Palestinians were displaced, it has become a flash point that reveals how Jewish and Muslim actors, ultimately trusting in apocalyptic absolutist outcomes, are working to render a sane and just two state solution impossible.

Palestinians have genuine and acute grievances in Jerusalem.  Building permits are hard to come by unless you are Jewish.  Jewish claims to property from before 1948 are honored in court, but Palestinians are unable to recover family property.  The security barrier, a concrete wall with watchtowers and razor wire, has been constructed to sever Jerusalem from the network of Palestinian villages on the West Bank that function as its Arab suburbs.  Seven minute car trips to visit family members and business partners have become ordeals that can take hours.  A Palestinian cab driver I know was thrown in jail for a month, fined 2,000 shekels (about $500) plus the cost of impounding and parking his taxi, for the crime of transporting a West Bank resident between East Jerusalem and Hevron.  The resident in question?  His wife.  Though married for several years, she cannot get official resident status in Jerusalem until she is 25.  Though their marriage is legal and documented, a family visit to her parents threatened his livelihood.  It seems clear that not only is the Jewish administration of the city systematically trying to block any arrangement that would enable the city to become the shared capital of two intimately linked but separate political and economic entities, but it is doing everything it can to push the Palestinian population out of the city altogether.

Last week, as VP Biden arrived to initiate indirect negotiations, Israel announced construction of 1,600 new housing units for ultra-orthodox Jews in contested territory in the northeastern part of the city.  Biden should have turned on his heel and boarded his plane.  PM Netanyahu apologized for the timing, not the construction.  Biden made him wait 90 minutes to sit down to dinner.  US credibility in the region is on the wane.  The PA shut down the indirect negotiations.  Continued impasse, but not conflagration.  Yet when the rebuilt Hurva was festively rededicated on Monday, HAMAS declared “Days of Rage,” and the West Bank was sealed.  Pundits and analysts are now debating the likelihood of a third intifadah.

Why were these events triggered, not by continued Israeli construction on contested areas of Jerusalem, but by the rededication of a synagogue that predates political Zionism by 150 years, that did not displace a single Palestinian family, and that stands in the middle of the Jewish community’s quarter of ancient Jerusalem stretching back centuries?  Because those who rebuilt it cast it as a symbol of exclusivist Jewish claims to Jerusalem, not merely a site of Jewish prayer and study.  But the Palestinian response once again reveals that HAMAS is also not a good faith actor.  Its response: “We call on the Palestinian people to regard Tuesday as a day of rage against the occupation’s [Israel’s] procedures in Jerusalem against Al-Aqsa mosque.”  True, Al-Aqsa is about 400 meters away.  But only as the crow flies.  In the densely structured Old City, the two stand in clearly distinct sectors of the city.  The Hurva Synagogue is nowhere near, and no threat to the Haram-a-Sharif/Temple Mount.  Nonetheless, Ahmed Bahar, a senior figure in Hamas, called for an escalation of armed attacks against Israel and urged Arab states “to shoulder their responsibilities and send their warplanes and armies to rescue the Al-Aqsa mosque and end the Jewish policy of Judaizing Jerusalem.”

(  Instead of focusing on the common phenomena of Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, HAMAS has chosen to cast the rededication of a twice destroyed synagogue, in itself no threat to Palestinians and Muslims, which has been manipulated into a symbol of the Judaization of Jerusalem by right wing religious Zionists, as an attack on Islam itself worthy of “warplanes and armies.”  FATAH, the ruling faction in the Palestinian Authority, could not appear complacent in the circumstances.  Figures such as Mohammed Dahlan and Khatem Abdel Kader, who holds the Jerusalem portfolio in FATAH, called on Israeli Arabs and residents of East Jerusalem to go to the Temple Mount today to “protect it from the Jews” (

Anyone who still believes that Bibi is interested in negotiating a two state solution would do well to hold him responsible for his Jerusalem policy of squeezing out Palestinian residents.  Anyone who believes that the right wing in Israel is primarily motivated by security concerns would do well to examine its rhetoric around the reconstruction and rededication of a synagogue that should be a threat to no one.  Anyone who still wants to argue that HAMAS holds any sincere intentions of coexistence would do well to take its rhetoric of casting central Muslim holy sites as under attack and its plea for all out war quite seriously.  The latter represents an explicit attempt to feed the narrative in which the Israeli right cloaks itself, i.e. that the Palestinians will not rest until even the most reasonable Jewish claims in Jerusalem and Palestine are refuted and the Jews are expelled.

The only thing that might turn the tide at this point is for Obama to do what he should have done immediately after his Cairo speech.  He must go to Jerusalem and address Israel directly.  He must make his case that the two state solution is not only in Israel’s vital interest, but that the US will guarantee that it actually is so.  Then he needs to give a mirror version of the same speech to the Palestinians in Ramallah.  And next time Israel tries to show up any member of his administration, Obama needs to make it clear that Israel will be held responsible in tangible ways.  Otherwise, what’s left of US credibility in the region will mean as much as a cheap greeting card.


  1. I never would have looked up all that background, it adds a lot to my understanding (if you can call it that).

    As I commented earlier, the only good thing I can think to point to is that peaks like this can sometimes bring opportunity.  Obama certainly has an opening to play hard ball with all players involved.  Let’s hope he steps up to the plate.

  2. fogiv

    I tend to stay away from I/P stuff, because there’s so much I don’t know about the region, it’s history, and the dynamics of the politics involved.  This kind of diary helps me immeasurably, as do contributions from brill moose like Brit and Shaun.

    My initial reaction to Bibi’s announcement during Biden’s visit as a generally uninformed American was, “Whoa, what the fuck?!?”  Reports of SoS Clinton’s 45+ minute phone call, in which Bibi was barely afforded an opportunity to open his mouth left me with the impression that US/Israel relations are going to be changing dramatically from here on. While this is somewhat disconcerting or even worrisome for many, I think it’s what needed to happen.  Perhaps the U.S. and Israel have been too cozy for too long. Repudiations from your enemies mean little; from your best friend they sting. It’s time for a strong stance, and bold action.

    I agree that Obama needs to be the face here, and I think this will prove to be Hillary’s moment to shine. In my head, that covert meeting between Obama and Hillary at Feinstein’s house after the conclusion of the primaries went something like this:

    Obama: If you want the VP slot, or any cab post for that matter, it’s yours.

    HRC: I’d like State, and a shot at peace in the Middle East.

    Obama:  That’s exactly what I was hoping you’d say.

  3. HappyinVT

    is permitting the Simon Weisenthal Center to expand on top of an ancient Muslim cemetary.  (It includes a link to a petition should anyone be interested.)  This is the type of stuff that should drive people nuts.  But, given that Simon Weisenthal was a Holocaust survivor will you automatically be labelled an anti-Semite if you say anything?  Or, because the cemetary is significant to Muslims are we just supposed to overlook it?

    I don’t know, the whole thing makes me sad.

    BTW, apparently Hillary is supposed to meet with Netanyahu prior to his/her speech before AIPAC, FWIW.

  4. one point i would add on to,

    Because those who rebuilt it cast it as a symbol of exclusivist Jewish claims to Jerusalem, not merely a site of Jewish prayer and study.

    i’d say that the geographic location of the jewish quarter is as large a problem as anything else in the matter of jerusalem. dividing jerusalem is perfectly fine in theory, but how does that happen when the holiest jewish sites are in areas the palestinians lay claim to? moreover, the fact that jews were denied access to the wall prior to 67 when it was does not help to ease worries in that regard. to go from this:

    to this:

    makes me believe that the issue of jerusalem is probably one of the stickier points in a peace plan.

  5. Good news. The pressure from Hillary has led to a climbdown by Bibi, though some of the compromises are being hidden, to save his sorry face.

    Diplomats said some of the concessions by Netanyahu were being made public and others were being kept private to allow him to save face.

    The climbdown is politically awkward for Netanyahu, coming a few days after he publicly said that no Israeli government in the past 42 years had given a promise not to build in East Jerusalem. He will face particular criticism from his rightwing coalition partners.

    Netanyahu held a long meeting with cabinet colleagues on Wednesday night to discuss the concessions he would have to make.

    Obama and Clinton stand to gain from the Israeli retreat, which will help their reputation among the Palestinians and in the Arab world. They were left looking weak after a similar stand-off with Israel last September when peace talks failed to get under way.

    The US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, cancelled a trip to Israel this week in protest, but is to resume his visit on Sunday. Clinton is to see Netanyahu in Washington next week.

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