Religious nationalism fans flames in Jerusalem

The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his book The Social Contract, coined the term Civil Religion. He asserted that “no State has ever been founded without a religious basis,” yet every state should show religious tolerance to everyone. In its more modern interpretation, Civil Religion superficially and dangerously misused religious symbols in the name of national and nationalistic causes. One example thereof can be found in the ill-fated speech that former U.S. President George Bush gave in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Bush referred to the U.S.’s “war on terrorism” as a crusade, which provided clear and scary insight into his perceptions of the world. The call of Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel and his associates to build the third Jewish temple on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is another reminder of the terrifying prospects of mobilising religion to serve an extreme-nationalistic Judgement Day vision. He and his allies, such as the Nemanei Har Habait (Temple Mount Devotees), know that any change in the long standing status quo of sacred places in Jerusalem would inflame relations between Muslims and Jews not only in Jerusalem, but around the world. This is most likely their goal, as they entertain the preposterous belief that divinity is on their side and hence they will gain the upper hand.

Aggravating a situation which is extremely volatile is a folly, which deserves condemnation in the clearest of terms

Yossi Mekelberg

It has to be said that those, including Mr. Ariel, who support the building of the Third Temple on Temple mount are a small minority in the Israeli society. They actually defy most senior Rabbis, who prohibit even visiting the place for religious reasons. These are a mixture of obstinate delusional messianic Jewish zealots and opportunistic politicians, who are after some cheap political capital. In years gone by, the Israeli security forces uncovered sporadic terrorist plots to blow up the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In all cases, the culprits were sent to serve a long term in jail. The current provocations by the more extreme segments of the Israeli coalition government, brought about a rare moment of unity between the Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister Lieberman. The two criticised those who are attempting to change the status quo between Muslims and Jews on Temple Mount. The latest provocation on Haram al-Sharif, prompted more violence in the streets of Jerusalem, protests around the world and the recalling of the Jordanian ambassador in Israel to Amman by his government in protestation. Netanyahu tried to avoid further confrontation with Jordan by personally promising King Abdullah of Jordan that the status quo in the holy places in Jerusalem was not going to be altered.

Volatile situation

Aggravating a situation which is extremely volatile is a folly, which deserves condemnation in the clearest of terms. Doing it right now when the relations between Israelis and Palestinians are reaching a boiling point, is no less than a clear act of iniquitous incitement. Even Lieberman, a politician known for his extreme hawkish views, was quick to call for calm. Lieberman asserted that those who want to change the status quo on Temple Mount are opportunists who exploit the situation for their own political ends. For once I do not intend to contradict what Lieberman says, however, he and his prime minister are sitting in the same government with these warmongers. In the case of Netanyahu, some of these people with extreme views like Moshe Feiglin or Miri Regev are members of his own Likud party. If they are sincere in rejecting a change of the status quo in the holy places, they should take the necessary steps to prevent it. It should be the case of a make or break for the coalition with the Baiyt H’Yehudi (The Jewish Home). They are the major proponents of aggressive policies which are aimed to antagonise the Palestinians and increase conflict with them. It is untenable that Netanyahu would serve in the same government and share a party with those who, by his admission, exacerbate potential conflict not only with the Palestinians but with the entire Muslim world.

It is rare for a serving diplomat to express his consternation in the manner the Israeli ambassador to Jordan this week did when referring to events in Jerusalem. Ambassador Daniel Navo warned that recent violence in the Old City jeopardises the lives of Jews everywhere in the world, let alone put at risk the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom sees itself as the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and any threat to the current arrangements there forces the Jordanian king to act robustly. King Abdullah, similar to his father the late King Hussein, has a personal interest in preserving the status quo in the holy places for political and historical reasons. Considering that the majority of the Jordanian population is Palestinian, any change which even implies a threat to the status quo in the holy places leaves him with no option, but to make his concerns noticed. This harms Israeli interests, as peace and close relations with Jordan are one of the keystones of Israeli security strategy. The tacit alliance between Jordan and Israel is also important for Jordan, but if pushed hard on holy sites in Jerusalem King Abdullah might have to reconsider the peace agreement with Israel.

Far reaching implications

What happens in Jerusalem is never confined to the city itself. It has far reaching implications well beyond its borders. The collapse of the peace process, the expansion of the settlements, the war in Gaza and the recent provocations in Jerusalem triggered the resumption of Palestinian violent resistance. Clashes with Israeli security forces spread also to some of the Arab towns and villages inside Israel. The loss of lives on both sides right now is regrettable and is not going to solve the situation; it will only exacerbate it. It is quite evident that the recent series of stabbings and other fatal attacks on Israelis by Palestinians are sporadic and not orchestrated by any organised Palestinian movements. These individual acts of violence are bred out of hatred, frustration and hopelessness. One can understand the deep frustration among Palestinians due to Israel’s heavy handed policies, which leave them with no hope of seeing the occupation ever come to an end. What does the Israeli government expect them to do, as they see their future state disappear under ever expanding settlements and harsh occupation? On the other hand, what will random attacks on Israeli citizens achieve for the Palestinians? It will taint their image and will result in harsher measures by the Israeli security forces with a very tenuous response from the world.

Both people are rapidly sliding towards a prolonged conflict, which can only empower extremism on both sides. It is time for true leadership to announce itself and prevent it before it gets out of hand. If at any time this conflict needed international proactive involvement it is now. When elected politicians find it acceptable to suggest the building of their “House of God” at the expense of someone else’s without being barred from political life, the future becomes even bleaker. The violence in the streets just serves as a confirmation that in the absence of a political solution, the holy land might engulf itself in another round of violence, and one that is possibly even worse than those in the past. This should not only alarm the Palestinian and Israeli leadership, but should also ring alarm bells around the world.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.


Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
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