Muslims clash with Israeli police at Jerusalem holy site. Commentary

AP Photo, Mahmoud Illean

On the morning of Sunday, August 11, 2019 clashes broke out among Muslim protesters and Israeli police on Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif. This happened in relation to the confluence of Holy Days among Muslims and Jews, Eid Al Adha for Muslims, commemorating the end of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and Tisha B’Av, the Jewish fast day when Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple, one of which stood at the current site of Masjid Al-Aqsa, as well as other tragic events in Jewish history.

At least 61 Muslim worshipers were injured, and at least four police officers wounded, at the time of this writing.

This development is unnecessary and upsetting. Leaders in all areas, and from all communities had more than sufficient advance warning of the confluence of these Holy Days. Care and preparation at levels to meet a day so obviously rife with potential for conflict plainly were lacking. There should have been close collaboration for an extended period of time, among leaders from all communities, and all sectors of social leadership including religious leaders, political leaders, and leaders of security forces.

The goal among these responsible figures should have been to ensure the opportunity for worshipers of every community to be able to fulfill their sacred devotions and religious duties in an environment of serenity and order. This should be the starting goal, followed by meetings to hash out plans to get us all to this ideal, or as close as possible.

In this all from among all responsible, religious leaders are most central. Leaders from all related religions should be the preeminent peace-minded force in discussions and preparations. If they attained such a status and behavior, political and security leaders could work closely and intimately with these peace oriented, multi-religious bodies.

There is no excuse for any religious leader to perpetrate the spirit of division and hostility. But this is exactly what happened. This is a disgrace, and a black mark on religion. Political leaders have the right to work in close consultation with peace oriented and skilled religious figures, and to be able to seek guidance from these very people who should best be positioned to explain the subtle and elusive sensitivities of their respective believing communities. Sadly, in the absence of spiritual leaders harmonized across the boundaries of tradition, political and security leaders are left without help or insight. This is angering.

Enlightened, peace oriented spiritual leaders should be in constant collaboration, committed and laboring to find and implement designs for harmonious co-living, and should be discovering and developing ways to support the needs of each others’ believers. Permanently engaged multi-religious leadership groups naturally would be all over a Holy Day like this. Preparations would be as normal and as plain and obvious as putting a banister on a steep staircase. The need is blatantly obvious. The problem however is that people who should lead in common sense ways for peace, are too busy perpetrating sectarianism, and narrow, parochial perversions of their respective traditions, rather than investing to show the beauty and elegance of religious belief and life. A multi-religious leadership group has all the resources necessary to envision ways to help believers have a good experience when Holy Days happen to hit at the same time in a delicate place. If such groups existed, politicians would not avoid involving and engaging spiritual leaders in social and civic affairs.

These are not facile and naive recommendations in response to this clash. Of course this rare confluence of Holy Days (Tisha B’av and Eid Al Hadr) seems almost custom built to cause eruption and clash in such an unusual and tender place as Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif. Yes, this event unfolds in perhaps the most complex and intractable center of tension in our current world. And yes, ultimately the roots of these long-standing problems must be addressed. But tending to this long term need does not mean that we cannot engage creatively and constructively, seeking solutions for particular needs and challenges like we witnessed Sunday.

If conscientious experts in the mission of religious and spiritual leadership dedicated themselves in focused and sustained ways, making systematic efforts to analyze and recommend long-term solutions to the challenges unique to the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem, they naturally would anticipate calendar realities such as Sunday, and naturally could prayerfully and practically provide intuitive and insightful preparation, plans, and elegant contingencies. They could guide not only political and security leaders, but also the messaging of their own leaders on local levels.

For those not familiar with the subtleties and complex labyrinth of sensitivities surrounding Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif, a huge issue has to do with the rights of non-Muslims to visit this sacred area.

Sadly, sensitivity is wildly intensified if the visiting group or individuals in question are Jews.

It is likely however, that this heightened sensitivity to Jews is more politically driven than religious, and pertains to “occupation” narrative, political activism. This precise area of Masjid Al-Aqsa sits just atop the Western Wall, the sacred prayer space of Jews. These few square feet on our planet is the white hot center of this political and historical clash. It actually is a testament to good that a fragile peace obtains in this vicinity the vast percentage of the time.

There need never be clashes like we saw Sunday. Genuine, spiritual and religious leaders should be the ones most naturally in tune with the religious and spiritual needs of our brothers and sisters from traditions different from my own. Theoretically, a faithful, practicing Muslim should be way ahead in her ability to understand Jewish life and needs. A Muslim should, far more naturally be friend to a Jewish believer than even the sweetest person who has no religion in her life. It should not be even a tiny bit difficult for any religious person to understand that believers in other traditions are sensitive about their places of worship. How hard is that?

The Jewish Holy Day Tisha B’av is a time when Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple, including one that stood on Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif. Should it really be that difficult to guess what goes on in the heart of a believer at such a time? A Muslim should not have a hard time figuring that out. A Hindu should not have a hard time figuring that out. I know how I’d feel on such a day, if there was a Holy Day like that in my religion.

Isn’t it common sense that Jews would like to visit that area? Why can’t that be worked out? Why don’t both religious leaders and political leaders from both communities work together and figure out the best way to tend to the needs and sensitivities of the greatest number of people?

A small number of Jews visited for a short time, and were met with danger, as people began to throw chairs and other objects at them. Police acted to protect them. So ugly and dark, to be happening on hallowed ground. Times such as this provide the opportunity for religions to look their very best. How wonderful Muslim worshipers would have looked had they offered a kind welcome to Jewish visitors trying to make a devotional offering on a Holy Day? If everyone was looking for a way, a workable plan could have been devised, and leaders could have used the occasion to guide their respective constituents. Jewish visitors could be educated about how best to behave and understand, and gratefully honor those who welcomed them. Muslims could learn the heart of the Jew as she ponders her history, and could learn why such a day of commemoration is needed in Jewish life. Police could learn more deeply about both communities whom they are sworn to protect.

The ideal of generosity and hospitality is paramount in Muslim life and culture. Additionally, there is much in the teaching about genteel embrace and ideals of dialogue and conversation with non-Muslim believers.

How beautiful will it be if we come to see the day when worshipers of all religions look upon one another as fellow travelers, and are naturally, if not especially sensitive to the religious needs and experiences of believers from other traditions. If I learned that there is a Muslim Holy Day, and that Muslims around me needed a place to offer their prayers and devotions, I would hope that my simple and normal reaction would be to open up my church, or my house, or my temple. Doesn’t this seem like what normally should be understood as “religious behavior?” Or, a “religious” thing to do? My hope would be that as a Jew, or a Hindu, or a Christian, I’d be knocking people over, trying to get people to come pray in my church, or house or temple. What other way could there possibly be to practice my religion? Help somebody who needs something. Is this that complicated?

Then afterwards, on the way out, the worshipers leaving my Mosque, or my temple of course would say “thank you?” And “Please be sure to come pray by us, if ever you need?”

I am not being simplistic in my call and expectation for religious leaders to teach in this way. The call is nothing more than to put spirituality, and religious ideals first in my teachings, and in what I expect my fellow adherents to do as a result of their religious lives.

All leaders in Israel and Jerusalem should have been working together for months in anticipation of these Holy Days. They should have had as their goal for as many people as possible to be able to offer their sacred devotions in a serene and welcoming environment.

Once this is the goal and purpose, led primarily by consortia of enlightened religious leaders from multiple traditions, then the next step naturally would be for politicians, security forces, and others to work in concert to realize these goals, and effectively take up meeting the practical challenges of trying to make such an outcome happen. We try our best, get as close as we can, and promise to do better next time.

I am saddened for the trouble Sunday. I pray this will pass quickly, and that nothing more will escalate from this. I pray for those who were hurt and injured. And I pray we can work more conscientiously and sincerely for outcomes that demonstrate simple decency, care, generosity, and hospitality toward all, even those with the strongest of differences to us.

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