Why Rachel's Tomb Matters

By Alex Joffe
Friday, November 19, 2010

All cultures build on what came before them. But how they treat the past is a measure of cultures in the present. The treatment by Muslims of Rachel's tomb, lately much in the news, is a case in point.

Genesis 35:19-20 states: "And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day." While references in the biblical books of Samuel and Jeremiah seem to place the tomb north of Jerusalem, subsequent traditions accept the southerly location specified in Genesis. Through the centuries, Jewish and Christian travelers and pilgrims often visited the site near Bethlehem and remarked on its pillar, made of eleven stones symbolizing the tribes of Israel, named after the sons of Jacob (excluding the twelfth and youngest, Benjamin, the ordeal of whose birth occasioned his mother Rachel's death).  Of course, we cannot know whether the site is "really" the burial place of Rachel, the "eternal mother," but it was firmly engraved as such in Jewish and Christian consciousness.

Islam reached Jerusalem in 638 C.E. Though scholars debate whether and to what extent the event qualifies as a "conquest," there can be little doubt that it brought about a cultural disjuncture. Earlier conquerors and regimes, most notably the Romans and Byzantines, had wreaked their havoc, but they had acknowledged the past even as they erased it. Thus, in renaming the land "Palaestina" in order to sever the Jewish link, the Romans were ironically driven to a term derived from the Bible that simultaneously affirmed that link. They were similarly unsuccessful in renaming Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolia and denying Jews the right to reside there; Jews lived and worshiped elsewhere, but Jerusalem continued to be the center of their faith.

As for the Christian Byzantines, they built churches over the remains of Jewish shrines and synagogues. This was theft, but the linear connection of Judaism to Christianity was never denied; even though church fathers from Paul onward devised practical and theological ways to increase the distance between the two faiths, the connection remained strong.

Islam, however, was different. In setting out to remake the world in large ways and small, it enjoyed a singular advantage over the Romans. As an offshoot of both Judaism and Christianity, and one purporting to be the final revelation, it not only incorporated the parent traditions but claimed them as its own, mining the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels for stories and personalities that were then Islamified. Abraham, for instance, became the first Muslim, a prophet and ancestor of Muhammad through Hagar. The brief word for this is usurpation.  In a concluding step, the originating communities were then accused of having corrupted their own texts. 

So too with the landscape itself. The building of mosques on the Temple Mount was the most salient act, planting the flag of Islam on Judaism's holiest site and making it forever irretrievable. This was standard procedure. In India, thousands of Hindu temples were destroyed and thousands more converted into mosques. The Parthenon in Athens went from Byzantine and Orthodox church to Ottoman mosque and then Ottoman ammunition dump. Zoroastrian temples and Jewish synagogues met the same fate. Even the Kaaba in Mecca was originally a pagan shrine. Few of these are likely to be returned to their original owners.

Rachel's tomb marks a partial exception to the rule. The Russian deacon Zosimos, who visited the site around 1421, described the building as a mosque, but in 1615 Mohammad, Pasha of Jerusalem, rebuilt it on behalf of the Jews and issued a firman granting them exclusive use. In modern times, as chronicled recently by the Israeli journalist Nadav Shragai, Jewish possession was confirmed more than once by the Ottoman rulers; in 1841, Moses Montefiore gained official Ottoman permission to renovate the site.

Then, during the period of the British mandate, Muslim claims were again put forward and taken seriously. And in the 1990's, during the Oslo period, the tomb became a bone of contention between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). As Shragai points out, the PA largely ignored the site in its official publications, but in 1996 it began to refer to the tomb as the mosque of Bilal ibn Rabah—the name of an Ethiopian slave in Muhammad's household who according to Islamic tradition was buried in Damascus. Which brings us back to the present.

Early this year, the Netanyahu government listed Rachel's tomb in a formal inventory of Jewish heritage sites on both sides of the "Green Line"—a decision that predictably enraged Palestinians. Now UNESCO, no less predictably, has declared the site a mosque (and, for good measure, pronounced the cave of the patriarchs in Hebron to be the "Ibrahimi mosque"). The Palestinian claim has spread far across the Muslim world. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a Saudi newspaper in March that the cave of the patriarchs and Rachel's tomb "were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites."

To be sure, official Palestinian denial of the Jewish past and hence of the Jewish connection to Israel is nothing new. Yasir Arafat famously assured Bill Clinton that there had never been a Jewish temple in Jerusalem—a position shared by Ikrima Sabri, the mufti of Jerusalem, as well as by Hassan Ali Khater, editor-in-chief of the Al Quds Al-Sharif Encyclopedia, the current Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, and others. The Israeli scholar Yitzhak Reiter has documented at length the modern Islamic tradition according to which Jerusalem was never associated with the Jews.

As against this behavior, Israel itself has been repeatedly willing to sacrifice "heritage" in the name of peace. Thus, the Israeli supreme court recently denied a suit brought to stop the Islamic wakf's unsupervised construction work on the Temple Mount. Instead, the state has chosen to let the evisceration of the site continue, just as it earlier chose to look the other way as the wakf excavated and cleared space for underground mosques. Whatever prudential considerations may lie behind such decisions, they have hardly served to discourage the Palestinian tactic of creating supposed facts on the ground—as with the recent overnight appearance of Muslim "graves" on the proposed site of a Jerusalem museum.

It is true that Muslims are not alone in the impulse to deny Jews their past: consider the regularity with which Jewish cemeteries continue to be vandalized in Christian Europe. But Islam seems especially intent on erasing Jews from history on theological grounds. Flashpoints like Rachel's tomb (or "Ezekeiel's tomb" near the site of ancient Babylon) are especially vulnerable because they represent personages specifically claimed by Islam, but they are joined by houses of worship like the Great Synagogue in Oran, Algeria, seized and converted into a mosque in 1960, and communal buildings like the Haim Benchimol hospital in Tangiers, suddenly seized and torn down this year. Admittedly, there are showcase exceptions: the Maimonides synagogue in Cairo, the tiny Jewish communities in Morocco and Tunisia, preserved as if in amber for their considerable value as tourist destinations. But the vast number of sites that formed the living fabric of Jewish life—the cemeteries, synagogues, and schools, not to mention homes and places of work—are forever lost.

When it comes to the Jews, Christian Europe is today schizophrenic, embracing the destroyed Jewish past while incubating bilious subcurrents of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Islam, by contrast, is almost uniformly negative, and its stubborn denial of the Jewish past is hardly a hopeful sign for the present. Recognizing the theological roots of this Islamic disposition is an important corrective to fashionable but gauzy notions of Jewish-Muslim convivencia in the gardens of medieval Andalusia, and even more so to the notion that the Arab-Israeli conflict today is merely a matter of territorial or national rivalry.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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