Status Quo

A few days ago, I participated in an extremely interesting walking tour in the Old City of Jerusalem, sponsored by the Jerusalem District Committee of the Israel Bar Association. This was a tour with a difference – focusing on the legal rights over the holy sites in the Capital. As I have already written many posts about the rights of Jews vis-a-vis Muslims, I propose to devote this particular post to the squabbles between the various Christian denominations over the rights to their holy places, as well as penning a few words about “The Wars of the Jews” over our own. On the way, I invite my readers to join me on a tour.

I would say that almost three fifths of the five-hour-long tour were devoted to what I described as “the squabbles” of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox Churches over the Christian holy sites, and, chief among them, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In point of fact, the word “squabbles” is a masterpiece of understatement. The various sects and denominations have frequently come to fisticuffs over such earth-shaking matters as the right to clean a particular step, or pillar. For example, there is a stairway leading up from the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre directly to the Chapel of Golgotha. Once upon a time, the Franciscans had direct access to the Chapel, via that stairway and a door which is now permanently locked. The bottom “stair” is only a couple of centimetres high,  leading to claims by (if I remember rightly) the Greek Orthodox Church, which has the right to clean the pavement in front of the entrance, that it is not a step at all, but actually part of the pavement, whereas the (Latin) Franciscans, who “own” the rights to the stairway, naturally claim that it is a stair.

Another curiosity is the ladder which rests on a ledge outside one of the windows on the Church’s facade. Apparently, there was a period during the 19th century when the Ottomans closed the doors of the Church but the monks of the various denominations refused to leave for fear that some other denomination would sneak back and “steal” their rights over this area or that area of the historic building. (As we shall see later, their fear was not unfounded. Such things have happened.)

Ladder in front of Holy Sepulchre for feeding monks

During this time, food was delivered to the monks via ladders, hatchways, and so on. The ladder was not left on the ledge permanently, but was put out and later removed, as required. But, one day, in 1852, the Ottoman rulers issued a firman (decree) which perpetuated the status quo and since, at the moment the decree took effect, the ladder happened to be outside on the ledge, it remained on the ledge since the status quo could not now be altered! Since then, the ladder has required upkeep, including painting, but it cannot be removed, because any change in the status quo would cause an international incident.

This version of the story, which was relayed to us by our guide, is actually only one of many tales surrounding the origins of “the Immovable Ladder”.

Doorway of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

In the pictures above, you can see the double doors of the left hand doorway to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The right hand doorway has been permanently closed, since the time of Salah-e-Din (Saladin), who entrusted the keys of the church to two prominent Muslim families (Nusseibeh and Joudeh) – a wise move, as otherwise, the Christian denominations would, no doubt, have fought over who had the right to hold on to the keys. Representatives of these families were – and still are – responsible for opening the church in the morning and closing it at night.

And just in case anyone was imagining a tiny little Yale lock and key  – forget it. We are talking here about chunk of iron a foot long, and a lock placed so high in the door that it can only be reached by climbing a ladder!

Now, for the benefit of my Christian readers, here are a few pictures taken inside the Church which, as the site of the Crucifixion, is naturally the holiest place in Christendom.

First of all, the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic altars in the Chapel of Golgotha:

Golgotha Chapel - Greek Orthodox side

Golgotha Chapel Site of the Crucifixion - Catholic side

I always thought Catholic churches were particularly magnificent, what with their frescoes and paintings and statues, but this is nothing compared to the opulence of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

Next, the Stone of the Anointing (Unction), on which it is said that Jesus’ body was anointed and prepared for burial, after he was taken down from the cross.

Stone of the Anointing

In the main part of the church, our guide pointed out a pillar of which three quarters belong to one denomination and one quarter to another denomination. By “belong”, I mean that a specific denomination “has the right to clean”. I can’t for the life of me remember which denominations were involved, but I can tell you that, according to our guide, a few years ago, there was an incident when a monk from the denomination owning three-quarters dared to clean the side of the pillar (it’s a square pillar) belonging to the rival denomination, with the result that monks from the two factions came to blows in what can only be described as a very unchristian fashion. Needless to say, nobody was prepared to turn the other cheek.

Whenever matters do get out of hand in this way, the Israeli Police, whose task it is to keep the peace, find themselves caught in the middle and have often been the recipients of blows from both sides. On the Sabbath of Light (Easter Saturday), when the Armenian and Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate the Miracle of the Holy Fire, the church has often been the scene of mass brawls. And not just brawls. On several occasions, there have been stampedes in the packed church, leaving to serious injuries and even to fatalities. Our guide described one of these as being reminiscent of the running of the bulls in Pamplona.  And, lest you should think such violence is confined to the rank and file clergy – think again. In 2002, a brawl actually took place within the shrine housing the supposed place of Jesus’ burial, between the Greek Orthodox patriarch and Armenian bishop, during the Ceremony of the Holy Fire, sparked off by a disagreement over a matter of precedence.

While the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic Churches hold the lion’s share of the “rights” in the church, just behind the Holy Tomb is a tiny Coptic chapel, which, so say the Copts, marks the position of Jesus’ head. They explain (quite reasonably) that the “official” tomb is too small and that the head must therefore have been outside the area demarcated as the official tomb.

Here is a picture of their chapel, with just about room for one monk:

The Coptic Chapel - site of Jesus' head

Vicious as is the fighting between the three biggest denominations (and particularly the Armenian and Greek Orthodox factions), the rivalry between the Coptic and Ethiopian denominations can be equally fierce. International politics plays no small part in this, with Egypt supporting the Coptic Church against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which broke away from it, although they were originally one church.  The Ethiopian chapel and monastery are actually on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre and they and the Copts have been squabbling over them, with possession passing back and forth for centuries.

This is the Ethiopian chapel:

Ethiopian chapel2

The Ethiopians believe that the Queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian queen who visited King Solomon, spent one night with him and bore him a son, from whom the Emperors of Ethiopia (of whom, Haile Selasse was the last) are said to be descended. On the wall of the chapel is a modern painting, depicting the visit of the Queen of Sheba, with the Jews wearing Hassidic garb!

Ethiopian chapel

According to Ethiopian claims, they once controlled and had rights to portions of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself, but the Copts took advantage of a plague that ravaged the Ethiopian community in the mid-19th century to take over the Ethiopian possessions. Since, at the time the Ottoman Turkish firman came into force, the Copts had the upper hand, the status quo obtaining at that time perpetuated the situation and gave it the force of law. In 1967, when Israel liberated the Old City of Jerusalem in its defensive war against the Jordanians (who were, in any case, occupying the city illegally), the Israeli Government decided to leave the status quo in place for the Christian holy sites, thereby leaving the Copts in possession – until 1970, when the Ethiopians simply changed the locks while the Copts were at prayer, and thus regained possession.  The Copts turned to the Israel Police but the matter dragged out beyond the 30 days within which it is possible to expel a trespasser without a court order. The Copts therefore applied to the Israeli High Court of Justice, but the court ruled that the courts had no jurisdiction over questions of possession and ownership of the holy places and that the government would have to make a political decision. As so often happens in such cases, the government set up a committee to examine the matter.

Over forty years and not a few violent clashes later – the situation is still unresolved.

I come now to the Wars of the Jews. On an observation balcony in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, overlooking the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount and the entrances to the Western Wall, we sat and talked about the “Women of the Wall”. The Women of the Wall are a group of (mainly) Reform Jews, who demand equality at the Western Wall, by which they mean the right of women to pray at the Wall (in the Women’s Courtyard –  they aren’t demanding mixed male and female prayer services at the Wall), while wearing the traditional tallit (prayer-shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) and to read aloud at the Wall from the Sefer Torah. Now, while, traditionally, women do not do these things, because women are exempt from mitzvot (religious duties) which are dependant on time-specific performance,  the Torah does not actually prohibit a woman from performing these mitzvot. You might ask yourselves – as I did: if a woman coming to the Kotel  (the Wall) in a sleeveless blouse or dress, is asked to cover up with a shawl, why should it bother anyone if that shawl is white with blue or black stripes and fringes? As far as I have been able to ascertain, the opposition of the official religious authorities (such as the Rabbi of the Western Wall) to the practice of the Women of the Wall holding their regular Rosh Chodesh  prayer at the Wall stems from the fact that it deviates from Jewish tradition. Tradition often has the strength of Law in Judaism. There is a saying “Tradition, among the Jews, is Law” (Minhag Yisrael, din hu – מנהג בישראל דין הוא).

For several years now, the Israeli Police has been “keeping the peace” by arresting the Women of the Wall rather than the Haredim (ultra-orthodox) Jews who have violently opposed them. The Courts first ruled that the freedom of access to the holy places guaranteed under Israeli law does not necessarily include the right to pray there. Years later, they ruled that freedom of access does include freedom of worship, but added the rider that the Police can, when the circumstances justify it, limit that freedom when such limitation is necessary in order to preserve peace and public safety. This is the same rider by which the Police prevents Jews from praying on the Temple Mount or even entering the Temple Mount with religious artefacts such as prayer-shawls, Torah scrolls or even prayer books. In other words – the Police have been permitted to surrender to a “Heckler’s Veto” – by curtailing the freedom of law-abiding citizens to exercise their rights, for fear of violence by Muslim or ultra-orthodox protesters.

In April this year, the Police again arrested members of Women of the Wall for disturbing public order. It is important to remember that, in all the years that the women have been arrested, they have never been put on trial for anything, thus proving that the aim of the arrest was to prevent them from praying at the Wall, which they traditionally did on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the (lunar) Jewish month. Only this April, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that the women had not violated “the local custom” with their prayer, that their behaviour was not likely to endanger “public safety” and that the Police had acted improperly in arresting them.

The Government finally decided to bestir itself and try to find a solution acceptable to all and the solution they came up with was one suggested some time before by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, to expand the Western Wall Plaza northwards and southwards and that the southernmost area near Robinson’s Arch be allocated for “egalitarian worship”. The Women of the Wall had previously cautiously accepted this idea, as being better than nothing, but, following the District Court ruling, now smelled victory within their grasp and decided on an “all or nothing” policy. The Rabbi of the Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who had previously indicated a grudging acceptance of the Sharansky Plan, also appeared to backtrack.

For the next couple of months, the Women of the Wall exercised their “Right to Pray” as recognised now by the District Court, despite attempts by their ultra-orthodox opponents to prevent this, both by busing-in large numbers of young women and girls from orthodox seminaries to crowd them out, and by more violent means. However, the Police were now forced to protect them. But this month, on Rosh Chodesh Ellul, which fell on Wednesday, the day after our tour, the Police once again herded the Women of the Wall into a smaller, fenced-off section distanced from the Wall, claiming that the main plaza was full (because the ultra-orthodox had brought in thousands of women and girls from their own camp to fill it up).

Is there a solution? Who remembers the Tale of an Orange, from my last post? The task of a good mediator here, is to listen to both sides and try to understand what each of them really wants, and then, to help them understand what they really want.  So I ask – what is it that really bothers the Haredim in the fact that Jewish women want to pray, with tallit and tefillin and Sefer Torah, in the Women’s Section of the Western Wall, where they can’t be seen by the men unless the men are deliberately peering over the top of the mechitza (the partition which divides the Men’s and Women’s Sections)? What is it that impels even the ultra-orthodox women to react so violently to the sight of their sisters praying in a way which, although not traditional, is not prohibited by the Torah?

And what is it that makes the Women of the Wall now insist on the right to pray in the main plaza and that, even before their recent District Court victory, made them give only grudging acceptance to the Sharansky plan?

As an impartial observer, who belongs neither to the Women of the Wall nor to the ultra-orthodox sector, I have to say that to me, it seems that this is a battle about control.  The Women of the Wall (or, at any rate, their leadership and political backers) are determined to show that the Wall belongs to all Jews, not just to the ultra-orthodox. And the ultra-orthodox are just as determined to ensure that “Reform Jewry” doesn’t get so much as a foothold at the Wall, seeing that as the start of a slippery slope, at the end of which, Reform rabbis would have full equality with orthodox rabbis, and be able to perform marriages, grant divorces and carry out conversions – Heaven Forbid! In short, it seems to me that neither side is motivated purely by the desire to uphold the true sanctity of the Kotel.

If both sides really wanted to find a peaceful solution, the Sharansky Plan would – it seems to me – be ideal, when you consider that Robinson’s Arch and the south-western corner of the Western Wall are, in fact, no less holy than the “historic” section of the Wall. Neither site was actually part of the Temple but merely of the  supporting wall built by King Herod the Great to prop up the landfill required for enlarging the Temple Mount two thousand years ago. And, in fact, Robinson’s Arch is actually nearer to the presumed site of the Holy of Holies than is the main section of the Western Wall. The only reason Jews pray at the Kotel is that, for two thousand years, we were prevented by successive waves of conquerors from praying on the Temple Mount – Har Habayit. Now, 46 years after the Old City was liberated by the army of the sovereign State of Israel,  we are still prevented,  by the Government of the State of Israel,  from worshipping on Har Habayit  and we are reduced to squabbling among ourselves over the right to pray at the foot of the retaining wall put in place to hold in a landfill.

How’s that for irony?

Robinson's Arch

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About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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4 Responses to Status Quo

  1. TBM says:

    Sounds like an interesting tour and it would be helpful for me to learn more about the area and the “squabbles.”

  2. JoBeth Winters says:

    We Protestants mostly visit the Garden Tomb, as being more likely to be the site of Christ’s burial and Resurrection. Perhaps you could post some pictures of that.

    • I actually asked our guide about the Garden Tomb. He said that the archaeological evidence made it much less likely that Jesus was buried there, than at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to him, there are tombs from the Second Temple period under the Holy Sepulchre and he took us down to see them, but the Garden Tomb and the tombs thereabout are, apparently, from the First Temple period, which is much too early. He also said that the Protestant pilgrims know this, and visit both tombs – the Holy Sepulchre as being the more likely burial place and the Garden Tomb as having the more “authentic” atmosphere.

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