The desecration of holy sites, rather than atrocities committed against people, may turn out to be the most resounding disaster of the past weeks of violence in the Middle East.
Even if the international community succeeds in dragging the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table following Tuesday’s cease-fire agreement in Egypt, the acts of sacrilege may prove a huge new obstacle to any final peace accord.
True, what is being referred to here as the “Al-Aksa Intifada” will go down in history as the first time this nation witnessed a lynching live on television. The sight of two of its soldiers beaten and bludgeoned to death in Ramallah on Oct. 12 has been seared onto the consciousness of the Israeli people forever.
Similarly, the televised image of the 12-year-old boy dying in his father’s arms in the Gaza Strip, under a hail of Israeli army bullets, has become the collective nightmare of millions of Palestinians. It, too, will linger long in their national consciousness and will doubtless make efforts to resume a peaceful dialogue all the more difficult.
But humankind has proved itself almost infinitely resilient in its ability to, if not forgive, then at least put out of mind terrible atrocities and acts of cruelty perpetrated in wartime.
The aftermath of World War II is one obvious example. The currently flourishing U.S.-Vietnamese relationship is an even more recent illustration of the capacity of nations to start over and collectively repress scenes of carnage and devastation in the interests of striving for a brighter national and international future.
But while human memory may be notoriously short and fickle, such is not true of the collective memories of religions. They are much, much longer.
Acts of violence carried out against religions are sometimes assimilated by the victim-religion and indeed sometimes, too, by the aggressor-religion into the theological or mystical ethos of that religion.
The recent weeks have witnessed unprecedented acts of sacrilege by Muslims against Judaism, and by Jews against Islam:
In Nablus, the Tomb of Joseph, traditionally the site of the burial place of Jacob’s favorite son, was sacked and set on fire by a Palestinian mob after the Israeli army pulled out, following a week of incessant gun battles around the site. Subsequently, the Hamas militants attempted to turn the site into a mosque, though this has been stopped for the moment. Again, the fact that the desecration was committed live on camera may have made it infinitely more potent and destructive.
In response, a Jewish mob twice tried to torch an old, nonfunctioning mosque in the center of Tiberias.
Last week, Palestinian youths set light to the ancient Jewish synagogue in Jericho. Here, there had been no fighting, no violence, no unrest at all. There was no provocation or pretext; it was an act of pure desecration of the other side’s religion.
For the Palestinians, of course, the fatal shooting of between five and seven demonstrators on the Temple Mount by the Israeli police on Sept. 29 was itself an act of desecration. Their blood flowed out upon the sacred stones of what the Muslims, for 1,300 years, have called the Haram As-Sharif, or Noble Precinct, the third holiest site in their faith.
The demonstrators were violent. They threw stones over the Western Wall, seeking to hit the Jews in the plaza below. They threw stones at the police.
Possibly, a better disciplined police force would have been able to control them without killing some half-dozen of them and wounding 200 more. It was in response to that carnage that the new uprising broke out across the Palestinian territories and inside Israel, too.
But the shooting, unfortunate though it was, was not deliberately directed against the faith of Islam. It was directed against persons who were thought to be endangering Jews’ lives.
In Nablus, in contrast, the young men with hammers and crowbars smashing at the stones of Joseph’s Tomb’s rounded roof were smashing at the Jewish religion.
So were the arsonists in Tiberias attacking the Islamic faith. And so were the unprovoked assailants in Jericho when they set the old synagogue alight.
The series of desecrations is doubly noteworthy because these two faiths, Judaism and Islam, have never been theological enemies.
Unlike Christianity, which for centuries professed to replace Judaism as God’s elected religion, Islam broadly respected the older religion and was accorded respect in return.
Maimonides, the leading medieval Jewish codifier, ruled that Islam is not to be seen under Jewish religious law as a form of idolatory.
Christianity, in contrast, was – even though Jews through much of the last two millennia were careful not to say so openly.
Indeed it is ironic that just months after Pope John Paul II’s March visit to Israel did much to heal the ancient bitterness between these two religions, a new and ominous rift should threaten to open between Judaism and Islam.
“I’m not at all religious,” said one leading Israeli newsman speaking privately. “I thought Joseph’s Tomb meant nothing to me.
“But when I saw them violating it,” he said, “I experienced feelings I did not know I had inside me. These things are very deep.”
On the practical plane, the acts of sacrilege will make it hard for the two sides to trust each other to guard each others’ holy places in any future peace agreement or interim arrangement.
The attacks in Nablus, Jericho and Tiberias were all betrayals of that religious trust which, it had been hoped, transcended even political enmity.
Israelis were reminded of the wilful desecration that the Jordanians perpetrated in the Jewish synagogues and cemeteries of eastern Jerusalem and the Old City after the Israeli War of Independence in 1948.
It is also uncertain if the religious resentment created by this behavior will not make the Jewish and Muslim protagonists too bitter to restart negotiations.