In the West Bank city of Nablus, Arabs rioted on Thursday. Were they complaining about Jewish settlements or the lack of a Palestinian state? No. Their issue was the fact that a group of Jews had entered the city, and as is their right under agreements concluded with the Palestinian Authority, sought to pray at the Tomb of Joseph, an ancient Jewish site of worship. Palestinians threw rocks and burned tires. But Israeli troops defended the pilgrims and, thanks to the army’s efforts to prevent injuries on either side, no Palestinians were reported hurt. This wasn’t the first time Palestinians sought to prevent Jews from praying at the tomb. There was a similar incident in February. Prior to that, the tomb and the synagogue that encompasses it were burned last October as well as in 2000 in a bloody riot at the start of the second intifada.
Why can’t the Palestinians accept the site of Jews praying at an ancient site? It has nothing to do with arguments about borders, settlements or statehood. It’s the same reason they treat Jewish prayer on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount — the holiest site in Judaism — to be a declaration of war on Islam. It’s a function of a narrative in which the presence of Jews in any part of the country is seen as offensive and a challenge to national pride. It’s also the reason why the Palestinians and their allies managed to get UNESCO to pass a resolution that denied any connection between the Temple Mount and the Western Wall and Judaism or the Jewish people.
As Yossi Klein Halevi noted in an insightful article published last week in the Los Angeles Times, the whole point of this campaign is to deny Jews not only a state but also the right to their own history and faith. If Passover, which concludes this weekend, is the annual festival of freedom, in which the story of the Exodus from Egypt commemorates the birth of the Jewish people, the purpose of the anti-Zionists and anti-Semites that deny Jews rights in Jerusalem, Nablus or anywhere in the holy land, is to erase the entire Jewish story. They do it because only by denying the narrative of Jewish history that validates the rights of Jews to sovereignty in their ancient homeland can you achieve their goal of delegitimizing the modern state of Israel. If you accomplish that goal, you can not only convince a credulous world that a democratic Jewish majority nation is an “apartheid state,” but also deny Jews self-defense and allow hate-driven terrorists to be glorified as heroes and martyrs fighting for human rights.
One doesn’t have to agree with Jewish settlements or even think it wise for Jews to want to pray on the Temple Mount or even at a shrine inside an Arab city like Nablus to understand that defending those rights involves more than just religious issues or the desires of some to act in a manner that some think is provocative. The current Palestinian campaign of hate has its origins in canards about Jews harming Muslim holy sites but what is at stake is not a question of defending mosques but denying the Jewish connection to Jerusalem or any spot in Israel as well as the West Bank.
Liberals who sympathize with Israel wish that Jews would stop praying in Nablus and shut up about the Temple Mount, just as they would like to see West Bank settlements removed. But the Palestinian goal isn’t different rules for prayer at holy places or even a state with a border that might conform to the pre-June 1967 reality when Jews were denied the right to pray at the Western Wall. It is, as both Hamas and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas have both said, reversing the “occupation” that began in 1948, not 1967.
Keeping the peace in Jerusalem and Nablus is a serious problem and Israeli authorities are working to do just that even if it means adhering to rules that discriminate against Jews like the prayer ban Israel enforces on the Temple Mount. But as the UNESCO vote and the Nablus riots remind us, the issue isn’t where Jews may pray. It’s whether Jews have any rights at all. And that is a fight from which all decent persons who claim to oppose anti-Semitism should not shrink from.