- Narratives of Jerusalem and its Sacred Compound
While theorists of nationalism have described the masses as followers of elites who imagine or invent identities for them, it can be argued that the creators of nations have had to act within the framework of the popular culture and consciousness. They must be acquainted from the outset with religious, linguistic and cultural traditions and have to contend with them before they can begin to shape them according to their aims.1
Religion is thus an effective cultural element, one which nation-builders employed during the pre-modern era as well. Religious symbols, declarations of the homeland as sacred territory and processes of sanctification of the nation, the nation’s founding fathers, national heroes, and areas of the military front, have been effective tools via which nationalist elites have, consciously or unconsciously, imagined composed narratives, and activated and mobilized their nations.2
This article deals with the employment of religious symbols for national identities and national narratives by using the sacred compound in Jerusalem (The Temple Mount/al-Aqsa) as a case study. The narrative of The Holy Land involves three concentric circles, each encompassing the other, with each side having its own names for each circle. These are: Palestine/Eretz Israel (i.e., the Land of Israel); Jerusalem/al-Quds and finally The Temple Mount/al-Aqsa compound. The innermost circle—the sacred compound in Jerusalem—is the paramount issue. It is a central symbol of national and religious identity for both sides, and therefore the element of greatest conflict. The battle over the myths and narratives surrounding this compound, as well as the middle circle of Jerusalem as a whole, serve as a vehicle to support the meta-narrative of both Israelis and Palestinians over the outer circle—the right to the Holy Land, to Palestine/Eretz Israel.
Within the struggle over public awareness of Jerusalem’s importance, one particular site is at the eye of the storm—the Temple Mount and [End Page 115] its Western Wall—the Jewish Kotel—or, in Muslim terminology, the al-Aqsa compound (alternatively: al-Haram al-Sharif) including the al-Buraq Wall.3 From both the Jewish and the Muslim points of view, the Foundation Stone, the Rock adorned with the golden dome, is the “Rock of our existence”—a symbol of religious-national identity—and thus also (as it were) the “stone” of contention.
The site’s status as a sacred space makes it the natural focal point of the power struggle, including claims to sovereignty, efforts to exclude the opposing group and to claim recognition and inclusion. This situation is all the more true when the site in question lies at the center of a national conflict between two peoples who also represent, to a great extent, two essentially different religions and cultures. “Al-Aqsa” for the Palestinian-Arab-Muslim side is not merely a mosque mentioned in the Qur’an within the context of the Prophet Muhammad’s miraculous Night Journey to al-Aqsa which, according to tradition, concluded with his ascension to heaven (and prayer with all of the prophets and the Jewish and Christian religious figures who preceded him); rather, it also constitutes a unique symbol of identity, one around which various political objectives may be formulated, plans of action drawn up and masses mobilized for their realization.4
Thus, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims are actors in the field of religiously-inspired political activity. The Jewish party to the conflict is active in this area on several planes: the first of which is that of ideology. Zionism as a national movement bears an inherent religious message which poses a challenge to Arabs and Muslims. Zion is Jerusalem and the return to Zion—as well as the ingathering of exiles in the Holy Land—is based on historical justifications taken from sacred writings (God’s promise to Abraham) and has been granted legitimacy by the Christian world which accepts the Old Testament—to widespread Muslim displeasure.
The second plane is that of the struggle for the Holy Land and for the holy sites. Despite the Israeli government’s secular nature, one cannot overlook the...