Cultural Appropriation and Politics in the Middle East

In a region where digging in your backyard can provoke serious public reactions (against and for), appropriation of cultural landmarks has become (no surprise) weaponized.


The burial place of Abram, Sarah, Yitzhak, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. According to Jewish tradition, it is the site of the first land purchase in Canaan, as described in the Bible which records the transaction between Abraham and Elon the Hitite. Since Arabs consider themselves descendants of Abraham (Ibrahim) and Hagar, they consider the burial place Holy to them as well. The current building recognizes an initial building built by Herod the Great and successive additions by Romans, Byzantins, and Muslims.

Here is the problem: in a region troubled by permanent conflict, it appears that each group believes that if a site is Holy to others, it takes away from the holiness they themselves adscribe to the site. For Arabs, the site cannot be Holy to Jews because Ibrahim (Abraham) was the first Muslim. For Jews, Arabs are only trying to take away a Jewish Holy site where the first of the Hebrew Patriarcs is buried.

Funny thing is that the Bible records that after Abraham's death, Ismael and Yitzhak mourned their father at the site together...

Jerusalem/Al Quds - Temple Mount/Haram Al Shariff

Jerusalem is holy to Jews as the place of the first and second Temples, and it has a strong meaning as the center of the United Israelite Kingdom and later the Kingdom of Judah. It occupies a central place in Jewish prayers and in the Jewish story of the future coming of the Messiah.

Jerusalem is holy to Christians as the place of Jesus ministry, death and resurrection. It should be pointed out that Jesus came to Jerusalem as part of the annual pilgrimages mandatory for Jews by Biblical command. IN other words, the Christian meaning of Jerusalem is derived of its Jewish meaning.

Jerusalem is holy to Muslims as the place of Muhammad's ascencion to heaven after the Night Journey. Like all sites associated with Muhammad's life, this makes it holy to them. In addition, Muslims refer to Jerusalem as the "First Qibblah" (the first orientation for prayer in Muslim tradition). As Muslims consider David, Solomon, and Jesus as Prophets,their association with Jerusalem also lend holines to the city. The choice of Jerusalem as the place for Muhammad's ascencion is directly related to the holiness of the Mountain, derived from Jewish holiness. The holiness derived from Jesus association with the city and the Temple is derived from Christian meaning.

In other words, Jerusalem acquired Holiness in stages. Each successive religion added a layer of meaning to the city without eliminating the others - until now. Palestinian protestations that Jews have no connection to the city is part of the theory that only one group can claim a connection. Same can be said about the attitude of the Faithful of the Third Temple.

I could go on with so many sites in what is today Israel, the Palestinian territories and even other countries in the MIddle East (Arabs appropriated the tombs of Jonah and Daniel as well). The point is that in Human history, each group that takes over an area appropriates the Holy sites of the previous rulers and attach to them new meaning:

The Inca Temple an holy sites in Peru, The Ibn Shushan Synagogue in Toledo (today the Church of Santa Maria La Blanca), etc are examples of how a conquering group appropriates and rededicates the holy sites of the defeated party for their own purposes. During the Spanish conquest of America, many rituals of the Inca, Aymara, Chibcha and Aztec civilizations were incorporated into combined forms of religious observance. The Arabs, in their expansion through the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, incorporated elements of the conquered cultures. The Greeks of antiquity were the masters of cultural appropriation with the creation of Helenism.

Cultural appropriation is a normal phenomenon of Human history. Making any one meaning of a site the only valid one, is a phenomenon of the zero sum game that seems dominate today's political culture. Can we accept that what is Holy to us can be Holy to others as well? That is one of the litmus tests of our days...


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