[ by Charles Cameron — a question of what makes “holy ground” holy? ]
For the first twenty days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, an unusual calm prevailed on Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade – known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary or the Al-Aqsa Mosque. This was largely a result of Israel and Jordan implementing four commitments agreed eighteen months ago to keep the peace through mutual limits on access.
Yet on 26 June, the beginning of the most sacred and sensitive part of Ramadan, Israel changed an informal, recent additional restriction on access to the site. Violence broke out. It exposed once again the root of the controversy: diverging perceptions between Israelis, Jordanians (whose Waqf charitable foundation administers the Esplanade) and Palestinians over who should be able to visit the site and when.
In the last five years Israel had prevented the entry of Jews and other non-Muslims during precisely the last ten days of Ramadan. This was in order to reduce the risk of escalation when Muslims worshippers often number many tens of thousands. This year, however, Israel’s Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan allowed non-Muslim entry on the 10th day before the end of Ramadan.
Erdan was not just facing pressures to reverse the ban on access after a quiet start to the month. Israeli decision-makers also saw it as correcting of a temporary and self-imposed constraint. They feared that the de facto ban would become part of the informal status quo. Jordanians and Palestinians, for their part, saw it as a violation of what had become an established norm.
Stuart Levy, a nurse at a Jerusalem hospital, updates his ward’s work schedule several times a week, with staffers’ vacations, birthdays and more religious holidays than many people know exist.
“We have 18 hospital beds, and on any given day we may have an Orthodox Jew next to a devout Muslim next to a Catholic next to a Druze next to a Russian Orthodox patient,” said Levy, head nurse of the oncology/hematology ward at Hadassah Medical Center-Ein Kerem. “And many of our staff are religiously observant.”
During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that began on June 7, Levy asks Jewish nurses to work evening shifts whenever possible to allow Muslim nurses to break their fasts at home. Non-Jewish nurses reciprocate by working on Jewish holidays.
While many may think Israel is a land of conflict, the hospital is but one example of inter-religious harmony, a pocket of peaceful co-existence.
Echoing Exodus 3:5, in which Moses is about to move towards the burning bush, Acts 7:33 reads:
Put off thy shoes from thy feet: for the place where thou standest is holy ground.
What makes ground holy? And specifically, which of these two sites in Jerusalem is hallowed, and how?
Doctrinally, the Esplanade is Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount, and Islam’s third holiest, the Noble Sanctuary.
But what if sanctity is a movable feast, invoked by the deeds of those who are present at a certain place and time?
At times it seems as though surgery heals what prayer tears apart…