New Report Exposes Inequality in Jerusalem “Holy Place” Designations

19 May 2016

NIF grantee Emek Shaveh recently published a new report entitled, “Selectively Sacred: Holy Sites in Jerusalem and its Environs.” The report exposes the ambiguity and confusion around what legally constitutes a “holy place” in Israel. Currently, 16 sites are officially recognized as holy for Jews under the Regulations for the Protection of Holy Place for Jews (a law passed in 1981), while another 160 sites are recognized as Jewish holy places through various state budgets. However, no non-Jewish sites are officially recognized as holy. “The State of Israel’s attitude towards the holy places is a kind of ‘organized mess,’ which was intended to enable ambiguity and administrative flexibility at the sites,” the report explains.

Emek Shaveh, which became an NIF grantee last year, is a NGO working to defend culture and heritage rights in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel, and to protect ancient sites as a public asset that belongs to members of all communities, faiths and peoples.

Emek Shaveh’s director Yonathan Mizrachi explained the reasoning behind the report: “Why are we dealing with holy sites? We grappled with this question, but we recognized a process in which antiquities sites were getting the status of holy sites, by the public and by the system . . .”

Without the official designation as a holy place, non-Jewish sites suffer neglect and a shortage of funds needed to maintain them. Non-Jewish holy places are also not protected by laws that punish the desecration of sacred sites, a growing issue since the onset of settler “price-tag” attacks against Christian and Muslim institutions.

Meanwhile, the list of Jewish holy sites is outrageously bloated. Emek Shaveh’s director Yonathan Mizrachi exclaimed, “for example Yad Avshalom [a grave monument in Jerusalem]– it entered the list of holy sites, but there’s nothing holy about it! What is holy about the Siloam Tunnel? It is just an aqueduct used to transport water [in the First Temple period]!”

Emek Shaveh is evenhanded in its analysis. The organization has also criticized a recent decision by UNESCO that downplayed the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, saying: “We regret that in this decision UNESCO has chosen to refer to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif only as “Al Aqsua Mosque/Al Haram al-Sharif” and the Western Wall Plaza primarily as Al Buraq Plaza and using the “Western Wall Plaza” in quotes. In the political struggle over Jerusalem, names are often used as a means to erase the historical links between a people and a site. The bond between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount is one of the central defining themes in Jewish history. We regret that…UNESCO ignores this bond.”