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Dispute over wine festival in Be'er Sheva mosque: 'Muslim rage' or Israeli hypocrisy?

Controversy erupted after local Arab residents complained that the Salut Wine and Beer Festival would be held on the grounds of a mosque-turned-museum. The public outcry from the festival-goers reveals both a fear of the ‘re-Islamification of Be’er Sheva,’ as well as a liberal approach that takes for granted the ways in which the state religion affects the daily lives of its non-Jewish citizens.

By Nasser Rego

There has been some brouhaha about Arabs whining about wine. The sixth annual Salut Wine and Beer Festival was scheduled to take place in Be’er Sheva on September 5-6. Attendees were promised a smorgasbord of wine, unique cheese and meat, along with cozy seating and other surprises. Little wonder, then, that they were miffed when local Arabs and advocacy groups, on account of the event being staged in the compound of a mosque-turned-museum, began to complain about the offense to the sanctity of a holy site. Suddenly, the once assured luxury chocolate offerings alongside flamenco star Perla Malcus seemed in jeopardy.

There seem two principal outcries of the public. The first is a “re-Islamification of Be’er Sheva,” modelled on, it can only be assumed, the YouTube smash among bigots, ‘The Islamification of Europe.” The second is a softer outcry, but a nonetheless audible chorus of disapproval. Framed as a culture clash of modern versus traditional, it is the liberal lamentation of the conservative pangs of Arab society. And it poses a follow-up question, “if this is the festival’s sixth year, why has there been silence until now?”

The champion of the first position was Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman. Not too long ago, however, he was awarded the dubious honor of having penned possibly the most inaccurate accounting of international law for a widely-read newspaper. On that note, I conclude it safe to skip engaging with his article. I turn to the second account, not uncommon in 972-country code liberal circles – one that pits the liberal, secular, progressive ethos against the religious, intolerant, fundamentalist one.

While the prohibition on alcohol consumption is clear in Islam (as it is in the Baha’i faith), the staging of a festival of alcohol in the area of the mosque is considered a violation of the sanctity of the site. Common sense would dictate that staging a wine festival in a mosque compound would probably be as good an idea as brandishing “a porkchop in a synagogue,” i.e. not very.

The mosque in question is the only one in the city of Be’er Sheva – a city that served as a capital for the Palestinian Bedouin pre-1948. The mosque was built by the Ottomans in 1906, together with local community investment. However, in 1948 the Israeli authorities assumed control and for a few years following, it was converted into a prison and later a court house. It was used subsequently as a museum until 1991, when it was, as has been the fate of many Palestinian religious sites, left empty, neglected and closed to worship. And herein is the crux of the matter that the chastising public have not, and probably refuse to, come to terms with.

The reason why things “were silent” over the past five festivals was because community members and advocacy groups were engaged in a legal battle in the courts to open the mosque for prayer. Following numerous requests to the authorities since the 70s, in 2002 the community petitioned Israel’s High Court to open the mosque to make it accessible to Muslims, 100,000 of whom lived in its surrounding environs and regularly visited the city. The municipality was opposed to the request, fearing it would “disturb the public peace” and “lead to violence.” In July 2011, although refuting the municipality’s fears, the court did not rule to open the mosque for prayer, but instead that it be a museum for “Islamic culture.”  The municipality did not comply. Instead, the newly christened “Archaeological Museum” was dedicated to British colonial-era public buildings and architecture, and Mandate-era English and Israeli mannequins, dressed in khaki army finery, were conscripted to fill in empty space. In short, the purported “silence” is simply a case of people not listening.

Two further points the critics should come to terms with. The “wine path plan,” a tourist initiative purportedly running along what was once the “Nabatean Incense Road,” which sells the tale of pioneering desert laborers, is a government initiative that allots tens of thousands of dunams to single Jewish family farms in the Negev, often with building licenses issued after the fact. Official reasons for their institution are “to preserve state lands… [as] solutions for demographic issues.” That 70,000 Naqab Bedouin live in unrecognized villages, which are refused basic services, makes it unsurprising that wine is already a sore point with the community.

Second, the liberal complaint that certain Islamic practices impinge on secular freedoms, seems to take for granted a non-Islamic religion manifesting in the daily lives of citizens. Therefore, there seems to be non-engagement with how religious proclivities and sensitivities inform, and some may say impinge on, rights or liberties. In the 972 country code, religious tradition dictates that roads close on special occasions, that people can only marry those of the same faith and in particular, non-civilian institutional settings, and that even legal cases are decided on in the spirit of religious principles.

A few days before the countdown to Salut, I undertook a little tourist escapade on the wine path plan, and brought along a local Palestinian Bedouin friend to “get to know the neighbors.” The absurdity of it all came to the fore during our drop-in at a local winery offering a Cabarnet Sauvignon tasting. As Kylie Minogue “The Loco-Motion” jingled in the background, the winery’s Jewish pioneer/owner and I exchanged notes on the bouquet. He then produced an English-language tourist map of Ramat Hanegev to suggest other wineries and exotic cheeses. My local friend and I noted the map contained no mention whatsoever of the Palestinian Bedouin community. And there we were – the owner and I – two North Americans, him reminiscing about wine-consuming Nabateans, and me narrating about Canada. And standing next to us, a non-wine consuming Nabatean, and native of the land, observing in silence – much like the silence of his place on that tourist map and that of his community and their history.

By the grace of the secular world, in the end, the festival was staged outside the mosque’s compound, and concluded without disturbance. Indeed, satisfied visitors remarked that the merrymaking ran in “perfect silence.”

Nasser Rego is a local civil society activist and doctoral student in law at Osgoode Hall Law School. Although none of his ideas are his own, they certainly cannot be attributed to any institution to which he belongs/is employed.

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    1. Joel

      “…re-Islamification of Be’er Sheva,’”

      Until the Jews developed her,Be’er Sheva was nothing more than a watering hole for Ottoman cavalry.


      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        With a mosque where people could pray.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Gil Franco

      Nasser, I wish you had written more about the legal case that decided the fate of the mosque. My recollection is that the supreme court said that it couldn’t be returned to use as a mosque but that it should be used for the benefit of Moslem community. Without further information, that seems like an attempt at compromise, although an unprincipled and unfair one. I can’t think of a good reason that it shouldn’t be used as a mosque.

      Reply to Comment
      • Generally, American courts do not decide rights in compromise. They would say either “the mosque is historically protected” or deny any protective obligation. While saying in compromise that the are should be used “for the benefit of the Muslim community” sounds fair, in practice the courts do not oversee their directive, which tends to complete erasure of the original petition. In an aggressive majority culutre (which certainly exists), minority compromises vanish without real oversight. I think this compromising position of your courts one of their greatest weaknesses, for the courts will be hard pressed to decide when a “compromise” fails.

        Reply to Comment
        • Nasser

          Yes Gil, the SC did see themselves as reaching a ‘compromise’, but compromises are regularly tilted towards the benefit of the more powerful party, which would be the state authority. And if you haven’t seen it already, it may be interesting to look at how compromise in arbitration plays out re: administrative detention cases, and I refer you to Krebs’ recent article on ‘bargaining in the shadow of the court’ – http://www.vanderbilt.edu/jotl/manage/wp-content/uploads/Krebs-camera-ready.pdf. @ Greg, definitely a challenge re: the executive’s non-compliance with court decisions following palestinian petition. and of course, the petitioner pays the biggest price in terms of effort, time, money, human resources etc. see: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/former-official-bemoans-government-s-disregard-of-supreme-court-1.353406

          Reply to Comment
          • I think Justice Barak made a crucial mistake in not embracing your Declaration of Independence as a (meta) constitutional document, even if he did so only as his own opinion. The suicide bombings have mostly nullified his thought, and I believe the Court will only assume its independence when pushed too far on its own, present, power. Note how your present conservative Chief Justice reacted to a proposed Knesset veto on court decisions. As said elsewhere, your “constitution” seems a War Council of powers who protect their present turf, and the State’s turf includes much oversight of Palestinians, citizens or not. Your Court has abandoned rights jurispurdence; it will take courage to reassert it. I take some hope in the 6 Justice minority in the Citizenship Law case.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Piotr Berman

      Given the number of Slavic immigrants in Israel, staging a “Kielbasa festival” featuring pork sausages and beer would add multicultural accent to the activities of the museum. All call it Oktoberfest.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bluegrass Picker of Afula

        >> Given the number of Slavic immigrants in Israel, staging a “Kielbasa festival” featuring pork sausages and beer would add multicultural accent to the activities of the museum

        hello Piotr. You are obviously a barbarian foreigner who has never been here. If you were here, you would know that BeerSheva is the wrong place for such a celebration. Afula is the correct place. And – sorry to break the news to you – we already started doing it. Maybe you never heard about it only because the Russian-speakers seem to have a much less quarelsome personality that the Arabic speakers. And they are also much better at ריקודים סלוניים ולטיניים

        Just search youtube with keyword “dancekesem”

        Russkies may also be the champions at stealing other guys’ stuff in miluim. I’ll ask the other Israelis here to add their opinion on that…..

        Reply to Comment
      • Bluegrass Picker of Afula

        > A “Hebrew ethnic homeland” that violates the religious rights of it indigenous minorities doesn’t deserve to exist.

        So, you would also be in favor of abolishing the existence of (say for example) Pakistan and Iran?

        Reply to Comment
    4. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      >> area of the Mosque

      so you admit the festival was not slated to be inside the mosque.

      So now we are only arguing about how large is the “holy area” around a building which ==used to be== a mosque.

      But there is not an argument, actually. This State is a Hebrew ethnic homeland. Anyone who considers Hebrew to be the basis of their ethnic identity, has a birthright home here. Everyone else may or may not be accepted, as suits our convenience. I understand that there is a slightly different rile used in the Republic of Palestine, on the other side of from our East River.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        It used to be a mosque because the government of Israel refuses to allow it to be used for worship. This is not a fact that argues in Israel’s favor, it argues against it.

        A “Hebrew ethnic homeland” that violates the religious rights of it indigenous minorities doesn’t deserve to exist.

        Reply to Comment
        • Joel


          Does the Waqf allow Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount?

          Reply to Comment
    5. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      >> the religious rights of it indigenous minorities

      Arabic is NOT an indigenous language in the Levant. It only goes back to the AD late 600’s.

      Which may be before YOU can remember; but we remember our Royal Families that were here, 1500 years before that.

      The Phoenicians, like the Canaanites, spoke a variant of Biblical Hebrew. It is NOT an accident nor a coincidence that Hiram of Tyre was the Prime Contractor in the building of Solomon’s Temple. The Phoenicians were Hebrew-speakers who never left Canaan to go to Egypt; thus they never signed on the dotted line for the dat-Moshe thing. Kinda like on Eastern side of a border, today you have Muslim Banladeshis; on the west there are Hindus of the Indian State of West Bengal. But both are Bangalees.

      Reply to Comment
    6. aristeides

      You’re talking to yourself, picker, not to me.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      >> You’re talking to yourself, picker, not to me

      I dont care about what you think. My message is directed to those who are trying to decide if they wwould be easier to get the Hebrews out of the western side of the River…. or the Saudi Hashemi family out of the Eastern side. Believe me, many of the elites of the Palis know that the “Internationals” would abandon Palestinians to a Rohingya-like fate in a New York minute, if there would cease to be Jews to crucify. Certainly no one was whining up a storm when the Turks were the colonial rulers over the Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
      • Scootalol

        >>Certainly no one was whining up a storm when the Turks were the colonial rulers over the Palestinians

        Maybe you haven’t noticed, but the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist in 1917. It was kind of a Big Deal at the time. Do you know when the Ottomans took control of Palestine? 1512.

        I’m sure you’re no expert, but i think you might be able to notice some differences between the modern day – 2012 – and either the early 1900’s or the freakin’ sixteenth century, yeah?

        Reply to Comment
    8. Piotr Berman

      ynetnews.com has an article today with a complain that a museum in a former synagogue in a ghetto has a crucifix. One issue is that extremely well meaning Christians often put a crucifix anywhere, e.g. to show respect to deceased, and are puzzled if this is not appreciated.

      But imagine if Czechs made a porkchop festival in the museum.

      Reply to Comment