+972 Magazine's Stories of the Week

Directly In Your Inbox

Analysis News
Visit our Hebrew site, "Local Call" , in partnership with Just Vision.

'Israel only officially recognizes Jewish holy sites'

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is one of the most sacred places in the world for Christianity. Yet Israel does not officially recognize it as a holy site, a new report reveals.

Tourists and worshipers visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Photo by Fat Jackey / Shutterstock.com)

Tourists and worshipers visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Photo by Fat Jackey / Shutterstock.com)

Last Saturday the Eastern Churches marked Holy Fire, the Saturday after Good Friday, when Easter begins. Thousands of pilgrims visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem to watch what they believe is the annual miracle of fire in Jesus Christ’s tomb in the Sepulchre chapel. The place was packed, and all the churches throughout the entire Old City were blocked due to the overcrowding.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the most sacred places in the world for Christianity. Yet Israel does not officially recognize it as a holy site. Why?  Because the State of Israel does not recognize any holy site that is not Jewish in the territories under its control, as is demonstrated in a new report called Selectively Sacred: Holy Sites in Jerusalem and its Environs, published by the Emek Shaveh organization, written by Attorney Eitay Mack.

Neither Israeli law nor international law clearly defines what constitutes a holy site. Not even the Protection of Holy Places Law that was legislated after the occupation of the West Bank and annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 – ironically, in order to placate international criticism of the annexation. However, the law doesn’t offer a clear definition of what a holy site is, it only determines that “The Holy Places shall be protected from desecration and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places.”

How does a place become holy?

Israel loves to boast about the freedom of worship it enables all religions in the territories under its control. But without clear criteria, the directives are, at best, a bad joke. Tens of thousands of Muslims who are routinely prevented from entering the Al Aqsa Mosque for Friday prayers under varying circumstances can attest to that.

In 1981, as “Basic Law: Jerusalem Capital of Israel was being legislated, Israel presented a list of 16 holy sites as part of its Regulations for the Preservation of Holy Places for Jews. All of them were strictly for Jews, including, among other things, the Shimon Hatzadik Cave (in East Jerusalem’s contested Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood), Yad Avshalom, and of course, the Western Wall and any over ground or underground passage whose entrance goes through the plaza.

“The fact that according to law, anything that leads to the Western Wall – and not the Wall itself – is holy, is outrageous,” says Yonatan Mizrachi, an archaeologist with Emek Shaveh. “It means all the tunnels leading to the Western wall are holy too. There are digs being done all the time under the Palestinian village of Silwan, so one day, they will declare these tunnels a holy site to Jews as well? What will happen to those Palestinian houses?”

“Israel is playing it both ways. When it is suits its interests, it’s a holy place. But digging in a holy place requires a decision by a special ministerial committee, so when it is suddenly not so convenient it becomes an archaeological site and they forego the entire binding legal process. The bottom line is, it is a political tool.”

The State decision to only recognize Jewish sites as holy was tested in the High Court of Justice in a petition by Adalah in 2004 against the negligence and desecration of Muslim holy sites. The Court rejected the petition claiming there is no need to declare a site as “a holy site” in law in order to apply the law’s essential directives. In other words, the State told Adalah, “just trust the State.” In any case, the list was not expanded. All the attempts to promote a bill in the Knesset to formally recognize holy sites for Muslims have failed. From the report:

As stated, with the exception of the 16 places specified in the Regulations for the Preservation of Holy Places for Jews, the laws and regulations of the State of Israel grant no formal recognition of additional holy places for Jews or for other religions. This intentional ambiguity has enabled the state authorities to channel budgetary resources, and handle operation and management as they please, and in so doing to relate to some places as holy to other religions, and other places which are also holy to other religions as holy to Jews only. This has been the practice since the establishment of the state in 1948, and to an even greater degree, from 1967 onwards, when places that were also holy to other religions underwent a process of appropriation by the state and were transferred to Jewish possession.

According to Mizrachi, “The holy places law enabled deeming as many sites as possible holy strictly for Jews. Take for example Nabi Samuel, which Israel has turned into a holy site for Jews alone. Despite the fact that Muslims are permitted to enter, officially it is recognized as a holy site only for Jews. It’s absurd.”

The saga doesn’t end here. According to a 1989 Knesset decision, a governmental organization called “The National Center for Developing Holy Places” was founded. According to a 2012 report of its board of directors, the center handles nearly 130 sites “recognized as holy to the Jewish people from generations past.”

When the Ministry of Religion was dissolved in 2003, the organization fell under the authority of the Ministry of Tourism, which in 2012 allocated NIS 19 million to maintain and operate the sites. But even as the Court stated, a site does not have to be formally recognized as holy in order to received budgets and support, but in practice, this list clearly gets special treatment when it comes to its budget. For example, in 2014 the Finance Committee approved the transfer of only NIS 9.6 million ($2.5 million) allocated for the support of non-Jewish ethnicities in the Interior Ministry and including the development of buildings and cemeteries for all non-Jewish religions (Muslim, Christian, Druze, Samaritan, Ahmadiyya and Bahai).

The financial angle is just one of many.

“Look, ultimately, we are a non-profit made up of archaeologists,” Mizrahi says. “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 the system. The best example is the tunnel that goes from the Givati parking lot in Silwan’s Wadi Hilweh neighborhood, down to the foot of the Western Wall. People started sticking notes there! Here’s the thing: Israel really does treat antiquities sites as holy sites. For example Yad Avshalom – 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!”

“Another interesting point is the parallel between the map of the holy sites and the separation wall. Nabi Samuel and Rachel’s Tomb are both on the list of holy sites in Jerusalem. This shows the overlap between religious and political thought; this is how the Greater Jerusalem area they fantasize about is delineated. Israel is changing the status quo in these places all the time by making them ‘holy’.”

So how absurd does this system get? Here it is summed up in a nutshell, from the report:

The Sanctification of Jeremiah’s Grotto (located near the bus stop on Sultan Suleiman Street in Jerusalem) for Jews, without its being recognized in parallel as holy to the Christians, has now enabled an infringement upon the Garden Tomb, one of the key Christian sites in Jerusalem. The area of Zedekiah’s Cave takes up 15 percent of the area of the Muslim Quarter. Thus, in the absence of formal recognition in the laws or regulation of the cave as holy to Jews, 15 percent of the underground area of the Muslim Quarter has become “holy” in Judaism through the workings of the Ministry of Religious Services and the National Center for the Development of Holy Places.

The notion of “proselytizing” parts of the most politically and religious volatile areas in Jerusalem is not new; it’s enough to look at the Judaization process Israel has been pushing for decade in Silwan in the name of archaeological findings, most of them dubious. The next time Muslims rally against the digging under their homes in the Old City, adjacent to the mosque, instead of rolling your eyes, you should read through the report.

This article was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here

Before you go...

A lot of work goes into creating articles like the one you just read. And while we don’t do this for the money, even our model of non-profit, independent journalism has bills to pay.

+972 Magazine is owned by our bloggers and journalists, who are driven by passion and dedication to the causes we cover. But we still need to pay for editing, photography, translation, web design and servers, legal services, and more.

As an independent journalism outlet we aren’t beholden to any outside interests. In order to safeguard that independence voice, we are proud to count you, our readers, as our most important supporters. If each of our readers becomes a supporter of our work, +972 Magazine will remain a strong, independent, and sustainable force helping drive the discourse on Israel/Palestine in the right direction.

Support independent journalism in Israel/Palestine Donate to +972 Magazine today
View article: AAA
Share article
Print article

    * Required


    1. i_like_ike52

      Who does recognize “holy places”. At Camp David in 2000, Barak was prepared to hand over control of the Temple Mount to Arafat on condition that Arafat sign a document saying that the “Jews also recognize it as a holy place”. Arafat adamantly refused to sign it, in spite of being berated by Clinton saying that he, as a Muslim, does not recognize any Jewish holy places in Jerusalem. The Palestinians have also stated they will never recognize Israeli control of the Western Wall. Olmert accepted this and in his offer to Abbas, agreed to have all the Jewish holy places handed over to an “international body” consisting of Saudi Arabi, Jordan, the Palestinians, Israel and the US who would be in charge of administering them. With an Arab majority on this body, one can wonder how much effort would be expended on guaranteeing Jewish access to them.
      So who doesn’t recognize other religion’s holy places?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Looks like both sides do a bad job of it. Arafat, however, was not offered a remotely acceptable deal in terms of all the other issues besides the holy sites.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Tommy Goldberg

      Well, they don’t call it the Jewish State for nothing. Did you think that was merely symbolic, with no real-world implications?!

      Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        What do you think of the fact that the Palestinians and the other Arab states define themselves specifically as part of the “Arab Umma” and which make Islam the official state religion which automatically discriminates against non-Muslims?

        Reply to Comment
        • Tommy Goldberg

          And here I thought Israel aspired to be a pluralist Western-style democracy. Apparently I was wrong, and the standard to aspire to was to be slightly less bad than the neighboring autocracies.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      Yet another example of how Israel says one thing and does another. “Trust us, it’s no big deal,” trust us to treat non-Jews with equality in our Palestinian-recognized (we demand) “Jewish State,” right wingers often confidently assert, as if Israeli Jews are somehow either miraculously above all the tyrannies the American Founding Fathers built safeguards against, or have a special dispensation to engage in those tyrannies. And yet it is apparent to any outside observer, based on a decades long record now, that no such miracle is possible and no such dispensation is warranted. Yes, Tommy, we do understand, the right wing does not want to call it the Jewish State for nothing. We do not think that was merely symbolic, with no real-world implications.

      Reply to Comment