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Published:March 18th, 2010 23:17 EST
Controversial Synagogue Reopens in Jerusalem's Old City

Controversial Synagogue Reopens in Jerusalem's Old City

By Geoff Dean

Hatem Abdel Qader, Jerusalem Affair`s Director for Fatah, the Palestinian group/faction ruling the West Bank, called it "a prelude to violence and religious fanaticism and extremism" and an unacceptable "provocation". New settlements going up and/or being expanded in East Jerusalem?

 Khaled Meshal, the exiled leader of Hamas, the Palestinian faction in charge of the Gaza strip, from exile in Syria, called it a pretext for the "destruction of the Al Aska Mosque, and the building of the (Jewish) temple" that could not be tolerated. The recent temporary closure of West bank crossings to Israel? The banning of those under 50 years of age from the Al Aska Mosque for "safety reasons"?

 Nope. It was anger over the reconstruction of a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, just 700 meters or so from the Al Aska Mosque (Dome of the Rock) and the Western/Wailing Wall.

 The Organization of the Islamic Conference as quoted in a Dubai newspaper, went further, with spokesperson Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu (try to pronounce that one) calling this a provocation that is "dragging the region into religious war" by building on land that is a "waqf" (an Islamic trust area).

 The Hurva synagogue has always been controversial and at the scene of many conflicts. It was first built or partially built in 1694 by Jews escaping Eastern Europe, purchasing the land from the Ottoman rulers. When the Jews were unable to make payments on time, however, in 1721, it was destroyed by the Ottomans. At that time, the name "Hurva" or "Ruins" was attached to the synagogue and unfortunately has never left.

 In the 1860`s, after several previous unsuccessful attempts, it was rebuilt and served as the headquarters and central yeshiva (Jewish school) of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem, drawing visitors from all over the world, including Queen Elizabeth I.

 During the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the compound held out for three days against Jordanian Army advances but ultimately fell and the Jordanian flag was planted atop the synagogue prior to the complete demolition of the structure. As a result, for Israelis, it became a symbol of valiant resistance to the Arabs and to the Arabs, especially Jordanians and Palestinians, a symbol of Arab victory over Israel.

 In 1967, after the six-day war, the Hurva area returned to Jewish control, along with the Western Wall, and plans were established to rebuild the synagogue. It became a symbol of victory to the Israelis and of humiliation and occupation to the Palestinians. As a result, countless Israeli governments considered rebuilding the Hurva but backed down (the Begin Administration of Camp David fame came the closest) in view of potential Palestinian and Arab backlash. One former Jerusalem mayor famoulsy questioned building a rival to the Dome of the Rock (Islam) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchure (Chirstianity) in the Old City and creating a competition with the Western Wall as well. Bad politics and bad for tourism, too, he opined.

 Nonetheless, in 2003, rebuiliding of the synagogue began without much fanfare and reached completion this month (March 15, 2010). The rededication might have passed quietly as well in quieter times. But with an exploding controversy over settlement construction and expansion in East Jerusalem, the growing threat of a unilateral Palestinian declaration of their "state", daily rock-throwing battles at nearby Bizreit University, chafing at the "temporary" closing off of the West Bank and banning under age 50 worshippers from the Al Aska Mosque, the Hurva has become a lightning rod of protest on both sides of the divide.

 Palestinians see this as one more example of the unilateralism of the Israeli "occupiers" (as they see them) and an attempt to further bolster their claim to all of Jerusalem. It has a historical aspect as well as it forces Palestinians to admit a Jewish presence in the city in 1694 and onward, contrary to many Arab commentators claims that Jewish life in Jerusalem is a very recent phenomenon.

 Israelis claim that this just a religious monument and in no ways a first step towards rebuilding the temple or increasing "fanatacism". While I tend to believe this, the recent behavior of Israel towards Palestinians and the US has made their defense more suspect.

 Ultimately, the Hurva is a place of worship, not a political statement, although in the Holy Land, it can be hard to separate the two. Jews should be allowed to worship in peace at the Hurva as surely as Muslims should be allowed to do so at the Dome of the Rock (or at minaret equipped mosques in Europe). But until Israel and the Palestinians find a way out of their seemingly endless conflict, the risk of the Hurva becoming a "ruin" yet again will always remain.