Why do Palestinians burn Jewish holy sites?: The fraught history of Joseph’s Tomb

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Originally published in Mondoweiss.

Joseph's Tomb (Photo: Alex Shams)

Joseph’s Tomb (Photo: Alex Shams)

The reality, however, is far different than the Israeli narrative would seem to suggest. Built by Palestinians and located at the heart of a densely-populated Palestinian neighborhood, the history of Joseph’s Tomb belies Israeli claims about its identity as a “Jewish holy site.” The identity of Joseph’s Tomb — and the claim that it is a “Jewish” shrine — is instead caught up in the wider history of the appropriation of Palestinian religious sites in the Zionist narrative.

It is one of many shrines across historic Palestine — now split into Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza — that has been re-invented as exclusively Jewish, despite a long history of shared worship among Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Samaritans that goes back centuries. And the reason it has attacked has almost nothing to do with religion, and a whole lot to do with how the Israeli military and settlement movements have used religion as a way to expand their control over Palestinian land and holy places.

Sheikh Yusuf

According to local Palestinian belief, the tomb belongs to Sheikh Yusuf (“Joseph” in Arabic) Dweikat, a Sufi holy man who died in the 18th century. Until 1967, it was commonly visited by local Muslims, Christians, and Samaritans, as well as Jews who lived elsewhere, and it is one of a host of minor spiritual sites (called maqam in Arabic) scattered around Nablus and its environs. Some say the site hosted a Samaritan (a tiny Palestinian religious community based on a nearby hill) shrine before the spread of Islam and Christianity in the area. This is a likely guess given that religious sites are often built atop other religious sites. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Church of the Nativity, and many other major Christian holy sites are thought to have been built atop former Roman temples, for example, in keeping with common practices in many parts of the world that involve creation of religious sites to one’s own god atop the sites of the gods of vanquished religions.

One of the few things that almost everyone agrees on (even the Jewish Virtual Library) is that Joseph’s Tomb probably has nothing to do with the biblical Joseph. The site of the current tomb is mentioned nowhere in the Bible (which mentions only “Nablus” and nothing more) and the existence of a tomb in the area is not even accounted for until centuries after Christ. Throughout the centuries some visitors have suggested the biblical Joseph’s grave is in the area based on pure speculation, but no fixed claim regarding the area has ever existed. The modern claim that Joseph’s Tomb is somehow related to the Biblical Joseph appears to have emerged as a result of claims by William Cooke Taylor in the 1830s. Cooke was an Irish journalist who happened to be traveling in the area motivated by interest in Biblical history but with no expertise in the field. Although in his writings he claims the site was believed be the tomb of the patriarch and that all the religions agreed as much, no other geographers who ventured into the area in the decades that followed reported anything of the sort. And Palestinians, the people who were actually living in and around the shrine and worshipping there, generally argued that the shrine had no relation. British geographers subsequently took up Taylor’s claim, however, and over the years it was forgotten that it had been more or less made up based on conjecture.

When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, religious Zionists began flocking to the grave. In 1975, the Israeli military banned Palestinians — i.e. the people living around the site — from visiting, a ban that has remained in place until this day. When I visited over summer, the tomb was shut closed, but a sympathetic guard allowed a friend and I to look around, under his close watch.

Unsurprisingly, the ban has ignited intense anger over the years, particularly given that frequent visits by Jewish settlers to the shrine are accompanied by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, who enter the area and run atop the rooftops of local Palestinians to “secure” the tomb. As a result, Joseph’s Tomb has increasingly become associated with the Israeli military and settlement movement in the eyes of Palestinians. Its presence has become an excuse for frequent military incursions that provoke clashes and lead to arrests and many injuries in the neighborhood.

A photo of Joseph's Tomb taken from Mitzpe Yosef, an Israeli settlement located on Mount Gerizim near Nablus. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A photo of Joseph’s Tomb taken from Mitzpe Yosef, an Israeli settlement located on Mount Gerizim near Nablus. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Some fear that Israelis will attempt to take over the shrine to build an Israeli settlement around it. This fear is not unfounded, given the fact that Israeli settlers have done exactly that all across the West Bank in places they believe are connected in some way to Jewish Biblical history. The nearby Israeli settlements of Bracha and Itamar — visible from the tomb — were built in this way on land appropriated by the state from local Palestinian farmers. They are two of the most violent Israeli settlements, with nearby Palestinian communities facing frequent and recurring attacks, including the destruction of olive groves. Until 2000, a Jewish yeshiva even existed at Joseph’s Tomb, a fact remembered well by Palestinian locals who once had to contend with constant Israeli military presence around their homes.

The Israeli military only relinquished control over the site to the Palestinian Authority in 2000, after years of resistance by local Palestinians. As soon as the soldiers left, locals overran the tomb and set it ablaze. After decades of being used as a base for Israeli settlers and the military, it is no wonder that Palestinians saw the Joseph’s Tomb as a symbol of Israeli control and not merely as a religious shrine. The history of the Israeli military’s use of Joseph’s Tomb to base itself in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood in an area ostensibly under Palestinian Authority has inextricably tied the site to the Israeli occupation as a whole.

As a result of the appropriation of the tomb by the Zionist right and its conversion into an exclusive Jewish holy site, the long history of religious coexistence and the multiple histories that once flourished at the tomb have been erased from the public imagination. After decades of having buildings identified as Jewish religious sites used as inroads to create permanent Israeli military bases, it is no wonder that some Palestinians have attacked some of these sites. Israel’s occupation has indelibly tied places like Joseph’s Tomb to their rule over Palestinians, in the process helping fuel a shift in the conflict from a political struggle for Palestinian self-determination in the face of a settler-colonial state to an all-out religious war. In the wake of the deaths of dozens of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli forces over the course of October and the shooting injuries of thousands more, it is not surprising the tomb became a target of Palestinian anger. Israeli authorities have no one but themselves to blame for the destruction in Nablus last month.

The History of Shrines in Palestine

A Sufi shrine in Idhna, north of Hebron. (Photo: Alex Shams)

A Sufi shrine in Idhna, north of Hebron. (Photo: Alex Shams)

For Palestinians, the story of Joseph’s Tomb is only one chapter in the longer tale of the destruction of Palestine and the mapping of Israel atop it. Prior to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, shrines across Palestine were open to all, and it wasn’t uncommon to find more than one of the five main religious groups of the land — Muslims, Christians, Jews, Druze, and Samaritans — venerating the same site. In some cases, particularly around the Al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount, this shared veneration had to do with the fact that religious traditions overlapped geographically.

But the vast majority of the hundreds of shrines across Palestine are small domed buildings dedicated to local saints and figures, especially Sufi holy men and ascetics, and for the most part were not connected to events that occurred in holy texts. In a phenomenon common around the world, Palestinians built large tombs for prominent spiritual figures and over time these became favorite sites of worship for all who lived in the nearby areas, of whatever religion.

Some of the most prominent of these shrines are located in the mountains of the central West Bank near Deir Ghassaneh — home to the so-called Sufi Trail — but in almost every village in Palestine such shrines can be found. In addition to local worship, these shrines attracted pilgrims from far and wide, and many had festival days associated with them (and some still do). One of the largest of these festivals was Nabi Reuben, located just over a dozen kilometers south of Jaffa, which attracted thousands from across the region every year until 1948.

For Palestinian villagers, these shrines were a focal point of communal life, a fact Salim Tamari describes richly in his book Between the Mountain and the Sea. In general, these shrines provided a pleasant space to relax for villagers in an era before the concept of leisure was widespread, and the festivals associated with them allowed members of a largely agrarian society accustomed to strenuous farm work an extended chance to let loose. Nabi Reuben’s festival, which attracted 30,000 people in 1929, was famous for its pleasure tents by the sea, where hashish, drinks, and dancing were on offer in addition to fortune-telling, swimming, and Sufi meditation. Women in particular were attracted to the shrines, and many of them — including Nabi Reuben, Rachel’s Tomb, or the Milk Grotto — were visited for their legendary power to increase fertility.

After 1948, when Zionist militias forcibly expelled 750,000 Palestinians from what became Israel, most of these shrines were destroyed and the festivals came to an end. Given the fact that the vast majority of Palestinians were displaced from their native land, spiritual practices rooted in specific sites and places could not continue post-Nakba, except in memory. Over time, even the majority of those sites where Palestinians still did live, especially in the West Bank, fell out of use. In line with global trends toward the literalization of religious scripture, many Palestinians stopped frequenting shrines devoted to specific local individuals that were not mentioned in religious texts. Some shrines — like al-Khader near Bethlehem or Nabi Musa in Jericho remained sites of pilgrimage — but the vast majority fell into under-use overtime.

The Politicization of Palestinian Religious Sites

The Palestinian neighborhood immediately beside the Joseph's Tomb compound. This street leads away from Joseph's Tomb toward Mount Gerizim, the most sacred site for the Samaritan community of Palestine. (Photo: Alex Shams)

The Palestinian neighborhood immediately beside the Joseph’s Tomb compound. This street leads away from Joseph’s Tomb toward Mount Gerizim, the most sacred site for the Samaritan community of Palestine. (Photo: Alex Shams)

As the shrines fell out of use by Palestinians, however, religious Zionists in Israel began taking a renewed interest in them. For them, the goal of Israel was to redeem the land for the Jewish people, and a major part of the Zionist project necessarily involved finding the exact places where the Hebrews of the Bible lived. The problem was, however, that the Bible is not a map nor a history textbook, and as a result it was quite difficult to pinpoint the exact locations of much of what was mentioned therein.

As Nadia Abu al-Haj and Basem Ra’ad have highlighted, Religious Zionists often relied upon texts drawn up under the British in the 19th century, when geographers carried out cartographic expeditions to “map” the Bible atop modern Palestine. These maps were less than precise, however, and involved a lot of guessing using the names of Palestinian villages and attempts to figure out if the Arabic words might be derived from Aramaic or Hebrew. The result was a hodgepodge of falsehoods that was overtime accepted as truth.

Particularly after 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and large areas mentioned in the Old Testament fell under Israeli occupation (the coast has comparatively little Hebrew history), Religious Zionists recuperated the British “Holy Land” maps to go on their own treasure hunts for Jewish remains. In many places, tombs that were historically shared by locals of different faiths were appropriated by the religious Zionist movement, which stressed their Jewish character for political purposes in order to convince the government to assert control. Today, this amalgam of guesses made by British travelers is repeated as truth in the Israeli media as well as the international media, which generally takes the Israeli narrative as fact. Even something as basic and essential as Wikipedia pages for these sites are based on the random guesses of British travelers in the 19th century.

Palestinian narratives, meanwhile, are added as footnotes, if they are even presented at all. Joseph’s Tomb, which should be an everlasting reminder of the richly-varied history of Palestinian and human religious, social, and cultural practice and the diversity of beliefs that can coexist in one humble little building, is today instead a flashpoint in a conflict that Israeli authorities are increasingly trying to frame as a religious struggle. This blatant distortion of history and manipulation of facts in order to justify colonialism will have dangerous implications for the future, as the present situation at Joseph’s Tomb clearly shows.


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