On January 31, 2016, Israel’s right wing cabinet approved by a 15-5 vote the creation of a mixed-gender plaza to resolve the long standing dispute concerning women’s access to the Wailing Wall. The head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky claimed that the building of the new plaza will not cause any structural damage to al-Aqsa mosque; but the problem is, that the chosen site itself, is a Muslim religious endowment duly recorded in Jerusalem waqf archives.
Resolving gender tensions between existing strands of Judaism and women’s access to sacred sites on the basis of taking over and claiming Muslim religious endowment is manipulative and spiritually vacuous. Furthermore, the Israeli cabinet’s move to use this area, shifts the internal Jewish tension and casts the Palestinians as the ones opposed to building a new plaza for women seeking access to a holy site.
The key issue here, is not about a mixed-gender plaza but the Palestinians facing a constant encroachment and destruction of Muslim religious endowments and take over of properties. In reality, the current “Wailing Wall Plaza” was expanded after 1967 when the Israeli government ordered and carried out the destruction and demolishment of the Moroccan Quarter. This consisted of religious endowments, schools, and homes belonging to various Muslim institutions and Sufi orders.
The earliest Moroccan endowment was set up in the 12th century as Mujir al-Din relates in his book on the history of al-Quds and al-Khalil that ‘Afdal al-Din (son of Salahdin): “endowed as waqf the entire quarter of the Maghribis in favor of the Maghribi community, without distinction of origin” and that the “donation took place at the time when the prince ruled over Damascus, to which Jerusalem was joined” at the time. Another endowment was set up in 1303 by Umar ibn Abdullah ibn Abdun-Nabi al-Masmmudi al-Mujarrad who dedicated a religious school for North Africans living and visiting the Moroccan Quarter.
The grandson of Abu Madyan Shu’ayb Al-Ghawth, a major Sufi master of the 13th century, dedicated a retreat in the area for the benefit of the Moroccans and North African Sufis visiting the area. In addition, Abu Inan Faris al-Marini, the Sultan of Morocco wrote a Qur’an in his own handwriting and set up an endowment in Jerusalem that financed a person to recite it daily in al-Aqsa Mosque. Thus, what is known in Palestine’s history as Harat al-Magharibah (the Moroccan Quarter) dates back to the end of the Crusades and was mostly destroyed after the 1967 war.
The current plans for building a new mixed-gender plaza should not be viewed as an isolated and a single event responding to a crisis, but part of an ongoing and long term strategy to change the status quo and the character of Jerusalem. Attempts at changing the character of Jerusalem from a Muslim and Christian majority city into an exclusivist Zionist and ultra-nationalist racist enclave have been underway for over 50 years. This is being done through settlement buildings all around the city to encircle the Arab quarters and squeeze them out of any possible future growth. Outright thievery is being undertaken by thuggish settlers who descend into Palestinian homes in the middle of the night protected by the military and claim rights to properties without a shred of evidence. On the contrary, the overwhelming evidence points to forged documents and a readiness of a settler supported military and government to sanction these robberies. Furthermore, they strategically deploy punishment of home demolishment and destruction for protesting, or the whimsical claim of lack of a permit which Jerusalem municipality never grant to Palestinian families.
In all of the above strategies, as well as others, Israel directs its victims to seek relief from the courts. But a Palestinian’s day in court is identical to that of African Americans during the days of Jim Crow in the South or South Africans under Apartheid. Israel’s justice system is affirmatively discriminatory in religious and racial terms, whereby Palestinians, Muslim, and Christian alike, are guilty of existing in a land that is granted to Zionist colonial settlers and enforced by successive court rulings. In cases where the courts rule in favor of limited relief for the Palestinians, the Israeli Knesset or Parliament moves swiftly to defend Jim Crow like measures and plug any momentary holes of conscious that sometimes emerge from the bench.
The new mixed-gender plaza will be celebrated as a breakthrough and a sign of religious progress and who can argue that such a move to create an “inclusive” space is not welcome! What is lacking in the story is the context of a stolen land, a displaced people and a grand theft of the highest order that gets tabled and reported as a desire to bring about a progressive development relating to women’s access to the Wailing Wall prayer areas. Pitting women’s access and Palestinian land rights is not a progressive nor a visionary religious solution for it utilizes one type of oppression to further a long-standing colonial one.