FaithWorld

from AxisMundi Jerusalem:

Desperately seeking… Madonna? Enlightenment?

U.S. pop singer Madonna (C), accompanied by Brazilian model Jesus Luz (R), visits the grave of Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Luria at a cemetery in the northern town of Safed September 4, 2009. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen

"You're so beautiful!" a middle-aged American woman in a modern Orthodox Jewish headscarf called out across the street to a complete stranger as I was walking through the northern Israeli town of Safed the other day. Anywhere but Safed - also known as Tzfat - and I might have been more startled. But in this mountain-top retreat for Jewish mystics, both of an Orthodox and of less conventional persuasion, the public outburst of peace, love and understanding seemed entirely natural.

Depending on your national cultural references, it's hard to capture the spirit of Safed precisely - it is part hippie-haven, part devotional centre for hordes of black-clad Hassidic Jews; part Taos, New Mexico, part Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I have tried to sum it up in a story today. While the Orthodox who flock there in the hundreds of thousands every spring to pray at the graves of the founders of Kabbalah mysticism would doubtless take exception to the idea, for an international audience it is probably Madonna who has done most to put Safed on the map lately. The Queen of Pop, whose interest in Kabbalah has drawn many other non-Jewish celebrity emulators, paid a brief visit last year, while on tour in Israel.

The town originally came to prominence when a Roman-era Jewish sage, taking refuge nearby, penned what is viewed as the foundational text of Kabbalah, the Zohar. After a period when it was better known as the biggest Crusader fortress in the Middle East, Safed acquired new fame in the 16th-century when Ottoman rulers let Jews expelled from Spain settle there. They brought back to the Holy Land a Kabbalistic tradition that was substantially reinvigorated by rabbis in Safed. The town, where some believe the Messiah will appear, has since then been one of four holy cities for Jews, alongside Hebron, Tiberias and Jerusalem.

ISRAEL/As a town housing both Arabs and Jews, Safed saw violence in the decades leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. In that year, Safed had a  substantial Muslim Arab majority, including the 13-year-old Mahmoud Abbas - now the Palestinian president. Most became refugees as Jewish forces swept through the Galilee. Aside from a mosque, turned into an art gallery, and some Israeli public monuments to the war, there are few reminders of their presence.

The town is now enjoying a new role amid a tourist boom in Israel in general and the green hills of the Galilee in particular. To find out more about Safed and Kabbalah, here are a few sites to explore:  http://www.safed.co.il/; http://www.livnot.org.il/; http://www.tzfat-kabbalah.org/.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews lose grave battle in Israel

Israeli police arrest an ultra-Orthodox Jew, protesting the digging up of ancient graves, in the coastal town of Ashkelon May 16, 2010.  REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israeli police arrest an ultra-Orthodox Jew protesting in Ashkelon on May 16, 2010/Amir Cohen

A heavily guarded operation to dig up ancient graves to make way for a new hospital emergency room has exposed  traditional tensions between Israel’s Jewish secular majority and ultra-Orthodox minority.

Police said they arrested 15 religious protesters on Sunday outside Barzilai hospital in the coastal town of Ashkelon, where plans to build a treatment facility that could withstand rocket attack from the Gaza Strip turned into a political battle in Israel.

from AxisMundi Jerusalem:

Jerusalem Power

holy fireTo spend the past few days in the crowded, narrow streets of Jerusalem's Old City, among the multilingual throngs marking Passover or Easter, was to get an unforgettable sense of the power this place has over the minds of millions. It also gives an insight into some of the ways Jerusalem, and control of access to its holy sites, plays into global power politics.

For the majority of Palestinians who are Muslim, as well as for the Islamic world beyond, the Jewish state of Israel's hold on the city since its capture from Jordan in the 1967 war is a deep grievance. Sporadic violence around the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque has flared again this year.

But with the confluence this year of the Easter calendars of both Western and Eastern churches, as well as the Jewish Passover celebrations, it was the issue of Christian access and the competing claims of different Christian denominations to the holy sites of Jerusalem, that was particularly in focus this past week. And if it was American-accented English that dominated among the visiting Jewish families crowding towards prayers at the Western Wall and which served as a reminder of the powerful alliance Israel enjoys, despite current turbulence, with the United States, it was the Russian spoken by many of the Christian pilgrims which indicated one of the main trends changing the balance of power within that fractured religious community.

Jerusalem: heart of the Mideast conflict

jerusalem

Jerusalem, December 8, 2009/Ammar Awad

Next week is the time of year when millions of people around the world look to Jerusalem as the source of inspiration for the Christian festival of Easter and Jewish Passover celebrations. But this week the city is also the recurrent focus of bitter dispute. The United States has directed rare strong criticism at Israel over its plans to expand Jewish settlements there, saying the building undermines U.S. efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

SETTLEMENT2Want to know more? Following are links to a sampling of recent Reuters stories about Jerusalem and a Reuters graphic on new Israeli construction in East Jerusalems:

LATEST NEWS

Israel awaits word, signs are no deal with US

Israel, undeterred, to build in East Jerusalem

FEATURE STORIES

Jerusalem struggle goes on, years after war

Researchers dig up controversy in Jerusalem

ANALYSIS/BACKGROUND

Leaders’ Jerusalem rhetoric mirrors conflict

Q+A-Jerusalem: What’s at stake? Why does it matter?

Jerusalem clashes could signal more trouble

Jerusalem, focus of faith, conflict

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Sex abuse claims against famed rabbi grip Israel

ultra-orthodox

Ultra-orthodox Jewish men praying in the Old City of Jerusalem, 11 March 2008/Yiorgos Karahalis

Israeli police said on Friday they were looking into allegations of sexual abuse against one of the country’s most famous and politically influential rabbis, in a case that has triggered dramatic headlines this week.

Mordechai Elon – known as “Rabbi Motti” by viewers of his popular TV show and by many young men in the West Bank settler movement — has vehemently denied the accusations by a group of fellow rabbis who say their aim is to combat sexual harassment by authority figures.

from The Great Debate UK:

Shlomo Sand on “The Invention of the Jewish People”

Professor Shlomo Sand, approved portrait 3 (c) Olivia Grabowski-West, (low res)

Picture taken by Olivia Grabowski-West.

In his controversial book, "The Invention of the Jewish People," author Shlomo Sand challenges historical notions of the link between Judaism and Israel, and argues that there is no record of exile of the Jewish people.

Israel has deliberately forgotten its history and replaced it with a myth, writes Sand, a Jewish scholar and historian based at the University of Tel Aviv. Without exile, there is no right to return, he says.

“The disparity between what my research suggested about the history of the Jewish people and the way that history is commonly understood – not only within Israel but in the larger world - shocked me as much as it shocked my readers.”

Out of the spotlight, Israel and Vatican negotiate holy sites

Vatican flag in Jerusalem, Reuters photo by Baz Ratner

Vatican flags raised outside Jerusalem's Old City before Pope Benedict's visit, 6 May 2009/Baz Rattner

There have been a series of significant and highly publicised events recently in Vatican-Jewish relations.

Pope Benedict put his predecessor Pius XII along the road to Roman Catholic sainthood last month, angering many Jews who accused the wartime pope of turning a blind eye to the Nazi Holocaust.  Benedict defended the move this week during his first visit to Rome’s synagogue, which prompted Israel to ask the pope to open up the Vatican archives covering Pius’ reign between 1939-1958.

Israel rejects Jordanian bid to claim Dead Sea Scrolls

dead sea scrolls

Section of Dead Sea scrolls at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, 14 May 2008/Baz Ratner

Israel has rejected a Jordanian claim that the historic Dead Sea Scrolls belong to them. Jordan has asked Canada to seize sections of the 2,000-year-old scrolls that were recently exhibited in Toronto and hand them over to Amman.  It said Israel took the scrolls illegally when it won control over the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war .

Here’s a Reuters video report by Basmah Fahim interviewing Israeli and Jordanian officials on the issue:

Jerusalem mayor and tensions with ultra-Orthodox Jews

Jerusalem on a cloudy day. October 30, 2009. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Photo: Jerusalem on a cloudy day, 30 Oct 2009/Darren Whiteside

I had a rare opportunity to talk with Israel’s mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat on Sunday about how he spent most of his first year in office trying to find a political homeostasis in the city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims. The main news that came out of it was his call for the European Union on Monday to reject any future division of the city (read that story here).

We sat together for about an hour in his office on the top floor of the city hall. He has a large balcony that overlooks the modern part of the city from one side, where cranes and crews are hard at work building and developing. The other side overlooks the walled Old City, a view that has highlighted the hilly Jerusalem landscape for centuries. Nir Barkat walks through a Jerusalem market while he was running for mayor last year. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (JERUSALEM)

Nir Barkat campaigning for mayor last year in a Jerusalem market, 6 Nov 2009/Baz Ratner

Hezbollah cuts Islamist rhetoric in new manifesto

nasrallahLebanon’s Hezbollah group has announced a new political strategy that tones down Islamist rhetoric but maintains a tough line against Israel and the United States.

The new manifesto drops reference to an Islamic republic in Lebanon, which has a substantial Christian population, confirming changes to Hezbollah thinking about the need to respect Lebanon’s diversity.

Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who read the new “political document” at a news conference on Monday, said it was time the group introduced pragmatic changes without dropping its commitment to an Islamist ideology tied to the clerical establishment in Iran.