It is not easy to visit Joseph these days. Roadblocks manned by nervous Israeli soldiers have surrounded his city of Nablus; trenches or heaps of earth block the smallest entrances and exits. On a normal morning, commuters pour in from nearby villages for work or shopping; now they do so at their own peril, and the local citizens venture out of their homes at the risk of their lives, as the soldiers shoot without warning. Still, one can sneak into the old capital of Samaria by foot.
The city rests as the sachet of myrrh between the twin breasts of Mt Ebal and Mt Gerizim. Nablus is Neapolis of old, founded by Titus Flavius in the heyday of the Roman Empire. The Roman traditions did not die in this Palestinian San Francisco with its lavish Turkish baths. It is also famous for the fragrant olive soap, spicy kubbeh soup, and hardy spirit of its inhabitants. They fielded a strong guerrilla force against Napoleon, rebelled against Egyptian invaders, and kept the Jewish settlers at bay.
During the last uprising, Nablus gained renown as Jabal an-Nar, the Mount of Fire. Israelis rarely dared to enter the narrow streets of its old city. Today, this defiant ancient city is the home of Marwan Barghouti, sometimes credited with the leadership of the uprising.
I came here to visit one of the most charming shrines of the Holy Land, the Tomb of Joseph, the hero of Bible and Koran stories, a local lad who ‘made it’ in Egypt and was brought back by Banu Israel to be buried in his ancestral home. The locals have venerated it, as numerous other shrines and tombs that adorn the hilltops and crossroads of Palestine. The shrines have deep roots in the Palestinian soul; they predate all modern faiths, survived all religious reforms, and still are able to turn a man to God.
One needs to take their names with a grain of salt, as they change with the passage of time. There are a dozen tombs for Sheikh Ali, and even Joshua bin Nun has quite a few. Other tombs have multiple names, like the cave on the Mt Olives, called Pelagia by Christians, Rabia al-Adawiya by Moslems and Hulda by Jews. While some orthodox Moslem, Christian and Jewish clerics object to venerating shrines, the common people still come to beseech for favours, men for glory and harvest, women for children and love.
The tomb of Joseph is no exception. It is a simple domed building, recently refurbished, standing next to the ancient mound of Shechem. On any given day, Palestinian peasant women in black dresses with rich embroidery can be seen paying their respects at the tomb of the chaste lover, whose long eyelashes reduced the fortress of Zuleika’s heart.
A few months ago, Joseph’s tomb was all over the news. The people of Nablus fought well-armed Israeli soldiers over the remains of their ancestor Joseph, as Achaeans fought Trojans for the body of Patrocles. Some two score Palestinians died there, Israelis lost one mercenary and a few were wounded.
The pictures of the gun battle were transmitted around the globe, as firefights raged, ambulances raced to hospitals and morgues, heavy machinegun bursts tore at stones and flesh. The virtual reality of TV screens accompanied by the voices of the experts presented the ultimate proof of Arab hate for Jewish holy places.
The tale of the Tomb’s destruction remained in the news for long time. An important Muslim divine from Russia was angry enough to write an open letter to the Palestinians, condemning the sacrilege. Main international newspapers unleashed harsh editorials on the subject. A visiting Martian would have presumed that the main desire of Palestinians is to go about desecrating holy Jewish monuments. For those who did not get it first 108 times, the NYT repeated the story last week.
That was just one too many times for me. This well circulated Jewish American newspaper always stirs the suspicious side of my brain. I recall their reports on the impending Jewish pogroms in Moscow in 1990, that somehow never materialized, but the reports sent one million Russian Jews to Israel. I remember their reports on the Timishowara ‘massacre’ in Romania, that turned out to be a fake. But the report led to the summary execution of the president Ceausescu and his wife. I remember how the Times agitated against the noble Cuban military assistance to Namibia that broke the spine of South African apartheid. Knowing the Palestinians, I had difficulty believing that those who had worshipped at the shrine for uncounted generations, would destroy it.
What I found at the site of Joseph’s resting place was like a replay of the old Jewish joke: “Is it true that Cohen won a million in the state lottery? Yes, it is true, but it was only ten dollars, in a poker game, and he actually lost it”. Instead of expected ruins, the tomb shone in its pristine beauty. No traces of war could be seen. The Nablus municipality hired the best masons, brought in Italian experts and restored the tomb to its original state. They removed the barbed wire, the machinegun positions, the armored vehicles, the soldiers’ scrubby mess hall, guard slots. An Israeli-built military base vanished to be replaced by the resurrected holy tomb. It was a joy to revisit Joseph, as my previous visit, a month before the uprising, was quite disconcerting.
Then I visited Nablus in the company of two tourists, a Christian and a Jew.
We visited the Samaritan synagogue, drank water from Jacob’s Well in the church, looked into the Green Mosque and decided to pay our respects to Joseph the Beautiful. An old Palestinian policeman, who cut his teeth in the British army, allowed us to approach the tomb but warned us that we won’t be let in. He was right. Young Russian boys in the Israeli army fatigues, helmets and rifles, popped out and told us, that in order to enter the tomb one has to go to the army HQ out of town, submit to security check and interrogation, and come back by the armoured bus. We moved on to more accessible sites. For generations, the Tomb of Joseph was cherished and attended by the people of Nablus, but it was seized by the Israelis in 1975. The infamous Oslo accords left it as an armed Israeli enclave in the heart of the Palestinian city. It became a Yeshiva of a Cabbalist sect led by Rabbi Isaac Ginzburg. His name should ring a bell. He stated in the interview with Jewish Week, that a Jew is entitled to cut off the liver of any Gentile in order to save his own life, as the life of a Jew is incomparably more precious than the life of a Gentile. He was asked by the interviewer to soften his message, but he remained adamant. Many Israeli papers republished this interview, as name of Ginzburg was well known.
A year earlier, Ginzburg’s disciples made a sortie to a neighbouring Palestinian village, and a sect member murdered a 13-year old girl. He was arrested and brought to trial. Ginzburg was called as a witness of defence, and under oath, he proclaimed that a Jew could not be tried for murdering a Gentile, as the commandment ‘Thou shall not murder’ refers only to Jews. Killing a Gentile is, at worst, a misdemeanour, said he, as ‘one can not compare the blood of Jews and the blood of Gentiles’. In his Cultural History of the Jews, Zvi Howard Adelman of Jerusalem (available on the website of The Department for Jewish Zionist Education), quotes Ginzburg and some of his colleagues. One of his fellow-Cabbalists, Rabbi Israel Ariel, wrote in 1982 in the time of Sabra and Shatila massacre, that “Beirut is part of the Land of Israel. . . our leaders should have entered Lebanon and Beirut without hesitation, and killed every single one of them. Not a memory should have remained”.
Now, every faith has its fringe extremists and fanatics. Certainly, the vast majority of Jews, including religious Jews does not subscribe to, indeed are repulsed by such cannibalistic sentiments. But such revulsion did not stop the Israeli army from guarding Ginzburg’s Yeshiva. The revulsion did not stop the Israeli government from subsidizing it, or from forcing the Palestinians to accept this enclave of hatred in the heart of Nablus, or from waging a mini-war to promote Ginzburg’s zeal. The revulsion did not stop the American Jews from their blind support of Israeli policies. The revulsion did not stop me from paying my taxes to the government of Israel, knowing full well that part of it went to support of Ginzburg’s sect.
The revulsion did not stop the New York Times and its American media affiliates from propagating the blood libel of “Arabs despoiling a Jewish holy place”. Ginzburg is entitled to his obnoxious beliefs. We live in an age when our tolerance extends to all save a Christian prayer in schools. One is free to join a Satanist or a Cabbalist sect. But should such people be armed with Apache gunships at the expense of American taxpayers? Ginzburg and his sect have influence far beyond their tiny numbers. They are dangerous for all Gentiles, and for the ‘rebellious Jews’ like the late Prime Minister Rabin.
In what might have been a small rehearsal for the coming confrontation over Jerusalem’s shrines, twenty young Palestinians were made to pay with their lives to restore their right to worship at the tomb. Now, as before 1975, local folk and tourists, Moslems, Samaritans, Jews, Christians and freethinkers can visit the place freely, if they can escape Israeli sharpshooters. They can put a flower on the gravestone of a favourite hero of the Bible, the Koran prophet, the lover of Ferdowsi’s poem and Saadi verses, the truth-seeker of the Sufi revelation of Jami. Joseph came back to the people who always venerated him. You are free to visit him, but please leave your tanks behind.
Palestinians fought the army base, not the holy place. The holy places of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron would be safe in Palestinian hands, as they have been for uncounted generations. Without the local veneration, none would have survived. Please remember it when (very soon) the problem of Jerusalem will come forth.
This latest saga on the events surrounding the Joseph’s tomb is just one more proof that the American mass media machine is an unreliable source.
The great nation, the formidable superpower gets its knowledge and navigates its course in the sea of world politics by using a Mickey Mouse telescope instead of electronic magnifying glasses. If the Jewish media lords cheat you about Palestine, why do you think they are honest in any other way? Perhaps the suffering of the Palestinians should help the Europeans and Americans to notice the reefs ahoy their own ship.
(Mr. Israel Shamir, is one of best-known and most respected Russian Israeli writer and journalist. He wrote for Haaretz, BBC, Pravda and translated Agnon, Joyce and Homer into Russian. He lives in Tel Aviv and writes a weekly column in the Vesti, the biggest Russian-language paper in Israel.)