Behind today’s headlines about struggles between Palestinians and Israelis lie claims and controversies in Jewish culture about the sacred and the profane that cannot and should not be ignored, said a cultural historian who delivered his inaugural lecture as the first Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies
"It’s important not only to look at the reasons behind the bloodiness of the struggle but the factors that go into
the construction of who we are," said Professor Arieh Saposnik, who joined UCLA last fall. He suggests that cultural history provides a wide context for understanding conflict in the Middle East.
Arieh Saposnik points to a map of Jerusalem as it appeared in the early 20th century.
The lecture, which focused on Jewish culture in turn-of-the-century Palestine decades prior to the creation of the state of Israel, was held Feb. 11 in the Faculty Center before an audience that included Jacob Dayan, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles; Chancellor Gene Block; and his two most recent predecessors, Albert Carnesale and Norman Abrams. The naming of Saposnik to the chair is a milestone for the Israel Studies Program, which was founded five years ago.
Saposnik explored notions of the sacred and the profane in the founding of Jewish institutions. He maintained that there was "an internal Jewish struggle over the power to define the sacred and the profane," in addition to the competing claims of different faiths.
Among many examples of the latter, Saposnik cited a dispute between the Jewish National Fund and a Christian group over a mountain in Galilee where Jesus had supposedly leaped from danger. At issue was whether a piece of arid land located on the eastern side of the Mediterranean was real estate to be purchased or holy land to be revered.
“We need to take this language of holiness very seriously" with respect to both historical and current disputes, Saposnik said.
Two early Zionist projects – the first Hebrew kindergarten in Jerusalem and the Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design, both founded in 1903 – illustrate how internal Jewish debates were carried out in religious language, with all sides pointing accusing fingers.
"The language of heresy and sacrilege is not accidental, but resonates with the core of Zionist sensibilities," said Saposnik.
Though seemingly a positive development, the Hebrew kindergarten was met with harsh criticism from some religious Jews in Palestine. It was to be the first in Jerusalem where children spoke Hebrew, played outdoors and enjoyed other modern notions of education. Rabbis inveighed against the kindergarten in part because they did not want the sacred language of Hebrew used for secular purposes in the holy city of Jerusalem.
Similarly, the Russian-born artist Boris Schatz gave a religious rationale for establishing an arts school in Jerusalem, while his orthodox opponents accused him of defiling the city. According to Schatz, the Bezalel Academy would create a new Jewish style of art for a new Jewish homeland. In drawings of the school, Schatz and his associates juxtaposed it with the Wailing Wall in the Old City, a sacred site.
Bezalel would be a “temple in the wilderness,” said Saposnik. “Its holiness was central to the project.”
The city of Jerusalem was not only the setting for such controversies, but also symbolically central to them. Jews debated the “eternal theme” of the relationship between a heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly one, a dichotomy that is also important in Christian messianic thought, said Saposnik. The heavenly Jerusalem, the dwelling place of all holy people, could be thought of either as a spiritual renewal of the city or an actual physical reconstruction. Conversely, the earthly Jerusalem was the historical city, one of the oldest in the world, shaped by the rule of Assyrians, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans and other dynastic powers.