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Ghettoizing a Matriarch and a City: An everyday story from the Palestinian/Israeli borderlands

Tom Selwyn


The paper uses the case of the walling up and sequestration by the Israeli authorities of a religious site in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem commonly known as Rachel's Tomb to discuss a variety of questions that bear upon the conflicts in the region. At their broadest, the political questions raised by the fate of Rachel's Tomb today concern the nature and meanings of states, borders and borderlands, 'security', and some of the determining ideas and values that inform the way these and allied issues are used by various actors and institutions. One aim is to make a small contribution to what Halper (2004) terms the "reframing" of our understanding of the conflicts in a way that aids the imagining of a regional future in which cities such as Bethlehem, as Palestine itself, emerge from the ghettoes in which they have become embedded.

The paper describes the fate of Rachel's Tomb and the consequences that the walling up of the tomb has had for the people living in its immediate neighbourhood. This is contextualised by describing how the settlers' movements behind the ghettoization of the tomb, backed as they are by the full force and authority of the Israeli state, are also responsible for making the city of Bethlehem (and its two neighbouring and contiguous cities) into a walled ghetto. Following Israeli and other critics of the settlers, the processes of "slow ethnic cleansing" and expropriation of Palestinian space that some have described as "spacio-cide" are described.

There then follows a discussion about the divergent dispositions and strands of thought and practice within Judaism, particularly Israeli Judaism, that bear directly on the processes described above. Following a number of Israeli and non-Israeli religious critics and commentators, the notion of the distinction between 'inward looking' and 'outward looking' Judaism is adopted. The paper fleshes this out ethnographically by juxtaposing the settlers' exclusionary and inward looking visions with the discourse of those voices presently calling for a definitively Jewish openness and cultural pluralism. Reference is also made to another significant religious constituency for whom Rachel's Tomb is a significant site, namely, Mizrahi ('eastern Jews', ie those with family origins in north Africa and the Middle-East) pilgrims who use tombs (supposedly of Jewish sages or tsaddikim) for predominantly personal and family reasons. The question about where this group might (both in the present and in an imagined future) fit into the 'inward/outward' spectrum is posed.

Rachel herself was one of the matriarchs of the ancient Hebrews and is a talismanic figure in parts of contemporary Israel. The paper concludes not only by suggesting how progressive pluralist ideas and values of outward looking Jewish thought are an essential part of any movement towards demolishing the walls of the ghetto but how the story of Rachel herself might be mobilised in support of such a project.

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