Preliminary Middle East Conflict Paper Topic

Some of the central issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict center around access of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to the religious shrines and holy places, and ultimately implicate the status of Jerusalem itself, viz., whether as Holy City, prize of conquest, or neutral corpus separatum. Inasmuch as rights of pilgrimage and the very concept of such “sacred space” are patently anachronistic to modern international law, I wish to examine and compare the development and usage of some of these norms.

Greek law, within the context of Panhellenism, developed norms governing access to religious sites by members of competing poleis. The greatest examples of this are perhaps the festival of Zeus at Olympia or the Oracle at Delphi, which seem to have achieved something like a corpus separatum status. (Further research into Roman and Mesopotamian law may reveal further examples of parallel phenomena.)

Within the order of Islamic civilization, a similar problem may be seen with respect to the access of the Faithful, in their several striving sects, from many parts of the empire, to the holy places of Mecca and Medina. Indeed, given that the emphasis on pilgrimage comes much later in Christian thought, one is tempted to wonder to what degree the whole Christian idea of pilgrimage (which, in its definite expression, comes much later) was conditioned by the prior Islamic experience. Certainly, how the Muslims customarily regarded norms of religious access to Mecca, Medina, and Al-Quds conditioned their own response to the Crusades, and ultimately to the modern Zionist crusade.

Through the Crusades and their aftermath (which is, ultimately, colonialism itself), Roman Christianity developed a set of legal norms governing pilgrimage (including the “Peace” and “Truce of God”) and justifying expeditions to make the Levant safe for pilgrimage, which ultimately led to the establishment of the short-lived kingdom of Jerusalem. (I would like to compare and contrast this with any Byzantine norms regarding the holy places and pilgrimage, which I suspect were pretty non-existent.)

Two leading examples of corpora separata in the modern world are Vatican City and Washington D.C. In both instances, the corpora were instituted to free the administration of a precinct of wider religious or civil-religious significance from the influence of the “host” State. Both D.C. and the Vatican represent examples of how a corpus separatum regime may be used to administer a precinct of great symbolic significance, while assuring its access to pilgrims and tourists.

Comparison with norms used by related cultures to govern pilgrimage and holy places, and to preserve their neutrality in the face of traditional territorially-defined political conflict, helps us to understand a key part of the background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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