Q&A with Visiting Assistant Professor Daniel Stein Kokin

Q&A with Visiting Assistant Professor Daniel Stein Kokin

Professor Daniel Stein Kokin sat down with the Y&S Nazarian Center to discuss his Fall class "Symbolic Places and Spaces in Modern Israel and the Palestinian Territories," the themes it has been covering and why they're so relevant for students to examine today.

UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, November 20, 2017 - In an interview, Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies Visiting Assistant Professor Daniel Stein Kokin spoke about his current course "Symbolic Places and Spaces in Modern Israel and the Palestinian Territories."

The Junior Professor of Jewish Literature and Culture at the University of Greifswald in Germany spoke with the Center about the subject matter covered in the course and why it's so important today for students to learn about how symbolic spaces and places are made, the uniqueness of the sites in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and how these sometimes ancient places often play important roles in modern debates.

Many of the sites you’ll be discussing in your course have been around for generations, if not millennia. Why is it important to study them today?

Actually, a number of the sites are of quite recent vintage, and even of those that are old, some have assumed unprecedented importance and or controversy in modern times. The battle of Tel Hai took place in 1920 and within the space of just a few years this locale in the Upper Galilee assumed the status of a foundational site for Zionist identity. In addition, while the events commemorated at Masada took place in approximately 73 CE, it was only in the early 20th century that the site in the Judean desert became the object of substantial discussion and pilgrimage.

But the key point is that all symbolic sites, whether new or old, are subject to continual re-evaluation and re-calibration in accordance with shifting political and social conditions. "All history is contemporary history" wrote the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce. Along the same lines, all symbolic places are important for what they represent or signify at the present moment. Because of this, close attention to symbolic places and spaces over time yields great insights into the character, changes, and inner tensions characterizing collective identities. After all, societies invest tremendous resources--financial, cultural, pedagogical--in developing and promoting symbolic places and spaces, and they frequently become flashpoints of controversy and conflict.

One need only consider the events of this past summer--the violence in Charlottesville concerning the fate of that city's Robert E. Lee statue and the protests at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem--to be reminded that this is the case. Symbolic spaces focus, distill, highlight aspects of identity and therefore are worthy of greater attention in academic contexts than they are typically granted.

In class, I tell my students that one can "read" a site just as one reads a book. Learning to pay close attention to aspects of design, architecture, and commemoration is a critical skill that will help students understand their own as well as other societies better. And given the key role holy places play in Israel/Palestine--including in peace negotiations--I don't think the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians can fully be understood until and unless symbolic places and spaces are fully taken into account.

What makes sites symbolic?

In this class I work with the broadest possible definition, since I want students to understand that symbolism can be present even in unexpected places. For example, on the very first day I spoke about Ben Gurion International airport as a symbolic site and presented slides showcasing how the main terminal self-consciously plays up its role as the main gateway to Israel. On the last day I may refer to the miniature theme park Mini Israel as articulating and presenting a kind of "canon" of Modern Israel.

In general, I would say that a site qualifies as symbolic when it preserves and shapes collective memory and/or conveys a society's values. It can exist solely or primarily to do this, as in the case of monuments and memorials (What practical function does the Statue of Liberty fulfill?), or it can do this in addition to fulfilling an important practical function.
The Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv, for example, is a trio of skyscrapers: one square, one triangular, one circular, and thus primarily a commercial complex. But the height and size of its buildings also made it a symbol of Israeli progress and power, for which reason it would be regularly showcased in a brief clip on the evening news. And while we generally think of sites conveying symbolic meaning for the collectivities that host or cultivate them, it is sometimes a society's enemies who best appreciate a locale's symbolic potential.

I doubt many Americans made much of the World Trade Center in New York City prior to the 2001 terrorist attacks from. They were of course remarkably tall buildings with an impressive observatory, but beyond that I don't think they had any particular symbolic power. It was Osama bin Laden who conceived the twin towers as representative of America's international power and therefore as a site worthy of destruction.

I consciously chose to refer in my course title to symbolic rather than holy places and spaces as a way of indicating that we are not just interested in religious sites. Officially non-religious sites can take on aspects of the sacred: just a few days after the battle at Tel Hai a writer for the Hebrew daily Ha-Aretz excitedly proclaimed "Now a holy place [for Zionism] has been created"; the Lincoln Memorial at night is quite a spiritual place.

And holy places are often co-opted or indeed created by political forces. The Western Wall in Jerusalem is as much a national as a religious site, and the anuual springtime Muslim pilgrimage to the traditional Arab site of Moses' grave near Jericho (Nabi Musa) was a key context for the emergence of Palestinian national identity in the 1920's and 30's and was later subject to attempted political manipulation by Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority.

What is unique about the places and spaces you’ll be covering in your course?

Of course every place has its unique character, but the territory of Israel/Palestine offers a particularly impressive laboratory for exploring both the endurance and variability of symbolic sites and competition surrounding them. What Mark Twain wrote about Jerusalem in the 19th century applies to a substantial degree to the entirety of the country: "We are surfeited with sights...The sights are too many. They swarm about you at every step; no single foot of ground in all Jerusalem seems to be without a stirring and important history of its own."

Perhaps what is most surprising or interesting in this land is the degree to which the sites belonging to each side become controversial for that side. For example, because many of the early Zionists were quite secular and positioned themselves in opposition to traditional Jewish religion and the earlier Jewish residents of the Land of Israel (the "old yishuv"), they had rather little interest in the holy sites that had been important for these older communities and created alternatives: Tel Hai and Masada, for example, as against the Western Wall (Jerusalem) and Cave of the Patriarchs (Hebron); the tombs of the earliest Zionist pioneers as opposed to those of rabbinic scholars.

The later growth of Religious Zionism combined with the renewed access to the Old City of Jerusalem and Hebron in the wake of the Six-Day War changed that a great deal, though today many secular Israelis have little interest in the traditional Jewish holy places, in part because these have become so directly associated with the religious right-wing.

On the Palestinian side, a great many of the shrines that historically played such an important role in Palestinian life were destroyed or rendered inaccessible due to the events of 1947-49. Religious change, however, has also played a key role. Traditional Palestinian Islam was dominated by Sufism and various Sufi orders accordingly played a critical role in pilgrimages to holy sites in Palestine.

With the rise of Reformist streams of Islam in the twentieth century (Wahhabism and Salafism) and the near-eclipse of the Sufis, pilgrimage (aside from to Mecca and Jerusalem) was viewed in an increasingly critical light as an impure and potentially idolatrous form of religious practice. Thus many locales of earlier religious importance have largely faded from memory. What has replaced them in popular consciousness are the depopulated villages from 1947-1948 which, whether accessible or not, are subject to extensive commemoration.

Why did you decide to include both Palestinian and Muslim sites as well as Jewish and Israeli sites?

I originally conceived the class as focusing entirely on Jewish and Israeli sites, and without doubt there would have more than enough material to keep us occupied for an entire quarter of instruction. But as I commenced the detailed planning I realized that students would benefit from examining side-by-side how two distinct cultures and nations directly link their identity to the same small patch of territory.

Despite the potential risk of political controversy and the added challenges for me of covering an additional culture, and maintaining as objective and fair a perspective as possible, I concluded that the joint Israeli-Palestinian perspective would intellectually and pedagogically likely be far richer for all participants, including me. That has, so far, proven to be true, and has led me to insights or points of comparison that I could not possibly have anticipated in advance.

I read extensively about the battle of Tel Hai and its prominence for early Zionist ideology around the same time that I was considering what Palestinian sites to include in the course. Coming upon the March 1968 Battle of Karameh, in which Israeli forces raided the PLO headquarters in Jordan and encountered unexpectedly stiff Palestinian and Jordanian resistance, it occurred to me that Karameh occupied much the same place in Palestinian memory as did Tel Hai in Zionist/Israeli.

Just as Tel Hai was used to demonstrate that Jews could be fighters for their land, so Karameh proved to be a useful recruitment tool for guerilla fighters, despite the very heavy Palestinian casualties that occurred there. Of course, there are also instructive differences: the Zionist movement and subsequent Israeli state were able to develop the site of Tel Hai and to institute annual pilgrimages to the site on the day of the battle, whereas Karameh, because of its location, has been to a large degree remembered as a Jordanian event. The memorial at the site depicts a Jordanian soldier and a 2015 article commemorating the battle that we examined in class does not mention the Palestinian role in the fighting at all.

Likewise, we discussed Isaac Lamdan's famous 1927 poem "Masada," the most famous line of which, "Masada shall not fall again," retains great currency in Israeli consciousness down to the present, just prior to considering the Palestinian pilgrimage to Nebi Musa. When Lamdan refers to how "in festive processions, far over there, are the flags waved, and we, naked, are forsaken on the crossroads," it seems quite likely that he has this pilgrimage--which peaked in peaked in popularity and political importance in the 1920's, and 30's and in which flags featured prominently--in mind.

There is substantial overlap between Israeli and Palestinian spatial attachments, with the sacred sites of the one group subject to appropriation by the other and vice-versa. This recurring phenomenon has been memorably satirized by the once famous and now largely forgotten Israeli writer Haim Hazaz, in a short story entitled "The Wanderer."

The Jewish protagonist, a learned, itinerant peddler from Tiberias named Reb Meshel Yeshel, buries his beloved donkey in a random patch of ground and places a few stones atop the grave to mark the spot. Encountering the memorial while exploring the countryside with his disciples, a Jewish sage from Safed determines that it marks the spot of a renowned sage. Before long a full-fledged shrine has emerged at the spot, at which point the Arabs take interest, alleging that it actually marks the gravesite of one of their holy men. They proceed to attack the Jewish worshippers at the site and take it over for themselves.

Sometime thereafter Reb Meshel Yeshel returns to this location for the first time in many years and is astonished by the changes he encounters. Revealing to the Arabs that he had buried his donkey at the site, they assault and kill him for having violated the sanctity of their holy place. Bearing in mind the rather one-sided and politically incorrect character of this tale, we can nevertheless note that it reports a basic truth characteristic of the inter-religious encounter around holy sites.

A final point worth mentioning concerns the role of the Israeli government in adjudicating disputes between religious groups in its territory. Given Israel's significant Jewish majority and status as a Jewish state, one might well expect that inner-Jewish disputes would be handled differently from those affecting other groups. Nevertheless, I think a useful comparison can be drawn between Israeli government policy with regard to the dispute between Muslims and Christians in Nazareth surrounding the Basilica of the Annunciation and Shihab al-Din Mosque back in the 1990's, and between Orthodox and more liberal Jews concerning the Western Wall at present.

In both cases, an initial government decision/agreement more in keeping with Israel's international interests (i.e. in favor of the Christians in Nazareth and liberal Jews at the Western Wall) was suspended thanks to internal political pressures (the desire to curry favor with Islamists in the case of Nazareth and with Ultra-Orthodox Jews, in the case of Jerusalem). Intense lobbying by Christians around the world ultimately compelled Israel to return to its original policy in Nazareth. It remains to be seen if non-Orthodox Jews will have similar success in Jerusalem. I am skeptical that they will.

How do the sites you’re covering in the course play into modern debates?

Probably the best indication that a location is maintaining its symbolic significance is that people argue or fight over it – or make use of it in arguing or fighting over somewhere else. For example, it was at an Israeli cabinet meeting held at Tel Hai in 2010, close to the day of the 90th anniversary of the battle there, that the largest ever plan to rehabilitate national heritage sites in Israel was announced, including two West Bank sites: the Tomb of Rachel near Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

This plan of course generated controversy since Israel appeared to treat these two sites as part of its national territory, which even Israel does not officially claim. We will consider the Hebron site in the context of the course since it encapsulates the difficulties involved in trying to reconcile the Israeli and Palestinian identities.

As the traditional burial site of the biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs (aside from Rachel), Hebron ranks as the second most holy place for Jews after Jerusalem; for Muslims, who view Abraham as a prophet and father figure as well, it is in fourth place, after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.

Aside from its religious importance, it is a site of tremendous archaeological significance as well: the structure atop the Cave of the Patriarchs has been described as the oldest sacred building in continual use. The external portion is typically ascribed to the ancient king of Roman Judea Herod who reigned betwen 37 and 4 BCE; if correct, this makes it the only Herodian building to have survived virtually intact.

At least since the early 10th century, the compound has housed a mosque. For centuries, perhaps as much as a millennium, Jews had not been allowed to enter into the site itself and were restricted to praying outside a small window cut into the entrance wall. Since shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War, in an uneasy arrangement that has been punctuated by bouts of violence, the site has been divided between Jews and Muslims, with the city as a whole partitioned between zones of Palestinian and Israeli control.

While the current situation is far from ideal, it is hard to imagine how the situation can be improved. The Jewish attachment to the site is clear and understandable, especially in light of the biblical account (Genesis 23) of how Abraham purchased this site as a burial cave for Sarah. Yet it is hard to imagine how this attachment can be securely cultivated without at least partial Israeli control over what is a thoroughly Palestinian city. Thankfully, our job in this course is not to solve problems but merely to understand them.

We will of course also devote extensive time to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. This tremendously complicated locale, has been described as “The Single Most Explosive Piece of Real Estate on the Planet,” and lies at the absolute heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as perhaps the single hardest nut to crack. The prestige in the Muslim world of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are such that it is virtually impossible to conceive of the Palestinians signing off on any agreement that does not offer them absolute sovereignty over the site. Yet the Jewish memory of and longing for the Temple also push strongly in the direction of at least some Israeli sovereignty at the site.

The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is, in a way, symbolic of Israel/Palestine as a whole. Whoever is in control here is in a sense in control over the land in its entirety. Many of the most violent episodes in the history of the Israel-Palestinian conflict have been triggered by incidents or events at this spot (1929, 1990, 1996, 2000), and the events of this past summer demonstrate that this site remains as sensitive and explosive as ever.

Alongside the Muslim-Jewish conflict over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, there is an increasingly pronounced inner-Jewish conflict over the nature of the space adjoining the Western Wall or Kotel. Indeed, as I have noted to the students, the internal conflicts within religions are often as interesting and emotional as those waged between faiths, a point familiar to anyone who has followed the controversies that have haunted the various Christian denominations responsible for Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

In the case of the Western Wall, the current difficulties are the unintended, ironic result of Israel's triumph in 1967. In the flush of victory and eager to facilitate prayer at the Western Wall and establish territorial continuity between the Wall and the Old City of Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter, Israel bulldozed the Medieval Muslim Mughrabi quarter. The creation of a vast plaza adjoining the Western Wall was in one sense good, since it enabled a functional religious partition that on the whole has functioned rather well since: the Western Wall for the Jews, the Temple Mount for the Muslims; soon after the war, Israel returned functional control of the Temple Mount to the Muslim authorities and actually banned Jewish prayer there.

But it at the same time inadvertently raised the question as to how this new space should be defined--it is now officially an "orthodox Synagogue". Subsequent archaeological exploration next door to this plaza (the "Southern Excavations") exposed additional sections of the Kotel and rendered this question all the more pressing. The Western Wall has become the most prestigious address for Jewish prayer and thus the focal point of the struggle between Orthodoxy and the more liberal Jewish denominations. A monopoly over prayer at the site is as essential for the former as an officially recognized and supported alternative prayer site at the Kotel is for the latter.

Ironically, even for many Jews for whom there is no particular longing for the Temple, the ability to pray adjacent to where it once stood is regarded as critical. At the end of the day, the problem with conflicted holy spaces remains that they are not easily shared and can only be divided in time or space, neither of which is typically satisfactory to either of the parties.

What the conflict over the status of Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs or Jerusalem's Temple Mount ultimately reveals is that alongside the political and military conflict in Israel and the Palestinian Territories there is the no-less critical symbolic one. Its battles are waged, not with stones, guns, or bombings, but via UNESCO resolutions and press conferences. To whom do these places and spaces really belong? It is a question that will not go away but is ever debated and argued anew.

What do you hope students will take away from this course?

I view "Symbolic Places and Spaces" as an excellent, if unconventional, point of entry into the histories, identities, and cultures of Israelis and Palestinians and into their ongoing conflict. For learning about, analyzing, dissecting a society's symbolic sites is a wonderful way to come to understand what makes a collective identity tick.

Students will emerge from this class equipped to understand the Israeli-Palestinian symbolic battlefield and able to make sense of what is going on the next time violence or controversy erupts in Hebron, Jerusalem, or wherever else in the country. And if and when they travel to the region (I hope when!) they will appreciate what they see at a much deeper level than they would have otherwise.

But aside from the particular context of Israel and the Palestinians, this course teaches skills that are useful for any context of collective identity. Symbolic places and spaces are all around us--even in our private lives, I would say – and students come away from my class with useful tools for analyzing them. They are learning that such sites are hardly set in stone figuratively-speaking (they may well be literally!) but emerge and disappear and continually undergo change and re-evaluation.

And they are learning how to "read" symbolic sites, to ask how these sites are cultivated, shaped, and distorted by publics and their elites. I hope this will make them more curious, discerning, critical citizens – attentive to the role played by symbolic spaces in many contexts, including ones far removed from the Israeli-Palestinian one.

I should add that this is by far the most diverse class I have ever taught: I of course have many Jewish students, including a number of Israelis, but also a Bangladeshi Muslim, Egyptian Coptic, Persian Zoroastrian, two Nigerians, and several Chinese students. I suspect that many of these students were attracted to the course not only due to curiosity about Israel/Palestine but also because they suspected that the topics we would cover would be relevant and offer insights concerning their own countries of origin. If so, I very much hope that they will conclude Fall Quarter 2017 with this expectation fulfilled.