March 4, 2001
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
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
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
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.