The term “status quo” has implications in Israel that the rest of the world cannot imagine.
We have just passed the 70th anniversary of the letter sent by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to the leaders of the religious political party, Agudat Israel, which is considered the starting point of the “status quo” in relations between religion and state in the State of Israel. Ben Gurion created a formula so that the Jewish community could present a united front to the United Nations Committee on Palestine, whereby we could promote the creation of a democratic Jewish State, which would be able to promise freedom of religion. The secular parties promised to keep out of religious matters.
Despite Ben Gurion’s belief that religious parties would disappear with the creation of a secular state, his letter still has implications today. The “status quo” proven a great impediment to open debate about the character of the State. There is no state marriage in Israel –all marriages are religious – due to the status quo arrangement. Full-time Yeshiva students do not have to serve in the army and public transport does not run on Shabbat as a result of this commitment.
This was not the first “status quo” arrangement in this part of the world. In 1922 the British banned Jews from bringing chairs to the kotel, based on a 1915 Ottoman decree. Although the ban was not implemented at that time, it was reinstated in 1928 with vigour. According to the “status quo” regulation, constructing a barrier – even a temporary one – between men and women at the kotel was a violation of the status quo as was blowing the shofar there.
Jewish prayers at the kotel and Muslim fears of Jews taking over the Temple Mount were always related issues. The “status quo” arrangements that the British made were supposed to alleviate those fears.
In 1967, when Israel returned to Jerusalem, there was a new arrangement with the Waqf, the Muslim religious authority. This was not a “status quo” agreement but a concession to religious autonomy. Not wanting to impede the freedom of religion of others and out of respect for their holy sites, Moshe Dayan handed over administration of the Muslim sites to their own authority.
Today, it is often stated that Jews do or should not pray on the Temple Mount because of the “status quo” but this is a strange claim. Under the British, Jews were not only banned from the Temple Mount but were severely restricted at the Kotel. That was the “status quo.” Since 1967, the policy towards Jews on the Temple Mount has changed numerous times. Appeals to the “status quo” are meaningless.
That is also true for the kotel. The “status quo” agreement between Ben Gurion and Agudat Yisrael was not about the kotel. The British “status quo” agreements are certainly not ones to which we would want to appeal. Whatever our views about what should or should not take place at the kotel, we should not use an appeal to the “status quo.”
In 1967, Israel inherited another explicit and still very relevant “status quo” agreement – the one that governed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Christianity is not monolithic, so ensuring that the religion’s most holy site was open to all Christian denominations required negotiation.
It was another case of the intertwining of politics and religion – but with quite different consequences.
In the first half of the 19th century, the alliance between Muslim Turkey and Christian Russia had direct consequences on the question of Christian Holy Places. In 1852 the Sultan promulgated the “Status Quo nunc,” freezing the conditions existing at the moment of the agreement. The British, during the mandate period, prepared meticulous guidelines meant to help clarify issues relating to the Turkish status quo. The “Status Quo” was confirmed by the British as a legal instrument and continues as the frame of reference for resolving disputes.
It was an uneasy truce but it worked. Christians of all denominations had access to the Church and times when they could conduct their prayer services.
But there were some anomalies, particularly with regards to repairs which could not be carried out.
Then, last year, the three principal Christian communities that maintain the Church announced that they had reached agreement on repairs to the Edicule, a nineteenth-century structure in the heart of the Church. After years of inaction, based largely on the insistence of authorities on a blind adherence to the “status quo,” the leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic communities announced that work would begin on the structure. This was a remarkable act of solidarity between leaders who see each other’s traditions as erroneous forms of Christianity. The work of Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in healing centuries’ old wounds paid off. In March this year, the work was completed.
Whereas once, it was a source of amusement that a ladder outside the Church could not be moved due to the “status quo” agreement, we now must have great admiration for Christian leaders who could put aside their differences in order to do what was in their combined interest. No-one but the most ignorant would dismiss the theological and ritual differences between the different Christian denominations but when space is holy, insisting on the status quo can be a sacrilege.
The Christian churches have learnt how to share their most holy site. They found a way to move forward. Maybe we Jews could learn from them. Instead of appealing to or arguing against a “status quo” which does not even apply, let’s look at how we can share our most holy space with all denominations.
Maybe we need a time-share arrangement by which non-segregated prayers are allocated specific times or perhaps we need other creative solutions but what we don’t need is the status quo.