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JIIS Bulletin - September 2012
Conflicts over religious sites: Mosque or museum in Beersheba?
There is a century-old building under dispute in Beersheba: originally built as a mosque, for two decades it stood empty and then opened as the Negev Museum of Art. When Islamic groups recently started calling for its reopening as a place of worship, the municipality, and the state, decided to retain the museum instead. The building made headlines of late again after Israeli Arab groups protested the holding of a wine festival as part of a larger cultural event in its courtyard (last week it was decided to move the wine festival to a different location). 

The JIIS’ Prof. Yitzhak Reiter and Lior Lehrs have been following this issue closely, both for its local aspects and as a case study for broader research regarding holy and heritage sites of ethnic-religious-national minorities in the urban space, particularly areas of conflict.
The Great Mosque was built in 1906 by the Ottoman governor; all religious activity came to a halt with the establishment of the state in 1948 and for a long time the building was not used at all. Then in the 1970s the city opened the museum, to the chagrin of Muslims and Bedouin in Israel who called for its reinstatement as a place of worship for them. Public protest on the matter stepped up about 10 years ago, and soon took to the courts, led by the Association for the Support and Protection of Rights for the Bedouin in Israel and Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, demanding that the premises again be used as an active mosque for the benefit of the Muslim residents in and around the city, as it once was. An intra-government committee set up to deal with the matter failed to resolve it and thus it reached the High Court. A temporary compromise was reached in June 2011, when the High Court ruled that the building should be used as a museum for “Islamic culture and peoples” while allowing the Muslim community to raise their call with the planning authorities for the reopening and management of the mosque. Last November, a temporary exhibition was held while preparations were underway to open the museum in a new format. 

The research examines the many aspects of this subject, which are at once political, religious, demographic, security-related and legal. It opens by reviewing the history of this specific conflict in Beersheba, which began in 1948 and never really went away, analyzing the claims raised by both sides as well as the High Court responses. It also looks at the identity of the players involved and the processes that have influenced the conflict in its different phases. It then details the efforts made to modify or resolve the matter. 

Reiter and Lehrs turned to other case studies from different parts of the world so as to discuss the greater questions of conflict between communities involving a symbolic landscape and the dilemmas of representing minorities in the public sphere. Their comparative research covers Jewish holy sites in the Arab-Muslim space (such as the grave of Yaakov Abu Hatzeira in Damanhour, Egypt), Muslim holy sites in the Christian-Western space (such as the Grand Mosque in Copenhagen, Denmark) and debates surrounding holy places in conflict areas such as Bosnia and Cyprus. 

Taking into account the complexities and differences in the conditions and circumstances of the different cases, the researchers will offer conclusions and outline strategies and policy alternatives for this specific case as well as offering a model based on the different tools available for resolving conflicts over religious and historical sites elsewhere. 

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