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Reflections on Ethics & Values in Policy 14 October 2000

Power vs. Moral Authority: Getting to the Value-Roots

In an earlier reflection (July 29, 2000), I noted that politicians appealing for compromise were not apt to be successful in the Middle East, where deeply held values were at stake. The reflection may be captured by the question, whose values are to be sacrificed (or can be sacrificed) in a just solution? Events since that reflection have demonstrated the importance in ethics and policy of deeply-held, historical values and the futility of applying political skill that ignores them.

I have watched the news reports and analysis for some significant treatment of the values at issue in vain. At the risk of oversimplification, let me advance two values-laden historical considerations that lie at the heart of the Middle East.

First, the religion-values embodied in the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, which when visited by Ariel Sharon served as a catalyst to violence. Second, the notions of Israel as the land promised by Yahweh to the Jews, Israel as the site of Christ's message, and the culmination of the monotheistic message in the Koran of Allah.

The religion-values of the Temple Mount. There are two major Muslim sites on the Temple Mount: the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. The Dome of the Rock covers the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples and what many believe to be where Abraham was called to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In Jewish belief, this site will be the location of a Third Temple when the Messiah comes to reign.

In Muslim belief, this is also the site of Mohammed's nighttime ride to heaven while he apparently slept in Mecca. Omar, a Caliph and companion of Mohammed, captured the then-Christian city of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount (which was used as a garbage dump) after a two-year siege in A.D. 636, during the early expansion of Islam. He wisely established Al-Aqsa as the site for Muslim prayer rather than the Temple site itself. As such, it is the third holiest site in Islam, after the Kabaa in Mecca and the tomb of Mohammed in Medina.

Islam as the Successor to Judaism and Christianity. The profound significance of this site is to be found in the broader notion of Yahweh's and Allah's commands to the Jews and Muslims, specifically. Israel, historically, is the promised land of the Jews. Also historically, they were driven out of the promised land by the Romans, who also destroyed the Second Temple in AD 70.

Some five hundred years later, the Archangel Gabriel relayed to Mohammed that he, Mohammed, was the seal of the line of Prophets that began with Abraham and included Moses and Jesus. Islam was to correct the errors of Judaism and Christianity and proselytize and administer the correct message of the monotheistic God, Allah. Indeed, in its earliest practices, Muslims prayed not in the of Mecca, as they do now, but toward Jerusalem.

Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of Eastern European descent converted to Judaism) did not begin to return to the Holy Land in numbers until the 20th century. Following the horror of the Holocaust, Palestine was partitioned by the United Nations to provide a homeland for the Jews, and Israel declared its independence in 1948.

The Middle East Dilemma. That the United Nations had the power to impose a solution in a region is undeniable. That it was done against the wishes of the majority of people who resided in the area is also undeniable. The state of Israel exists. The people who see themselves as displaced Palestinians exist. These are the protagonists.

There is probably no greater example of the difference between political power and moral authority than the creation of the state of Israel.

As a Native American, I have a feel for the Palestinian cause for the creation of the United States was at the expense of my people. Also, I have a feel for the desire of people to return to their roots. Here too, it was ultimately an issue of political power over moral authority, though there was frequently an appeal to "manifest destiny." Indeed a United States Supreme Court decision in favor of my people, the Cherokee, was expressly ignored by the U.S. government leading to our trail of tears in the early 1800s.

The creation of the United States is not apt to be reversed any time soon. Certainly not by the Native Americans alone. At what point, then, does power and the passage of time trump values and sense of history? When does a people acquiesce in its loss of identity without losing its sense of self? At point does the passage of time turn an ethical problem or dilemma into an ethical condition.

Until these historical value-facts are addressed, a solution based largely on compromise is highly unlikely. Until then, the question remains, whose values are to be sacrificed (or can be sacrificed) in a just solution?

Kenneth W. Johnson

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