Inside the Middle East
December 28, 2011
Posted: 1032 GMT

A newly discovered 2000-year-old coin-sized clay seal is shedding light on one of the most significant periods of Jewish history, Israeli archaeologists announced Sunday.

The seal was found in an ongoing archaeological excavation taking place along Jerusalem’s Western Wall and carries an Aramaic inscription, which researchers say translated as “Pure for God.”

The find dates back from between the 1st century B.C. to 70 A.D, the period in which the second of two Jewish temples was destroyed by the Romans during the course of a Jewish revolt.

In a statement, the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which oversees archaeological excavations in the area, said it represented a first-of-its-kind discovery and constitutes “direct archaeological evidence of the activity on the Temple Mount and the workings of the Temple during the Second Temple period.”

Haifa University archaeologist Ronny Reich, who has spent four decades digging around the Old City of Jerusalem, said the seal revealed details about some of the administrative procedures used by temple officials to oversee religious offerings.

"If you wanted to give a drink offering to the temple you went and bought an impressed seal from one person, a priest obviously, and then gave him the money,” Reich explained. “You went to the other man and received against this coupon lets call it a drink offering. And then went to the temple to offer it.”

The excavation is taking place beneath the religious compound know as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. The site is revered by both religions and previous archaeological activities in the area have sparked violent confrontations between Israeli and Palestinians.

At the press conference to announce the find, archaeologists were flanked by two government ministers from the right-wing Likud party who used the discovery to press Jewish claims of sovereignty over Jerusalem.

“The works of the digs are uncovering our roots,” said Education Minister Gideon Saar. “They could not be carried out if Israel was not the sovereign in control of Jerusalem and emphasized the work in this area.”

The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem, where the excavation is located, and Palestinians consider the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state.

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Filed under: Archaeology •General •Israel •Jerusalem •Judaism •Palestinians •Religion •Video

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July 13, 2011
Posted: 941 GMT
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May 20, 2011
Posted: 1128 GMT
A rabbi drinks a glass of fig alcohol at the 2010 pilgrimage to Derba, a Tunisian island
A rabbi drinks a glass of fig alcohol at the 2010 pilgrimage to Derba, a Tunisian island

By Joe Sterling, CNN

(CNN) – The political tension bubbling across Tunisia, Libya and the rest of North Africa has forced the cancellation of an annual Jewish pilgrimage to a historic synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

Roger Bismuth, a leader in the Tunisian Jewish community, said the community is concerned about the possibility of disruptions amid the ferment in Tunisia and the warfare in nearby Libya.

"We are scared people will take the opportunity to do something," said Bismuth, leader of a community that endured a deadly 2002 al Qaeda truck bombing in Djerba. "It's irresponsible to do it."

The annual pilgrimage is always held around the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, which comes this weekend, and it is centered on La Ghriba, a revered and iconic synagogue in the heart of the island. It was targeted in the 2002 attack, which killed 21 people, including German tourists.

According to legend, Jews came to Djerba after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem, destroyed in 586 BCE, and the synagogue has foundation stones from that edifice.

read the rest of the story here on CNN's Belief Blog

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Filed under: General •Judaism •Religion •Tunisia

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December 8, 2010
Posted: 842 GMT
Palestinian children play on one side of a barrier wall.
Palestinian children play on one side of a barrier wall.

A letter signed by 50 state-appointed rabbis telling Jews not to rent or sell property to non-Jews prompted widespread condemnation Tuesday from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and human rights groups.

The letter warned that those who defied the religious ruling should be "ostracized."

"In answer to many questions, we reply that it is prohibited by the Torah to sell a house or field in Israel to a gentile," the letter reads.

The letter is to be published in religious newspapers and distributed in synagogues across the country later this week, according to the Israeli news website Ynet.

It contends that "those who sell or rent out in an area which Jews live cause great damage to his neighbors. ... For their way of life is different to Jews. Read more...

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Filed under: Israel •Judaism •Palestinians

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November 18, 2010
Posted: 2041 GMT

It's late afternoon in Jerusalem and Moses Levi is making one of his frequent visits to the Western Wall.

"They say this is where the presence of God is," Levi says as he ambles across the plaza of Judaism's holiest site, a mere stone's throw away from Islam's sacred al-Aqsa Mosque.

"That's why you have Muslims here, Christians here, and obviously you have the Israelites here.  When everybody disagrees about everything, they agree about one thing:  that this is where they need to come to pray."

Like many of the worshippers there, he is dressed in traditional garb – a silver-striped silk robe, black knee-length pants, a white knit skullcap, and specially knotted fringes dangling from the sides of his legs.

In many ways, Levi is indistinguishable from the thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews who call Jerusalem home.  The only hint of something unusual is the Kurt Cobain T-shirt he wears under the robe, the black Ray-Ban sunglasses, and the signs of recognition on the faces of tourists passing by.

Levi is, in fact, far from your standard ultra-orthodox adherent to the Jewish faith.

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Filed under: Culture •General •Jerusalem •Judaism •Religion •Video

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November 4, 2010
Posted: 1956 GMT

Following up on our previous post about Israel's anger over the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) designation of  a West Bank religious shrine as a mosque,  the Israeli Foreign Ministry has decided to stop working with the UN agency.

In a statement Israel's Deputy foreign  minister, Danny Ayalon,  announced  "the suspension of Israel’s cooperation with the organization (UNESCO) in the implementation of the five resolutions until these outrageous pronouncements are rescinded"

Ayalon went on to say that the UNESCO recommendations were based on the "automatic Arab majority" in the agency and that it had become a "rubber stamp" of the Palestinian Authority.

An Israeli government official said the move was meant to "send a message" to the UN agency about Israel's "extreme displeasure" with the mosque designation which the official called a "negation" of not only Jewish and Christian tradition but of Islamic history as well.

The press office at UNESCO had no immediate comment about the latest criticism.

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Filed under: Christianity •Islam •Israel •Judaism •Religion

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October 30, 2010
Posted: 1452 GMT
Pamela Anderson poses during the unveiling of a new People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) poster in London. (Getty Images)
Pamela Anderson poses during the unveiling of a new People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) poster in London. (Getty Images)

Former “Baywatch” star and Playboy cover girl Pamela Anderson is now involved in…Israeli politics.

Israeli Daily newspaper Yediot Aronoth reported this week that a letter written by the Hollywood star and noted animal rights activist was received at the office of Israel’s Minister of Religious Services, Ya’akov Margi,  of the religious  political party of Shas.

Anderson, who is due to visit Israel in a few weeks to make a guest appearance in the Israeli version of popular TV show “Dancing with the Stars”,  asked the minister to support a ground-breaking  bill that would ban the use of animal fur for the making of clothes, hats and other products in the Jewish State.

“I urge you to support this historic bill and speak up for the millions of animals who are bludgeoned, electrocuted, and skinned alive for their pelts each year" beseeched Anderson in her letter.

She also implored him to watch a graphic video from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

No word on the minister's response to the Hollywood starlet but according to the report, the minister has asked for the bill to be re-examined  due to the fact that many ultra-orthodox Jews living in Israel traditionally choose to cover their heads with large hats made of sable tails.

The distinctive head covering, called the streimel,  is worn by male adherents of various Jewish sects and is usually donned on the sabbath or high holidays.

While the market for the hats is small the price tags are not – milliners can fetch up to $5000 per streimel.

The sable covered hat is believed to have originated some 500 years ago in Russia after a government decree that all Jews identify themselves by attaching an animal's tail to their skull caps. What began as a humiliation eventually turned into accepted fashion spreading throughout the Jewish communities in Europe.

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Filed under: Israel •Judaism

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October 29, 2010
Posted: 1726 GMT

Ultra-Orthodox Jews praying at Rachel's tomb (Getty Images).
Ultra-Orthodox Jews praying at Rachel's tomb (Getty Images).

A UN agency's decision to identify a Jewish holy site in the West Bank as a mosque  and define it and another shrine as Palestinian has prompted cries of bias and distortion from Israel.

"The attempt to separate the nation of Israel from its cultural heritage is absurd," said Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement released Friday.

"It is unfortunate that an organization that was established with the goal of promoting the cultural preservation of historical sites around the world, is attempting due to political reasons to uproot the connection between the nation of Israel and its cultural heritage."

The harsh words stem from a decision earlier in the week by the executive board of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which read:

"The Palestinian sites of al-Haram, al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs in al-Khalil/Hebron and the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem: the Board voted 44 to one (12 abstentions) to reaffirm that the two sites are an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law..."

It was, according to UNESCO spokeswoman Susan Williams, the first time the U.N. agency's executive board had referred to the religious site in Bethlehem as a mosque . The one vote against came from the United States.

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Filed under: General •Islam •Israel •Judaism •Palestinians •Religion •United Nations •West Bank

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October 25, 2010
Posted: 901 GMT
Pope Benedict XVI presides over the last day of the synod of bishops from the Middle East at the Vatican(OSSERVATORE ROMANO/AFP/Getty Images).
Pope Benedict XVI presides over the last day of the synod of bishops from the Middle East at the Vatican(OSSERVATORE ROMANO/AFP/Getty Images).


 A two-week conference of Catholic bishops to discuss the situation of Christians in the Middle East has stirred some controversy.

At the conclusion of the Vatican gathering, called a synod in church terminology,  bishops released a communique Saturday that among other things called for the international community "to put an end to the occupation"  and an exhortation that the bible should not be used by Israel as a pretext to justify injustices.

The communique and remarks in a closing press conference by Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros brought charges of "libel" from Israel's deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalaon on Sunday and a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, Yigal Palmor, said the bishops were "committing a sin towards the truth"  by ignoring the fact  that "Israel is the one  country in the region that is welcoming to Christians"

Palmor cited statistics showing the Christian population in Israel had been growing steadily throughout the years due to natural growth and immigration. He said that Christians face pressure in many countries in the Middle East because of Islamic law and  Muslim extremism, but that Israel was not one of them.

Rabbi David Rosen who serves as the director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish committee and spoke before the synod as special guest earlier in the month called the omissions of  the conference's  final statement "appalling".

"...the bishops did not have the courage to address challenges of intolerance and extremism in the Muslim countries in which they reside, and rather chose to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict their first focus" Rosen said in a statement.

For its part the Palestinian Authority welcomed the conclusions from the Vatican gathering.

"Israel cannot use the biblical concept of a promised land or chosen people to justify new settlements in Jerusalem or Israeli territorial claims," Saeb Erakat, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and a chief Palestinian negotiator, said in a statement Sunday.

Erakat said the synod sent "a clear a message to the government of Israel that it may not claim that Jerusalem is an exclusively Israeli city."

"(In) coming weeks we will engage in discussions with the Vatican on ways to further consolidate our fantastic relations," Erakat said. "

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Filed under: Christianity •Islam •Israel •Judaism •Palestinians •Religion

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October 20, 2010
Posted: 749 GMT
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