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>JN July 25, 2000, Vol. 8, No. 128

Israeli Orthodox Conversion Programs Discontinued

Israel Faxx Staff Report

The Ministry of Education has closed Orthodox-Jewish conversion programs and has fired the program's teachers. The stated reason for the move: budgetary constraints. The only conversion programs to remain operative will be those shared by the Orthodox with the Conservative and Reform movements. During 1999, 4,000 people - mostly citizens of Ethiopian descent - underwent conversion in Israel, 90% via the Orthodox conversion programs.


Palestinians, Israelis Down to the Wire at Camp David

By VOA's Nick Simeone (Thurmont, Md.) & Art Chimes (Jerusalem),

Around-the-clock negotiations have resumed at the Camp David Middle East peace summit, where talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders enter a 15th day. President Clinton is still assessing whether this summit is heading toward agreement or failure. The president was up negotiating until nearly dawn Monday, and after only a few hours' sleep, he was back in meetings with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

Israeli officials told reporters it should be clear within about 24 hours if Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat are going to be able to reach an agreement at Camp David. By all accounts, the main sticking point seems to be the future of Jerusalem, claimed by both sides as their capital.

Under the political dispute lies the religious nature of Jerusalem's holy sites. The discussion at Camp David involves issues of political status, and the language is one of sovereignty and autonomy. Many analysts say of all the issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians, the status of Jerusalem may be the most difficult, because of the spiritual and emotional ties the two sides have to the city's many holy sites.

For Christians, Jerusalem is the site of the resurrection of Jesus, the central event of their faith. For Jews, it is the location of their ancient Temples, and the place where God tested the patriarch Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. And for Muslims, Jerusalem is where the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven on his Night Journey.

Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, director of Al-Aqsa Mosque, explains why Jerusalem is the third-holiest city in Islam. In his office opposite the Dome of the Rock, he explains the link between the holy city of Mecca and Jerusalem.

The sheikh says God transported the prophet Mohammed from Jerusalem to Mecca, creating a special relationship between the two cities. He says it is an important part of Muslims' beliefs.

The massive limestone rock at the center of the Dome of the Rock mosque also figures in Jewish tradition. David Rosen, the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, says it is known as the place from which the universe itself was created.

"According to Jewish tradition, the temple that was built there by Solomon and then subsequently the second temple reconstructed after the Babylonians had destroyed the first, they were built there on that site because God had uniquely caused His name to dwell in that spot. And the stone there, according to Jewish tradition is known as, in Hebrew, Even ha-Shetiyah, the Foundation Stone from which the whole universe was created. In other words, that's where the idea of the nexus between Heaven and Earth originates within the Jewish tradition."

Jerusalem is also the site of many of the most important events at the dawn of Christianity. The Palestinian Authority's chief official for Christian affairs, Ibrahim Kandlaft, says the city is key for Christians.

"Jerusalem is the holiest place for Christians, he says. Jesus lived here, made miracles here, suffered and was crucified here. And he was buried and resurrected here."

Israelis say they have allowed Christians and Muslims free access to their holy sites since they took control of all of Jerusalem in 1967. Palestinians disagree, and say the only way to guarantee access is if they have full control. However the issue is decided at Camp David, if it can be decided at all, the deep emotional and spiritual connection both sides feel to Jerusalem makes this perhaps the most sensitive issue on the table.

Barak has pledged that any peace deal reached at Camp David will be put before Israeli voters in a referendum. But a new survey indicates Barak may have to work hard to win support for a deal.

Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper published results of a new Gallup poll in which those surveyed disapproved a deal -- 50-percent against, 42-percent in favor. The specific proposal in the survey included Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and religious autonomy -- but not sovereignty -- over certain Muslim holy sites in the Old City.

If there is a Camp David agreement, it may or may not resemble the proposal in the survey. Arafat has been insisting he will settle for nothing less than full sovereignty over all of East Jerusalem, which Israel has not been willing to concede. The margin of error in the survey is plus or minus 4.5 percent.


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