Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Religion and Politics: New Religious Sites and Spatial Transgression in Israel

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Religion and Politics: New Religious Sites and Spatial Transgression in Israel

Article excerpt

In the introduction to a special issue of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers James Proctor opines that, although "religion appears to play a prominent role in the contemporary political and cultural landscape[,] ... relatively few geographers are contributing [to] a better appreciation of this phenomenon" (2006, 165; see also Park 1994; Kong 2001; Timothy and Olsen 2006). Proctor goes on to suggest that it is time for geographers to explore the challenges and opportunities that the realm of religion opens to them in terms of spatial transgression.

No place offers a more highly charged setting in which to consider spatial transgression and the geography of religion than Israel. Not only is the religious landscape imbued with tension, but the politics of religion in Israel is closely associated with real estate or land. The broader question of the West Bank and settlements is well known, but smaller--yet equally important--land conflicts involving religious minorities are prominent as well. For example, the construction of a complex in Jerusalem by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS, or "Mormon") was a major controversy throughout the 1970s and 1980s (Olsen and Guelke 2004). Likewise, the erection of a mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation in the Arab city of Nazareth was a major political issue from the end of the 1990s into the 2000s. In both cases the development of new religious structures proved an ideological and political threat to local residents and served to complicate even further the contested geography of religion in Israel. Still, conflicts over the religious politics of space are not limited to Israel or Ireland. Religion and the expansion of religious sites across the built environment have long caused conflict around the world, ranging from major metropolitan areas like London to rural sites such as Nauvoo, Illinois (Naylor and Ryan 2002; Kinzer 2004). The conflicts arising from religion are highly emotive as local residents struggle to define the meaning of place and to negotiate challenges to their personal and spiritual identities (Naylor and Ryan 2002).

In this article I review and apply comparative approaches to conflicts over sacred space in Israel, using three case studies of holy sites at different locations and of different religions. A survey of the literature on the politics of religion precedes an explanation of the concept of "transgression" and an overview of the politics of religion in Israel. I then examine separately the ways in which the three religious centers were viewed and compare them with respect to each religion's diverse expressions across space, place, and landscape. My aim is to suggest how basic geographical concepts such as scale, space, location, and image alter the perception and further refine the concept of spatial transgression. Examining the different characteristics helps to identify the factors that influence the transgression process and to explain the different "stories" told in the article.


Religion and politics are inextricably bound together (Park 1994). For example, no issue marked the turn of the Christian millennium more intensely than the relationship of religion and politics. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States focused attention on a reality that many thought distant, dormant, or at least benign. Religion has assumed a central place in contemporary global politics. Understanding a religion's political vision is now as essential for managing our immediate world as is using the Internet (Green 2003). In their research, geographers have apparently been slow to acknowledge fully the place of religion as a whole, alongside such axes of identity as race, class, nationality, and gender (Bhardwaj 1997; Kong 2001).

Religion has exerted geopolitical influence for most of human history. The boundaries dividing one civilization from another were, in part, drawn along religious lines. …

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