“To Halve and to Hold”: Conflicts over Sacred Space and the Problem of Indivisibility

Title“To Halve and to Hold”: Conflicts over Sacred Space and the Problem of Indivisibility
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsHassner, RE


Given the prevalence of disputes over sacred space and their grave consequences, it is surprising that the causes and characteristics of conflict over sacred space remain understudied. Although the importance of specific conflicts has been noted by historians, geographers, students of comparative politics, even lawyers and authors of fiction, no attempt has been made by political scientists to generate systematic and general findings beyond recognizing the mobilization potential of conflict over sacred space. The claim that sacred sites offer convenient resources for political mobilization, while sound, begs the question of how and why sacred places are conducive to mobilization. Most importantly, the existing literature has offered no theoretical explanations for the indivisibility of sacred space: the impediment to sharing, dividing or finding substitutes for contested sacred places.


In this article, I strive to fill these gaps. I begin with a phenomenological discussion of sacred space: an analysis of the manner in which the elements of the sacred as perceived by believers combine to produce a real, and indivisible, challenge. I offer a definition and typology of sacred places, and discuss two parameters, centrality and exclusivity, for assessing the potential role of a sacred space in a given conflict. I then demonstrate the manner in which indivisibility arises from the integrity, boundaries and nonfungibility of sacred places. Additionally, four contingent factors determine whether or not indivisibility will lead to conflict: the splitting and merging of religious traditions that leads to conflicts among religious groups, and the material and political value of the sacred space that leads to conflicts between religious and secular actors.


I conclude with a typology of policy responses to the problem of sacred space, exemplified by the recent negotiations over Jerusalem at Camp David. Two ideal types of prevailing policy approaches to disputes over sacred space emerge:

  1. A Hobbesian view that rejects the symbolic dimension of these disputes and treats them as standard territorial disputes, and
  2. A Huntingtonian view that construes the intractability of these disputes as the products of religious forces beyond the influence of political actors.

I suggest an outline for an alternative approach that can take the phenomenological indivisibility of sacred space seriously, while considering ways to problematize the social production and deconstruction of the sacred in pursuit of a solution for these disputes. In the body of this article, however, I limit myself to an exposition of the problem: the causes and characteristics of conflict over sacred space.