In time for the Jewish calendar’s fall holiday season (Jews around the world are celebrating Sukkot—the feast of tabernacles—this week), today’s New York Times took up the delicate issue of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount where, we are told, troublemaking Jews are breaking the rules and making coexistence, if not peace, that much more difficult. Since some Jewish extremists do foolishly dream of replacing the mosques that are atop the Mount (which looks down on the Western Wall) with a rebuilt Third Temple, a scheme that would set off a religious war no sane person would want, Israel has always sought to keep the peace in the city by limiting Jewish visits and prohibiting Jewish prayer there. So with increasing numbers of Jews wanting to look around and perhaps even surreptitiously utter a prayer, the conceit of the Times piece appears to be that this is just one more instance in which Israelis are giving their Arab neighbors a hard time and pushing them out of a city that is sacred to the three monotheistic faiths.
But however dangerous any idea of endangering the Dome of the Rock or the Al Aqsa Mosque might be to world peace, the Jews are not the problem in Jerusalem. That’s because the dispute in the city isn’t really so much about who controls the Temple Mount but the Muslim effort to deny the Jewish history that is literally under their feet. Were it just a question of sharing sacred space, reasonable compromises that would give full Muslim autonomy over their holy sites while allowing Jewish prayer at the spiritual center of Judaism would be possible since Jewish extremists who want to evict Islam from the place are a tiny minority. Yet as long as the official position of both the Muslim Wakf religious authority, which has been allowed by Israel to govern the place since the 1967 Six-Day War, and the Palestinian Authority is that the Temples never existed and that Jews have no rights to their ancient capital, that will constitute the real obstacle to peace.
At the heart of this conundrum is an error in Times Jerusalem Bureau chief Jodi Rudoren’s story. In an effort to give some historical background to the dispute, she writes the following:
In 2000, a visit by Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s opposition leader, accompanied by 1,000 police officers, prompted a violent outbreak and, many argue, set off the second intifada.
Many may argue that, but it is a flat-out lie. As figures within the Palestinian Authority have long since publicly admitted, the intifada was planned by then leader Yasir Arafat long before Sharon took a stroll on the site of the Temples around the Jewish New Year. The intifada was a deliberate strategy in which Arafat answered Israel’s offer of an independent Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem that would have included the Temple Mount. The terrorist war of attrition was intended to beat down the Israelis and force them and the United States to offer even more concessions without forcing the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Sharon’s visit was merely a pretext that has long since been debunked.
Rudoren deserves to be roasted for passing along this piece of propaganda without even noting the proof to the contrary. But the problem here is more than just an error that shows the way she tends to swallow Palestinian lies hook, line, and sinker. That’s because the significance of the Sharon story lies in the way, Palestinian leaders have used the Temple Mount for generations to gin up hate against Israelis.
It bears pointing out that almost from the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise, those seeking to incite an Arab population that might regard the economic growth that came with the influx of immigrants as a good thing used the mosques on the Mount to whip up anti-Jewish sentiment. The pretext for the 1929 riots in which Jews were attacked across the country and the ancient community of Hebron was wiped out in a pogrom was a false rumor about the mosques being attacked. Arafat used the same theme to gain support for his otherwise inexplicable decision to tank the Palestinian economy in his terrorist war. Similarly, inflammatory sermons given in the mosques have often led to Muslim worshippers there raining down rocks on the Jewish worshippers in the Western Wall plaza below.
Israelis can argue about whether restoring even a minimal Jewish presence on the Temple Mount is wise. Some Orthodox authorities have always said that due to doubt about the presence of the Temple’s most sacred precincts no Jew should step foot on the plateau, although that is a point that seems less salient due to recent archeological discoveries. Others believe that any effort to contest Muslim ownership of the site converts a territorial dispute into a religious or spiritual one and should be avoided at all costs.
But, like so many internal Jewish and Israeli debates, these arguments miss the point about Arab opinion. As with other sacred sites to which Muslims lay claim, their position is not one in which they are prepared to share or guarantee equal access. The Muslim view of the Temple Mount is not one in which competing claims can be recognized, let alone respected. They want it Jew-free, the same way they envision a Palestinian state or those areas of Jerusalem which they say must be their capital.
It is in that same spirit that the Wakf has committed what many respected Israeli archeologists consider a program of vandalism on the Mount with unknown quantities of antiquities being trashed by their building program. Since they recognize no Jewish claim or even the history of the place, they have continued to act in this manner with, I might add, hardly a peep from the international community.
Thus while many friends of Israel will read Rudoren’s article and shake their heads about Israeli foolishness, the real story in Jerusalem remains the Palestinians’ unshakable determination to extinguish Jewish history as part of their effort to delegitimize the Jewish state. In the face of their intransigence and the fact that such intolerance is mainstream Palestinian opinion rather than the view of a few extremists, the desire of many Jews to visit a place that is the historic center of their faith (the Western Wall is, after all, merely the vestige of the Temple’s outer enclosure) doesn’t seem quite so crazy.