On the eve of Yom Kippur, a dispute between two groups of Jews leads to a divider being placed at Judaism’s holiest accessible site, the western retaining wall of Herod’s Second Temple.
But Muslim sheiks, who “own” the Wall, demand the divider be removed, calling it an unacceptable alteration to their site. They suspect that the Jews are trying to find a way to give the Wall the status of a synagogue “as a first step in taking it over.”
“Unless the screen was taken down,” the sheiks said, “they would not be responsible for what happened.”
“In fact, keeping the peace wasn’t their responsibility, but the vague threat was the sheik’s tactic for getting their way,” writes Tom Segev in his critically acclaimed new book “One Palestine, Complete.”
The date was Sept. 23, 1928.
The divider incident triggered battles all over Palestine. Hundreds of Jews and Arabs were killed. It led to the horrific Hebron riot of 1929.
Now, 72 years later, an incident at the mountaintop platform braced by the same Western Wall has ignited a new conflict between Palestinians and Jews. Hundreds have been killed so far in this new intifada.
And the struggle over whom will ultimately “own” the 35-acre property — which Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Haram al-Sharif (Arabic for “Noble Sanctuary”) — is intensifying this week.
An American proposal that would grant “sovereignty” over the site to the Palestinian Authority has prompted an outpouring of angst among American Jewish and religious leaders. Some of them last week bought newspaper ads declaring that “Israel Must Not Surrender Judaism’s Holiest Site, The Temple Mount.”
“The Temple Mount is the spiritual soul of the Jewish people,” declares the ad, signed by 33 leaders from the hard-line Zionist Organization of America, Orthodox groups such as Young Israel and Orthodox Union, and the Conservative movement.
For Jews, the Temple Mount is the site of the First Temple (9th century BCE) and Second Temple (5th century BCE) housing the Holy of Holies, where tradition says God’s presence dwelled on Earth. Jewish legend also places crucial theological events at the site, including the creation of the world and Abraham’s near sacrifice of son Isaac.
For Islam, the Haram houses two 7th century CE mosques, Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock, where tradition says the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. It’s considered the third holiest site in Islam.
In Israel, worried top rabbis this week are calling for an emergency national meeting of the Chief Rabbinical Council to discuss the potential threat to Jewish wall worshipers from stone-throwing Palestinians above them, should sovereignty be granted to the PA.
Israel’s Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau warned last week that ceding sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the PA would deny Israel’s biblical and historical claims to Jerusalem and all of Israel. He said no Israeli government, no chief rabbinate, and no one Jew, had the right to make concessions on the Temple Mount.
But that’s just what legendary eye-patched Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan did after Israel won the Six-Day War in June 1967. Dayan’s compromise plan has held for the last 33 years.
When Israeli troops captured East Jerusalem on June 7, 1967, the Temple Mount was suddenly under Jewish control for the first time in 1,900 years. Chief Army chaplain Rabbi Shlomo Goren, raced up the hill carrying a Torah and ram’s horn, and implored the ranking official to blow up the Dome right there, according to a published account by IDF Maj. Gen. Uzi Narkiss.
“Goren said to me: ‘Now’s the time to put one hundred kilos of explosives in the Mosque, and that’s it. Once and for all we’ll be done with it,’ Narkiss recalled.
When the general balked, the rabbi insisted. “ ‘You don’t grasp the immense meaning of this. This is an opportunity that can be exploited now, this minute. Tomorrow will be impossible,’ ” Narkiss quotes the rabbi.
But the general stood firm. And instead of the Mount, government and religious leaders quickly made the Wall the focus of national and religious aspirations. The Arab neighborhood at the Wall was demolished overnight, the residents sent packing, and a public square built.
Dayan met with Muslim leaders at the Dome offering a deal: Israeli troops would leave the Haram but would be responsible for overall security — externally. Muslim authorities would guard the area of the Haram and set the rules in the two mosques. But the Muslim ban on Jews visiting was over; they would have free access, as long as they respected the religious traditions.
“Dayan had decreed the new status quo,” states Gershom Gorenberg in his new book “The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. “ But de-facto, Israeli policy was that they wouldn’t pray there, wouldn’t turn it into a Jewish place of worship.
Dayan’s solution left many open questions, for example, how far religious autonomy went.
The schizophrenic nature of the deal was reinforced by then-Religious Affairs Minister Zorach Warhaftig. “The Temple Mount belongs to us but isn’t in our hands,” he said in 1967. “It’s in the hands of millions of Muslims.”
Israel’s rabbis also quickly acted in an unusual consensus to prevent Jews from going up the Mount. “The separation made by civil government would not have worked without a hand from Jewish religious authorities,” Gorenberg explains. “One of the most commonly cited reasons — even if the sages have not always explained their decree in full — is that under religious law, every Jew is presumed to have had contact with the dead,” making them irrevocably impure, and forbidden from trodding on sacred ground.
In general, Dayan’s strategy worked.
“Muslim authorities enjoyed an ill-defined, unacknowledged degree of extraterritoriality at the Haram,” Gorenberg states. “They build without building permits, they cooperated for years with Israeli archeological officials without admitting to it. In principle, Palestinians still regarded the Western Wall as theirs, and claimed that the old restrictions on Jewish prayer there should still apply; in practice they could do nothing about it.”
At the same time, for Jews, the war was a tempered victory, with a new Temple having to wait for the Messiah.
“The arrangement allowed each side to make larger concessions than it was willing to state publicly,” writes Gorenberg.
But the de facto nature of the division also has led to greater anxiety and difficulty in negotiating today because of the site’s future role as the place where the End of Days begins.
Nevertheless Dayan’s concessions also marked a “victory over history,” Gorenberg argues. “The war didn’t need to be the triumph of one religion over another,” as has been the case for 3,000 years.
Indeed, many scholars believe that the hilltop was originally a Jebusite holy place when biblical King David purchased it around 1000 BCE. His Solomon built the first Temple there.
For the next 900 years — with exceptions for periods of exile and oppression — the Temples “stood at the heart of the Jewish world and it was central to the Jewish religion,” writes Karen Armstrong author of “Jerusalem: One City; Three Faiths.”
Towards the end of the 1st century BCE Judean King Herod the Great greatly expanded the Temple site, using retaining walls. The project was completed in about 64 CE but the Temple was destroyed by Rome in 70.
In 135 Jews were banished from Jerusalem and Judea. Roman Emperor Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem, renaming it Aelia Capitolina, and renovated the Mount as a Roman site.
A new Jewish notion was conceived that God would have to build the next Temple. “The rabbis made other places the focus of Jewish spiritual life; they taught that the home in some sense replaced the Temple, the family table replacing the altar,” Armstrong states. “In the same way, the synagogue was also a reminder of the Temple.”
Yet, the rabbis still put the site at the center of the Jewish map of the world, she adds.
By the middle of the 3rd century, Jews were permitted to mourn the Temple from the nearby Mount of Olives. Later, they were granted permission to go up to the Temple Mount and mourn on the ninth day of Av, the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction.
In the centuries following, Jewish access was either banned or limited under warring Christian and Muslim rules. Then in early 16th century, the Jews were given a new worship site.
A false messiah named David Reuveni focused religious attention on the surviving Western Wall. “Jews had never previously shown any particular interest in this portion of the wall, which in Herod’s day was a shopping center with no religious significance,” writes Armstrong.
Then, Sultan Suleiman allowed Jews to have a place of prayer at the wall — a narrow alley about nine feet wide and 55 feet long.
In the 18th and 19th century under Turkish rule, Jews did have the right to pray at the Wall. At one point, wealthy Jews unsuccessfully tried to purchase the Wall area, which now belonged to the Waqf, or Muslim religious trust, which today administers the Temple Mount holy sites.
The British kept the status quo in the early 20th century, but Jews were again banished when Jordan gained control in 1948 until 1967. Jordan gave the Palestinians religious power over the site.
Denying Jewish Claims
Yet despite the overwhelming evidence of the site’s Jewish past, Palestinians today vigorously deny its Jewish connection, infuriating Jewish leaders who fear for the de-Judaization of the Old City under possible Palestinian sovereignty. In fact, historians say Islam’s tie to the Dome is as mythical in nature as Jewish claims that Adam was formed there.
The Koran never specifies that its holy “furthest mosque” is in Jerusalem, as the Muslim holy book never mentions the word Jerusalem. The word Jerusalem does not appear in the Five Books of Moses, although it occurs hundreds of times in the rest of the Hebrew Bible.
During peace talks last August, PA chairman Yasir Arafat and his top aides denied Israel’s demand for sovereignty and a prayer site on the Temple Mount by denying any Jewish affiliation to the mountain, according to a report obtained by The Jewish Week.
According to the Palestinians, the “so-called temple” that Israel recalls has never been there, and there is no evidence to suggest its existence.
Palestinian official Abu Alaa claimed that the Israeli demand is a plot: Once it is accepted that the Temple existed beneath the mosques, and Israel gained sovereignty over the land under the mosques “it will mean that within a few years they will destroy the mosques.”
Two American Jewish leaders said Tuesday they now regret Dayan’s and the rabbis’ decision not to establish a Jewish presence on the Mount in 1967.
“A great error was made from a political point of view,” said Mandell Ganchrow, former president of the Orthodox Union.
“Knowing what we now know, we probably should have established a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly. “With hindsight, I would have said let’s give them free access, but let’s make absolutely sure this place is Israeli.”
- tom segev
- Orthodox Union
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Moshe Dayan
- Dome of the Rock
- Israel Meir Lau
- First Temple
- Haram al-Sharif
- Noble Sanctuary
- Karen Armstrong
- Shlomo Goren
- Gershom Gorenberg
- Uzi Narkiss
- young israel
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- Palestinian Authority
- Israel News
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- Yom Kippur
- Israeli government
- Western Wall
- Second Temple
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