In September of 1928, a group of Jewish residents of Jerusalem placed a bench in front of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, for the comfort of elderly worshipers. They also brought with them a wooden partition, to separate the sexes during prayer. Jerusalem’s Muslim leaders treated the introduction of furniture into the alleyway in front of the Wall as a provocation, part of a Jewish conspiracy to slowly take control of the entire Temple Mount.
Many of the leaders of Palestine’s Muslims believed—or claimed to believe—that Jews had manufactured a set of historical and theological connections to the Western Wall and to the Mount, the site of the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, in order to advance the Zionist project. This belief defied Muslim history—the Dome of the Rock was built by Jerusalem’s Arab conquerors on the site of the Second Jewish Temple in order to venerate its memory (the site had previously been defiled by Jerusalem’s Christian rulers as a kind of rebuke to Judaism, the despised mother religion of Christianity). Jews themselves consider the Mount itself to be the holiest site in their faith. The Western Wall, a large retaining wall from the Second Temple period, is sacred only by proxy.
The spiritual leader of Palestine’s Muslims, the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, incited Arabs in Palestine against their Jewish neighbors by arguing that Islam itself was under threat. (Husseini would later become one of Hitler’s most important Muslim allies.) Jews in British-occupied Palestine responded to Muslim invective by demanding more access to the Wall, sometimes holding demonstrations at the holy site. By the next year, violence directed against Jews by their neighbors had become more common: Arab rioters took the lives of 133 Jews that summer; British forces killed 116 Arabs in their attempt to subdue the riots. In Hebron, a devastating pogrom was launched against the city’s ancient Jewish community after Muslim officials distributed fabricated photographs of a damaged Dome of the Rock, and spread the rumor that Jews had attacked the shrine.
The current “stabbing Intifada” now taking place in Israel—a quasi-uprising in which young Palestinians have been trying, and occasionally succeeding, to kill Jews with knives—is prompted in good part by the same set of manipulated emotions that sparked the anti-Jewish riots of the 1920s: a deeply felt desire on the part of Palestinians to “protect” the Temple Mount from Jews.
When Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem in June of 1967 in response to a Jordanian attack, the first impulse of some Israelis was to assert Jewish rights atop the Mount. Between 1948, the year Israel achieved independence, and 1967, Jordan, then the occupying power in Jerusalem, banned Jews not only from the 35-acre Mount—which is known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, the noble sanctuary—but also from the Western Wall below. When paratroopers took the Old City, they raised the Israeli flag atop the Dome of the Rock, but the Israeli defense minister, Moshe Dayan, ordered it taken down, and soon after promised leaders of the Muslim Waqf, the trust that controlled the mosque and the shrine, that Israel would not interfere in its activities. Since then, successive Israeli governments have maintained the status quo established by Dayan.
There is another status quo associated with the Temple Mount, however, that has been showing signs of weakening. This is a religious status quo. The mainstream rabbinical view for many years has been that Jews should not walk atop the Mount for fear of treading on the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple that, according to tradition, housed the Ark of the Covenant. The Holy of Holies is the room in which the Jewish high priest spoke the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God, on Yom Kippur.
The exact location of the Holy of Holies is not known, and Muslim authorities have prevented archeologists from conducting any excavations on the Mount, in part out of fear that such explorations will uncover further evidence of a pre-Islamic Jewish presence. This mainstream rabbinical view concerning the Mount—that it should be the direction of Jewish prayer, rather than a place of Jewish prayer—has made the lives of Jerusalem’s temporal authorities easier, by keeping Muslim and Jewish worshippers separated.
In recent years, however, small groups of radical religious innovators who oppose the mainstream rabbinical view have sought to make the Mount, once again, a site of Jewish prayer. (Here is a New York Times Magazine story I wrote about these radical groups.) These activists have gained sympathizers among some far-right political figures in Israel, though the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not altered the separation-of-religions status quo.
Convincing Palestinians that the Israeli government is not trying to alter the status quo on the Mount has been difficult because many of today’s Palestinian leaders, in the manner of the Palestinian leadership of the 1920s, actively market rumors that the Israeli government is seeking to establish atop the Mount a permanent Jewish presence.
The comments of the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas—by general consensus the most moderate leader in the brief history of the Palestinian national movement—have been particularly harsh. Though Abbas has authorized Palestinian security services to work with their Israeli counterparts to combat extremist violence, his rhetoric has inflamed tensions. “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every martyr will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God,” he said last month, as rumors about the Temple Mount swirled. He went on to say that Jews “have no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet.” Taleb Abu Arrar, an Israeli Arab member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, argued publicly that Jews “desecrate” the Temple Mount by their presence. (Fourteen years ago, Yasser Arafat, then the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told me that “Jewish authorities are forging history by saying the Temple stood on the Haram al-Sharif. Their temple was somewhere else.”)
These sorts of comments, combined with the violence of the past two weeks—including the sacking and burning of a Jewish shrine outside Nablus—suggest a tragic continuity between the 1920s and today. For those who believe not only in the necessity, but in the practical possibility, of an equitable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and in particular, for those who believe that the post-1967 settlement project is the root cause of the conflict—recent events have been sobering.
One of the tragedies of the settlement movement is that it obscures what might be the actual root cause of the Middle East conflict: the unwillingness of many Muslim Palestinians to accept the notion that Jews are a people who are indigenous to the land Palestinians believe to be exclusively their own, and that the third-holiest site in Islam is also the holiest site of another religion, one whose adherents reject the notion of Muslim supersessionism. The status quo on the Temple Mount is prudent and must remain in place. It saves lives, lives fundamentalist Jewish radicals would risk in order to advance their millennial dreams. But it is the byproduct of the intolerance of Jerusalem’s Muslim leadership.
When violence against Jews occurs inside Israel, or on the West Bank, a consensus tends to be reached quickly by outside analysts and political leaders, one that holds that such violence represents the inevitable consequence of Israel’s occupation and settlement of Palestinian territory. John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, said in an appearance earlier this week at Harvard that, “What’s happening is that unless we get going, a two-state solution could conceivably be stolen from everybody. And there’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years.” He went on to say, “Now you have this violence because there’s a frustration that is growing, and a frustration among Israelis who don’t see any movement.”
(On Friday morning, speaking with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, Kerry revised and extended his comments, criticizing Abbas—in a passive way — for the violence: “There's no excuse for the violence. ... And the Palestinians need to understand, and President Abbas has been committed to nonviolence. He needs to be condemning this, loudly and clearly. And he needs to not engage in some of the incitement that his voice has sometimes been heard to encourage.”)
It is sometimes difficult for policymakers such as Kerry, who has devoted so much time and energy to the search for a solution to the Israeli-Arab impasse, to acknowledge the power of a particular Palestinian narrative, one that obviates the possibility of a solution that allows Jews national and religious equality. Writing in Haaretz, the left-center political scientist Shlomo Avineri describes an important disconnect that often goes unnoticed, even in times like these: Many Palestinians believe that “this is not a conflict between two national movements but a conflict between one national movement (the Palestinian) and a colonial and imperialistic entity (Israel).” He goes on to write, “According to this view, Israel will end like all colonial phenomena—it will perish and disappear. Moreover, according to the Palestinian view, the Jews are not a nation but a religious community, and as such not entitled to national self-determination which is, after all, a universal imperative.”
Avineri, like most sensible analysts, understands the many and variegated reasons for the continued failure of the peace process:
[M]utual distrust between the two populations, internal pressures from the rejectionists on both sides, Yasser Arafat’s repeated deceptions, the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the electoral victories of Likud in Israeli elections, Palestinian terrorism, continuing Israeli settlement activities in the territories, the bloody rift between Fatah and Hamas, American presidents who did too little (George W. Bush) or too much and in a wrong way (Barack Obama), the political weakness of Mahmoud Abbas, governments headed by Netanyahu that did everything possible to undermine effective negotiations. All this is true, and everyone picks and chooses what fits their views and interests—but beyond all these lies a fundamental difference in the terms in which each side views the conflict, a difference many tend or choose to overlook.
The violence of the past two weeks, encouraged by purveyors of rumors who now have both Israeli and Palestinian blood on their hands, is rooted not in Israeli settlement policy, but in a worldview that dismisses the national and religious rights of Jews. There will not be peace between Israelis and Palestinians so long as parties on both sides of the conflict continue to deny the national and religious rights of the other.