The Dangers of the Temple Mount

Clashes over the Jerusalem holy site can tip a political battle between Israelis and Palestinians into a religious battle between Jews and Muslims.

On Friday, protests and clashes between Israelis and Palestinians continued throughout Israel and the West Bank. From northern Israel to northern Jerusalem to Hebron, there were reports of protesters and police throwing rocks and stun grenades, respectively.

Surprisingly or perhaps miraculously, one place where there wasn't violence on Friday was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The central point of focus in the recent unrest in Israel and the West Bank, the Temple Mount, the same location as the al-Aqsa Mosque, is Judaism's holiest site and Islam's third-holiest site.

Late last month, Yehuda Glick, a rabbi advocating for Jews to be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount (which is forbidden by the Israeli Supreme Court) was shot several times in an assassination attempt by a Palestinian man. After the assailant was killed in a later confrontation with Israeli forces, violent clashes ensued and, in light of the violence, Israeli security forces decided to fully close the Temple Mount for the first time in over a decade.

As things tend to do in the Levant, the situation got bad in a hurry. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the closure "a declaration of war," riots, knife and car attacks followed, and the killing of a Palestinian man in a northern Israel town by police brought more riots and clashes.

On Friday, for the first time in weeks, the Temple Mount was opened to Muslim worshippers of all ages, including younger Palestinians, who are frequently barred from attending Friday prayers when tensions in Jerusalem are high.

Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once wrote, "What does Jerusalem need? It doesn’t need a mayor, it needs a ringmaster." In his poem "In Jerusalem," Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish adds:

I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?

The Old City of Jerusalem is that fortunate one-third of a square mile in the world where holy sites of the three major monotheistic religions are intimately contained. In its four quarters are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa, the Western Wall, and the Temple Mount, upon which sit the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine and one of the Middle East's most recognizable buildings.

For Jews, as Ruth Margalit explains, the Temple Mount "is where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, and where God gathered the dust that created Adam. It’s there, the Bible says, that King Solomon built the First Temple, circa 1000 B.C., where Herod refurbished the Second Temple, and where Titus tore it down, in 70 A.D. Its inner sanctuary is known as the Holy of Holies—a place where no one but the High Priest was allowed to tread. The Western Wall, the extant remnant of the wall that flanked the courtyard of the Second Temple, is the holiest site in Judaism."

Owing to the delicate nature of everything associated with the site, the name Temple Mount doesn't even cover all of the theological bases. Last week, the Palestinian Liberation Organization demanded that media stop using the term "Temple Mount" to describe the venue, which it says doesn't "adhere to international law." The Temple Mount, the widely used term for the site in English, is known as the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary by Muslims. (Cautious diplomats employ all of the aforementioned names.)

The Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound is the name for which the PLO was lobbying. The context was political, but the subtext was religious; in essence, saying that Jewish claims to the site (and Jerusalem in general) are bogus. It would not be a stretch to say that this is very much a standard part of political playbook of Palestinian and Islamist groups.

Of course, this dynamic goes both ways. In 2010, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel took out full-page ads in the International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times in which he talked about the sanctity of Jerusalem for Jews. But he couldn't resist making this point:

For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture -- and not a single time in the Koran.

"The Virgin Mary is mentioned a lot more in the Koran than she is in the Bible," Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine told me. "But I don't know anyone who would claim on the basis of that, that the Virgin Mary is more holy to Muslims than to Roman Catholics."

While Wiesel's claim is technically true, "the farthest mosque" mentioned in the Koran is widely believed to be the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem near which the Islamic prophet Muhammad tethers his horse on the way to heaven. Jerusalem is also mentioned several times in the Hadith, a collection of the reported teaching, sayings, and stories of Muhammad. Regardless, the talking points put forth by the PLO and Wiesel are two examples among countless number by partisans on each side trying to discredit the other.

It is in this religious realm that everything grows inexorably more dangerous. Israeli leaders have pointed to the recent violence and blamed their Palestinian counterparts for incitement. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' decision to call this month's closure of the Temple Mount "a declaration of war" had its echoes among Palestinian groups and others who frequently allege that Israel is plotting to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque.

"It always begins with the claim that Jews are threatening al-Aqsa," Michael Oren, Israel's former ambassador to the United States, told me last week. "And to the best of my mind, the Jews have never threatened al-Aqsa." Oren, a historian before his ambassadorship, cited similar violent riots in 1921, 1929, 1936, and 1947 in which he says that claim was used to incite violence.

The case of Yehuda Glick, the Religious Zionist rabbi who was shot last month, straddles this incendiary divide. Glick is a prominent advocate for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, a fringe cause generally frowned upon by most Jews as a violation of Jewish law.

"It's problematic in the Jewish sense," Oren explained. "The Talmud, after the destruction of the Second Temple, put strict prescriptions around Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount because the exact location of the Holy of Holies is not known."

Glick's mission may not appeal to many on religious grounds, but it resonates for other reasons. "There's complete freedom of worship in Jerusalem for everyone but the Jews," Oren added. "Jews are not allowed to pray formally on their holiest site. It's one of those absurdities."

Ibish counters that the issue of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount "registers profound alarm" for Palestinians especially when placed alongside a number of aggravating factors in Jerusalem. Among the recent developments: the growth of the Jewish population in the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem (plus Israeli settlements in the West Bank outside Jerusalem), the light rail system that runs across East and West Jerusalem (once seen a possible mechanism for coexistence, but recently a new target for Palestinian attacks), and even Israeli archeological excavations.

"On a practical level, it seems part of a series of things that may be religious or not; measures or gestures or statements, a whole melange of things, by different actors among Jewish-Israeli society whether the government, activist groups, pols, that all collectively seem to send the message that 'We are here to stay, we are here to rule, this belongs to us' and to give the impression that compromise on East Jerusalem is not going to happen."

Ibish and Oren both agree that the religious aspect of the conflict over the Temple Mount is exploited to create a frenzy. For groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Ibish says, the issue is a convenient tool in their efforts to "foment uprisings" in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Beyond the immediate borders, the issue of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount is frequently seized upon by Islamists.

"That's the part of Palestine and the part of the Palestinian struggle that has universal resonance with Muslims from Indonesia to Morocco and back," Ibish said.

It certainly doesn't help that the holy places in Jerusalem also play an integral part in the Armageddon narrative among evangelical Christians. I'd say that's another story altogether, but it's really not. Should the centerpiece of the conflict continue to zero in on the supernatural, a political reconciliation naturally gets harder to manage. As Ibish explained:

The danger is that these narratives seem to push this conflict away from being an ethno-national struggle between two competing ethno-national projects over land and power in a given area, which is a resolvable struggle, into being a religious conflict, a religious apocalyptic confrontation over the will of God and the nature of reality and the holy places, which is not nearly as resolvable.

He added: "If you think the Israel-Palestinian conflict is elusive in terms of solutions, try that one."