The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is holy to both Jews and Muslims. It is also the site where religion and nationalism meet — a tinderbox ready to be ignited. Its sensitivity lends itself to be exploited by Islamists, sympathetic to Hamas and Islamic Jihad and by the far Right in Israel and its Kahanist allies.
Rabbis have been reticent to rule on whether Jews can visit the Temple Mount since they may unintentionally tread on the ground which was occupied by the Holy of Holies two millennia before. Not every religious Jew sees it that way. Police have barred the way of the Temple Mount Faithful group for half a century.
Following Israel’s victory in the Six Day war in 1967 and just a few hours after the Western Wall was reached by the IDF, Moshe Dayan, the Minister of Defence, stated that ‘We did not come to conquer the sacred sites of others or to restrict their religious rights, but rather to ensure the integrity of the city and to live in it with others in fraternity.’ He took down the Israeli flag flying there, replaced Israeli troops with Muslim guards and forbad Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. Dayan followed in the footsteps of his mentor, David Ben-Gurion who placed security and calm before religion and nationalism.
Despite Dayan’s comments, there have been countless examples of conflict in recent history regarding the Temple Mount and its precinct.
On Tisha B’Av 1929, two Jewish officials attempted to persuade the youthful leaders of a march to the Western Wall not to go ahead. While not representing any youth movement, they refused, but agreed with the police to neither shout slogans nor march in military formation. Accompanied by British bobbies, three hundred young people marched, raised the flag, sang Hatikvah and quickly dispersed. It was orderly.
The following day after prayers, the British authorities permitted a Muslim demonstration which was anything but orderly. Jewish prayer books were burned and religious facilities damaged.
Nationalist Jewish circles whipped up a deep fury while the Mufti of Jerusalem called upon all Muslims to come to the Holy City to defend Islam. Within a few days, 133 Jews were murdered in Jerusalem, Safed and Hebron while 120 Arabs perished in confrontations with the British. There was an exodus of Jews from Hebron amidst carnage and mayhem.
In the early 1980s, two leading members of the Jewish Underground, Yehuda Etzion and Menahem Livni, planned to destroy the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount and had obtained 80kg of explosive materials to do so. They believed that this would nullify the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt by precipitating an outbreak of conflict with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Israel, they confidently predicted, would emerge victorious. Etzion, however, was not a peripheral figure, but a founder of Gush Emunim, the main religious settlers’ organisation on the West Bank.
In January 2001, the then prime minister, Ehud Barak, tried to think creatively of ways in which the entire area of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall could be arranged to satisfy the needs of Judaism and Islam. This led to a rally, attended by Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Olmert and Natan Sharansky, to protest against ‘any surrender of the Temple Mount’. Breaking their rule not to intervene in the approach of an Israeli government, the then Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks and several United Synagogue rabbis attended the protest. Ronald Lauder, then president of the US Conference of Major Jewish Organisations, addressed the rally and implied that he was speaking on behalf of World Jewry. Lauder was severely censored on his return to the US by his colleagues.
The Oslo Accords of Yitzhak Rabin were attacked by both the far Right in Israel and Palestinian Islamists with the lethal assistance of the Ayatollahs’ Iran. The suicide bombers of Hamas effectively destroyed any peace agreement. These forces have grown stronger in the interim. As President Rivlin has demonstrated by his example, it is important that people of good will do not allow the rejectionists on both sides to force Jews and Muslims to worship at the altar of hatred and intolerance.
Jewish Chronicle 19 May 2021