If there is ever a Third World War, there is a good chance it will start at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif complex in Jerusalem.
King Solomon built the First Temple on this spot 3000 years ago. This Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled to Babylonia in 586 BCE. After Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon he encouraged the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple. This they did, but the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jews were once again sent into exile by the Romans, in 70 A.D.
Flash forward about 550 years. Muslims believe that Muhammad, accompanied by the angel Jibreel, was transported overnight from Mecca to Jerusalem on the back of a winged horse-like beast. He landed at the site where the al-Aqsa Mosque now stands and then he ascended into heaven where he met the Prophets and Allah. The Dome of the Rock was built on the spot from where Muhammad is believed to have started his ascent into heaven.
These events explain why the Temple Mount is the holiest site for Jews and the third holiest site for Muslims, who refer to it as the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary). The Temple Mount also has a special significance for millions of Dispensationalist Evangelical Christians who believe that a Third Temple must be built there in preparation for Christ's Second Coming . This mirrors the ideology of religious Jews who fervently pray for the rebuilding of the Third Temple in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah. The importance of this site cannot be overstated. Unrest surrounding the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif was one of the factors that led up to the 1929 riots that killed 133 Jews and 116 Arabs. The Second Intifada was touched off in the aftermath of Ariel Sharon's visit there in September 2000. (There are conflicting interpretations as to whether Sharon's visit was the cause of the Intifada or whether Palestinian leadership was just using his visit as a pretext to launch an uprising they had planned in advance. It is not important for us to decide which historical narrative is correct in order to appreciate that the start of the Second Intifada at the Temple Mount underscores once again the importance of this site.)
Daniel Seidemann and Lara Friedman wrote an article that YOU SHOULD READ NOW in order to understand what follows. Then watch this video by the New York Times.
Since 1967 the Haram al-Sharif has been under control of Islamic authorities and Jewish prayer has been banned from it. During the past year or two Jewish activists have raised alarm amongst Muslims by becoming more and more aggressive in their insistance that they be allowed to pray there. To put this movement in perspective we must first remember that right-wing religious Israeli extremists came very close to blowing up the Dome of the Rock in the early 1980s in order to pave the way for construction of the Third Temple. Here's a clip from the Oscar-nominated movie The Gatekeepers in which Yaacov Peri and Carmi Gillon, who led Shin Bet from 1988 - 1994 and 1994 - 1996 respectively, discuss the Jewish Underground plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock.
Fortunately, the Shin Bet caught this plot in time to stop it and avoid World War III. How harshly were the would-be bombers punished? We all know how harsh Israel is to Palestinians who they suspect of attacking Israelis. They will retaliate against sniper fire or rockets launched from the Gaza by bombing Hamas, even though their bombing could result in the deaths of innocent civilians. The Guardian and the UN have issued reports accusing Israel of arresting Palestinian children in the middle of the night who they suspect of throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails, detaining them without access to a lawyer or their parents, holding them in solitary confinement, and subjecting them to torture. Though Israel contests both the Guardian and the UN reports, testimony by former Israeli soldiers seems to corroborate that Israel treats Palestinian children suspected of endangering Israelis harshly. Even if these allegations are mostly made up as Israel contends, there is no denying that Israel takes its security seriously. The separation barrier and thepast destruction of thousands of Palestinian homes, either as punishment for terrorist activities or as a means to prevent Palestinian snipers from having a safe place to shoot from, attest to this. Had the Jewish Underground radicals succeeded in blowing up the Dome of the Rock then every Islamic nation would have declared war on Israel. Israelis realized that the Jewish Underground bomb plotters posed a much greater risk to their security than rock-throwing Palestinian teenagers. That's why they sent a firm message that such deeds would not be tolerated by executing these terrorists for treason. Oops, wait.... No one was executed for treason. Well, at least they all got at least twenty-year prison sentences, reflecting the seriousness of their crime. Oops, I made another mistake. Twenty two members of the Jewish Underground did get sentences ranging from four months up to 10 years for their plot. But members of the Jewish Underground were well connected politically and, as Carmi Gillon describes in the Gatekeepers, they were granted clemency and quickly released after a lobbying campaign on their behalf. Gillon said, "They went home as if nothing happened. They went back to their previous positions., some to even higher positions."
One of those who lobbied for clemency on the behalf of the Dome of the Rock bomb plotters was Rabbi Yisrael Ariel. Here is how Timothy Weber described Rabbi Ariel in his book On the Road to Armageddon.
During the mid- and late-1980s, Ariel was the leader of Tzfiyah ("expectation"), a right-wing group organized to support members of the Jewish underground who had been jailed after their attempt to blow up the Dome of the Rock. He argued that "Thou shalt not kill" applied only to killing fellow Jews, not non-Jews. Furthermore, in the Tzfiyah's journal he condemned all Jews who did not support the building of the Third Temple and declared that since Christians and Muslims were idolaters, they should not be allowed to live in Israel.
Rabbi Ariel went on to found The Temple Institute, an organization whose long term goal "is to do all in our limited power to bring about the building of the Holy Temple in our time." The Institute is taking this goal very seriously. No attention to detail has been spared in this endeavor. They have drawn up an elaborate architectural plan for a new Temple which includes "a 6 ft-high computerised water dispenser with 12 taps so that an entire shift of priests can wash their hands at once" and they have created a £160,000 garment for the high priest "made out of azure and gold thread with a breastplate featuring 12 large gems."
It is understandable why the Temple Institute would make the guardians of the Haram al-Sharif nervous. It would be bad enough if their views were so outside the mainstream that their opinions were taken with the same seriousness as the claim that the Queen of England is really a lizard person from the fourth dimension. But unfortunately, they can't be ignored so easily. Though they are outside Israel's mainstream, they are not that far outside it. A July 2013 poll indicated that 30 percent of Israelis were in favor of erecting a new temple on the Temple Mount. Admittedly, this survey should be taken with a grain of salt since it was commissioned by the Joint Forum of Temple Mount Organizations--organizations that presumably want to see a change in the Temple Mount's status quo. Still, even if the survey overstated public support for rebuilding the Temple, it is clear that the number of people who want to see the Temple rebuilt isn't negligible.
One of those who wants to see the Temple rebuilt is Knesset Member and Housing Minister Uri Ariel. Another is Moshe Feiglin,the former head of the Jewish Leadership Movement, who once said
if I become prime minister I will take away control over the Temple Mount from the Wakf [the Islamic trust] and reinstate Jewish sovereignty over the entire mount and, hopefully, rebuild the Temple.
That was in 2009. Now Feiglin is more than just a leader of a movement--he is the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset. And as a Knesset Member he has lost no time in promoting his vision. Watch this February 19, 2014 video of Feiglin going up onto the Temple Mount according to the "Torah Law of Conquest" in order to demonstrate Israel's sovereignty over the Mount. Click on the Closed Caption icon (CC) at the bottom of the video to see the English subtitles.
Climbing to the top of the Temple Mount was not provocative enough for Feiglin. About a week later he started a fiery debate within the Knesset when he urged that the status of the Temple Mount be changed to allow Jewish prayer. As one might expect, Feiglin's attempt to change the status quo has increased tension over the Temple Mount and was probably responsible for clashes between Palestinian protestors and Israeli police. It certainly increased tensions with Jordan, where 86 of 150 MPs expressed their outrage in a non-binding vote demanding that Jordan expel Israel's ambassador and recall its ambassador from Israel.
Do Jews Really Need To Pray on the Temple Mount?
Traditionally, most Jewish Rabbis have forbidden their followers from going up to the top of the Temple Mount for fear of accidentally stepping on the spot where the Covenant of the Ark once stood. Rabbi Abraham Kook, considered by many to be the Father of Religious Zionism, issued a decree endorsing the ban, and Israel's two chief rabbis signed a letter in December 2013 that re-endorsed it. Despite this, an increasing number of Jews find it religiously acceptable to ascend the Temple Mount now that some rabbis have lifted the ban in light of recent archeological work.
Kook and other traditional Rabbis base their objections on their belief that Jews going to the top of the Temple Mount would be in violation of God's purity laws. I can't help but wonder if the insistence on ascending the Temple Mount despite the potential of violating purity laws is sacrilegious in another way. Why would someone feel like he NEEDS to visit the top of the Temple Mount, to be in God Central if you will? I can think of only three reasons. 1) He believes that God can better hear his prayers from there. This is obviously sacrilegious because it implies God's capabilities are limited. 2) He feels he can be closer to God when praying from the top of the Temple Mount. This implies that God's presence is stronger in some areas than others. Which implies that God's presence is weaker in other areas. But how could God's presence be weaker in other areas if He is an infinite being who is present everywhere at once? 3) God WANTS Jews to worship Him from atop the Temple Mount and He will look with greater favor on those who pray from this favored spot. But if this is the case, then why has God found it so hard to get the word out? Why was God unable to express this desire so that it was burningly obvious to traditional Rabbis like Rabbi Kook? Why would He confuse them with purity laws without issuing a blindingly obvious command that He didn't want those laws to stand in the way of Jews worshiping Him from atop the Temple Mount? After all, if He could see into the future then He certainly must have known that millions of Jews would be discouraged from visiting God Central because of religious decrees issued by confused rabbis. To imply that God was incapable of getting His point across to so many rabbis seems deeply sacrilegious to me.
A cynic could raise these points to PROVE that Jews don't really NEED to go to the top of the Temple Mount to pray. And if they don't NEED to go up there to pray, then why are they trying to change the status quo? The obvious answer is the one that Moshe Feiglin has given us--to raise the Israeli flag, to assert dominance over Palestinians/Muslims, to humiliate them and rub their face in the dirt. And I'm sure that is how many Muslims perceive this effort to change the status quo.
But it's quite possible that I am missing something. Perhaps the desire to pray on the Temple Mount defies logic. Or perhaps God's logic defies human logic. If God wants to make His presence felt more strongly on the Temple Mount, despite the fact that this makes His presence look weaker elsewhere, then He certainly can do so. Actually, He doesn't even have to use extraordinary powers to pull this trick off. All He has to do is SUGGEST that the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is His favorite hangout spot and the human mind will do the rest. Call this the Religious Placebo effect. If someone THINKS a pill might cure him or alleviate a disease, then often their symptoms will be alleviated, even if the pill only contains an inert substance like sugar. Or think of it as the phantom limb/rubber hand illusion. If you start to think that a fake hand is really your hand, you will be dismayed when the fake hand is hit by a hammer.
If you THINK God's presence should be felt more strongly on the Temple Mount, then you will FEEL His presence more strongly there, whether God is any more present there or not. So whether or not a totally logical and objective person actually NEEDS to pray on the Temple Mount, and whether or not doing so is sacrilegious, we should recognize that at least some of those advocating change actually feel a real spiritual and emotional need to pray there. And hence the need, if only built upon a psychological belief, is real.
Why Do Palestinians and Muslims Around the World Object To Changing The Status Quo of The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif?
Changing the Temple Mount's status quo is playing with dynamite. Palestinians justifiably believe that they have been pushed around and humiliated by the Israelis for decades. They believe that Israelis stole their land when they didn't allow them to return in 1948. They believe that Israel is stealing their land to this day in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. They are furious that over 1500 Palestinian children have been killed by Israel since 2000. And they are tired of the daily low-intensity war waged against them and their property by the price tag settler-terrorists. If they were feeling particularly contentious, they might even point to U.N. Resolutions 194 and 303 and claim that Israel doesn't even have the right to own West Jerusalem, much less East Jerusalem.
I am sure that many Israelis and their supporters will object to this list of Palestinian grievances. They will complain that the Palestinians brought their sufferings upon themselves by attacking Israel from the moment it declared itself an independent state. Actually, they will point to Palestinian aggression dating back nearly three decades before Israel declared its independence and they will point to Palestinian attacks either through suicide bombers or rockets from Gaza decades after its independence. But all this pointing misses the point. Apportioning blame for what happened in the past will not help us understand what will happen in the future. Even if Israeli brutality today can be justified by Palestinian brutality in the past (and I'm not saying it can), pointing a finger at the Palestinians will not help us understand how they perceive today's reality, nor will it help us predict how they will react to a change in the Temple Mount's status quo. Blaming the Palestinians will not help us understand the constant degradation and humiliation they feel. Nor will it help remind us that some of those who say they just want to pray on the Temple Mount also want to build a new Temple on the Mount--possibly destroying the al-Asqa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in the process. Placing blame on the Palestinians will not remind us why they might consider the mere act of Jewish prayer to be a security threat--the first step if you will, in a creeping attack to break their religion.
But the Palestinians (and the rest of the Muslim World) don't need a reminder about these insults and threats. They perceive them in their bones, even if the vast majority of Israelis mean them no harm. They will perceive the threat to be large even if only the tiniest percentage of Israelis want to destroy the Dome of the Rock and the al-Asqa Mosque. Every Israeli Jew who comes to pray on the Mosque will be suspect, just as in the eyes of many Israelis, every Palestinian is guilty until proven innocent of wanting to push Israeli Jews into the sea. In this case, perception is at least as important as reality.
Can the Jewish Need To Pray On the Temple Mount Be Reconciled With Muslim Opposition?
Is there any way to resolve the conflicting needs of the Jewish and Palestinian/Muslim communities without major bloodshed? I can see only two ways out.
- Reduce Jewish demand to pray on the Temple Mount. This scenario seems unlikely as more and more rabbis lift the traditional taboo against visiting the site. Perhaps this demand could be reduced if religious Jews could be convinced that the desire to pray at the site was sacrilegious because it implied that God's presence was weaker elsewhere, but this seems unlikely. Of course, even if we could reduce the demand of religious Jews to pray on the Temple Mount to zero, many Jews would still want to visit the site because of its central role in Jewish history. It would be an exaggeration to say that Muslims welcome secular Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif with open arms. However, they are usually allowed to visit peacefully with Israeli police escorts and their presence is not considered as inflammatory as that of religious Jews.
- Persuade the Palestinians to allow Jewish Israelis to pray on the Temple Mount. Actually, you would have to do more than persuade just the Palestinians. The Haram al-Sharif is revered by Muslims world-wide, and the Palestinians don't have the authority to change the status quo by themselves even if they wanted to. Israel's 1994 peace treaty with Jordan states
9.2 . . . Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem. When negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give a high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines.
Fortunately, it APPEARS that Jordan has already committed itself to allowing Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount under the right circumstances. The 1994 Israeli-Jordanian Peace treaty also states
9.1 Each party will provide freedom of access to places of religious and historical significance. . . .
9.3 The Parties will act together to promote interfaith relations among the three monotheistic religions, with the aim of working towards religious understanding, moral commitment, freedom of religious worship, and tolerance and peace.
Note my stress on the word "APPEARS". Were the Jordanian negotiators aware that most Jewish rabbis had forbidden Jews from worshipping atop the Temple Mount? If so, could they have assumed that they were committing themselves to no more than allowing Jews to worship freely at the Western Wall? Did they realize, at the time of the signing, that the right to pray on top of the Temple Mount would be a major issue? Also note that 9.1 states that Jordan would allow access to places of religious and historical significance. Jews are indeed allowed access to the top of the Temple Mount. The treaty does not, however, explicitly say they can pray there.
However, despite these questions and caveats, Jordan does seem to have committed itself to promoting a peaceful solution that would allow Jews to pray on top of the Temple Mount, at least under the right conditions.
There is another reason to believe that the conflict could be resolved peacefully. Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second Caliph after Muhammad's death allowed Jews to pray on the Temple Mount after the Arabs captured Jerusalem in 637, and Jews were allowed to continue to pray there until the rule of Umar Ibn Abdel-Azis some 80 years later. Thus, there is nothing inherent in Islam that prohibits Jews from praying there.
Jordan signed a peace deal that implies it would eventually allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. And there is nothing in Islam that prohibits Jews from praying there. These two facts suggest that a peaceful path to Jewsish prayer on the Temple Mount exists. Yet in the aftermath of Israeli debate to unilaterally change the status of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, Israel's treaty with Jordan is on life support. This is not surpising given that Jordan's Hashemite rulers trace their ancestory back to Muhammad. They take their roles as guardians of the Haram al-Sharif very seriously, and no doubt see Israel's unilateral move to change the status of the Temple Mount as a threat, especially since some of those who want to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount also advocate building a Third Temple on it, possibly destroying the Dome of the Rock or the al-Aqsa Mosque in the process. They must also be sensitive to the views of the Palestinians who make up nearly half the Jordanian population. The Jordanian government would probably be overthrown if they agreed to let Israel change the status quo while the Palestinians felt robbed and humiliated by Israel.
Thus, a peaceful path to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount will require two conditions:
- The Palestinians must feel they have achieved some measure of justice by the Israelis. This means Israel must acknowledge and apologize for its role in the Nakba. They must also make a sincere effort to compensate the Palestinians for their right of return. This would not necessarily mean Israel would have to open up the floodgates to all potential returnees, but Israel must allow some of them back and provide as generous compensation as possible to the others. Israel has a special moral obligation to allow hundreds of thousands of desparate refugees return from Syria. After all, these people would not be subjected to the horrors of the Syrian civil war had Israel allowed their parents and grandparent retrun to their homes in 1948. (Of course, the Palestinians also need to apologize for starting a war against Palestinian Jews in in November 1947 in response to the U.N. announcement that the British Mandate in Palestine would be ending the following May and would be replaced by an Arab and a Jewish state.) A final settlement based on good faith negotiations with the Palestinians must be reached.
- Israel must find a way to assure the Jordanians that the safety and security of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque will not be jeopardized if they allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. This could be done by passing AND VIGOROUSLY ENFORCING a law that would criminalize even hinting at a desire to see these two holy sites destroyed. The law should allow talk of rebuilding a Third Temple, but only if such talk makes explicit that rebuilding the Third Temple must be done with the blessings of the Palestinians and the Jordanians. Talk about using force to build a Third Temple on the Temple Mount against the wishes of the Palestinians and the Jordanians must be outlawed. Some may object to this infringement of free speech, but this infringement is necessary for national security. Israel already has a law that effectively prevents discussion of the Nakba in public schools by threatening to withhold government funding to any institution that allows such discussion. And it chills speach that encourages the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement by enabling anyone who is offended by such speach to drag the speaker into court and sue him for potenially unlimited liability. Talk of destroying the Dome of the Rock or the al-Aqsa Mosque poses greater danger to Israeli and world security than speech about BDS or the Nakba. Hence, the punishment of such speech must be more severe.
Moshe Feiglin wants to change the status quo by invoking the Torah Law of Conquest. This could touch off a Third Intifda. If the Dome of the Rock or the al-Aqsa Mosque are destroyed it could also lead to World War III. The path to changing the status quo lies not through brute force and arrogance, but through approching the Palestinians and the Jordanians in a spirit of justice, humility, and equality. The subject should be raised in peace talks, but it should be raised in good faith. If the Palestinians and the Jordanians still refuse to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount, the Israelis should not use this as an excuse to avoid a just resolution to the conflict. If a just resolution to the conflict is found, then Jordanian and Palestinian attitudes are likely to change over time, especially if they become convinced through prolonged peaceful coexistance with Israeli Jews that the threat posed to the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque is minimal. In time, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders may pick up the mantle of Omar Ibn al-Khattab and allow Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount.
The Passover Riots on the Temple Mount
Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be in the cards. Provocations by extremists on both sides, have led to riots on the Temple Mount. It is a little difficult from reading conflicting reports in the Palestinian and Israeli press to tell the exact sequence of unfolding events, but tensions started to increase around April 14 when right-wing religious Israelis urged their followers to go up to the Temple Mount to slaughter goats. The Israeli Arutz7 Sheva News reported that Israeli police prevented Jews from visiting the Temple Mount that day after dozens of Hamas flag-waving militants took over and declared that Jews would not be allowed on the compound. The Palestinian Ma'an News Agency did not mention Hamas militants, but emphasized that Israeli police, fearing violence restricted Muslim visitors under 50 from entering the compound.
According to an AP report, Israeli police stormed the Temple Mount on the 16th using tear gas and rubber bullets after crowds of Muslims started throwing rocks and firecrackers apparently at Jews who were gathered near the Western Wall adjacent to the compound. (I am extrapolating from the AP report as to where the Muslims were throwing their rocks and firecrackers. The report does not explicitly state whether the Jews they were targeting were inside or outside the compound.) The Muslims claim they were merely defending the compound from Jewish groups.
All hell broke loose on the 20th when, according to the Ma'an News agency, 400 Israeli police officers stormed the compound and attacked worshipers with clubs and pepper spray. Moshe Feiglin, accompanied by dozens of security agents, also entered the compound during the raid. Miri Regev, a Knesset member who once called asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan "a cancer in our [Israeli] body", declared that if the police closed the Temple Mount to Jews because of violence, then they should close the site to Muslims as well. I hope there won't be more violent incidents in the future, but if there are (and I can almost guarantee there will be), then implementing Regev's plan could be disastrous. Video of Israeli police storming into the al-Aqsa Mosque, clubbing or firing tear gas at resisters, and forcibly dragging them out against their will could easily touch off a Third Intifada.
Update: 9/1/14:I just found a really useful chronology of many of the events described in this article put together by Daniel Seidemann of Terrestrial Jerusalem. He links to many other articles on the subject. Well worth a visit.
Update 9/7/14: Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, director-general of Muslim endowments and Al-Aqsa affairs, is accusing Israel of trying to silence prayers coming from mosques throughout Jerusalem, including the al-Aqsa Mosque. He sees this as an attempt to "obliterate the Islamic culture in the holy city". Israeli Jews, on the other hand, see this as a way of reducing nuisance noise pollution. If pushed too hard, this issue is potentially explosive.