I caught sight of them near the back of the Kotel (Western Wall) Plaza of Jerusalem’s Old City. There they were, in a group of about twenty or so, sticking closely together. Ankle-length djellabas, colorful hats, and thick beards for the menfolk; the ladies peering out at the world through nijabs and niqabs.
They looked as if they had just completed a long desert caravan journey. Why, I could almost see their camels waiting for them, hitched up at the Jaffa Gate.
It wasn’t the first time I had seen a group of pious Muslims, checking out the sights at the base of the Temple Mount as part of their pilgrimage ascent to the structures on the top of the mountain. Having just descended the stairs from the Jewish Quarter, they were looking around, somewhat in shock — eyes wide, heads turning from sight to sight. They struggled to take in the spectacle of the gleaming, stone-paved open-air plaza filled with people — the majority of them Jews.
“Aha”, I said to myself. Here was a chance to get a picture of them as they insert pieces of paper into the Wall itself. The world should know that all people are free to worship at the Kotel, whereas only a few meters above, on Mount Moriah, religious worship is the privilege of Muslims alone.
A few minutes later, I saw a group of the men, standing next to the information desk at the entrance to the Men’s Section at the left side of the Wall. Coming closer, I could see that they were looking at an English-language children’s book about the Kotel. It was then that I heard them speaking to each other – in puhhh-fect Berrrritish English; why, the Queen’s tongue itself!
“Hmmm…” said one of the fellows, puzzlement in his voice as he pointed to words in the book: “It says here that Abraham nearly sacrificed his son ISAAC on Mt. Moriah.”
“Well, that’s just what happened, according to Jewish tradition,” I interjected. The four men turned to see who had just jumped in on their conversation. There was a moment of pregnant silence. “Yes, we know about that”, said Ahmed.
“That’s how we understand the p’shat of the words of the Torah verse,” I explained.
“P’shat? What does that mean?” asked Ahmed, looking towards my face and turning his eyes up to see the kippah (Jewish headcovering) perched on my head, curiosity and surprise crinkling around his eyes.
“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s Hebrew for the simple meaning of the verse,” I replied.
“Simple meaning? I’m afraid we don’t have such a concept in Islam. We Muslims like to make things – complicated,” he said, a smile spreading at the sides of his mouth.
It was then that I knew that this was going to be an unusually INTERESTING conversation.
Within minutes, we were engaged in a sort of a huddle, my back towards the Kotel so that they could take in its ancient majesty as we spoke. I found myself, like a baseball shortstop player, having to field all kinds of carefully-worded questions from Ahmed. His friends leaned forward to hear the questions, and my answers. Reacting to this unusual spectacle, other visitors to the Kotel of all stripes stopped and gawked at scene of Muslims and Jews locked in animated discussion.
Ahmed clasped his hands behind his back, not so differently from the way many Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Jews do when they are considering something deeply. “So, we have heard that there are some Orthodox Jewish People who believe that the Messiah cannot come until Israel is first emptied of the Jews. Is this true?”
“O boy,” I began. “You are probably referring to the opinion of a tiny sect of Jews from Brooklyn, New York who stand openly against the modern Israeli government and society. They make a lot of noise, and do a disproportionate amount of damage. But in all fairness, they have actually hit upon a certain truth.”
“What might that be?” asked Ahmed.
So here’s the deal. They look at what’s going in our big cities like Tel Aviv, and see things that aren’t exactly in line with what is supposed to be a holy nation — like dance halls, and strip clubs, and …”
I stopped mid-sentence and looked towards them to see if they knew what I was getting at.
“Oh yes, you don’t have to spell out any more details. We know what you mean,” said Ahmed.
“So,” I continued, “they believe there is NO WAY that the secular State of Israel could be part of the Geulah (Redemption) for which our nation has been waiting for more than 2000 years. As a result, they claim it can’t be the real thing, that it is even a tool of the Satan!”
“Hmmm. Interesting. And what do you think?” asked Ahmed.
“Well — though I find their methods repugnant, I believe there is a kernel of truth to what they say. The current Jewish State and society are not yet in the complete Geulah, that’s for sure. But what these people seem not to be able to understand is that the Redemption is a PROCESS.
“A careful study of the words of the Hebrew Prophets shows that the Geulah is supposed to come in two phases. The first phase is the physical rebuilding of the infrastructure of Jewish society in the abandoned Land of Israel. Then, only after something is up and running, will a phase of a kind of spiritual revolution descend upon the Nation.
I think the problem is that these ultra-orthodox Jews don’t study the words of the Hebrew Prophets any more.” I watched to see if these ideas were making sense to them.
“Amazing. May I ask you something?”
“Be my guest,” I smiled.
“Is the Messiah that you are waiting for going to be a great leader, or a prophet? And — we have also heard that someone must precede him, to announce his arrival.”
“Well, actually — all of the above is true. Our Mashiach will be both a great political leader AND a prophet. And here is my personal opinion. Don’t quote me on this, but I suspect that ‘the announcer’ you are referring to is none other than the secular Zionist State of Israel itself.”
“We won’t tell anybody,” promised Ahmed.
At that point, a great scholar and rabbi passed by us on his way to afternoon prayers at the Wall. I called out to him, and introduced him to my new friends. As is his custom, he grabbed the hands of each one of the surprised men and, with a motion similar to what one uses when sawing a piece of timber, heartily shook hands with each of the men, almost pulling their arms out of their sockets.
Ahmed looked curious. “I’ve wanted to know something. We have heard of the existence of a large rock called the Foundation Stone, and that it is in this area. Where exactly is it?”
“The Foundation Stone is the place where in our tradition, God actually began the Creation of the Universe, where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac, and where the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple stood 3,000 years ago. That very stone, the platform of rounded-off bedrock at the top of Mt. Moriah, is where Caliph Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock in 691.
“The Dome of the Rock, as you know, is not a mosque. It is a shrine. Some say that Abd al-Malik intended it to cover and protect this very special spot!
“Look, gentlemen. Here is the bottom line. Someday, we are going to build at that very location a new building that will serve as a center of worship for the whole world.” I poked my right-hand index finger over my shoulder towards the shiny gold Dome of the Rock, stretching above us, just out of sight over the Kotel.
“And that building will pave the way for true world peace. There will be no more war and no more hatred, not even between Sunnis and Shi’ites. When we read about that kind of violence, we just cringe.
“The Temple will not be just for Muslims and Jews and Christians, but for EVERYBODY. And – you are going to help us build it!”
I paused to let that concept sink in.
“This is what the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible promise will happen. The building that will one day stand at the top of this mountain will be, in the words of the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah, ‘a House of Prayer’ ….”
Ahmed interrupted me, finishing the words of the verse: “Yes. ‘… for all nations’.”
Now was my turn to be surprised. “Have you read the Hebrew Prophets?” I asked.
“Well not exactly. I am just quoting what I saw on the sign at the entrance to the plaza when we came in.”
We all laughed.
Later, I met up with Ahmed’s entire group as they made their way from the Kotel Plaza to the Muslim Quarter.
This time, the group was carefully segregated, the women standing quietly to the right of the men. This time, I was able to sketch out a quick diagram and explain the layout of the design of King Herod’s Second Temple.
I looked over at the ladies. They were watching me with eyes like saucers. I bet they had never heard a Jewish person speaking this way before.
Ahmed turned to me again. “I have one more question,” he said.
“Why am I not surprised.”
Everyone laughed. I guess they knew that Ahmed was by nature a very curious person.
“What’s on your mind?”
“Please tell me. Why do people in Israel shake hands with such energy?” He winced as he massaged his right shoulder.
This time, I had no answer.
As I watched the group make its way away from the entrance of the Kotel Tunnels, I thought back to long-past days at university in the United States. My intuition tells me that had I met Ahmed back then, he would have been among my closest friends.
But not everyone would agree with me. This is how one person commented on social media when he read about this story:
“Can a Jew be friends with Moslems, when most of them consider us to be descended from apes and dogs? (…)
I have lived with, among and gone into battle, Afghanistan in the 80s, with these people. It has been my experience that the friendliness and such is a pose. They show you and tell you what you want to see and hear. They can and will turn on you in a heartbeat, when it serves their purposes. ‘Lie, Cheat, Steal, Kill & Hate’ is allowed by their ‘religion’ as long as it advances Islam.
A group that I had spent almost a year with, turned on me threatening to kill me, unless I converted to Islam. I killed them first.”
Seems that we have a lot of challenges ahead of us before we arrive at the vision of the Hebrew Prophets. So the best we can do is hope to see the day that those Prophets describe, when –
“And it will be,
in the end of days –
The mountain of the House of God will be established
At the head of the mountains,
And lifted high above other hills;
And all the nations will stream towards it.
And many peoples will go, and say:
“Let’s go, and go up to the mountain of God,
To the house of the Lord of Jacob –
He will teach us of his ways,
And we will walk in his paths.”
Because from Zion will go out the Teaching,
And the word of God – from Jerusalem.
He will arbitrate between the nations,
And he will reprove many peoples;
And they will beat their swords into plow blades
And their spears into shearing clippers.
Nation will not lift up the sword against nation,
And they will no longer learn war.”
(Isaiah, Chapter 2, Verses 2-4)