Esor Ben-Sorek

By the rivers of Babylon

Looking sadly at what may become the third intifada, we need to question why our government hesitated since 1967 to impose Israeli law on the re-unified territories which included the Old City of Jerusalem with all of its holy places and the areas surrounding Salah-e-Din Street in East Jerusalem.

Our claim to Jerusalem is an absolute given, recorded in the pages of our Holy Bible almost two thousand years before the rise of the religion of Islam in the deserts of Arabia.

In 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded Judea and took the Jews into captivity. Though they were not persecuted and had many freedoms, they longed only for one thing: to return to mother Jerusalem.
It is clearly stated in one sentence: “al naharot Bavel, sham yashavnu, gam bachinu b’zachrenu et Tzion”… we sat by the rivers of Babylon and we wept when we remembered Zion.

Jews prospered in Babylon. But they recalled the glories of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the very place where violence and hostility and killings are happening today. Ezekiel, the prophet of the exiles, consoled the mourners. He told them to build houses and plant vineyards and be prepared for a long exile. “Aich nashir et shir Adonai al admat naichar”? How, they asked can we sing songs of praise to God on alien soil?

How could they worship God when their only Sanctuary lay in ruins in distant Jerusalem? Ezekiel taught them to build community centers wherein God could be worshipped. The Greek word for these centers which were to replace the Jerusalem Temple was “synagogus”, a place of gathering for the people.

But to the Jerusalem Temple they brought animal sacrifices. What were they to bring to the new synagogues? And Ezekiel taught them prayers. The words of prayer from the heart replaced animal sacrifice.

In the Holy Temple, priests officiated at the altars. Now in Babylon, there was no Temple, no sacrifices, and no priests. And so Ezekiel instituted the leadership by which Jews everywhere live today. He appointed learned men and called them rabbanim. The rabbis became the new teachers. And for thousands of years Jews have survived without a Holy Temple, without sacrifices and without a priesthood to guide them. And the Jews of Babylon flourished and produced some of our greatest rabbis and scholars, our codes of law, our Talmud, and they survived until forced to flee from Babylon (Iraq) in 1948 following the rebirth of the Jewish Homeland in Israel.

But never did they forget that once upon a time they sat by the rivers of Babylon weeping when they remembered Zion.

For 19 years after our independence, Jerusalem was a divided city separated by barbed wire with soldiers of Israel and of the Jordanian Legion guarding their respective areas and killing those Jews who attempted to approach the Old City. The Mandelbaum Gate was the crossing point for United Nations officers who policed the divided territory.

By a miracle, the Six Day war of 1967 ended the division of the city. The barbed wire fences were torn down, the border posts were demolished, and Holy Jerusalem returned to the control of its people, the Jews.

There were many problems concerning the holiest place in the city, the Temple Mount, home of the Temple of Solomon and the Temple of King Herod who rebuilt the destroyed city. In the 7th century of the common era with the rise of the new religion of Islam, two mosques were built on the very site where the ancient Jewish Temples had once stood. These were the third holiest places for the Mohammedans after Mecca and Medina. But for the Jews, it was the holiest of the holy.

General Moshe Dayan entered into an agreement with the Jordanian mufti of Jerusalem and with King Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in which the Muslims were to be given custodianship of the Temple Mount which they called the Haram al-Sharif and the King of Jordan and his appointed Waqf were to be responsible for its maintenance. It was agreed that Jews could visit the Temple Mount but were strictly forbidden to pray or to demonstrate any form of worship. That agreement came to be known as the Status Quo.

And it is that Status Quo which today sheds the blood of Jews who wish to ascend the Mount in reverence to the memory of our ancient Temples.

The Palestinian religious authorities have violated the Status Quo. They have permitted violence and bloodshed at the very gates of their mosques. Jews are being killed on their way to visit the Mount.

And our government has been too slow and too weak and too unable to control the war in Jerusalem which has now spread to other cities across Israel. Strength and action are called for. The Status Quo must be kept and enforced. The Jordanian monarch must require… nay, must demand… respect of his Waqf for Jewish pilgrims who wish to ascend to the Temple Mount. Failure to do so will create the hostilities needed for a third intifada, a religious war, in which one kills the other in the name of his God.

When will it end? We are not returning to the rivers of Babylon. We shed no more tears. And we shall never cease to remember our beloved and holy Jerusalem.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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