Many Jewish children grow up with the story of two brothers who lived long long ago, one childless and one with a large family. The brother with the family pitied the brother who was alone, and secretly brought sheaves of wheat to his yard in the middle of the night, in order to comfort him. The brother who was alone would, similarly, bring sheaves of wheat in secret, in the middle of the night, to his brother’s yard, to help him feed his large family. One night, the brothers met, each with his arms full of sheaves, and understood what was happening. They embraced and wept. On that place of unconditional love, the Temple was built.
Abraham is said to have bound Isaac in preparation for a sacrifice that never happened on that same place. While this was the great test of Abraham’s faith, which he passed with flying colours, many of us have problems with the story, with the considerable trauma and psychological violence that it contains. And now, thousands of years later, the Temple Mount has become the site of a different violence, a physical violence of hatred masquerading as faith.
When I arrived in Israel as a tourist, thirty years ago, I went up to the Mount, visited the inside of the Dome of the Rock, with its unearthly beautiful glass mosaics and its air thick with devotion. Sat beneath the pine trees, where Muslim families picnicked. Closed my eyes and breathed deeply. Felt this place, the holiest place on earth for Jews, the focus of the prayers of the entire Jewish world, alongside the energy of over a thousand years of fervent Muslim worship. The call of el Aqsa’s muezzin, then and still now, immediately drew me into a different reality — the deep, mysterious, exotic East. To this day, the muezzin’s call echoes within me in a way that nothing else does, opening up deep inner space. A space that is beyond denominations and separation.
When East Jerusalem was under Jordanian control, Jewish holy places were plundered and destroyed, holy books and Torah scrolls were burnt, synagogues were transformed into stables and Jewish tombstones were used as building materials. Jews were given no access to their holy places. They would stand from afar and gaze in the direction of the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall with eyes and hearts filled with longing.
When Israel reclaimed the old city of Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli government granted control of the Temple Mount to the Wakf, the Muslim religious authority, despite it being Judaism’s most holy site. I do not know what considerations led to this decision, but I do know that Israel has paid dearly for its benevolence.
For years now, Jews have been prohibited from praying on the Temple Mount. There are extremely limited hours during which we are allowed to visit, and, if you are a Jew, just standing on the Mount with your eyes closed can be cause for arrest.
Let me state this clearly, for those who don’t understand and those who don’t want to understand: When Muslims controlled East Jerusalem, they destroyed Jewish sites, and Jews were denied access to their holy places. When Jews had sovereignty, they gave up their HOLIEST site to the Muslims, foregoing their own right to pray there. The world forgets that it could have been otherwise, and this has been so strongly to Israel’s detriment that the UN now proclaims the Temple Mount a Palestinian site, simply erasing thousands of years of Jewish history, and the world condemns us for behavior related to the Temple Mount rather than understanding what a huge gift the Palestinians received. Jews always pray in the direction of the Temple Mount. Muslim prayer faces Mecca.
The entrance to the Temple Mount was recently the site of a terrorist attack, in which two Israeli policemen were killed, one the father of a three-week-old baby. The weapons used in the attack had been smuggled into the holy compound, and brought out by an accomplice. In response, the Israeli police made the seemingly sensible and necessary move of installing metal detectors at the entrance to the Mount. The Muslims have reacted by rioting, violence, and refusing to go up to the Mount until the metal detectors are removed. Everyone is now fearing another intifada.
Jews (and everyone) must go through metal detectors in order to enter the area of the Wailing Wall. Muslims must go through metal detectors in order to enter the Kaaba in Mecca. So what’s the big deal that has the Muslim world in such an uproar? What is it exactly that’s got Palestinian knickers in such a twist? Do they want to be unhindered in future terrorist attacks? I doubt this is the issue. It seems to me that they are protesting any show of Israeli authority at “their” site. However, they have not managed to keep their terrorists at bay. And, let’s remember this once more, the Temple Mount was retaken by Israel in 1967, and the Muslims are bloody lucky that they can even go there. Lives of both Israelis and Palestinians are at stake, and some have already been lost. The Muslims see access to the Temple Mount as their right, not as the great privilege that it is. A right and privilege that has been denied to Jews. And the world and the UN encourage them.
I don’t think Jews are particularly bothered by the fact that Muslims are refusing to pray on the Mount. The problem is the incitement it is causing, the inevitable violence that will result, and the increasingly anti-Semitic world that will run to castigate Israel over a completely sensible step. The international community will condemn us, instead of praising us for allowing Muslims to go there from the start. The status quo has become so deeply ingrained that no one remembers its origins, and the great Jewish sacrifice on which it stands (double meaning intended). Israeli politicians are tiptoeing around this issue, because no one wants international criticism (as if we really have any chance of avoiding it), and certainly no one wants another intifada. So we are being intimidated by the threat of Palestinian violence, of terror, and, in that, rewarding it.
The Temple Mount is the heart of Judaism, the physical place that was a direct channel to God. The Dome of the Rock is the oldest Muslim building in the world still standing on its original foundations, and it is spectacular. El Aqsa is not THE holiest, but is one of the holiest mosques in Islam. In the bible, it states: “My temple will be a house of prayer for all nations.”
On the Mount of Olives there is a beautiful, tiny church called Dominus Flevit. God wept. It is built in the shape of a tear drop. This is apparently the place where Jesus overlooked Jerusalem, overlooked the Temple Mount, and cried for its future. I go there when I can, and I often weep there too, because of the beauty and because of the absolute calamity of what the Temple Mount has become. The place built on the foundations of unconditional love has become the site of bloodshed, incitement and riot gear.
The name “Islam” comes from the root salaam, peace. One of Judaism’s main tenets is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. I long for the day when Islam can proudly and fully claim its name, and when all Jews respect this commandment. The day when there will no longer be a need for metal detectors, and when all nations can pray, unhindered and without fear, side by side, on this holiest of ground.