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The Temple Mount: Between now and 1929

Despite claims to the contrary, the only thing Israel is doing on the Mount is exercising surprising restraint

Early Tuesday morning, two Palestinians attacked a Jerusalem synagogue during morning prayers killing four rabbis and a policeman. The attackers left behind bibles and prayer shawls soaked in Jewish blood. The victims left behind 25 fatherless children.

According to the terrorists’ relatives, they attacked the synagogue to protest Israel’s recent provocations on the Temple Mount. Yet like so much in this conflict, the claims of Israeli aggression collapse upon the gentlest touch of the investigator’s glove. The only thing Israel is doing on the Temple Mount is exercising surprising restraint.

When the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in the seventh century they built a mosque (as is their custom) on the very spot the vanquished had held sacred. This is why the plateau where the First and Second Temples once stood – the holiest site in Judaism – is now the very place where the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock stand today.

When the Israelis liberated the Temple Mount in 1967, they resisted calls to destroy the mosques and rebuild the Temple. In deference to Muslim sensibilities, Israel has allowed a Muslim Authority – the Waqf – to continue governing the Temple Mount. And in deference to Muslim demands every Israeli government since has forbidden Jews from praying at the Temple Mount. As recently as this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu has reiterated that he will not alter the status quo at the site by permitting Jews to pray there.

But facts rarely govern the actions of mobs or evil men. Extremists have spread the word that the Temple Mount is being threatened. And so-called moderates have provided confirmation. President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has called on Palestinians to protect the Temple Mount and has warned of a “holy war” if it is “contaminated” by Jews.

Those unsettled by this disconnect between reality and murderous motive may be tempted to substitute their own grievances for those of the killers. They will insist that this violence was really the result of Israeli apartment construction in Jerusalem or Israeli self-defense in Gaza. To those who try to overthink these murders, history offers a profound rebuttal.

During the centuries they ruled Jerusalem, the Muslim Ottomans never permitted Jewish worship on the Temple Mount. In fact, they even restricted Jewish worship at the Western Wall – that small portion of the Temple Mount retaining wall where Jews were permitted to pray. In particular, Jews were not permitted to make any physical changes – even temporary ones – to the area allotted for their worship.

When the British conquered Jerusalem in 1918, they decided to maintain this discriminatory status quo. But as Jerusalem’s Jewish majority grew, its Jews grew increasingly resentful of these restrictions. On September 23, 1928 – the eve of Yom Kippur – a group of Jews gathered at the Western Wall for prayer. Some brought a makeshift partition made of wooden frames covered with cloth to separate between the male and female worshippers as required by Jewish law. Nearby Muslim officials were quick to notice the partition and to demand that it be removed. The British police did so the following day.

That was it. The Jews had mounted a minor challenge to the status quo, and they had failed. Yet the leader of Palestine’s Arabs at that time – Haj Amin al Husseini – was not satisfied with this victory. He accused the Jews of “unlimited greedy ambitions” against Islam’s holy sites and warned that they intended to destroy the Temple Mount mosques and rebuild the Temple. Tragically, the only greedy ambitions on display were Husseini’s ambitions to rid Palestine of its Jews.

Throughout the year that followed, Husseini used this imaginary threat to raise his profile abroad and his power at home. On August 23, 1929, this steady drumbeat of incitement finally boiled over into violence. After morning prayers on the Temple Mount, thousands of Arabs poured out of the mosques and began attacking Jews in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The riots quickly spread to other Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and beyond. For a terrible blood-drenched week, Arabs attacked the ancient Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and beyond. By the time the 1929 pogrom was over, Palestinian Arabs had murdered 133 Jews and injured an additional 339. As Britain’s Peel Commission would later note, “There was little retaliation by the Jews.”

There are aspects of Israel’s conflict with her Arab neighbors that are driven by real grievance. There are moderates on both sides who would sacrifice cherished land and sacred dreams for peace and coexistence. But there is another element to this conflict, and it has been there from the very start: unadulterated hate.

The Christians being crucified, beheaded and murdered by Muslim extremists throughout the Middle East are now falling to the same evil which claimed the victims of 1929 and the four rabbis this week. We may dream of empowering the moderates. But we’d be wise to remember that these moderates sometimes empower those with starkly different dreams.

About the Author
David Brog is Executive Director of the Maccabee Task Force.
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