When Dayan strode into a mad mob on the Temple Mount

What a difference the years make.

Defense minister Moshe Dayan and chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin (second right) in the Old City of Jerusalem, June 7, 1967 (photo credit: GPO)
Defense minister Moshe Dayan and chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin (second right) in the Old City of Jerusalem, June 7, 1967
(photo credit: GPO)
“DID ANYONE get killed?” asked the news editor at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s London office.
“What difference does that make?” I replied from Jerusalem. “This is the third holiest site of Islam; there are hundreds of millions of Muslims in the world.”
“That doesn’t mean a thing to our listener in Nanaimo, British Columbia.”
I (exasperated), “Look, if this were a major church in Rome or London, would you carry the story only if someone got killed?”
A pause.
“OK, 90 seconds. We’ll set up the studio at Israel Radio.”
What a difference the years make. CBC had excellent editors, but decades ago, who in the West knew or cared about such an esoteric “thing” as a mosque in Jerusalem?
That morning, exactly 48 years ago from today’s date of publication (August 21, 1969), an arsonist set fire to al-Aqsa. Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek went immediately to see how badly the mosque was damaged. An enraged crowd of Old City inhabitants threatened him, a frenzied woman was raising her shoe to strike him. Police had to pull him to safety.
Moshe Dayan, then-defense minister, and a small entourage rushed up from Tel Aviv. I saw him pale and grim, steadily making his way toward a maddened mob of hundreds running to and fro, screaming uncontrollably. Women in acute hysteria, black robes flowing, tearing their hair in the ancient ritual of mourning and disaster, ran hither and thither, shrieking. Men cut the Jerusalem fire brigade’s canvas pipes to fill pails, making a human chain to pass them. This effectively killed the water flow and all pumpers were rendered useless. Fire brigades were called in from Ramallah and Bethlehem, then under Israeli rule.
For the first and only time in my 38 years did I feel real fear for myself. Who knows what a hysterical mob will do? I shifted my heavy old tape recorder onto my shoulder and left the holy site. Dayan after all was flanked by security. Nevertheless, his very presence broadcast responsibility and even empathy.
Later, prime minister Golda Meir and deputy premier Yigal Alon met the leaders of the Muslim community on the site, promising to restore all at Israel’s expense. The local Arabs and the Arab media immediately blamed Israel for the fire. The Israeli authorities first thought it was set by Arab provocateurs, who aimed to ignite a popular uprising.
Fortunately, the Arab guards had identified a suspect, who, they said, did not look Palestinian. Within days, the police arrested an Australian non-Jew, who had self-proclaimed himself the future king of Jerusalem. God, he said, told him to destroy the mosque so that the Temple could be rebuilt and enable the second coming of Jesus Christ.
The government understood how urgent it would be to counter the Arab propaganda campaign. Already 25 Muslim states had demanded convening the UN Security Council. Therefore, an extraordinary breach of Shabbat was sanctioned. On that Friday night, the deputy commissioner of police announced that an Australian suspect, Denis Michael Rohan, was in custody.
ROHAN AND his crime are vividly described by Abraham Rabinowitz in The Jerusalem Post Magazine (September 4, 2014). Rohan was tried, found to be insane, and admitted to a rehabilitation facility. In May 1974 he was deported from Israel “on humanitarian grounds, for further psychiatric treatment near his family.” He died under psychiatric care in Australia in1995.
Since he was found with literature from the Church of God’s Armstrong University, he was described as a member of that church.
For the record, Herbert W. Armstrong, a leader in the church, denied that Rohan was a member, and merely had a free subscription to its publication, Plain Talk, as did 100,000 others. Armstrong said, “Such subscriptions do not connect us with such subscribers or any act any one of them might commit, any more than a subscription to The New York Times makes that newspaper responsible for any acts committed by its subscribers.”
GOLDA’S BLEAK expression as she viewed the damage reflected the dreaded dangers of the fire setting off a religious war. Both Dayan and Alon had grown up as close neighbors with Arabs in the Galilee. They understood both instinctively and rationally that our control of the Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount had the potential of igniting an explosion of anti-Israel sentiment.
Golda had close to 50 years of experience in dealing with our neighbors. Dressed as a man, she had even been smuggled into Jordan to negotiate with King Abdullah, the present monarch’s grandfather. They also knew that the torching at al-Aqsa would undercut Israel’s claim that it respects the holy places of all religions.
After the 1967 victory, Dayan had immediately ordered the paratroopers to remove the Israeli flag from the Muslim crescent atop the Dome of the Rock, built a few centuries after al-Aqsa. Furthermore, he made sure that responsibility for the waqf (the charitable trust) for the Temple Mount complex would rest with Jordan, and pledged that Jews would not pray there.
For this Dayan is castigated by the Right today. Interestingly, the ministers of the National Religious Party in the 1967 cabinet were opposed to occupying the Old City. They understood the power not only of the Muslim world, but also the Chris tian churches and their theological stance against Jews possessing their holy sites.
Could ministers Chaim Moshe Shapiro and Zerach Wahrhaftig have foreseen that their caution would be replaced by today’s policy of the Bayit Yehudi leaders, who are their nominal political successors?
Is today’s Israeli government capable of acting with the sensitivity, discernment and responsibility, demonstrated by Golda, Dayan and Alon? What a difference the years make!
Avraham Avi-hai served as an adviser to longtime Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek. He can be contacted at 2avrahams@gmail.com