Rewriting history

How Muslim leaders have used al-Aksa, supposed threats to it to galvanize Arab street, encourage protests.

Palestian worshippers at J'lem's Al-Aksa Mosque 521 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Palestian worshippers at J'lem's Al-Aksa Mosque 521 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
‘Toward 1929 the mosques on the Temple Mount became a symbol of the struggle against Zionism.” This was how Israeli historian Yehoshua Porat described the use of the Temple Mount as a political symbol in the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the British Mandate. According to the recently published The ‘al-Aksa is in Danger’ Libel, the claims that the Israeli authorities or Jews are purposely undermining the Muslim structures on the Temple Mount date from this period.
Nadav Shragai, a fellow and senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, argues that this “lie” was concocted by the radical mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Husseini “concocted the ‘al-Aksa is in danger’ libel as part of the building of the Palestinian national ethos,” writes Shragai, who maintains that it is important to understand propaganda and claims about al-Aksa in the context of a “classic libel that was embroidered in the first half of the 20th century.”
In this sense, according to Shragai, it is connected to other libels, primarily the blood libel that maintains that Jews kidnap Christian children to use their blood on Passover. The claims about Israeli intentions toward al-Aksa are thus so preposterous that they can best be examined as a form of anti-Semitism.
To illustrate this, the relatively short book includes numerous images and descriptions of anti-Israel propaganda. For instance, in December 2000, Palestinian intelligence officer Col. Mahmoud Abu Samra sent a letter to Yasser Arafat claiming that Israel was planning “to destroy al-Aksa mosque by creating an artificial earthquake.”
The book is organized into 10 chapters that detail the history of the claims against Israel as they were propagated by the mufti and by Sheikh Raed Salah, the latter of which the author describes as Husseini’s successor.
HOWEVER, THE main problem with this work is not its subject matter. The way in which Muslim leaders have used al-Aksa and supposed “threats” to it to galvanize the Arab street and encourage protests and extremism is an important subject. Almost every year or so since 1929, the issue of al-Aksa has been used as a tool against Israel. Only the form of the claims changes.
For instance, during the years of Binyamin Netanyahu’s first government, it was said the Israelis were tunneling under the mount, even though archeologists were in fact digging along the Western Wall, not underneath the Dome of the Rock. Ariel Sharon’s visit to the mount in December was used as an excuse to start the second intifada. In 2011 the replacement of the temporary Mughrabi bridge leading to the mount was used as an excuse to scare up attention in Jordan and Egypt regarding the supposed “danger” to the site.
However, this book does not do its subject justice. The chapters focus on themes that are only loosely connected to the subject matter. For example, Chapter 4 examines the way Muslims have “rewritten” the history of Jerusalem.
“So as to ‘Islamicize’ the era before Muhammad’s message of Islam emerged,” writes Shragai, “ancient Muslim traditions are mobilized that previously were of negligible importance, and to the Al-Aksa Mosque are added more ancient origins, a great deal earlier than the year of its construction and, of course, earlier than the presence of the Israelites in the Land of Israel.”
For instance, the mufti was also influential in claiming that the precise place that the Jews pray at the Western Wall was connected to Muhammad’s famous winged creature, al-Burak, which brought him to the “farthest mosque” in the Koran. The mufti then added a new “tradition” by which Muslims should bang cymbals and instruments at the precise time that Jews pray.
All of which is interesting and important, but not directly connected to the “lie” regarding the danger to al-Aksa. Other ancillary chapters deal with Israeli excavations near the Old City and terrorist activities that emanated from worshipers at the Temple Mount mosques.
Perhaps the book should have been given a broader title, but these unrelated chapters actually seem to make up a disproportionate part of the text. This leaves the reader wondering where the material on the Temple Mount issue is.
It seems the author did not carry out a comprehensive academic study on this topic, or at least did not publish that study in this book. Perhaps this was to make the text appeal to a wider audience whose academic specialty is not connected to this subject. That may have been a wise choice, since the book is very approachable.
However, it means that anyone looking for a serious discussion of this topic, unencumbered by too much political bias, would be wise to look elsewhere. It is unfortunate, since the topic is an important one and continues to bedevil Israeli policy makers year after year.