Israel has once again completely failed to convince the Palestinians and the Muslim world that it has no intention to change the so-called status quo in the place that Israel calls the Temple Mount and the Palestinians call al-Aqsa. All Palestinians and most Muslims around the region believe that Israel’s true intent is to build a synagogue on the mount, which may or may not include demolishing the mosques there. The Palestinians and the Muslim neighborhood believe that the first stage of Israel’s plan is to allow Jewish prayer and rituals on the mount, then physically divide the Mosques to allow for permanent Jewish religious practice, just as was done by Israel in the Ibrahimi Mosque/The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
Israel’s failure to calm the Palestinians and Muslims stems primarily from the voices of Jewish extremists who are preparing for the construction of the third temple and the continued calls from them to allow Jewish prayer and ritual, including animal slaughter on the Temple Mount. The Palestinians have witnessed the political power of the right-wing religious extremists in Israel particularly regarding the construction of settlements and the immunity which the governments of Israel grant to settlers who use violence against Palestinians. This is why there is the call for the masses to come to protect al-Aqsa.
Israelis don’t watch Palestinian media stations or receive videos from Palestinian social media. They only watch their own media. The Palestinian and Israeli media show completely different pictures of reality regarding violence in and around the holy places. I see both and the picture I get is that while young Palestinians are fully prepared to confront the Israeli police with stones and other objects, the Israeli police and right-wing religious visitors to the mount provide the provocation for massive Israeli violent force to be deployed against Palestinians on al-Aqsa.
The most viral videos are those of Israeli police beating and attacking men, women and children in and around al-Aqsa who don’t appear to be participating in violence. The scenes can boil one’s blood with anger. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a conflict between Judaism and Islam, but it could easily become a religious conflict. Jews and Muslims pray to the same god, share many traditions and beliefs, and yet the most extreme Jews and the most extreme Muslims are at the center of the most dangerous outbreaks of violence in the land that both religions call the Holy Land.
In my youth, there was a period of time when I tried to get closer to religion. I was moved by morning prayers during my summers at the Young Judaea Camp Tel Yehuda and I had great respect for some of the leaders of the movement who were deeply spiritual. I wanted to be like them. I studied the liturgy and read with deep intent the Torah portion every week. Some of the stories and lessons from our traditions deeply appealed to me. One of those stories in particular impressed me and guided me in the future regarding my perspective on the notion of holy sites.
On my first visit to Jordan in 1994, I stood on the top of Mount Nevo and recalled how Moshe stood on that site and looked over to the promised land on the other side of the Jordan River and from there departed from the people of Israel. Moshe did not enter the promised land. I remember asking one of my teachers why we don’t know where Moshe died and was buried. My teacher said that God did not want us to create holy sites and places of pilgrimage such as graves which were part of pagan traditions. The original roots of Judaism are found in the rebellion against paganism and the sanctification of the idea of one God.
WHEN I visited the Kotel for the first time in 1969 when I was 13 years old, I wanted to feel the spirituality of the place. I saw deeply religious people praying with conviction. I saw many small pieces of paper tucked into the crevices of the stones. I approached the wall and touched it. I kissed the stones, and I honestly felt nothing. I have returned to the site hundreds of times and feel no emotional connection to the stones. I know the history, I know the stories, I know that Jews have prayed there for centuries. Yet, it still feels like a pagan ritual to me.
Years later, I also learned about the destruction of the Mughrabi Quarter in 1967, where 135 homes were demolished that left more than 650 Palestinians as refugees in their own city, all so that the Western Wall Plaza could be built. When I finished basic training in the army many years ago and was sworn into the army at the Western Wall Plaza facing the Kotel, I was overwhelmed with mixed emotions of connection and alienation. I felt that my presence there was primarily to make a statement – we are here and this place is ours. I looked beyond the Kotel and saw the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock and said to myself “we are not here alone.”
There is no doubt that the two most iconic symbols of Jerusalem are the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock. This golden dome monument to Islam was built at the end of the seventh century and it is probably the most outstanding physical manifestation of Islamic art and culture in the world. It is not a mosque. At the southern end of the Temple Mount or Haram a-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary) is a mosque which is incorrectly called the Al Aqsa Mosque. Palestinian Muslims call the mosque the Qible Mosque because it points to the direction of prayer towards Mecca.
I don’t know if it has always been the case, but today when Palestinians speak about Al Aqsa, they refer to the entire mount, which includes the Dome of the Rock and the Qible Mosque and other Islamic institutions and prayer sites there. For Jews, this is the site of where the First and Second temples were built and destroyed.
The Dome of the Rock is probably the exact site where the Second Temple stood. It was destroyed in the year 70. Since that time Jews have prayed in the direction of the place where the Temple stood and for most of the past 2,000 years, Rabbinic law prohibited Jews to enter the site so as not to desecrate it.
Among religious Jews, there is a belief that when the Messiah will come, the Third Temple will fall from heaven and be rebuilt as an act of God. In the past 50 years, there have emerged groups of Jews who believe that the job of rebuilding the Temple is their calling and they are preparing for the days when the Temple will be built and animal sacrifices will return to be the central core of Jewish ritual. To that sentiment, I can only say God Forbid!
The most sacred religious sites in Jerusalem have been transformed into spheres of conflict and bloodshed. Can there be something more unholy than the use of violence in what is supposed to be a holy site? Since the end of the seventh century, the top of the mount is a Muslim holy site. While there is no prohibition in Islamic jurisprudence to a non-Muslim believer in one God to pray in a Mosque, the objection to Jewish prayer and even Jewish visits is political and is about control.
If Jewish visits to the mount were not seen as provocations and challenges to the Muslim presence there, then they would occur without incidence and could even be welcomed. In the past, prior to the second intifada the mount was open to visitors and with a ticket bought from the Waqf authorities one could even enter the Qible mosque and the Dome of the Rock. There have always been limited hours when non-Muslims were allowed to visit and it was never during prayer time. Someday when political peace between Israel and Palestine is achieved perhaps the prophecy of Isaiah will come true: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to Israel, and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. He is now directing The Holy Land Bond.