It is good to be back in Jerusalem. After I spent a month in the United States, my return to the Holy City happily coincided with the eve of Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year.
On the downside, I also arrived during an escalation of violence on the Temple Mount.
It’s my habit to follow Middle East news on a daily basis, so reports of trouble on the Temple Mount Plaza – known to Muslims as “the Al-Aksa” – came as no surprise.
In fact, written reports of violence were underscored by the sound of helicopters’ circling in the skies above me, confirming that stones and fireworks were once again being hurled at the Israeli police from inside the Al-Aksa Mosque.
Perhaps the greatest contradiction in Jerusalem – and there are many – is that the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism, yet Jews (and Christians) are not permitted to pray there.
Religious Jews have attempted to relax that aspect of the so-called status quo. Just prior to the New Year, right-wing Israeli minister Uri Ariel visited the compound after vowing that he would pray there, arousing angry commentary across the Muslim world.
Nonetheless, when Jewish or Christian tourists arrive at the site, they are routinely informed about some stringently enforced regulations: Prayer and worship, prayer books and visible symbols of non-Muslim worship (such as phylacteries) are strictly forbidden.
Time Magazine explained,
The recent violence has been partly triggered by belief of some Palestinians that Israel is preparing to allow Jews to pray on the site – something right-wing Jewish nationalists have been calling for. Though the Israeli government has emphatically denied plans for this and said the status quo will remain, deep distrust among Palestinians regarding Israeli intentions has led many to see this as further encroachment of Israeli presence onto what is currently a Muslim-managed site.
As a fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, I’ve focused my attention on international religious discrimination and persecution for decades. So several years ago, during my first visit to the Temple Mount – where Herod the Great’s magnificent Jewish Temple once stood and Jesus once preached – I was somewhat taken aback by the Saudi Arabian atmosphere of the place.
On the other hand, as a Christian, I was at far less risk of offending the powers that be than religious Jews who regularly make their way to the Temple Mount – men wearing yarmulkes and tzitzit fringes; women with distinctive hair coverings, modest attire and Star of David jewelry.
It is no exaggeration to say that on the Temple Mount, incitement to violence by radical Muslims never stops for long. Disturbances frequently break out, usually inspired by rumors and falsified reports that the Jews are “storming,” or otherwise “defiling” Al-Aksa. These reports are widespread in Middle East news, simultaneously appearing in Saudi, Iranian, Turkish, Lebanese, Egyptian and other Muslim-dominated media.
Provocation – including name-calling, threats and shoving – is predictable during the brief window of time Jews are permitted to enter this site; they are watched carefully, lest they so much as move their lips in silent prayer.
Islamist women known as Mourabitat, accompanied by their children, have been know to crowd around Jewish groups, robotically screaming “Allahu Akbar!”) Their often-photographed faces are distorted with rage. Reportedly paid generously by Hamas, these female protestors may have lost their jobs during the recent upheaval. They have – at least temporarily – been banned from the site.
Nonetheless, the authorities have their hands full.
Israeli police and other security officers are on the receiving end of everything from furious tirades to clenched fists and obscene gestures. They sometimes even sustain serious injuries, thanks to hurled blocks of cement and stone, as well as fireworks and the occasional pipe bomb thrown in their faces. They respond with tear gas and other non-lethal defensive tactics, when necessary.
During the years I’ve lived in Jerusalem, a number of vicious episodes have occurred, due to a false rumor that “Al-Aksa is in danger.” This libel has long been used to instigate violence, and ever-increasingly stirs up rioters well beyond Israel’s borders as it flashes at lightening speed across news sites and social media.
In his book The “Al-Aksa is in Danger” Libel: The History of a Lie, author Nadav Shragai wrote,
“Al-Aksa is in danger” is a classic libel that was embroidered in the first half of the twentieth century against the Jewish people, the Zionist movement, and, eventually, the State of Israel. The state and its institutions – so, in brief, the libel claims – are scheming and striving to destroy the mosques on the Temple Mount and build in their stead the Third Temple. The longer the libel lives, its delusive variants striking root, the more its blind and misled devotees proliferate.
The libel … strikes at the Jewish people and the State of Israel precisely in the place where the Jewish State has made the most generous gesture, the greatest concession, ever made by one religion to another – on the Temple Mount, the holiest place of the Jewish people and only the third place in importance for the Muslim religion.
That “greatest concession” took place in 1967, literally minutes after the Israeli Defense Force’s defeat of multinational Arab armies and the long-awaited reunification of Jerusalem.
For reasons yet to be fully fathomed, Israel – in the person of war hero Moshe Dayan – relinquished authority over the Temple Mount to the Islamic Waqf. Ultimately, that ended up meaning that Jewish and Christian prayer and worship would be forbidden.
But something more disturbing than the banning of prayer lies at the heart of today’s accelerating violence.
There is a widespread falsehood – a 20th century rewriting of ancient history – that there was never a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount in the first place. Popularly known as “temple denial,” this delusion first reached international ears during the Camp David Conference in 2000. Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shocked President Bill Clinton and numerous others by publically declaring that a Jewish Temple never existed in Jerusalem.
Arafat himself endorsed this claim at Camp David and reiterated it in slightly different form in September 2003, when he lectured to a delegation of Arab leaders from the Galilee and told them that the Jewish Temple had not been located in Jerusalem but, rather, in Yemen. “I myself,” Arafat testified, “visited Yemen and was shown the site where the temple of Solomon existed.”
But what about those who believe the biblical account, recorded in both the Hebrew Scripture and New Testament (not to mention numerous other historical reports, including those of Flavius Josephus)? The assumption among Islamists is that those who affirm the existence of the first and second temples are also actively working toward the construction of a third one.
Of course, the vision of a third temple on the Temple Mount has existed since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and many Jewish (and Christian) believers hope it transpires at some future time. But no such construction has begun. And, politically speaking, any change in the present arrangement of holy sites on the Temple Mount is implausible.
Meanwhile, Muslims congregate there by the thousands during Friday prayers, and in crowds as large as 400,000 during Ramadan. They listen with bated breath to the exhortations of various scholars and imams who retell the Quranic story of how Muhammad’s “Night Journey” began there.
Interestingly – not to mention ominously – many of those same Islamic authorities also predict that a messianic figure – the 12th Imam (Shia) or the Mahdi (Sunni) – will launch his global reign on the Temple Mount.
This Muslim messiah’s utopian new world order will transpire in the wake of a blood-drenched genocide of the Jewish people.
At times even now, confrontations regarding the Temple Mount take a deadly turn. Yehuda Glick – a beloved rabbi and an activist seeking equal rights of worship for Jews and Christians – was shot in the chest four times in October 2013.
Glick miraculously survived. Today, he quietly carries on his efforts, while in the meantime, the Temple Mount seethes and simmers. Will Glick succeed in his mission? Will there ever be freedom of worship at the holiest site in Judaism?
If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has his way, the answer to those questions will remain an unequivocal no.
“The Al-Aqsa Mosque is ours. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is ours as well. They have no right to desecrate the mosque with their filthy feet, we won’t allow them to do that,” Abbas told Palestinian activists.
“We will not forsake our country and we will keep every inch of our land,” he said. “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, clean and pure blood spilled for Allah. Every shahid [martyr] will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God.”
Christians and Jews both have an historical and spiritual interest in the Temple Mount. But now we hear Abbas ambitiously declaring that he is also the voice of authority over an indisputably Christian site – the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Driving the Jews out of Jerusalem is the goal of the PA, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Iran, the Islamic State and numerous other Muslim states and terrorist groups.
As the jihadi saying goes, “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.” Israel’s enemies attest that the Jews will soon be forcibly removed not only from the holy sites, but also ultimately from the Holy Land. If so, judging from the religious cleansing we’ve recently seen in Iraq and Syria at the hand of ISIS, Israel’s Christians won’t be far behind.
Most of us reject the possibility that an overthrow of Israel will take place. The country’s defenses are formidable; its leadership is indomitable and the Jewish people’s faith is fixed on the One who re-gathered them in their land.
However, Jews and Christians alike have been instructed to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” It seems to me that the time has come to do so in earnest, without ceasing; to intercede for the Holy City with deep conviction, and to thank God for every day that passes without violence.
Following this year’s Yom Kippur fast and prayers, perhaps a truly Shana Tova will arrive – a fulfillment of the hopeful “Happy New Year” wishes Israelis are offering one another, despite the turbulent days in which we’re living.