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The Struggle for the Temple Mount
Gershom Gorenberg, author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount (Free Press), is senior editor and columnist for The Jerusalem Report. In addition, he is a regular contributor to The New Republic and an associate of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. He was a co-author of Shalom, Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin, which won the National Jewish Book Award. American-born, Mr. Gorenberg has degrees from the University of California and the Hebrew University. He spoke to the Middle East Forum on May 2, 2001.
The Temple Mount in Context
The Temple Mount is an area of only thirty-five acres in the southwest corner in the old City of Jerusalem, but it is the most contested real estate on earth.
By calling it the Temple Mount, I am already standing in one political corner. Muslims call it al-Haram ash-Sharif, which includes the Dome of the Rock and al-Masjid al-Aqsa, or "the furthest mosque." People ask me if there is a neutral term for the Temple Mount. The answer is no. There is no neutral term or neutral story.
As a journalist, I have a standard paragraph to describe the Temple Mount: It is the site of the first and second temple in ancient Jewish times. It is also the place that the prophet Muhammad, according to the Qur'an, was said to have stepped before taking his "night journey" to heaven, where he met Allah, and received the Islamic commandment to pray five times a day.
A Nationalist Symbol
Israelis and Palestinians have both constructed their national narratives around the Temple Mount. In each narrative, an ideal past is seen as a time when the Temple Mount was under their sovereignty. In both cases, the present is seen as a disruptive time when the site is disputed. The ideal future is then seen as a time when the Temple Mount will be theirs again. The Temple Mount is now an emblem of the hopes and aspirations for both peoples.
In early Palestinian nationalist history, the Temple Mount was used as a rally cry: to protect the al-Aqsa mosque from the dangerous presence of Zionists in Palestine. That cry for liberation intensified after 1967 when Israel conquered the Temple Mount.
During the 1967 Six Day war, an Israeli colonel proudly announced "the Temple Mount is in our hands." For Israeli nationalists, this was seen as the ultimate achievement; the Jewish people had reclaimed their homeland.
Interestingly, Jewish homes have traditionally been adorned with a landscape of the Temple Mount, as a symbol of national yearning. Since the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has intensified, the same landscape has become a symbol among Palestinians.
Last July at the Camp David peace talks, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators came together and attempted to discuss the final status of the Temple Mount. They couldn’t do it because the issue is too loaded with symbolism for either side to negotiate.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak suggested that the mount come under de jure Palestinian administration but under the roof of Israeli sovereignty. For him, this was a concession. For Palestinians, it was a demand and a threat.
After the summit, the Palestinians stated publicly that the historic Jewish temple never stood on the Temple Mount; that there was no Jewish historical link to that area. This Palestinian provocation served as an engraved invitation to a nationalist Israeli leader who wanted to assert Jewish control of the Temple Mount.
This is exactly what Ariel Sharon did on September 28, 2000, when he toured the compound, accompanied by hundreds of policemen. Palestinians claimed Sharon's visit was proof that Israel never intended to give up sovereignty over the al-Aqsa mosque. Sharon, however, says that the uprising that followed had nothing to do with his visit to the Temple Mount. Rather, it resulted from a decision by the Palestinians to gain concessions.
Violence and the Temple Mount
There is a precedent of violence around the Temple Mount. In 1929, the first major outbreak of violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict spawned from conflict over the site, as Jews attempted to assert control over the Western Wall. In hindsight, the Temple Mount was somewhat incidental to this struggle, which was mostly an expression of the nationalist struggle between Arabs and Jews.
In the 1980s, Israeli authorities uncovered a Jewish extremist plot to destroy the Dome of the Rock. In the end, it was discovered that the Dome of the Rock was ancillary to the plot. The conspirators were really protesting Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. Still, the symbolism of the Temple Mount was there and significant.
In early 1996, the Palestinian "Tunnel Riots" took place, when Israeli antiquity authorities began excavating beneath the Temple Mount. While there was little to no chance of damaging the structure of the Temple Mount, the riots were really symbolic of the breakdown of the peace process.
Similarly, the current al-Aqsa intifada is less about the al-Aqsa mosque and more about a crisis in peacemaking.
Symbolism and the Temple Mount
To exclude religious symbolism surrounding the Temple Mount, however, is a mistake. That would be equivalent to saying that the conflict is only about practical issues like control, power, and territory. Indeed, the Temple Mount is a symbol of the hopes, fears, and aspirations on both sides.
It matters little whether the Prophet Muhammad actually ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount on his "night journey." The important thing is that millions of Muslims believe it. This is the imagined past of Islam. Historians ponder at what time Muslims agreed that the "furthest mosque" mentioned in the Qur'an became the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It’s an interesting question, but today it is politically irrelevant. What’s relevant is that millions of people believe it.
Today, there are Palestinians who argue that the Jewish temple never stood on the Temple Mount. From an archaeological and historical perspective, I would say they are completely wrong. But this is also irrelevant, because the Jewish people believe it is the holiest spot in Jerusalem.
According to Jewish tradition, the Temple Mount is also where Abraham was said to have bound Isaac in the story of Genesis. It is the place where the ultimate religious individual underwent the ultimate religious test and founded the faith. Similarly in Islam, al-Haram ash-Sharif is where the ultimate religious individual underwent the ultimate religious experience, ascended to heaven, and founded the ultimate religious faith.
The Site of the End of Days
While the Temple Mount is seen as the site where two faiths began, it is also seen as the place, according to all three monotheistic religions, where the world will end.
In Jewish tradition, since the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, saying that the Temple will be rebuilt is tantamount to saying that the messiah will come and that God's kingdom on earth will be established.
In Islam, it is also the place of the end. According to one oral tradition, or hadith, final judgement will take place at al-Haram ash-Sharif when a thread will be stretched from the Mount of Olives to the Temple Mount. Thereafter, the souls of all who have ever lived must walk it. Those who were good will make it across and go to heaven. Those who were evil will fall off and be damned for eternity.
There is also an interpretation embraced by millions of evangelical Christians in which the Temple Mount is central to the scenario of the end of days. According to this theology, the temple of the Jews must be rebuilt in order for Jesus Christ to return and bring an end to the world as we know it.
All traditions around the Temple Mount can be interpreted metaphorically and allegorically and have been throughout history. Today, however, we live in an age of fundamentalism.
"Fundamentalism" is originally a Christian term for those who believe that the bible is completely accurate in its literal interpretation. Fundamentalists, then, are those who assert that they do not make moral judgements because the text makes those judgements for them.
Christian fundamentalist theology sees the creation of Israel and the subsequent history as heralding the end of days. There are also those who call themselves "fundamentalists" in Islam. They, too, take a literal interpretation of the sacred texts.
Today, Christian fundamentalists support radical Jewish fringe groups who seek to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque so that the third temple can be built and herald the messiah. While they are a minority, this is enough to keep Muslims paranoid. That is to say, the assertion that all Jews want to rebuild the temple is wrong, but there are some out there that provide proof to the contrary.
Fundamentalists today are encouraged by the current mini-war. They believe that this so-called battle for Jerusalem is the battle that will lead to the end of days.
What if the mount were destroyed?
This question was widely discussed by Israeli experts after the plot to destroy the Temple Mount was uncovered in the 1980s. Some assert that this could prompt the entire Muslim world to attack Israel. Others say it could bring a second holocaust. Those interpretations are too radical, however.
The implications of damage to the site depends on the political context. If this happened during a period of dialogue, it is possible that leaders could maintain control. The effect could be far worse during times of tension. In any case, Israeli security forces are very careful to ensure the safety of the entire compound.
The struggle for the Temple Mount is a complicated one. If Palestinians and Israelis are to make progress towards peace, each side must begin to understand the narratives of the other as a point of departure for mutual understanding.
Summary account by Jonathan Schanzer, research associate at the Middle East Forum.