Between a Rock and a hard place

Imagine for a moment that we are wrong. Or at least that we have no monopoly on the truth. The challenge on the Temple Mount is not really a religious battle. Nor purely political. Nor even just a security issue. The situation at its core is the challenge of creating mutual trust out of mutual fear, of replacing competition with cooperation. It is the challenge of whether human beings on all sides will do the right thing – to see each other with empathy as brothers – or withdraw behind the traditional walls of fear, chaos, and prejudice. Old habits die hard.

The recent disputes related to the Temple Mount – the terror when Arab Israelis killed two policemen, then the metal detectors, the mass prayers by Arabs in protest outside the Lion Gate, the violent attacks in Jordan and on the West Bank – they all distract from the main point. The Temple Mount (or Noble Sanctuary, if you like) is being contorted from a symbol of what we have in common under Heaven to a symbol of what we here on Earth dispute: legitimacy, power, sacred space.

So, this is more than a religious dispute, though the antagonists would like us to see it only through the narrow lens of religion. Sporadically, tempers flare on the Temple Mount because of a misalignment of security, historical, political, religious, and cultural viewpoints. In 2017, as in 2015 and before, new lines are being drawn following similar eruptions of hatred and hubris.

Historically, arguments persist on whether the right to pray exclusively in this sacred spot dates back to the ancient Hebrew Temple (King Solomon’s Beit HaMikdash) more than 2500 years ago, to the first Muslim Mosque built over a millennium ago, to 1967, or to just yesterday. Muslims and Jews alike, we too easily use today’s violence (and the security measures in response to it) to justify competing narratives, focusing only on the historical time periods that bolster present claims and discounting the rest.

From a security standpoint, who really doubts that preventing bloodshed on this sacred ground is a noble undertaking? The question is who decides – the Israeli police or the Muslim Waqf administering the Noble Sanctuary? Only substantive coordination among Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians can bring true safety to the site. That means they have to engage with each other, both in government offices and in the street. Politicizing pain exploits loss and protects no one.

Politically, the Israeli Security Cabinet’s July 2017 decision to deploy metal detectors at entrances to the mosque complex and to restrict some worshippers’ access defers to police judgment. The police, as is their charge, mainly want to keep the peace today and tomorrow. But that may miss the bigger picture, where the cycle of mistrust escalates, risking more violence and wider unrest. Does the Israeli government have the power to implement unilateral security measures here? Does it lack legitimacy in doing so? Is it the smart thing to do? How could it be better done? What is the goal and how likely is it to be achieved? Could greater patience, creativity, outreach and dialogue yield a more lasting solution?

It would be naïve to ignore the symbolism inherent in these security measures and how they are perceived – rightly or wrongly – by others. The latest policy implicitly suggests Israeli government control over the holy site, inviting contrary passions and recriminations. The tacit post-1967 agreement between Israel and Jordan allows the Waqf (the Ottoman-era Muslim religious endowment) to control the Muslim prayer site, including Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Under the agreements, Israel is still charged with protecting the site, but not empowered to do so in practice. The Waqf trustees, together with countless Palestinian and Israeli Arabs, challenge the government’s security measures because these Arabs reject the assertion of Israeli sovereignty over the site. Yet, Arab leaders fail to take sufficient steps of their own or collaborative steps with Israel to protect people from harm there.

The deeper problem is that Jews and Muslims both keep clinging to the idea that their own culture is threatened and dependent on a holy place to which they each have exclusive rights. This geographically defined and exclusionary view of culture is neither practical nor moral. Peace depends on the creation of a new culture of tolerance, patience and empathy.

Symbols matter to everyone, perhaps too much. What if – God forbid – there were no Noble Sanctuary, no Western Wall? Would Jews, Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem be better off? How would we create communities of tolerance and respect? Then, holiness might depend on how we act rather than where we pray.

Religious narratives differ. Yet, the three Abrahamic faiths share a deep sense that Jerusalem is the place where we (through our prayers) most visibly ascend to God. Many find such spiritual closeness to be literally uplifting. How good it would be to transcend these earthly bonds, rising as one through the Oleh of sacrifice and prayer and by Aliyah, witnessing Mi-raj, or remembering the Ascension.

The words “sacred” or “holy” mean separate, apart, distinct, dedicated, sanctified and pure. Perhaps, holiness is the problem. The holiness of a place derives from the power it gives us to be different there. God is everywhere the same. We are not. By becoming more spiritually aware of our closeness to God, we are called on to behave in a better way to each other. That means becoming more open, more aware of the divinity of each other person. We are commanded to love in three ways: to love God; to love your neighbor as yourself; and to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. In no major religion does violence take precedence over the precepts of love, compassion and humility. We should remind ourselves of that, and model it more often.

There are no easy answers, maybe no answers at all, to the current situation in Jerusalem. There is no magic equilibrium that will bring stability to a constantly shifting political and demographic landscape.

What if Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians stepped back for a moment to acknowledge these four evident “facts on the ground”?

· First, this place is sacred to more than one faith.

· Second, we have much in common: a shared past (despite different memories) and a shared future (whether we like it or not).

· Third, we are all created in the image of God, and should treat each other accordingly.

· Fourth, there are enough resources and precious space to share without murdering or humiliating each other year after year.

The competing sides to the dispute should listen to each other. They should truly hear their differing narratives with open ears in order to write a new one going forward that validates the experience of each side, and makes all sides feel safe and respected. They should care about each other more and about holiness less.

The views expressed are reflective solely of the author 

About the Author
Allan Marks is a lawyer in the United States and an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley law and business schools. Allan writes and comments frequently on Israeli economic, security and political affairs, on bridging gaps between Jewish denominations and between Judaism and other faiths, and on other issues of importance to world Jewry. He is an expert on energy, transportation, land use, and infrastructure policy. The views expressed are his alone and are not attributable to any organization
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