By Jerold S. Auerbach
The recent eruption of Arab violence on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City was hardly a random choice. The holiest Jewish site, it was the location of the First and Second Temples (hence its name). The First, known as Solomon’s Temple, was built in 957 BCE and destroyed by invading Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Second, following the return of Jews from Babylonian exile, endured from 515 BCE until the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
No one calls the Temple Mount the “Mosque” Mount. Its seizure followed the Muslim conquest in 638 C.E. In a similar erasure of Jewish history, Jordan’s “West Bank,” captured by the Hashemite kingdom during Israel’s independence war, was identified in Jewish history as biblical Judea and Samaria. Under Jordanian occupation between 1947 and 1967, it was restored to Israel during the Six-Day War. The boundaries of Jewish statehood finally began to resemble those of its ancient past in the Promised Land.
Israel’s stunning victory, when its soldiers returned to Jerusalem’s Old City after two decades of Jordanian rule, restored the ancient Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem — the Temple Mount and its Western Wall — to the Jewish people. At the time, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Mordechai (“Motta”) Gur, commander of the victorious Israeli military forces, radioed headquarters to exclaim joyously: “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” He gave permission for the Israeli flag to be raised over the Muslim Dome of the Rock.
But Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, watching this triumphant historic moment through his binoculars from Mount Scopus, immediately commanded the removal of the flag, lest it trigger Arab fury throughout the Middle East. Far more astonishing was Dayan’s meeting with Muslim Waqf officials when he returned the newly liberated Temple Mount to their control. His shocking surrender meant that the Waqf would determine who could pray there. Jews, it turns out, could not.
As Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi wrote: “An unplanned victory ended in a spontaneous concession” that is unlikely ever to be rescinded. It remains unclear, he added, “whether Dayan acted with wisdom or weakness.” Whatever Dayan’s motive, his capitulation — and its likely permanence — represented a monumental loss for Judaism in the holiest Jewish city.
Dayan was not the only high Israeli official to sacrifice a revered ancient holy site. In Hebron in 1994, with Purim and the Arab celebration of Ramadan overlapping, tension mounted as several hundred Arab men impatiently awaited access to the magnificent Isaac Hall in the sacred Machpelah shrine where the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs are entombed.
The raucous and lengthy Purim celebration triggered Arab rage. They screamed Etbach el Yahud (“Kill the Jews!”). The next morning during Arab prayer in Machpelah, Kiryat Arba doctor Baruch Goldstein, fearing an imminent massacre of Jews, entered Isaac Hall and murdered 29 Muslims before he was beaten to death. To placate Arab fury, the Cabinet under Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin restricted Jewish prayer in Isaac Hall to major holidays. There, as on the Temple Mount, Jewish prayer at these ancient holy sites remains either constricted or prohibited, as ordered by Israeli political leaders.
Several months ago, Israeli Rabbi Aryeh Lippo was removed from the Temple Mount during his silent prayer on Yom Kippur. (Moshe Dayan had prohibited vocal prayer, tallit and tefillin there.) But a Magistrates Court Judge upheld Lippo’s appeal, noting that his prayer was solitary and quiet. The Israeli Security Minister appealed the ruling, insisting that Jewish prayer must be confined to the Western Wall below the Temple Mount. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the Temple Mount must remain exclusively a Mosque Mount. Jews may visit, but their prayer is prohibited.
The Temple Mount has remained volatile. Recently, during the overlapping holy days of Ramadan and Passover, violence erupted when rioting Palestinians carrying Hamas flags barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque and threw a cascade of rocks at Israeli security forces. During the closing days of Ramadan, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced that Israel would not permit non-Muslims (i.e., Jews) to pray on the mount.
So in a striking twist of irony, Jews are prohibited — by the Jewish state — from praying at their most ancient holy sites in Hebron and Jerusalem.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016).”