It’s “holy” to secular Israelis too

Of all the controversial statements regarding peace process issues made by Yasir Arafat and his associates in the months between Camp David (July 2000) and Taba (January 2001), none was as blatantly insulting as the claim that there never was a Temple on the Mount. In effect, Arafat was denying the core Jewish belief that the Land of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people. I, like most Jews, religious and secular, saw this as an attempt to delegitimize our national identity, to portray Israel as a colonialist state “born in sin.”

The Temple is the most potent symbol of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land. Our tradition, our narrative, places it, whole or in ruins, on the Mount during the thousand or so years before the common era. It is of both religious and national importance. According to Jewish tradition, the patriarch Abraham raised the knife here to sacrifice his son Isaac; some believe Isaac’s son Jacob rested his head here during his prophetic dream. King David established his capital in Jerusalem in around 1000 BCE. His son, Solomon, built the First Temple, and Jerusalem accordingly became the focus of yearly pilgrimages by Jews. While access to the Temple itself was highly restricted, the Temple Mount was the focus of Jewish life.

Since the destruction of the Second Temple, Jewish law, or halacha, has forbidden entry by Jews to most parts of the Temple Mount, where the ancient Holy of Holies was located, and where “heavenly Jerusalem” and “earthly Jerusalem” meet. Religious Jews observe this prohibition. The Western (or Wailing) Wall, a buttress of the Temple Mount that has survived, is a focal point of Jewish religious life and a central site of prayer.

As a secular Jew, I feel no need to pray–at the Wall or on the Temple Mount. But I do need to visit the Temple Mount. I accept that we will probably never have the opportunity to excavate the ruins of the Temple. And like nearly all Jews, I do not wish to see the Temple rebuilt. Religious Jews adopt this point of view because of an injunction that the Temple can only be rebuilt with the appearance of the Messiah. I, as a secular Jew, do not see a need to reconstruct what was essentially a center for animal sacrifice, and was replaced by the concept of the synagogue or community prayer house, an idea later adopted by Christians and Muslims. Besides, Muslim houses of prayer have existed here for some 1400 years, and we must respect the status quo.

Were the fateful Palestinian statements of the year 2000 that deny Jewish roots on the Mount made maliciously, or out of ignorance? At one level they appeared to be serving notice on Israelis that, despite 33 years of rule over the Mount/Harem, we had never sought to ensure that Palestinians and other Muslims had a clear understanding of the site’s central significance for Jews, religious as well as secular. There was even a proposal made by Prime Minister Barak at Camp David, to place a synagogue somewhere on the northeast perimeter of the Mount, that was perceived by Muslims as blasphemous.

But at a deeper level, the Palestinian rejection of the Jewish historical narrative linking us to the Mount/Harem–like the demand that Israel accept “in principle” the Palestinian refugees’ right of return–appears to reflect a degree of profound Arab denial of Israel’s viability and credentials as a legitimate Jewish state.

I last visited the Temple Mount on September 25, 2000–just three days before Ariel Sharon’s fateful visit. I walked around the broad space separating the al-Aqsa Mosque from the Dome of the Rock Mosque, and pondered the presence, somewhere below my feet, of the remains of the Temple. I removed my shoes and walked inside the magnificent Dome of the Rock. A group of Israeli Jews was listening to the learned explanations of their guide regarding the Islamic art and architecture surrounding them. According to our narrative, after all, the beautiful mosques of Harem a-Sharif were built deliberately on the ruins of the Temple. We should consider that a compliment.

I do not seek Israeli rule over the Temple Mount. It is a Muslim holy place, the mosques are here to stay, and Muslims should be in charge. I have no problem respecting the Muslim narrative regarding the Mount/Harem. But there can be no peace, no final status settlement in Jerusalem, unless an arrangement is found that honors the Jewish national narrative alongside that of Palestinian Muslims.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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