( Photo via Facebook)
While handing me Karen Armstrong’s book “A History of Jerusalem,” my Jordanian colleague said, “Start from the eighth chapter, the earlier chapters are irrelevant.” Like many Arabs, my colleague has never been interested in the early history of the holy city. He said, “Why should we be? The modern history is more relevant to the city.”
The perpetual turmoil in the city comes from all sides choosing to have a selective memory. Arabs want to ignore the city’s ancient history, which is largely a Jewish history. This Arab indifference is equally matched by Jewish bias against the Arab and Muslim history of the city. In other words, both choose to consider ____ and twist ____ half the story of the holy site and ignore the other half. Historical illiteracy does not help in any political fight; in fact it only creates strife.
This mindset on both sides of selectivity and indifference fuels the current tension regarding sanctuary at the Al-Aqsa mosque versus the right of Jews to pray inside the Temple Mount. Ironically, both sides cover and report the recent tension in the Temple Mount in a similar, selective way. Israeli media reported on October 29th how a prominent U.S.-born right-wing activist, who campaigned for greater Jewish access to the Temple Mount was seriously wounded in a Jerusalem shooting. Meanwhile Arabic and Turkish media stressed later clashes on November 5th between Israeli police, settlers and Palestinians at the al-Aqsa mosque.
Tracing a logical, accurate sequence of events in any news related to Jerusalem is always a difficult task. Nonetheless, the basic story here is that Jewish religious groups see the compound as their holy site, and want to lift the ban forbidding Jewish prayer inside. In contrast, Palestinian inhabitants see this group as invaders who want to disrupt the sanctuary of the holy Muslim site. This is a recipe for an explosive environment that can flare up at any time.
The Arab and Muslim responses to Israeli ambitions towards the Temple Mount is rather alarming. It is mainly emotional, and lacks a clear strategy or future plan for any type of resolution. It is understandable how images of the Quran thrown on the floor of the Al-Aqsa Mosque have angered many. It is also understandable that it triggered widespread condemnation from Muslim countries, including Turkey. President Erdogan described the Israeli actions as barbaric, a response that may appeal to the Turkish’s president domestic audience, but will hardly trouble Israel. Jordan’s recall of its envoy to Israel was more effective and forced Netanyahu to work harder to calm the situation within Israel. There is an urgent need, however, for a broader approach to the religious as well as the political side of the dispute.
First, it is rather pointless for Arabs and Muslims to deny the ancient history of the Temple Mount. It is not up to us to decide where Jews should have their holy site. If Jews view the Temple Mount compound as holy to them, so be it. Acknowledging the religious importance of the site to the Jews would be a smart move, as it will strip right-wing Israelis from their fundamental portrayal of Arabs as thieves of history.
In addition, although Muslims label the Western wall of the Temple Mount as the “Buraq wall,” where the Prophet Mohamed landed during his night visit to the city, there is no need to ignore the ancient history of the wall. Jews believe it is the remaining part of their destroyed Temple. The Prophet did not build the wall, it existed before him, and there are many reliable historical sources that prove how Jews used to pray at that site, even after the destruction of the Temple, and well before the rise of Islam.
On the other hand, Israelis needs to remember that their ancient history was not a perfect example of religious tolerance. Following their return from exile in Babylon, Jews excluded foreign wives and children from the membership of Israel, a harsh reminder how the holy city was in many occasions, a city of intolerance, just as in her current, modern time.
Second, acknowledging history does not necessarily mean conceding to demands for prayers at the holy site. Arabs should highlight to the world their part of the story. The Romans destroyed the second Temple hundreds of years before the Arab conquest of the city ___ a fact that Arabs should continue to elaborate and emphasize to the world after showing empathy and sympathy to Jewish claim. Christian rulers, whether in the Byzantine or crusader era, were much more unkind to the Jews than Muslims. According to the Jewish virtual library, the whole Temple Mount area was badly desecrated and was only cleared and restored after Muslim conquest.
Third, while it is smart to acknowledge the ancient Jewish history of the compound, it is also crucial to highlight the current misery of Jerusalem and the failure to achieve peace. East Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, has technically been occupied land since 1967. Israel bars Palestinians below the age of 50 from praying in al-Aqsa. Security barriers in the West Bank prevent more Palestinians from reaching the holy compound. How can Israelis expect Palestinians to be more understanding while they live under such occupation? Arabs should remind the world how under their rule, the great Jewish scholar Maimonides visited the Temple Mount in 1165. That was an era of harmony and peace, unlike today’s tension and injustice. Israel must understand that the political deadlock compounds tension and does not leave any room for religious tolerance. Peace would strip radicals on both sides from abusing religion for political gains.
As such, I did not follow my colleague’s advice, and started reading the book as it should be read, from page one. It was an eye-opener. As Armstrong poignantly pointed out, “the history of Jerusalem reminds us that nothing ___ not even mortal hatred ___ is permanent.”