Today is Tisha B’Av, the saddest day for the Jewish people in their entire lunar calendar. This is a day of fasting and reflection as Jews recall the great calamities that befell their people on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. Tradition has it that both Jerusalem Temples were destroyed on this day: Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and Herod’s Temple in AD 70. Also on this same day, the last Jewish fortress to hold out against the Romans during the Bar Kochba Revolt fell in AD 135. A year later, the Temple area was ploughed under by the Romans, again on TishaB’Av.
I can’t help but think that recent events on the Temple Mount must add to the Jewish sense of mourning today. A little over two weeks ago, Arab Israelis smuggled guns onto the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif to Muslims). Three of the gun smugglers then trained their guns on policemen standing guard just outside the site, killing two Israeli Druze police officers, before being themselves killed. As a way to prevent further attacks of this nature, Israel installed metal detectors at two of the gates opening onto the Temple Mount and closed the others. We all know how well that went over with certain members of the Muslim population. Not content merely to boycott the Temple Mount or riot, one ‘aggrieved’ Arab Israeli, wanting to avenge what he saw as an ‘assault on the al-Aqsa mosque’, slaughtered three members of a Jewish family as they were sitting down for their Shabbat meal.
Mounting metal detectors seems like a reasonable response to the attack, yet it was highly objectionable to many Muslims. What Israel had done by installing metal detectors was to “change the status quo.” (I would have thought that a terrorist attack on the Temple Mount had already changed the status quo, but that was not what the Muslim objection was all about.)
What is the ‘status quo’ on the Temple Mount? Although the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is sacred to both Jews and Muslims, Jews are not allowed to pray there. Before Jews are allowed to enter the compound, their belongings are meticulously checked for prayer shawls and phylacteries. On the esplanade itself, patrolling police carefully scrutinize Jewish faces for moving lips, a telltale ‘giveaway’ that the Jewish visitor just might be praying. Two weeks ago, the police were checking for moving lips, but missed terrorists moving guns onto the Temple Mount.
The idea that it is illegal for a Jew to pray on the former site of the Jewish Temple–to even be seen moving his or her lips–should be abhorrent to anyone who cares about religious freedom and human rights. Hard to believe, but it was a fellow Jew, the Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan, who bears the responsibility for the current status quo.
Up until 1917, the Temple Mount had been controlled by the Ottoman Empire. In 1948, when Jordan seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Jordan transferred responsibility for the Temple Mount compound to itself. Jews were not allowed to visit the Temple Mount while Jordan exercised control from 1948 to 1967. With the retaking of the Temple Mount during the Six Day War in June 1967, Jews finally had control of the site of their two temples–for the first time in two thousand years.
But then Dayan, Israel’s defense minister at the time, in a stunning decision, relinquished control of the Temple Mount back to Jordan, reasoning thus: for Muslims, the mount was a “Muslim prayer mosque” while for the Jews, the Temple Mount was no more than an “historical site of commemoration of the past…one should not hinder the Arabs from behaving there as they now do.”
Dayan’s first act on the Temple Mount was to have the flag removed that Israeli paratroopers had raised there. Next, he cleared out the paratroop company that was supposed to remain permanently stationed on the northern part of the Temple Mount. Then, he forbade Jewish prayer and worship on the compound (although he insisted that Jews could visit the site). He left the Mount and its management in the hands of the Islamic Religious Endowments Authority, or Waqf. (The Waqf is entirely controlled and funded by the Jordanian government.) Jordan would continue to have control over what happened on the Temple Mount, while Israel would be responsible for security around the perimeter of the esplanade. Dayan believed that, by relinquishing control of the Temple Mount to the Jordanian Waqf, he would avoid a larger conflagration with the Muslim world.
For Israel to put metal detectors on the Temple Mount was a sign, in the eyes of many Muslims, that Israel had wrested control of the Temple Mount from the Muslim Waqf–an unlawful act.
Dayan’s magnanimous concession to the Muslim world in 1967–continued control over the Temple Mount–did not win the Jewish state any friends in the neighbourhood in the ensuing years. Given the obvious lack of control by the waqf overseer two weeks ago, leaving the Temple Mount in the hands of a dubious ‘peace partner’ is likely to lead to a larger conflagration, just the opposite of what Moshe Dayan intended. The status quo is no longer tenable.
(This is the most volatile piece of real estate on the planet: Temple Mount /Haram al-Sharif). This picture of the Temple Mount with its prominent Dome of the Rock was taken on my recent visit to Israel. As I had been up on Temple Mount on a previous trip, I decided to stay down below at the Western Wall.)