Spring 2001, Vol. 4, No. 1

Spring 2001

Related Articles:
"Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage", Religion in the News, Summer 2000

"Covering Israel’s Religious Wars", Religion in the News, Fall 1999

Other articles
in this issue:

From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does

Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return

Faith-Based Ambivalence

Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On

What Would Moses Do?:
Debt Relief in the Jubilee Year

Hide, Jesse, Hide

Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight

Aum Alone

Left Behind at the Box Office

The Voucher Circus

Puffing Exorcism





































































































































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Palestinians and Israelis:
Oh, Jerusalem!
by Yoel Cohen

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City enjoys a paradoxical place in Israeli consciousness. With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the subsequent Jewish Diaspora, a return to Zion (i.e. the Temple Mount) and the rebuilding of the Temple became key motifs in Jewish liturgy.

But after the recapture of the Temple Mount by Israeli troops in 1967 re-established Jewish sovereignty there for the first time in 1,900 years, a Temple was not rebuilt and the Temple service with the sacrificial order was not reinstated. Rather, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan handed over administrative control of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque to the Waqf (Arab Trust), and most Orthodox rabbis banned Jews from visiting the site on grounds of ritual uncleanliness. And the only visible remnant of the Temple structure, its western retaining wall (traditionally known as the Wailing Wall), became the worldwide focus of Jewish spiritual life.

The Jewish public’s focus on the Western Wall as distinct from the Temple Mount proper was seized upon by Prime Minister Ehud Barak in his negotiations to achieve a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his final months in office. Yet Jewish public opinion, in both Israel and the Diaspora, rebelled against the possibility of surrendering the Temple Mount to Palestinian sovereignty. Indeed, it can be argued that the Temple Mount issue was critical to Barak’s defeat by Ariel Sharon in the February election.

Barak, the technocratic former Army chief of staff, had put the Holy Places on the agenda in the Camp David talks last July, when for the first time in the history of Arab-Israeli diplomacy Israeli and Palestinian negotiators presented their different positions on the future of Jerusalem. This "danger to Zion" made front-page headlines in the Israeli press at the time and again after Sharon’s controversial visit to the Mount in September—but especially during Israeli-Palestinian talks in December and January.

The Clinton proposals made in December linked solution of the Palestinian refugee problem to the Temple Mount issue: In return for millions of Palestinian refugees giving up a "right of return" to family homes in Israel, Israel would surrender the Temple Mount—known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif—to Palestinian sovereignty. Besides taking over East Jerusalem the Palestinians would gain control of the Moslem and Christian quarters of the Old City, while the Israelis retained the Western Wall and the Jewish and Armenian quarters.

Although, according to several polls, Jewish Israelis opposed the entire Clinton plan by only a few percentage points, when asked specifically about handing over the Temple Mount, the margin was more like 2-1 against. Significantly, while his foreign minister supported the Clinton proposal, Barak himself offered a compromise in the form of "handing over sovereignty of the site to God"—a proposal dubbed by the media "divine sovereignty." Another idea, floated in January, was for joint Israeli-Palestinian control of the area. Israelis opposed that by 52 percent to 45 percent.

In the biggest demonstration in the city’s history, an estimated 400,000 Jewish Israelis rallied against the Clinton proposals outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. The Chief Rabbinate Council, a state body, met in emergency session, and Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau marshaled his finely honed PR talents throughout the broadcast and print media to attack any removal of the site from sole Jewish sovereignty. From the settler community came a statement by the respected Rabbi Zalman Melamed urging people to do "something"—a veiled reference to an attack on the Haram al-Sharif Islamic holy places.

In the Diaspora, meanwhile, the prospect of turning over the Temple Mount appeared to threaten fundamental Jewish beliefs. In a rare step, Jewish leaders in the U.S. published full-page ads in Israeli newspapers, the New York Times, and the American Jewish press declaring that "Israel must not surrender Judaism’s holiest site." Opposition extended throughout the community, although a few leaders in the Reform and Conservative movements did support the idea of shared Jewish-Muslim sovereignty on the Mount.

The Israeli media defined and gave expression to Israeli Jewish concerns over the future status of the Mount. Besides daily coverage of the latest developments in the negotiations, there was an unending stream of features on different facets of the Temple Mount question, ranging from interviews with the Chief Rabbis to stories on the Jewish presence in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to accounts of Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert’s decision to move his office across from the Western Wall.

Israel’s New York Times-like "newspaper of record" Ha’aretz, which has for years favored territorial compromise on the West Bank as well as separation of "synagogue and state," took the predictable step of supporting a compromise on the Temple Mount. On December 26 it editorialized that "at the end of the day, the Arab-Israeli dispute over Jerusalem revolves around a hub of symbols, not around elements fundamental to existence…. It is necessary for the Israeli public to clearly distinguish between what is important and what is not, taking into consideration ancient traditions while simultaneously looking closely at the present realities, and knowing how to choose correctly between inherent contradictions."

"In the calculation of gains and losses," the editorial continued, "the proposed compromise in Jerusalem and the Temple Mount will yield benefits ten times greater in terms of security for the state in gaining recognition for the border alteration (among them in Jerusalem), in neutralizing the danger of the outbreak of a religious war, and in entrenching Israel’s place among the family of nations. The yearning of generations of Jews for the Holy City is a remarkable human phenomenon and a main element of the national identity, and it should be considered satisfied with the return of the Jewish nation to its homeland."

Neither of Israel’s two mass-circulation popular papers, Yediot Aharonot and Maariv, publish unsigned editorials. But their respective institutional perspectives, expressed in commentaries by senior staff writers, were distinctly less enthusiastic about giving up the Temple Mount than Ha’aretz.

On December 28, Yediot senior editor Sever Plotzker dismissed the Clinton proposal "as having been devised by two rival real estate agents, on the principle of population size: What is populated by the Jewish people will belong to the Jewish people [the Western Wall], and what is populated by the Muslims as belonging to the Palestinians [Haram al-Sharif]. The plan doesn’t manage to deal with historical rights or religious connection. These are stronger than anything political or anything demographic." On January 26 Yediot’s senior political columnist Nahum Barnea, perhaps the country’s foremost political writer, characterized the Temple Mount as "a difficult matter: For religious and political reasons [a peace settlement] is impossible with it. For religious and political reasons it is impossible without it."

Maariv (with a circulation two-fifths that of Yediot’s) published more analysis of the ongoing diplomacy than staff opinion pieces on the rights and wrongs of the Clinton proposals. Writing in October after the onset of the Intifada, commentator Oded Granot argued that when Yasir Arafat orders his men to stop the violence, "he will discover that the battle produced no victory. The Temple Mount doesn’t belong to him anymore now than it did." On December 29, political correspondent Ben Caspit tried to see his way through the fog surrounding the various negotiating positions. "What is the explanation?" he asked. "Not clear. Like the rest…." And, after the murder of right-wing nationalist leader Benjamin Kahane and his wife, political columnist Chemi Chelov wrote in a January 1 column that "the region has been sitting on a barrel of burning dust. The Temple Mount is a smouldering wick. All that was needed was a match that would ignite the whole business. Now we have a lighted torch."

For its part, the right-leaning English-language Jerusalem Post came out four-square against the Clinton proposal. In the words of a December 25 editorial, "It is painful to even describe these possible concessions, let alone consider what life in Jerusalem would be like under such conditions. A sovereign country does not simply hand over half its capital, let alone half of the city that symbolizes its sovereign existence, unless it has been utterly defeated." On January 1, the paper attacked Justice Minister Yossi Beilin’s assertion that "relinquishing sovereignty over the Temple Mount is ‘the fulfilment of the Zionist dream: the establishment of a state on which the Jews will be able to live, as a majority, a life of normality.’ From these comments we are to learn that if only we were to free ourselves of that which is most dear, then the conflict would be over."

As for the religious press, it was divided between the nationalist-religious and "Haredi" or ultra-orthodox, whose divergent reactions reflect fundamentally opposed views of the legitimacy of the modern state of Israel. While the national-religious community perceives the creation of Israel, and the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, as the beginning of "the Messianic Redemption," the Haredi world considers the creation of the modern state as premature, a step that only the Messiah himself can undertake.

No Israeli community was more critical of the Clinton proposals than the national-religious. On December 29, reporter Haggai Huberman of Ha’tzofe, the organ of the National Religious Party, bemoaned the equation of Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall with Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount: "The holiest site for the Jews is not the Western Wall—which is a mere supporting wall erected by Herod to allow for the building of the Temple." Moshe Ishon, the paper’s former editor, wrote in his weekly column January 5 that the Clinton plan was doomed from the beginning: "On the one hand are the vast majority of Israelis and Jews abroad and on the other a small minority of ministers…who are prepared to give up the centuries-old key feature of Jewish nationalism."

A major topic of discussion in Ha’tzofe was whether to revise the rabbinical ban on ascent to the Temple Mount, instituted lest "ritually impure" Jews intrude on the site of the Temple. The ban only undermined the Jewish connection to the site, critics claimed. In a December 29 column Ha’tzofe editor Gonen Ginat agreed, criticizing the Chief Rabbinate (of which the nationalist-orthodox community is the mainstay of support) for "witnessing what is transpiring but failing to take the steps which beg to be taken—to allow Jews to ascend the mount. This is war, and if we don’t let them, Arafat will be there." Two days later another writer, Mordechai Cohen, declared, "We are guilty that we did not struggle for our rights, including the erection of a synagogue on the Mount."

Columnist Shalom Tzuriel came to the Chief Rabbis’ defense January 11: "The rabbinical ban has to be respected. It should also deter any extremist action against the mosques that would arouse the entire Arab world against the Jewish state." In a guest column, Rabbi Yuval Cherlo proposed that the rabbinical ban notwithstanding, the place for Jewish prayer should be moved forward from the Western Wall plaza to a spot in front of the gates leading onto the Temple Mount plateau itself, in accord with an ancient edict to "pray at the gates of Heaven." But only Bar-Ilan University professor Hillel Weiss, in a January 1 op-ed, went so far as to actually advocate rebuilding the Temple: "If we don’t prepare the Temple now, for what do we have the Temple Mount!?"

The Haredi media likewise devoted attention to the Temple Mount. Yetad Ne’eman and Hamodia, the two politically affiliated Haredi newspapers, devoted news and feature articles to the subject, as did newer, non-party-affiliated commercial Haredi magazines like Yom Shishi and Mishpachah. But for all the coverage, the Haredi press assumed a distinctly relaxed stance.

On January 8 Yated Ne’eman attacked the national-religious for seeking a rabbinical permit to ascend the Mount, as well as for "making light of the Heavenly death penalty on those who enter the area." Moreover, in an editorial entitled "The Temple Mount—a Little Sanctuary" the paper appeared to belittle concern for the fate of the site (given that it would be rebuilt by the Messiah at the appointed time): "True Jews recognize that even more important is the "holy sanctuary" that should characterize the atmosphere of every Jewish home that bases itself on the Torah. Not the territory of Biblical Israel or the status of the Temple Mount will ensure our future. Only Torah study—the supreme value—will."

It was another mount, the Mount of Olives, that was of immediate concern to Haredi Jewry. Located in East Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives would, under the Clinton proposals, have been turned over to Palestinian sovereignty. Venerable Haredi sages are buried in the cemetary there, and thousands flock each year to pray at their gravesides. On January 10 Hamodia, the biggest selling Haredi daily, opined that "the Israeli-Palestinian talks notwithstanding, it is forbidden to damage or tamper with the graves of the righteous." The paper called for improvements in physical security at the Mount of Olives, including lighting and transport to the cemetary.

Coverage of the Temple Mount was not limited to the diplomatic story. It also embraced growing Jewish public concern about construction of an additional mosque on the Temple Mount and the consequent destruction of Jewish archaeological artifacts from the First and Second Temple periods. After Sharon’s electoral victory, it was this side of the Temple Mount story that received the most coverage on the news and feature pages.

While synagogue-state issues have always been a feature of Israeli public life, rarely has the Temple Mount been so much the focus of reporting and commentary in the Israeli press. Media attention since last summer has strengthened Jewish public affinity for the site—not to mention swelling the numbers of the so far tiny movement of those who wish to rebuild the Temple.

But what the Israelis might actually do with the site in the long run (assuming they retain sovereignty) has thus far received scant attention. This can be attributed at least in part to the fact that the story has been covered exclusively by political correspondents and reporters on Arab and Jerusalem affairs. Had religion reporters been assigned to the coverage, the theological differences and debates among the several Jewish religious streams would have put the significance of the Temple and its site for contemporary Judaism clearly on the public’s radar screen.

See companion articles:

Related Articles:

"Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage", Religion in the News, Summer 2000

"Covering Israel’s Religious Wars", Religion in the News, Fall 1999