Fear and loathing on the Temple Mount
Anyone who doubts the power of prayer should consider the power of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, the Jerusalem hill where the First and Second Temples of ancient Israel once stood. It’s still a Jewish world, at least from the Indus to the Atlantic; everyone else just lives in it. That in what an extraterrestrial observer would conclude from the hysteria over a modest Jewish presence on the site.
A Palestinian law student last week murdered a young Israeli father and a local rabbi in Jerusalem’s Old City last week, the killer’s father declared: “He defended the honor of 1.5 billion Muslims all over the world,” according to the Washington Post. The murderer, Mohannad Halabi, also wounded the man’s wife and infant daughter, and killed a local rabbi who came to the family’s aid.
Halabi had written on his Facebook page, “What’s happening to our holy places, what’s happening to our mothers and sisters in al-Aqsa mosque? We are not the people who accept humiliation. Our people will revolt.” The killer’s father, Shafeek Halabi, declared “I am so proud of him” for having defended Muslim honor. Self-styled “guardians” of the Temple Mount have stockpiled stones and firecrackers in the al-Aqsa Mosque itself to throw at Jewish visitors as well as Israeli police, who have arrested violent protesters on several occasions in recent months.
It seems mad, but the provocation which brought about the present crisis is the wish of a few religious Jews to pray quietly at the side of the Temple Mount. A ban on prayer seems absurd in an age where religious freedom counts as a fundamental human right, but it is an existential issue to Muslims. It has alarmed world as well as regional leaders. The United Nations Security Council Sept. 18 expressed “grave concern” and called for “restraint” and maintenance of the status quo. Jordan’s King Abdullah II threatened Israel with a collapse of diplomatic relations due to Jewish “provocations.” Jordan’s foreign minister Nasser Judeh denounced Israeli police for “defiling al-Aqsa Mosque with their feet” (my personal olfactory experience at al-Aqsa makes this claim seem ironic). Turkey’s President Erdogan told al-Jazeera, “What is taking place at al-Aksa mosque is a crime against the entire Islamic world.”
Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount—even silent, personal, prayer—is forbidden by Israel’s government, and the mere threat of such prayer suffices to elicit violence from Palestinian Arabs and condemnation from Muslim leaders. The Jews may have returned to their ancient homeland, re-established their capital at Jerusalem and built the most prosperous and powerful state in the Middle East, but Muslims comfort themselves with the thought that Islam still holds their holiest site.
Muslims are drowning in a sea of humiliation, with of millions begging at Europe’s doorstep and millions displaced. Five Muslim countries–Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen have ceased to exist as national states. Egypt survives on charity from the Gulf States, Turkey is close to civil war, Pakistan is in chaos, and Iran is dying a slow but inevitable demographic death. Whether America, Russia, or no-one will save the Muslim Middle East from itself is the current quibble among world leaders, while Muslims stand impotently by while others decide their fate. We are witnessing the death of a civilization in real time, as I portrayed it in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too). This last symbol of Muslim triumphalism gains importance in inverse proportion to the success of the Muslim world.
Merely to be a Muslim is a daily humiliation. To think that the Jews might in some way revive their presence at the site of their ancient Temple, reversing Islam’s supposed supercession of Jewish authority, evokes pain beyond the threshold of Muslim tolerance. Islam’s founding premise is that Mohammed restored a revelation once given to the Jews, but which the Jews later corrupted and falsified in their Bible.
At it happens, I visited the al-Aksa mosque in 1968, during the brief interval after the Six Day War when Jews could. I recall most of all how it stank like the inside of an old tennis shoe. The stench of generations of unwashed feet on carpet was overpowering and my visit was brief. I do not think that Jews would want to go near the place.
Shortly after the 1967 War, the Israeli government handed control of the Temple Mount to the Jordanian-controlled Islamic Waqf. Under the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, Jews may visit the Temple Mount but may not utter prayers, even to themselves. Because Jewish prayer requires the lips to move, it is detectable when silent. The ban on Jewish prayer may seem absurd in the age of religious freedom, but the Israel government enforces it so as not to provoke the Arabs.
One would think there was a massacre at the al-Aqsa Mosque rather than a riot with stone-throwing and minor injuries. When Syrian government forces and ISIS respectively besieged the Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, one had to search for the news. “A man will forgive the murder of his father before the loss of his inheritance,” Machiavelli wrote, but he was talking of Italians; the Palestinians will ignore the murder of thousands of their compatriots but rise in rage at a threat to their identity.
During the 1930s, the Islamic authorities in Jerusalem encouraged tourism with brochures proclaiming the Temple Mount as the site of King Solomon’s Temple. That was never in dispute until the late Yasser Arafat began to insist that there never was a Jewish Temple at Jerusalem, the better to deny an historic connection between Jerusalem and the Jewish people. That makes Muslim rage over a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount all the more absurd; if there never was a Temple, why should Muslims care what Jews do there?
Some Muslims accuse the Israelis of planning to partition the mosque to accommodate Jewish worshippers. That displays ignorance of Jewish law. No-one but the High Priest of the Temple was permitted to enter the ancient Temple’s Holy of Holies, and Jewish law forbids Jews to go near the spot, whose precise location is not known. Most ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authorities forbid Jews to go to the Mount at all to avoid violating the Holy of Holies. Some national-religious authorities allow Jews to walk on the periphery, far from the site of the ancient Temple itself.
No-one (and surely not this or any prospective Israeli government) proposes to interfere with Muslim worship on the site. The explosion of Muslim rage over the prospect of a few Jewish prayer groups on the periphery of the Temple Mount betrays profound the depth of insecurity in the Muslim world. Islam cannot bear humiliation. It is after all a militant religion whose daily prayer begins “Come to prayer, come to success,” but there are no Muslim success stories anywhere, and numberless tales of woe.
The credibility of Islam itself is in play, and that explains the fascination of 1.4 billion Muslims with a hundredth as many Jews. If Islam (as Franz Rosenzweig claimed in The Star of Redemption) is a “parody of revealed religion” rather than the final prophecy it claims to be, it may crumble as rapidly as it arose. A failsafe gauge of the collapse of faith is the choice to bear children. Iran’s fertility rate of just 1.6 children per female (according to the most recent Pew Institute estimate) and similar fertility rates in the non-Kurdish sections of Turkey suggest that Islam simply is coming to an end.
That explains the hysteria about the seemingly innocuous subject of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount: the Muslim claim to that tiny patch of land is a symbol of Islam’s supercession, and it looms larger in the Muslim mind as the credibility of Islam deteriorates.
A Catholic perspective might put this in clearer context. More than three decades ago, the Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod called on Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, then the right-hand man of St. John Paul II and head of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of the Faith. Wyschogrod asked Ratzinger why the Vatican had not recognized the State of Israel (it did so some years later), and whether the Church looked favorably upon the existence of a Jewish state. The future pope assured Prof. Wyschogrod that the Catholic Church wished the State of Israel well, but hesitated to establish formal diplomatic relations with Jerusalem out of concern for the safety of Middle Eastern Christians, who might be targets for retaliation by Muslims.
As Wyschogrod told me the story, Ratzinger added that while the Vatican had no objection to a Jewish state, it would be very upset indeed if the Jews were to restore the Temple and the ancient sacrificial service (something for which religious Jews have prayed thrice daily since the fall of the Temple to Roman armies in C.E. 70). “Why should the Church care what the crazy Jews do?,” Wyschogrod asked rhetorically?
The answer in fact is obvious: the Christian claim to have “fulfilled” the Jewish Scripture and perfected the intent of Judaism becomes muddled if ancient Jewish worship were revived at a new Temple. Many Jewish authorities (including Maimonides) did not envision a restoration of the sacrificial service, and Jewish authorities today disagree. The conditions for rebuilding the Temple under Jewish law, moreover, would require preconditions that border on the miraculous, and no significant current of Judaism from the most Orthodox to the most progressive proposes to do so. Most religious Jews believe that the restoration of the Temple must wait for the coming of the Messiah.
The Catholic Church is in no danger of having to explain why the ancient sacrificial service had returned to Jerusalem. Nonetheless, one of its most perspicacious theologians, the future (and former) Pope Benedict XVI, worried about the prospect sufficiently to raise the subject to a visiting Jewish colleague.
If the Catholic Church, which acknowledges Jewish Scripture as God’s word (even if it reads it quite differently), feels a slight tremor of insecurity about a prospective Jewish return to the Temple Mount, a fortiori Muslims feel double digits on the Richter scale. There is no cure for Muslim insecurity, no consolation for the humiliation of simply being Muslim. Nor is there reason to expect rational responses. It will get worse.
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