Sermon from the Mount

March 9, 2001

The holiest site in Jerusalem, the focus of so much dogmatic and violent rivalry, can show the way to religious peace, argues Bernard Wasserstein.

The Jerusalem question lies at the heart of the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the struggle for the holy city long antedates both Arab nationalism and Zionism. As an issue on the international diplomatic agenda it can be traced back at least to the 1830s, when Palestine was conquered by the ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali. As the Ottoman Empire seemed to be tottering towards collapse, the European powers began to manifest a sudden interest in the Holy Land and to affirm pious concern for the security of the Christian holy places. The holy places served as a pretext for interference in the affairs of Jerusalem by outside powers.

Indeed, the dispassionate historian (the "philosopher", as Edward Gibbon would have called him) is compelled to conclude that the competitive zeal for Jerusalem's sacred sites of all three great monotheisms has been shaped throughout history less by purely spiritual motives than by shamelessly political considerations.

The unseemly coenobitic squabbles between Latin and Orthodox monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the 18th and 19th centuries appalled visitors such as Mark Twain and A. W. Kinglake. These brawls are but one example of the exploitation of Jerusalem's spiritual associations for sordid ends - in that case to further the extravagant diplomatic ambitions of France and Russia.

Recently Jews and Muslims have engaged in no less squalid efforts to mobilise the reverence for Jerusalem of multitudes of faithful around the world in order to gain political advantage. The latest episode in this long-running saga has been a claim by some Muslims in Jerusalem that the Haram al-Sharif (noble sanctuary), the compound containing the shrine of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, is not, as is generally thought, the site of the ancient Jewish Temple. They allege that archaeological evidence points to a different site altogether.

This historically doubtful discovery was a counter-punch to a rapidly growing movement among Jews to assert a right of access to the Temple Mount for the purpose of prayer. This claim is relatively recent. It was unheard-of before 1967, when Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem and, with it, the Temple Mount. Until then, Jewish claims in the area had been restricted to the adjacent Western Wall (known among Christians as the Wailing Wall - a term offensive to Jews) to which they had been denied access by the Jordanians who had held east Jerusalem since 1949.

On June 7 1967, immediately after the Israeli conquest, General Uzi Narkiss, the victorious Israeli commander, visited the Mount where he encountered the chief rabbi of the Israeli Army, Shlomo Goren, later Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel. Goren said: "Uzi, this is the time to put a hundred kilograms of explosives in the Mosque of Omar - and that's it, we'll be able to get rid of it once and for all." Narkiss replied: "Rabbi, stop it!" But Goren insisted: "You'll enter the history books by virtue of this deed." To which Narkiss retorted: "I have already recorded my name in the pages of the history of Jerusalem."

For some time thereafter, Goren spearheaded attempts by Jewish zealots to gain the compound for the Jews. He led groups of followers up there to watch him blow a ram's horn and recite prayers. Only the determined resistance of the defence minister, Moshe Dayan, backed at that time by the greater part of the Israeli political establishment, ensured that the area remained inviolate as a Muslim holy place under the control of the Muslim religious authorities.

Successive Israeli governments of both left and right maintained that status quo on the Temple Mount and were strengthened in this position by judgments of the Israeli High Court. They were fortunate, in the early years, in enjoying the support of the Sephardi chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef. In the early years of the Israeli occupation of east Jerusalem, the chief rabbinate placed a sign near the entrance to the Mount prohibiting Jewish entry on the grounds that no Jew should set foot on the former Holy of Holies in the Temple - to which only the high priest might have access.

In the course of the 1970s and 1980s, however, the growth among orthodox Jews of a quasi-messianic nationalism, which attached special importance to alleged holy places (of which many were identified and established as Jewish shrines), was accompanied by repeated assaults on the area by Jews.

Some fanatics began weaving priestly garments and searching out red heifers in preparation for the imminent resumption of animal sacrifice. A few plotted armed attacks that were foiled only at the last moment by Israeli security forces.

By the 1990s, these fringe groups had gained significant support among mainstream nationalist politicians. Figures such as Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert (who succeeded the more moderate Teddy Kollek as mayor of Jerusalem in 1993) endorsed the projects of the Ateret Kohanim (Crown of Priests), who hoped to pave the way for messianic redemption by asserting Jewish prayer rights on the Mount.

In the summer of last year, an Israeli government gave formal approval to this objective for the first time. At the Camp David summit with the Palestinians, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, proposed, as part of a package deal on Jerusalem, that Jews should be permitted to pray on a part of the Haram. Barak's motives for this departure from the policy of all his predecessors remain uncertain. It seems he saw this as a potential sop to the religio-nationalist right. He appears to have hoped that, if he affirmed this symbolic demand, it might mitigate rightist hostility to his broader proposals for Jerusalem as a whole, which involved significant concessions to the Palestinians.

If that was his intention, the manoeuvre backfired disastrously. Rather than serving as a pacifier, it inflamed religious passions across the Israeli political spectrum and across the communal divide. The Faithful of the Temple Mount and other Jewish extremist groups rallied support for a cause that now seemed to have been legitimised by a secular government. Meanwhile, Muslims were outraged, seeing in Barak's ploy one further step in the process whereby Jews were encroaching on Muslim holy sites, first in places such as Hebron and Nablus, and now in Jerusalem itself. Hence the explosive response last September to Sharon's foray onto the Temple Mount, surrounded by a phalanx of armed guards.

No solution was ever found to the endless sectarian rivalries at the Christian holy places. After centuries of antagonism, an exhausted acquiescence eventually emerged, based on the principle of the status quo. This is still the governing basis for settlement of all such disputes among the rival Christian sects.

The Israeli government acted prudently in 1967 in accepting the religious status quo on the Temple Mount. Its reinstallation as the guiding principle to the resolution of disputes over the holy places of all religions would not only help defuse local conflicts. It would go a long way to removing the temptation on all sides to instrumentalise religious faith in the holy city for ulterior political ends. That has been the sustaining curse of politics in Jerusalem for the past two centuries. Only a general acceptance of Jerusalem's plurality of holiness can begin the healing process in this tormented and divided city.

Bernard Wasserstein is professor of history at the University of Glasgow and author of Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City , published this week by Profile Books, £20.00.

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