Digging on the Temple Mount: A Modest Proposal

The Jerusalem Post, September 16, 2007.

There is an old proverb known to most everyone: “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.” Unfortunately the Israelis “sowed the wind” in 1967, but not in the way most people think. Now they are, indeed, “reaping the whirlwind” but, once again, not in the way the screaming or agenda-driven newspaper men or women might believe or lead the world to think. In fact, perhaps even, just the opposite.

When, certainly unexpectedly, on the Fourth Day of the War in June, 1967, the Israeli soldiers suddenly – and this joyfully – found themselves in possession of what, in most people’s jargon, is called “the Temple Mount” – despite what some journalists prompted by Arabo-Islamic propagandists now might call, attempting to be ‘even-handed,’ “the Haram as-Sharif” (they usually don’t even know what such a locution actually means) – they (the Israelis or, for that matter, the soldiers) obviously had not prepared themselves ideologically to deal with such a sudden bounty or, as some might call or consider it as being, “a gift from God” to them.

It was at that point that the always audacious (though perhaps not always thoughtful) Moshe Dayan – in his like-minded attempt to be ‘even-handed’ – stepped in and ordered the Israeli flag to be taken down from the Mosque of Omar, where the Israeli soldiers in a moment of jubilant joy had placed it (who could blame them?). How noble – Dayan and many of his other military compatriots were always good at the ‘beau geste”/the grand gesture or romantic flourish/the fateful choice and often this was done, as just remarked, without the slightest bit of forethought but, rather, just a momentary show of picturesque swagger (don’t tell us – as Rabbi Goren desperately tried to do – we know better).

Oh yes, of after-thought there has been much, but eons turned on that fateful decision (afterall we were dealing here with the morale of the whole Jewish People just a decade or two after the Holocaust), and for some, still do; yet this decision has become encased in stone as it were (excuse the pun), moved forward as if having its own momentum until the present day. Nothing has changed in the forty years since – it is as if a moment were caught in freeze-frame. Worse, there has not even been any discussion of it. It has become another one of those taboo subjects which, just the mention of (at least in most “liberal” or “left-wing” circles) makes people throw up their hands in disgust or automatically labels one a reactionary of some sort, a fanatic, or, even worse, insane.

Yes, eons turned on that momentary bit of beduin-tent theatrics, but was it any good? Had it been carefully weighed and thought out? Was it the right course to follow (was Bush’s course in Iraq the right course to follow?) – especially where the morale, creativity, or self-image of the Jewish People as a whole was concerned – a course now frozen in time as if nothing could change it for the next forty or, for that matter, even perhaps four hundred years? The writer suspects the negative, while at the same time being ready to consider any corrective time, history, or argument might be able offer. But the message that was sent then has now been sent – certainly to the whole of the Muslim World and probably the whole of the Judeo-Christian one as well (we will leave aside for the moment what might be called “the Third World” again) – and it is one of hesitation, uncertainty, tentativeness, ideologically-speaking, ‘treading water,’ and finally even weakness. Look, they made no claim to it (the Temple Mount), leaving it in Palestinian hands – they must have no right to it. Perhaps they have no right to anything?

It is not a question of whether the decision was right or good or noble. Maybe it was. It can be right or good or noble to the end of time, yet still engender deleterious effects. The writer considers the latter unfortunately to have also been the case and, not only to have taken place, but to be increasing day-by-day – year-by-year. You can ‘tread water’ for one, two, or five years, but after forty years it begins to look like weakness – delegitimacy.

In the first place, now we have these nefarious and certainly destructive, unauthorized Temple Mount digs or “repairs” if one prefers. One has only to view pictures of the extent of these and their mindless and absolutely unscientific destructiveness to throw up one’s hands at their senselessness. Secondly, the Mosque of Omar has over time now (confirming another old axiom: ‘nature abhors a vacuum”) become a symbol of all Islamic resistance groups, Middle Eastern television-station logos, and flags and placards everywhere pro-Palestinian sentiments are being expressed (at least some people would seem to know what to do with the symbol of the Temple Mount even if the Jews don’t).

Third and perhaps most importantly, it shows a People (the Jewish) unsure of its cultural and religious heritage, its national identity, and perhaps just as deleterious – even incomprehensibility. We, the Jewish people, in the eyes of the world have always been and still are, an oddity. Arnold Toynbee in the last Century called us a “fossil” and questioned our right to continue to exist at all. For Leo Pinsker in the Nineteenth Century, with his medical background, we were as “the walking dead” which, rightly or wrongly, engendered a kind of “Judeophobia.” But, when we do things that other peoples would not even imagine doing or would never do, then even though we may think we are doing “right’ or “being good,” other people may and often do look upon us bizarre – something frightening.

What people in its right mind, after twenty-five hundred years since the destruction of its most Holy First Temple and nineteen hundred years after the destruction of the Second, would just turn over the keys of its most Holy Place to persons regarded either as outsiders, newcomers, or occupiers – whatever the ideology which led them to build there in the first place or whatever their rights may have been or the justice possibly of their cause? No one – and this is what becomes frightening. This is what makes us sometimes seem so frightening. There must be an ulterior motive – there must be a “plot” of some kind. In some way, we must be sending a signal of some kind, as just suggested above: we have no right to even be there – we have no right even to be in Middle East at all. This is part of the subtle message being sent out, intentionally or not. No one would ever do it.

Is it imaginable that the Muslims, after endless sufferings and wanderings – were the Jews or some other people in control of Mecca which they (the Arabs or Muslims) had just re-conquered – then just give control of their most Holy Shrine the Ka’abah back to the Jews or that other people whatever the ideological reason? Would they even protect what had been built by others in the meantime for whatever the reason on their cultural legacy and not raze it, whatever the consequences? Of course they would not, because they are what is considered “a normal people.” I am not speaking here of right or wrong. Be right or wrong according to one’s own lights – I am not judging that – I am only saying that to behave as we have done or are doing is what almost every people in the world would view as “abnormal.”

Would the Catholics leave the Vatican in some one else’s hands had it been lost and re-conquered, whatever had been built there in the interim? And in Spain, did the Christians leave the Mosque of Cordoba or the one at Sevilla, a Mosque? And what of all the Aztec Holy sites in Mexico or the Inca ones in Peru? Did the Muslims in Istanbul, leave Santa Sophia a Church? I could go on and on. No it is never done, whatever the cause, whatever the reason, whatever the right or wrong. Ok, so we want to be “special” – a “special people” as it were – but this is not what either T. Herzl or N. Bialik wished to be. They simply wished to be completely “normal.”

Would the Hindus leave a Muslim shrine over a sacred Hindu Temple or religious site, if they had some other choice? Of course not and they did not. One has only to witness what they did to one such mosque (the Babur Mosque in Ayodha, India for instance in 1992) when the extreme Nationalists took control of it. They raised it with pick and ax – almost to the last stone. The same thing was done to Joseph’s Tomb outside of Nablus even by the Palestinians themselves and in the full glare of publicity just a little more than five years ago. Did anyone think this was peculiar? Did anyone object? No, not at all. This was the way “a normal people” behaves – even the Palestinians, who make no bones about ceaselessly voicing their demands for special treatment and about the outrages that have been inflicted upon them to anyone who will listen even though “Joseph” was supposed to be one of their own Patriarchs too!

And the Taliban in Afghanistan, with no right or threat whatsoever, just maliciousness, actually even blew up the figure of Buddha in the Mountain known as “the Bahmia Buddha.” Of course, one need not emulate such peoples or acts, but one is simply speaking about what is “normal” and what is “abnormal” – sometimes even, what is dignified and what is humiliating.

The present situation on the Temple Mount is simply humiliating. The “Jews,” as it were, are not even allowed to consider what they might wish to do on the vast expanse of space represented by “the Temple Mount” (should they indeed wish to do anything), while the Muslims are allowed to do whatever they want, including destroying religious and cultural artifacts which even the UN would consider an inappropriate activity. Be this as it may, no abstract political or religious thought – even debate – has really been applied to it in the last forty years. It has just been allowed to drift a la Moshe Dayan. It is as simple as that.

One need not raze anything or even take a building over or change it from a mosque into a temple, though the Dome of the Rock was never, strictly speaking, “a Mosque” and by contrast to al-Aksa, never actually functioned in this way – it is only a pavilion of sorts built over what was perceived to be a Judeo-Islamic Holy Place. One should appreciate that it (“the Dome of the Rock” or “the Mosque of Omar” as it is sometimes also called) was built back in the early 700s by the Umayyad Caliphs (then based in Damascus), at around the same time as Hisham’s Palace outside of Jericho, as an alternative to the Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Ka’abah because of the internecine religious strife and extremism of the time (including Shi’ite) which made travel to Mecca and the Pilgrimage impossible from Syria. Therefore, a site was chosen and consecrated closer to home – in other words, “the Dome” and its “Mosque” simply began as a more expedient, alternative Pilgrimage Site in some manner, copying just what the Jews had always done there whatever the ostensible theological reason invented to justify it. It bears repeating, it was never a functioning “Mosque” anymore than ‘the Ka’abah” at Mecca, the pilgrimage to which it replaced.

But one not need raze anything in order to take control of something and express one’s legitimate cultural heritage. At the moment we are leaving the Jews of the world in a state of a kind of rootless or spiritual demoralization. They cannot always be moved by the ongoing and endless issue of Israel’s security. But the Jews of the world find nothing to be particularly moved about. Being moved is a spiritual/poetic thing. It is a matter of the soul. Does one think that taking a given act or following a given policy does not have consequences – especially unintended ones? It has enormous consequences and the present situation is not only culturally intolerable (we shall leave out the word “morally”); it is psychologically and spiritually so as well – in fact, as just implied, it is spiritually demoralizing.

Do those in control of the Israeli Government think that their actions do not have consequences for the Jews in the world at large – particularly young people? Israelis will ask, why focus on us? We do not say that Israelis should live for the Jews at large, but they should in some manner aspire to inspire. Historically-speaking, like it or not, things either are perceived as being ‘on the rise’ or they decline. The Jews of the world cannot wait any longer for a spiritual center (and “the Western” or “Wailing Wall” is not this). It is not always a matter of international relations. Ok from the 1940’s to the 1970’s, it was the power and strength of the Israeli Army, its bravery, that fortified Jews in the world, gave them pride, made them think God’s hand was somehow showing itself in History (whether it was or not was besides the point – this is a psychological point, a spiritual point).

Now what is it? There is nothing. How can one hold the Jewish People together and give them the encouragement, the pride, and staying-power it needs to continue – aside from demanding of its youth the same old tired and shop-worn norms? It will not hold. They are once again fading away. One sees it here in America – one sees it in the Israeli emigration figures. One need not go into these ramifications here.

So you say, what then is possible? First the necessary archaeological spade work must be done, regardless of outcries, regardless of objections – period. Here we are standing and witnessing a situation where it is possible that archaeological remains either from the First or Second Temples or their appendaged buildings are simply being damaged, destroyed, or insensitively cut through with earth-moving or bulldozing equipment and what is done about it? Nothing. We just stand by and watch this wanton destruction and do nothing. Most imagine this is because of fear of international public opinion, but it cannot be. This must stop. Is this not demoralizing? As just suggested, not even the United Nations could legitimately support the destruction of cultural artifacts in this manner. This is a sine qua non of any United Nations resolution in the cultural area, whatever one’s point-of-view on the Arab-Israel dispute might be.

From a secular point-of-view anyhow (which is all that matters where legally-sanctioned bona fide acts are concerned), surely there can be no harm in scientifically-sound archaeological activity of a thoroughgoing manner whatever Muslim or, for that matter, Jewish Religious Authorities might think of this – and one might hear squeals of objection from either of these two sides. But in theory the Israeli Government is supposed to be a secular affair – a secular Democracy as it were, as for instance is the Indian or Pakistani or Turk (shall we listen to the guffaws here?). I doubt if there would be any objection from the “Christians” except in so far as some kind of ‘political’ advantage were being sought or some sort of pandering at work.

But the present situation and what is happening now is intolerable. In fact, if the Israeli Government had regulated the situation on the Temple Mount from the beginning instead of just giving it back to the Muslim Waqf Authorities to do with as they saw and today still even see fit, a lot could have been illumined. Instead, by not regulating it, as already signaled above, not only have we weakened ourselves as a people; the issue has been utilized almost everywhere to ‘shoehorn in’ a wide assortment of rabble-rousing, anti-Israel and usually anti-Semitic agenda. Those exploiting it have cleverly tapped into the language of “pc” groups to undermine Israel’s position around the world – nay, even the legitimacy of her very existence. This is what forty years of dilatoriness has partially wrought.

By the same token, it is also used as a hammer to actually exclude all other groups from the Temple Mount. Look, so the rational goes, why did they not exercise a claim? This must mean they have no claim at all to anything. They must be in the wrong since otherwise they would not have hesitated so long and the downward slide, as already suggested, begins from there. By not regulating it, they have in effect admitted they have no right to be there at all – this being the mindset of two-thirds of the world.

This is admittedly extreme, but this is what one hears in large areas of the Western World where every liberal or left-leaning group automatically assumes this to be the case; whereas, on the contrary, if analyzed rationally, no one can provide a reason why the site should be exclusively Muslim or, for that matter, exclusively anyone’s, and why other groups should not be allowed to freely participate there should they wish. One has only to look at a bird’s-eye view of the site to appreciate there is plenty of room on the grand platform represented by “the Temple Mount” to accommodate most anyone who wants to be there. Furthermore, instead of being the divisive issue, all such groups try to make of it, it could become a unifying one. Nor is there any excuse why different groups should not be allowed to participate there and in this day and age there should be no exclusivity there (on anyone’s part). In fact, if the situation had been regulated properly from the beginning in a responsible, humane way, instead of the chaos we presently are generally obliged to witness, we most likely would have been well on our way towards a better world for everyone.

So what then should be done where Jews are concerned? There are numerous solutions to the problem of a Jewish Religious Shrine or Holy Site on the Temple Mount once the actual parameters of the situation have been precisely measured and discovered through archaeology. This need not be an actual functioning “Third Temple” in the sense of bringing back or performing animal sacrifice and the like. Very few people probably wish to look back in time in that way. These are not things the writer can determine. They would have to be determined as the process went forward by the “zeitgeist” or “the spirit of the times” as the Nineteenth Century Scientific Judaism or the Historical Schools of Leopold Zunz, Nahman Krochmal, and Zachariah Frankel might have put it. Is not this how things are usually determined – including the original Muslim Pavilion known as “the Dome” itself and even the present-day Holocaust Memorial in Berlin?

But that is not the question at the moment. Something must be built by the Jews on the Temple Mount in spite of what all the world would or might say, just because people’s souls require it. As already signaled, people need poetic things – symbols to sustain their souls and this is what such a monument or functioning building would represent. What are poetic things? They are the inexplicable necessities that move and sustain the soul. Being moved is a spiritual/poetic thing. There is not necessarily any explanation for them, but to lack them is to feel somehow deprived and downcast. Why a Temple? What purpose might it serve? When viewed on the superficial level, perhaps nothing; but when viewed on the symbolical, they are the things that uplift a People’s soul (just like it does, for instance, the Muslims with even less cause). They are of and for the ages.

Such a shrine could be built as a Religious Monument to commemorate the wandering over two thousand years and the return (just as the present Dome of the Rock, for instance, is not a mosque but rather more in the nature of a Religious Monument); or it could be built as an act of Thanksgiving as someone like Abraham Lincoln might have put it in the Gettysburg Address. Why already the Germans, as remarked above, have allowed, sponsored, and built a Holocaust Memorial in the heart of Berlin just a few steps from the Brandenburg Gate and the Old Reichstag Building and yet the Jews are unable – in fact, not unable, unwilling or just unimaginative enough – to build a Memorial Shrine or some sort of spiritual Monument on the Temple Mount?

What could be more pathetic than this? At the moment people are standing in front of and kissing the stones of an old wall built by Herod, the inveterate enemy of the Jewish People and the man responsible, more perhaps than any other, for its destruction 1900-2000 years ago. Most probably don’t even know this and that Herod built it as an ego trip and a sop to the people to keep the disaffected busy for years. Nor do they know that he was not even “Jewish” at all (he certainly was not born “a Jew”) but – if the truth were out – what would today be called “an Arab” (irony of ironies – a Hellenized Idumaean or a kind of early-day Saddam Hussein). Even the Arabs don’t know this. He certainly destroyed the pious and saintly Maccabees and their family – the heroes of our Hanukkah Festivities – root and stalk; and yet one goes on kissing the stones he set in place blithely unaware of these things as if this were sufficient. This is how important such symbols are and how deep the need for them.

The Muslims have already proved that history is not static and is fluid and in flux. They built what they built when they wished to build it. Forget that it might have been Holy to some other people before them. They have always built their shrines upon other peoples’ shrines – the Ka’abah for example on an old pagan religious shrine.There is ample room on the Temple Mount Platform for a shrine or shrines that can be Holy to three Faiths. For the sake of the spirits of our own children and all those departed over twenty centuries we must do something because otherwise we simply face further demoralization and more deterioration – and one is speaking spiritually here, not necessarily politically. It should be obvious that Evangelical Christians and even Mormons would offer nothing but encouragement to such a project even more than many Jews.

It may be that such a “Temple” or “Shrine” would disturb nothing in the present archaeological scheme of things. This has yet to be determined or discovered, but first the necessary archaeological field work must be done. It may be that a given monument would have to be slightly moved just like the Temple of Rameses III at Abu Simbel was moved when the Aswan Dam was built – and this even under United Nations auspices!

Certainly the Mosque of Omar is, architecturally-speaking, a beautiful building that has stood some 1200 years but it was only a monumental pavilion to commemorate a Holy Site – Jewish or Muslim who knows which? Modern ingenuity would easily be able to find a solution to all such problems. It may be that an architectural pavilion could be built over the whole site as a gigantesque Memorial or a Monument of Thanksgiving or, quite simply, a restorative Monument for the Jewish soul as already indicated too above.

Back in the 1980s when I was invited to contribute original ideas to new Governments then being formed, I suggested that, to commemorate the coming Millennium, an Architectural Competition could be held under Government auspices to come up with ideas on what to do with the architectural space of the Temple Mount to make it both accessible and Holy to Three Faiths or, for that matter, as many Faiths as might have wanted to participate. I thought to call it: “Competition Temple Mount 2000: Problems and Solutions – Ground Holy to Three Faiths,” and even envisioned Christians being invited to participate and contribute some memorial or monumental structure of their own should they have wished.

This needn’t have been an actual building or buildings or even a ‘buildable’ project – it might even have been a simply “Utopian Proposal”; but wonderful ideas emerge out of competitions of this kind when the best architectural minds in the world are invited to participate and put their heads together and come up with new ideas to solve old problems; and one could be assured that no one would have wanted to miss this one.

This is what was done in New York City just a few years ago when it became necessary to wrestle with the remains of and solve the problem of what should be done to commemorate the destruction of the World Trade Center. Many wonderful ideas were contributed and, in the end, what emerged was only an architectural imprint of the former buildings. Nothing was actually built in their actual place, because the ground they stood on had become hallowed by the deaths of over 3000 some persons, but rather an architectural footprint was left. So the same could be done on the Temple Mount. One never knows what ideas come forward when one holds things open to architectural minds in competition. This could have been an intellectually sound first step. Look at the Mall in Washington D. C. – there is no end to the memorial monuments (good or bad – wise or unwise) that continue to be built along it. History doesn’t stop. It is in movement.

Well 2000 has come and gone and what is clear is that the present ongoing stalemate and status quo should or cannot be allowed to continue. If one believes the archaeologist, artifacts on the Temple Mount have been destroyed in and ongoing manner in a never-ending succession. This is a direct result of the unwillingness of the Israeli Authorities to exercise sovereignty over their most Holy and Sacred Space. Ok, nothing needs to be destroyed, but this is not to say nothing can be built. As already emphasized, the Muslims themselves have proven that we are not frozen in time. There are creative solutions to be found. We have imaginations. We have talented people who know how to come up with solutions, most could not even have imagined. We have the building techniques to do so.

Here is what must absolutely be done for a start: First, all construction activity not sanctioned or in cooperation with archaeologists must cease forthwith, no matter who complains or what voices of objection are raised. No one could have a legitimate objection to this. Second serious and wide-ranging, complete archaeological work must be done on the whole of the Temple Mount. Creative solutions could easily be found by modern minds where it came to bypassing or tunneling under sacred structures. Nothing would have to be altered or changed but legitimate scientific work should be carried out in a comprehensive and an ongoing manner, no matter who objects and this, without embarrassment, with an eye towards solving the issue of the Temple Mount and making it Holy to Three Faiths.

One need not be embarrassed about any of this. One need only put one’s goals on the table and make them clear. The rest would move forward as if in a divinely-inspired manner. The Jewish People have need of such a Spiritual Center. One has only to begin: Bilu (Bo Israel, lech uva) – Come, Israel, Let us go (forward).