Column

04.24.12

Temple Denial

Leafing through a popular Palestinian tourist guidebook, Palestine: A Guide, by Mariam Shahin, I came across the following sentence concerning the Temple Mount compound (in Arabic, al-haram al-sharif, the noble sanctuary) on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem's Old City: "It is this whole area that fanatic Israelis want to destroy in order to 'rebuild' a temple, which they claim once stood there."

Of course, there are a handful of Israeli "fanatics" who would like to destroy the compound's two Muslim mosques—the Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa—and rebuild the Jewish Temple on the site. The overwhelming majority of Israelis reject them as cranks.

But what struck me about the sentence were the inverted commas around the word "rebuild" and the use of the word "claim," together implying that there had never been a Jewish Temple there.

This assertion dovetails with the thrust of the 500-page guide's opening chapter, "A Brief History of Palestine," which, while occasionally mentioning the presence of "Hebrews" and "Israelites," effectively airbrushes the Jews out of its history. The chapter's periodization progresses from "Paleolithic and Neolithic" ("1,000,000-5,000 BCE") through "Bronze Age" ("3,000-1,2000 BCE"), "Iron Age" ("1,200-330 BCE"), "Persian Rule" ("539 BCE"), Hellenistic Rule" ("333 BCE"), "Roman Rule" ("63 BCE"), "Byzantine Rule" ("330-640 CE"), "Arab-Islamic Rule" ("638"), "Umayyad Rule" ("661-750"), and "Abbasid Rule" ("750-969") down to an undefined "1900-1948."

The Land of Israel/Palestine, prior to 1948, apparently had no "Jewish period," no era or eras in which Jews predominated demographically and governed the country, in part or in whole, as the Bible and a bevy of Greek, Roman and Jewish historians tell us. The Judges (1200-1000 BCE), the Kings of Israel and Judea (1,000-586 BCE), the Hasmoneans (165-37 BCE) and the briefly successful Jewish rebels against Rome of 66-70 and 132-135 CE are all erased.

What is a young Finn or Spaniard visiting Israel/Palestine, this guidebook in hand, to make of this? Surely, then, the Jews he sees around him, in pre-1967 Israel proper and in the occupied territories, some of them soldiers and policemen, are an unnatural presence, a bunch of non-native usurpers and robbers, without legitimacy or historical roots? 

But the problem runs deeper. It is not limited to potential historically hoodwinked foreign visitors. The fare churned out by Shahin is what the Palestinian school systems in the West Bank and Gaza Strip routinely deliver to their children. Given such a take, what chance for peace in the coming decades?

The tone of this politically-motivated perversion of history was, in a sense, epitomized by Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian national movement from 1969 until his death in 2004, when, in a conversation with President Bill Clinton during the Camp David summit of July 2000, he said (according to Dennis Ross, Clinton's chief Middle East negotiator), that "Solomon's Temple was not in Jerusalem, but Nablus."  (Ross later defined this as "the only new idea" that Arafat had presented at the abortive peace talks.)

Specifically, the idea was to deny Israel any legitimate claim to the Temple Mount. But, by extension, Arafat was implying that, really, the Jews had no historical connection to Jerusalem or even Palestine as a whole. It was all an invented mythology designed to buttress Israel's political claims to legitimacy and territory. Temple Mount denial, in this sense, is of a piece with Holocaust denial which is driven by a desire to demolish what most people in the West regard as one of the moral pillars upon which Zionism's demand and claim for a sovereign territory for the Jewish people is based.

But Arafat's take on history, his lies, in effect, fly in the face of 1,400 years of Muslim tradition and historiography. The Koran itself, albeit somewhat ambiguously, recognizes that God had promised Palestine to the Jews, to which Moses had led them. More explicitly, Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi, a former mayor of Jerusalem and forebear of American-Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi, in 1899 wrote in a letter to the chief rabbi of France, Zadok Kahn:  "Who can challenge the rights of the Jews to Palestine? Historically, it is really your country."  

Another example is a 1929 guide called A Brief Guide to Haram al-Sharif Jerusalem issued by the Supreme Muslim Council, headed by Muhamad Haj Amin al-Husayni, Arafat's predecessor as the leader of the Palestinian national movement.  The guide stated: "Its identity with the site of Solomon's Temple is beyond dispute. This, too, is the spot, according to the universal belief, on which David built an altar unto the Lord…"

And this was the knowledge that Muslim Arab youngsters in Jerusalem grew up with in the mid-20th century. Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University, Jerusalem, recalls in his autobiography, Once Upon a Country, A Palestinian Life (New York, 2007): "Travel books printed in Syria a hundred years ago had no problem calling the Noble Sanctuary the Jewish Temple Mount, just as the Islam that I was raised with left me no doubt that Jesus, the son of Mary, was a prophet of God." But not today.

Now we have Palestinian Temple Mount denial (alongside widespread Muslim Holocaust denial). Of course, a probing archaeological dig in the sacred esplanade might put disputes about what existed there 2,000 and 3,000 years ago to rest. But the keepers of the haram, the Muslim trust or waqf, have staunchly and consistently, for more than a century, resisted all efforts to mount such an exploration. So the lies will continue.

(A good, multi-faceted look at the history of the Temple, Mount, written by Jews, Christians and Muslims, is provided in B.Z. Kedar and Oleg Grabar, eds., Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem's Sacred Esplanade)