Israeli government authorities are building a ramp to allow non-Muslims to reach the enormous platform atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The old access ramp was condemned as unsafe and torn down several years ago. The interim ramp that replaced it was designed for short-term service only. (Muslims control the Temple Mount and therefore have their own private access routes.) The new ramp is controversial. Some ramp must be built or non-Muslims will have no way to reach the Mount; but leading Israeli archaeologists say that the ramp under construction is badly placed and ought to be someplace else.
This dispute among Israelis is important but in itself would never have attracted much attention. However, by the nature of their reactions, Arab leaders have brought worldwide notoriety to the story--and made it a blood-curdling study in the power of lying in this credulous, ignorant global-media age.
Outraged Arab politicians describe the new ramp as an attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque -- although the mosque is on the Temple platform and the ramp stands outside the platform on pylons, and won't have any effect on the mosque at all. But those are mere facts. Prominent Arab agitators disdain even to notice them. Some have called for violence against Israel because of this imaginary assault on the mosque. And we know what "violence against Israel" means to the Jew-hating anti-Zionists among Arab statesmen: restaurants, sidewalk cafés, bus stops, and Passover Seders drenched in blood and scattered with smashed body parts as dying children cry quietly.
The leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Raed Salah, announced in response to the ramp project that "the danger in Jerusalem has increased. It is high time for the intifada of the Islamic people." The prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Ismail Haniyeh, called the construction project "continued Israeli aggression on Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem." An Egyptian MP, Mohamed el-Katatny, announced in parliament, "That cursed Israel is trying to destroy Al-Aqsa mosque. . . . Nothing will work with Israel except for a nuclear bomb that wipes it out of existence."
The ramp can be taken down; but how can the Arab world be cured of its blood-lust against the Jews of Israel?
This hysterical Arab reaction must be understood in context. Why are Muslim religious authorities in charge of the Temple Mount anyway -- Judaism's holiest site, in the heart of Israel's capital city? And who built the Temple Mount in the first place, and what makes this site holy? When we answer these questions -- keeping in mind that the ramp story is likely to be reported nearly everywhere (outside the United States and Israel) from the Arab viewpoint -- the real question becomes not whether this ramp should be finished (probably not), but how to heal an insane planet. The ramp can be taken down; but how can the Arab world be cured of its blood-lust against the Jews of Israel?
Let's start with the situation on the ground. Prominent Israeli archaeologists object to the new ramp because several of its footings stand in an important archaeological garden outside the Mount. They agree that a new ramp is necessary, but insist that it be routed around the garden. Some Orthodox Jews are unhappy with the project on religious grounds.
The Israel Archaeology Association, which approved the project, responds that you can't please everyone, especially in Jerusalem, least of all near the Temple Mount. If the ramp is moved, other groups will object. Which is a weak-sounding response -- or perhaps no response at all, merely an excuse.
But Arab objections have nothing to do with the archaeological garden; Arab leaders are worried (they say) about the safety of the Al-Aqsa mosque. Yet the ramp poses "no risk whatsoever to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which stands about 100 meters to the east," says the eminent archaeologist Eilat Mazar of the Shalem Center and the Hebrew University. Mazar is one of the archaeologists who object to the ramp's current location and want it moved.
Is it possible that Arab leaders are more interested in attacking Israel than protecting religious and cultural monuments? How anxious are Arab statesmen to protect the treasures of the Temple Mount? Let's step back a few years and see.
The Temple Mount is ruled by the Islamic authority of Jerusalem, the Waqf. The Waqf is supposed to respect the status quo and ask Israeli approval before making changes. In 1996, the Israeli government approved a Muslim request to build a large new underground mosque on the Mount. Construction began, and a request to build an "emergency exit" for the new mosque followed, and was also approved.
Enormous excavations were carried out. Thousands of tons of soil and fill were scooped out and trucked away. Those trucks were filled with some of the most precious stuff in the world. The Temple Mount is potentially the most important, exciting place on earth for archaeological digs.
A huge platform is balanced atop the Mount, shored up by enormous earth-and-stone works. King Herod the Great of Judea built this platform in the first century B.C. as a base for an enlarged, rebuilt Temple. (The Temple was the focus of Jewish ritual and pilgrimage.) But Herod's magnificent Temple was burnt to the ground by Roman forces under Titus, later emperor of Rome, in 70 A.D. The Jews had rebelled against Roman overlordship -- Herod himself had been a Roman client; they fought hard and lost. Rome was the only superpower of the day. On Titus' arch of triumph in Rome you can still see carvings of the plunder that the Romans carted home from Jerusalem -- including the famous seven-branched Temple menorah, later destroyed accidentally by fire.
The Romans grabbed as much as they could, but left behind innumerable traces of the Temple and of life in the Second Jewish Commonwealth, in the age when Jesus preached and the Mishnah was composed. There must be other archaeological treasures up there too, fragments of Jewish, Roman, Byzantine, and Muslim life in the centuries following the Roman rampage. Infrared photographs and other survey techniques suggest the presence of vast underground halls beneath the platform's surface. Some ancient rabbinic sources assert that the Ark of the Covenant, lost since the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C., was buried on the Temple Mount; it might conceivably be standing in one of those underground chambers.
But the Waqf has a nice, simple policy regarding archaeological digs on the Mount. Don't bother applying; none are allowed. The world's most important archaeological site is off-limits to archaeology.
Under the circumstances, those underground excavations for the new mosque and its "emergency exit" looked like a stroke of qualified good luck. (The exit turned out to be a 2,000-square-meter pit that entailed the removal of over 6,000 tons of earth.) All that indescribably precious soil was scooped out, trucked away –
This was vandalism on a breathtaking scale, a rape of the Mount.
And trashed. Hundreds of truckloads were unloaded in municipal garbage dumps. Some drops were made late at night. This was vandalism on a breathtaking scale, and the vandals knew it. (In fact removing the soil was a crime in itself; archaeologists need to inspect soil in situ to understand the context and to know which layers were on top, what came next, and so forth.) All in all this was a sickening crime against the human spirit, a rape of the Mount. But radical Arab leaders routinely deny that a Temple ever existed in this place. They would love to annihilate every trace of Jewish history as they would love to destroy the Jews themselves. For would-be murderers, destroying truth is the next best thing to destroying life.
The precious soil was left unprotected, and garbage accumulated on top. Archaeologists managed to sift through certain portions that remained accessible. Important finds turned up. But "we are certain," Mazar said recently, "that a vast amount of important data was lost."
The Israeli government let it happen; ignored the outcry of Israelis and of archaeologists all over the world and allowed construction and dumping to continue. "The world's patrimony is being carried off in dump trucks," wrote Hershel Shanks (editor of Biblical Archaeology Review) in the Washington Post in July 2000. "All who care about the archaeological remains on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem . . . should be incensed at Israel's failure to stop the Waqf . . . from illegally destroying precious remnants of history important to Muslims as well as to Jews and Christians." An open letter to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, signed by dozens of prominent Israelis of all political colors, demanded that Barak stop "a serious act of irreparable archaeological vandalism and destruction."
But he didn't. Many believe that the Barak government refused to act lest the "peace process" be interrupted or Arab violence break out. According to this (all-too-likely) explanation, a pathetically self-deluded Israeli government, conscious of the long, venomous history of Arab and world reactions to Israel, was too anxious and weak to stop this ugly crime.
The Islamic Authority of Jerusalem is no one's idea of a competent protector of one the world's most precious sites. How did it come to be in charge of this spot in the first place?
When the United Nations voted in 1947 to create twin states in British Palestine, a Jewish and an Arab state side-by-side, the city of Jerusalem was to be internationalized and belong to neither. The Zionists accepted this plan but the Arabs rejected it -- and in May 1948, the armies of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and the Arab Legions of Transjordan attacked the new Jewish state. They failed to destroy it but did capture half of Jerusalem--the important half, the Old City, where the Temple Mount stands. For the next 20 years the Kingdom of Jordan refused to allow Jews into the Old City, refused them access to the Western Wall--and systematically destroyed the city's synagogues, presumably as proxies for the Jews who got away.
Egypt provoked another war with Israel in 1967 (the Six Day War) by demanding that U.N. troops be withdrawn from the Sinai buffer zone and blockading the Straits of Tiran. During the fighting, Israeli soldiers recaptured the Temple Mount. They discovered that Jordanians had torn up Jewish tombstones from the Mount of Olives and used them to pave roads and build latrines. And yet soon afterward Israel unilaterally awarded control of the Mount to the Waqf. It was the same sort of pathetic, heartrending gesture that speaks of desperate longing for friendship and no more war that Barak made 30 years later, when he allowed the Waqf to pillage and violate the Mount.
That generous Israeli gesture of the late 1960s was met by universal gratitude throughout the Arab world, especially among the Palestinians of Jerusalem.
Virtually all such Israeli gestures meet with the same response: redoubled hatred. (In one of the first Israeli digs in Jerusalem after the Six Day War, archaeologists found a previously unknown Muslim palace. "The finds from the early Muslim period are thrilling," said a high ranking official in the Jordanian Antiquities Department at the time, named Rafiq Dajani, "and frankly I am surprised that Israeli scholars have made them public." A few days later he was fired.)
Muslims revere this site in consequence of the Temple that once stood here.
How did it all come to be in the first place? Perhaps it is worth pointing out the obvious: Muslims revere this site in consequence of the Temple that once stood here.
Nowadays some cosmopolitan thinkers speak of the Temple as if it were a folk story or fairy tale or an "alleged" building. But it was as real as the World Trade Center. No sane historian doubts its existence. It is attested in many contemporary sources, Jewish and otherwise.
One report asserts that Titus did not intend to burn the Temple, and said that "the loss would be for Rome. Its continued existence will be a glory of the Empire." But the fighting raged out of control, and the Temple caught fire by accident. In any case, writes Simon Goldhill, professor of Greek at Cambridge University, the Temple "was the largest and most awe-inspiring religious monument in the world." Speaking of the extraordinarily refined and sophisticated engineering that went into Herod's project, Goldhill refers to the Platform's southern retaining wall--which "gives some sense," he writes, "of the [enormous] size of the stones and the brilliance of the wall's construction. There is nothing like this anywhere else in the ancient world."
Israelis created (long ago) the platform on the Temple Mount and the Temple itself, and the religious community that gave it all meaning--a gift to mankind that is valuable beyond measure. Thousands of years later, Israel turned over the keys to the Waqf in a peace offering, an act of friendship. Roughly 30 years after that, they allowed their Arab brethren to pillage and destroy invaluable records of ancient history rather than disturb the "peace process" or the Palestinian Arabs. And so today, Arab leaders demand (in violent outrage) that the world protect the Al-Aqsa Mosque -- their precious, sacred cultural treasure -- by stopping an Israeli construction project that won't go anywhere near it.
They are showing the world a rare combination of laughable hypocrisy and terrifying evil.
This article is reprinted with permission of The Weekly Standard, where it first appeared on FEB. 26, 2007. For more information visit www.weeklystandard.com