Yitzhak Reiter: King Solomon's Vanishing Temple

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Yitzhak Reiter is an associate professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Ashkelon Academic College and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.]

The recent round of peace negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, when it was not interrupted by disputes over settlement freezes and other marginalia, focused on the same set of issues that has typified the negotiating agenda for many years: borders, Jerusalem, security, refugees, water and so on. We know them so well that we can recite them even in our dreams.

There are now, however, two new nightmares to trouble our sleep. The lesser one concerns the recent Israeli demand that the Palestinians explicitly recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”; this demand may well cause more problems than it can solve. Closely related is the greater nightmare: the Palestinian leadership’s insistent denial of history. To be specific, Palestinian public discourse claims that the Jewish Temple never existed in Jerusalem. It refuses to even acknowledge, let alone tolerate, the universally accepted history of the city and of other parts of the country. For example, the Palestinian Authority recently complained to the Chinese organizers of the Shanghai Expo (through its representative in Egypt, Barakat al-Farra) about Israeli exhibitions that speak, among other things, of the history of Jerusalem. More recently, UNESCO acceded to Palestinian and Arab demands to recognize the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the Tomb of Rachel as “Palestinian” sites. And still another is the appearance in November 2010 on the Information Ministry web page of the Palestinian Authority government of a paper written by Al-Mutawakel Taha, a Ministry official, denying any Jewish historical association with the Western (outer) Wall of the Second Temple Mount.

Where does this spasm of resistance to accepted historical narratives come from? What do Palestinian activists hope to achieve by it? Are they unaware of how deadly it is for the peace process? Or are they rather very much aware? ...

A thorough study of contemporary Arab and Muslim public discourse, books and other publications shows that the denial process is widespread in the Arab and Muslim world.1 The following story gives the flavor of this process. On September 25, 2003 a delegation of Arab leaders from northern Israel visited Arafat at his Muqata‘a compound in Ramallah to show solidarity with the Palestinian Al-Aqsa Intifada (the second Palestinian uprising), which started in September 2000. The guests were surprised when Arafat lectured them on al-Aqsa, insisting that no Jewish Temple had existed in either Jerusalem or Nablus; rather, he claimed it had been in Yemen. Arafat said that he himself had visited Yemen and been shown the site upon which Solomon’s Temple had stood. A year earlier, another Palestinian public figure, Haj Zaki al-Ghul (Jerusalem’s “shadow” mayor from Amman), voiced a similar claim. In a 2002 lecture at the annual al-Quds conference in Jordan, al-Ghul stated that King Solomon had ruled over the Arabian Peninsula, and that it was there, not in Jerusalem, that he built his Temple.

It was not al-Ghul, however, who introduced Yasir Arafat to this Palestinian version of invented history and it was not even another Palestinian. The honor belongs to Kamal Salibi, professor emeritus at the American University of Beirut and subsequently Director of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies in Amman. By any Middle Eastern measure, Salibi is an unusual person. Born in Beirut a Protestant Christian, he earned his doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London under the direction of Bernard Lewis. Many years distant from Lewis’s mentorship, in 1985 Salibi published The Bible Came from Arabia, in which he claimed that the Children of Israel originated in the western Arabian Peninsula. This strange theory, which is largely based on the discovery and interpretation of an obscure sundial, lacks support from any other scholar. Salibi claimed that Biblical Jerusalem was located in the Arabian Nimas highlands, halfway from Mecca to Yemen. This is an instructive example of how a single book, however esoteric its theory, can have significant influence when one side of a polemical discourse finds it useful....

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