Israeli Excavations in Jerusalem: They Do or Do Not Threaten Muslim Shrines? (Two Views)

Roundup: Talking About History

David Gelernter: No

[David Gelernter is a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.]

Israeli government authorities are building a ramp to allow non-Muslims to reach the enormous platform atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The old 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 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 site; but leading Israeli experts say that the ramp under construction will disturb an archeological garden outside the Mount's boundaries, and ought to be moved.

Still, Muslim complaints (and blood-curdling threats) to the contrary, the new 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 Hebrew University and the Shalem Center. Israelis have a perfect right to build it if they want. Muslim objections are ludicrous -- especially in view of the site's history....

[The huge platform known to Jews as the Temple Mount] was built by King Herod of Judea (who ruled from 37 to 4 B.C.) to support the magnificently refurbished temple that replaced an older, more pedestrian structure. Nowadays some people speak of that temple as if it were a fairy tale, but it was exactly as real as the World Trade Center; it is attested in many contemporary sources, Jewish and otherwise.

In 70 A.D., the temple was destroyed by Roman legions sent to suppress a Jewish rebellion against Roman overlordship. During the long centuries since, Muslims built magnificent shrines on Herod's platform -- including the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Jews prayed before the platform's western retaining wall, long believed to be one wall of the temple itself.

Between 1948 and 1967, the Jordanians who had captured old Jerusalem refused to allow Jews to enter, and systematically destroyed Jewish monuments. Come 1967, Egypt provoked another pan-Arab war against Israel (the Six-Day War) by ordering U.N. peacekeepers out of the Sinai Peninsula and blockading the Straits of Tiran. When Israeli soldiers recaptured Old Jerusalem a few days later, they discovered that Jordanians had not only dynamited synagogues; they had torn up Jewish tombstones and paved roads and built latrines with them.

Yet, soon after that great victory of '67, Israel unilaterally awarded control of the Temple Mount to the Islamic Authority of Jerusalem -- the Waqf.

In the mid-1990s, Israeli authorities approved a Waqf proposal to build a new underground mosque on the Mount -- where the soil, studded with fragments of the last temple, is invaluable to archaeologists. (Israel must approve any new building on the Mount.) The Arab authorities scooped out loads of precious soil, thousands of tons' worth -- and shipped it all to local junkyards. "The world's patrimony is being carried off in dump trucks," wrote the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review in disbelief; the Waqf is "illegally destroying precious remnants of history."

Now Arab leaders preach violence because a new ramp is said to threaten a mosque that is nowhere near it. Arab leaders have reduced the comity of nations to a tired joke, on Israel.


Omar Ahmad: Yes

[Omar Ahmad is the founder and chairman emeritus of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). He is the CEO of a Silicon Valley technology company.]

... In the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, Israeli archaeological excavations threaten the foundation of the compound that houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest shrine, and the Dome of the Rock, whose golden dome is the most striking feature of the Jerusalem skyline. For Muslims worldwide, these mosques hold enormous religious significance. Muslims, in fact, first faced Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque in prayer, only later facing Mecca.

My own parents, born in a Palestinian village a mere 12 miles from Jerusalem, spoke often of their trips to Jerusalem to pray at Al-Aqsa. In 1948 when Israel was established, my family was expelled and their village was destroyed. They fled to a refugee camp in Jordan where I was born and raised. Less than an hour's drive from Jerusalem, I could only dream of praying in Al-Aqsa. The religious freedom denied me in my own homeland was granted to me as an American "tourist." I traveled to Jerusalem for the first and only time as a young man in 1991. My prayers at the magnificent Al-Aqsa Mosque are perhaps the most emotionally overwhelming and fulfilling experiences of my life.

Since occupying Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has striven to solidify Jewish dominance over this city that is sacred to three faiths. Al-Aqsa stands as perhaps the most visible obstacle. In 1967, the Israeli army's chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, urged Israeli forces commander Uzi Narkis, to use 100 kilograms of explosives to "get rid of" Al-Aqsa "once and for all." Narkis, as quoted by Israeli historian Avi Shlaim in "The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World," (W.W. Norton &Company, 2001) had the wisdom to refuse the rabbi's request.

Al-Aqsa has been set on fire, Jewish terrorists have entered the mosque and fired on worshipers, explosives have been planted and several plots to blow up the mosque have been foiled. In parallel with these unofficial acts, Israeli government excavations and construction projects continue to chip away at the mosque's foundation. In 2004, what is believed to be an ancient Muslim prayer room was discovered at the excavation site. For three years, Israel hid this spectacular finding from the world. Does this show respect for Jerusalem's Muslim heritage? ...

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