The Magazine

Ramping Up the Violence

The truth about the Temple Mount controversy.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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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."

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.