I’m currently in Israel as part of a press delegation ...Today we went on a walking tour around Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, got a briefing from the local police, visited the city’s main market for lunch and conversation with a fascinating Israeli musician and activist, then visited Yad Vashem, which as you should know is Israel’s official Holocaust memorial. There’s little I could write about the latter that wouldn’t sound trite and inadequate, but we did have the good fortune to be there at the same time as a large group of young IDF soldiers in full uniform, which could scarcely be more apposite; Israel’s army side by side with the reason Israel needs an army.
It’s the Temple Mount and the rest of the Old City I want to talk about in this first dispatch, because I simply can’t get over the strangeness of the place. Here you have three of the world’s great religions almost literally on top of one another. In the Christian sector, passionate – sometimes violent – disputes take place over which denomination gets to use which carefully delineated area of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, including whether a particular step outside it counts as a step or a raised piece of floor. If a militant atheist wanted to write a vicious sketch about the absurdity of religion, they’d never dare come up with this.
But even if you don’t believe in God ...it’s hard not to be a little humbled by the place. ...Christians, Muslims and Jews from all over the world come to Jerusalem just to walk where people much like them have for thousands of years, for much the same reasons....
The Temple Mount is something else. As we walked through the only entrance permitted to non-Muslims – more on this in a bit – and I took in my surroundings, I thought: “This is what it’s all about? This is what so many have killed and died for?” Not that it’s a letdown, far from it. The Dome of the Rock is an extraordinary thing – say what you like about Islam, it has nice buildings – and the sense of history is overpowering.
But it’s still just a piece of land. It’s a nice piece of land, mind you, but land nonetheless. Yet this meagre 35 acres is easily the most contentious issue in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Even as the grand divine architecture represents the best of humanity, our dark and irrational side is inescapable wherever you look.
Not that I mean to suggest perfect symmetry between the two main parties to this dispute, in the lazy “pox-on-both-your-houses” way some adopt towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. For one thing, the Temple Mount is indisputably the holiest place in Judaism, the centrepiece of the entire religion. It’s an important place for Muslims too, of course, but it’s their third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina.
You’d think this might give Jews a narrow first claim on the place, especially since they were there first. Instead, they must pray at the last surviving wall of the destroyed Second Temple while Muslims enjoy exclusive rights to the Mount itself. Non-Muslims can visit, but only at certain times and through the one entrance, and they absolutely can’t pray under any circumstances; if one of the officers of the Islamic waqf that manages the place sees your lips move in prayer, you’ll be unceremoniously asked to leave.
Or even if they don’t, in fact. My party had agreed to reconvene on one side of the Dome at 10:15am; at about 10:08, as I was wandering around near the meeting place, one of the officials – one part cop to two parts bouncer – shouted “Hello?” in my direction. It is my lifelong habit to assume nobody’s ever talking to me, so it took me a minute to realise he was. He indicated in limited but functional English, along with appropriate gestures, that I and other evident non-Muslims in the vicinity had to leave. It’s as if they knew I needed something to write about.
After a brief moment’s panic, I found the rest of our group and we asked our leader why this was happening, since it hadn’t been announced in advance. He had no idea. Nobody did. They just decided it was Muslim-only hour and that was that.
A bit odd, you might think, but it is their prerogative. But why is it? Israel has sovereignty over the land, conquered it in a defensive war and the Jewish connection to the site predates the Islamic one by many centuries. The simple truth is, even the merest hint of a challenge to the Islamic hegemony on the Mount is met with extreme outrage and, usually, violence. Israel, wanting a quiet life as much as is possible under the circumstances, therefore complies.
Overall, it’s hard to come away without the feeling that only one side here is mainly made up of grown-ups.