In the face of escalating, deadly attacks against Israelis by Palestinian assailants, the New York Times has endeavored to explain to its readers, and perhaps to itself, the main trigger point behind the violence – alleged Israeli threats to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, where the ancient Jewish temples once stood, and the third holiest site in Islam, where now stand the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place, aims to describe the history of the Temple Mount, and the competing claims that surround the site. Unfortunately, at least one of the “experts” quoted by the Times is an outspoken supporter of the anti-Israel movement known as BDS (for boycott, divest and sanction).
Palestinian Charges Lead to Violence
While despite this the Times story gets some of the history right, it also gets much more wrong and suffers from vast omissions, including not telling its readers of many repeated inflammatory charges from Palestinian leaders. Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, for example, has been actively inciting violence with false claims about Israeli threats against the mosques. Instead of covering this incitement to deadly violence, the Times blames Israelis for the increased tensions, telling its readers that:
… pressure by nationalist religious Jews for access, including some calls for building a new temple, has aggravated Palestinian fears that the Israelis will change the current arrangement, an assertion the Israeli government denies.
Aggravated Palestinian fears? Readers who count on the Times for their information would have no idea that in September on PA TV Abbas said:
We bless you, we bless the Murabitin (those carrying out Ribat, religious conflict/war to protect land claimed to be Islamic), we bless every drop of blood that has been spilled for Jerusalem, which is clean and pure blood, blood spilled for Allah, Allah willing. Every Martyr (Shahid) will reach Paradise, and everyone wounded will be rewarded by Allah. The Al-Aqsa [Mosque] is ours, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is ours, and they (the Jews) have no right to defile them with their filthy feet. We will not allow them to, and we will do everything in our power to protect Jerusalem.
(Mahmoud Abbas, PA TV, September 16, 2015, as recorded by Palestinian Media Watch; emphasis added)
The theme of alleged Israeli insults to the mosques and threats to their existence is one Abbas has repeated over and over again in recent days, including even in his speech to the UN, leading directly to the deadly assaults against Israelis, as even some of the Palestinian attackers have confirmed. For example, just before he stabbed two Israelis to death in Jerusalem on October 3rd, Muhannad Halabi posted on his Facebook page these chilling words:
According to what I see, the Third Intifada has erupted. What is happening to al-Aqsa [mosque] is what is happening to our holy sites, and what is happening to the women of al-Aqsa is what is happening to our mothers and women. I don’t believe that our people will succumb to humiliation. The people will indeed rise up.
This direct line between Abbas’s inflammatory statements and the blood now being shed by Palestinian attackers is obscured by the Times. And beyond mangling this recent history, the Times also mangles more distant history.
Were the Jewish Temples on the Temple Mount?
As implied by the headline, the article calls into question the actual existence of the ancient Jewish temples on the Temple Mount (note: in a correction to the original story, the Times walked back its skepticism regarding the existence of the Temples). Thus the Times quotes an academic Temple skeptic:
“The sources for the first temple are solely biblical, and no substantial archaeological remains have been verified,” said Wendy Pullan, senior lecturer in the history and philosophy of architecture at the University of Cambridge, in the book “The Struggle for Jerusalem’s Holy Places.”
The Times is either unaware or keeps from readers that Pullan is not some disinterested scholar. She is an anti-Israel activist who has signed her name to petitions supporting boycotts of Israel based on its supposed “breaches of international law.”
Beyond Pullan’s utter unreliability as a commentator on Israel, there is no doubt the ancient Jews knew very well the location of the First Temple, and chose that spot for the building of the Second Temple. So archaeological evidence for the Second Temple, which does exist, is also evidence for the First Temple.
A further key omission by the Times is that going back to at least the 1920’s the Muslim authorities that administer the Temple Mount accepted that it was the site of the Jewish Temples. The Waqf published a booklet in 1926 entitled A Brief Guide to the Al-Haram Al-Sharif (translated as the Noble Sanctuary, the Muslim name for the Temple Mount), which included these lines:
The site is one of the oldest in the world. Its sanctity dates from the earliest (perhaps from pre-historic) times. Its identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute. (emphasis added)
Furthermore, it is no coincidence that roughly 1300 years ago the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock were constructed on the Temple Mount. They were built there precisely because this was the site of the Jewish Temples. In Jerusalem, and throughout the lands conquered by Islam, victorious Muslim armies regularly built mosques over the holy sites of their defeated foes. This is no less true on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, than, for example, in the Indian city of Ayodhya, where mosques were built atop destroyed Hindu shrines. The Economist (12/12/1992) described this history in covering the destruction of one such mosque by Hindu extremists:
… for many Hindus it is welcome revenge on the Muslim invaders who in their time demolished
so many Hindu temples. The Babri Mosque, erected on the supposed birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, is but one of the ancient mosques built by the Moghuls on the sites of demolished Hindu temples.
The Times also further mangles the question of archaeological evidence regarding the Temples, deceptively reporting that:
… the Waqf has never permitted invasive archaeological work that could possibly yield proof of either temple.
While it’s true that the Waqf has not permitted archaeological work, it has illegally undertaken heavy construction on the Mount with bulldozers, turning the subterranean Solomon’s Stables into the new Marwani Mosque. This construction in 1999 violated both antiquity laws meant to preserve the archaeological integrity of the site, and the status quo that Palestinians repeatedly and falsely charge Israel with violating.
In the course of this work the Palestinians dumped 6000 tons of excavated fill from the Temple Mount into the nearby Kidron Valley. That fill has been pored over by archaeologists, led by Professor Gabriel Barkai.
a First Temple period bulla, or seal impression, containing ancient Hebrew writing, which may have belonged to a well-known family of priests mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah…[and for the Second Temple] remains of buildings: plaster shards decorated a rust-red, which Barkai says was fashionable at the time; a stone measuring 10 centimeters and on it a sophisticated carving reminiscent of Herodian decorations; and a broken stone from a decorated part of the Temple Mount – still bearing signs of fire, which Barkai says are from the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E.
Why would the Times not report this, both as evidence that contrary to Palestinian claims they are the ones violating the status quo, and as archaeological evidence for the existence of the Jewish Temples on the Temple Mount?
After the Six Day War
The Times also gets the history around 1967 wrong, claiming:
In recent decades, after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the site has been administered by a special Islamic religious authority called the Waqf, under Jordanian custodianship.
Waqf administration of the Temple Mount goes back centuries, long predating the 1967 war. The remarkable thing that happened in 1967 is that in a gesture towards peace and reconciliation Israel allowed the Muslim authorities to continue to administer the Temple Mount, despite the fact that it is the holiest place in Judaism.
Israel never gets credit for this generous and hopeful act, intended to soothe Muslim sensibilities and perhaps encourage the Arabs to make peace. The Israelis did this despite the fact that during the Jordanian occupation of East Jerusalem Jews were barred from visiting their holy places including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, a clear violation of paragraph 8 of the 1949 Armistice Agreement. And under Jordanian rule all but one of the Old City’s 58 Jewish houses of worship were destroyed, including the historic Hurva Synagogue.
Headstones from the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives were widely used by Jordanians as paving and building stones — in walls and homes, in army fortifications at Ras el-Azour and on Mount Zion, and even to line a pathway to a Jordanian army latrine.
Even after 1967, and before the excavation at Solomon’s Stables, the Muslim authorities were already destroying some of the remains of the Jewish Temples on the Temple Mount. According to Biblical Archaeological Review (Sept./Oct. 1991) the ancient remains, which predate Islam by thousands of years, included a “Herodian wall 16 feet long and 6 feet wide … [which was partially] dismantled and the rest covered up” by the Muslim authorities. Other evidence of the Jews’ presence on the Temple Mount was “covered up by dirt and plantings” or had been “covered by paving.”
That is, contrary to the Times, if anyone should be angry about what is happening to the Temple Mount, it is the Jews. And anyone who counts on the Times for news would have no idea of this documented reality.
Would the Times Question the Muslim Narrative?
Finally, it should be noted that Muslim attachment to the Temple Mount site is due to the presence there of the al-Aqsa – or “furthest” – Mosque, reputed to be the site of Prophet Mohammed’s night journey to heaven. However, as many scholars have pointed out, the first version of the al-Aqsa Mosque was built by the Caliph Omar after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 637, well after Mohammed’s death in 632. Thus the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is unlikely to be associated with Mohammed’s night journey. Furthermore, nowhere is Jerusalem even mentioned in the Quran.
Correction: October 9, 2015An earlier version of this article misstated the question that many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered concerning the two ancient Jewish temples. The question is where precisely on the 37-acre Temple Mount site the temples had once stood, not whether the temples had ever existed there.
The question of the existence and location of two successive temples on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is not nearly as contested as the article suggests.
An article on Thursday, with the headline “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place,” examined the scholarly debate about two ancient Jewish temples on the Temple Mount, a site sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. While the article laid out the history of the Jewish temples and the archaeological and historical evidence about them, the headline and a passage in the initial version of the article implied incorrectly that questions among scholars about the location of the temples potentially affected Jewish claims to the site and Israel’s broader assertion of sovereignty over Jerusalem. In fact, as the article was later corrected to clarify, the scholarly debate is a narrower one, focused on the precise location on the Temple Mount where the long destroyed temples once stood. All versions of the article should have made clear that the archaeological and historical uncertainties about the site — unlike assertions by some Palestinians that the temples never existed — do not directly challenge Jewish claims to the Temple Mount.