Whose Holy Sites?


On Friday, May 29 a group of 25 Israelis, Palestinians and some international volunteers joined us as part of the ongoingYoung Adults’ Curriculum Teaching. This time, we invited Israeli professor Hillel Cohen to share about the history of Jewish and Muslim relations and the Temple Mount.

The group filtered in slowly, and we started with a few group games and discussions regarding holy sites and their significance to us. One participant raised the question, “Do we belong to the holy sites or do the holy sites belong to us?” After some discussion, he concluded that “Ideally, we belong to the holy places,” while “In reality, one side can claim a space which causes others to issue a counter-claim of ownership.”

It was interesting to hear the mixed reactions from those with us. Many of the Palestinians emphasized their strong spiritual and historical connection with holy sites, while a minority stated we might feel close to God in these places, but as believers, we should feel close to God anywhere. The Israelis had similarly mixed opinions, some stressing their spiritual and historical connection with holy places, others downplaying the spiritual aspect while emphasizing the historical and cultural significance of place. The internationals among us offered their unique perspective, sharing they did not necessarily feel they had holy sites they were historically connected to in their home countries, but they saw significance in the ancient sites in the Holy Land. [domerock]

By the time the lecture started, the chairs were full and we had to add more chairs to the room to accommodate all those who came. Many new people joined in, interested in the topic at hand. Hillel Cohen began his lecture by discussing the sanctity of the Temple Mount in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He covered the troubled relationship between the Jewish population of the Holy Land and the Romans, and the theological differences that arose when the Romans became Christian in the fourth century. Under Christian rule, Jews were not allowed to visit the Temple Mount. When Islam came, Jews believed that this was a sign from God as they were allowed to return to Jerusalem under the second caliph Omar’s rule. At this point in history, Judaism and Islam were closest as Christianity was perceived as their mutual enemy. Islam’s main wars were with the Byzantine Empire and then the Crusaders. The Jews did not have military power at this time, but when the Crusaders came, they slaughtered all the Jews along with the Muslims.

 For the first five centuries of Islam, Jews and Muslims had relatively good relations. This changed when the Mamluks replaced the Ayyubids in the mid-13th century. Under Baybars’ Mamluk rule, Jews were forbidden to enter the Temple Mount or Abraham’s Tomb in Hebron. For 700 years, from 1267-1967, Jews were forbidden to enter the Temple Mount, with a few minor exceptions. Neither were Christians allowed to enter this site.

“We are encouraged to see how learning and discussing these sensitive and important subjects aid in building relationships with each other.”

 With the rise of Zionism, the idea of Jewish presence in Jerusalem turned into a dream that could come true during the Jewish immigrations to Palestine. Cohen discussed some of the clashes that resulted between Jews and Muslims over holy sites, the Temple Mount in particular. In the 1967 War, when Israel conquered East Jerusalem, Jews were once again allowed to enter the Temple Mount plaza. While Zionist and Israeli leaders largely rejected discussions to rebuild a Temple, fringe movements advocating for Jewish prayer and building on the Temple Mount are gaining support. Palestinian Muslims regularly call it the area of the “imagined Temple,” contesting that the Jews are lying in an attempt to take Muslim holy places. They argue that Herod’s temple was there, but there is no evidence Solomon’s temple was in this location. Most people believe that the next intifada will start because of disputes over the Temple Mount.

Many participants enjoyed the informative presentation as it provided a contemporary and historical context for this political controversy. One Israeli said, “I learned many new things, especially about the Islamic perspective of the Temple Mount!” A Palestinian participant said, “I knew almost nothing about the Temple Mount so I learned many things.” He continued, commenting that he “enjoyed sitting and talking with Israelis; this is the first time I talk with them because I want to know what they think and what they believe.” One Israeli-Palestinian commented that it was “interesting to listen to our foreign friends’ points of view,” particularly intrigued by outside perceptions of the conflict. Reflecting on this past meeting and the series we have had for the past few months, the Young Adults Coordinator shared, “We are encouraged to see how learning and discussing these sensitive and important subjects aid in building relationships with each other.”