It’s become common among some Tel Aviv residents to go off on a retreat of a few days at one of the monasteries in Ein Kerem or elsewhere in Jerusalem, for solitude or to write. And so, not long ago, I found myself standing on a balcony at the Sisters of Zion Convent, on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City, gazing out into the Muslim Quarter. I was surprised to discover how close I was to the Temple Mount: The plaza with the shrines lay practically right below me, with only the modest building of the Umariya elementary school partially blocking the view.
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I was transfixed by the sight of the big, bright plaza and the spectacular Dome of the Rock that rises from its center with perfect symmetry. I almost couldn’t believe that it was really there, the Temple Mount – not just a pair of words uttered by some conscientious news reporter, but a wholly tangible physical space radiating heavenly harmony. In those moments, I could understand those UFO adherents who maintain that the Mount was designed as a landing pad for flying saucers.
Lots of people seek out spiritual experiences, but no spiritual experience is more accessible than the sight of the Dome of the Rock. I was reminded of the words of Hungarian-Jewish scholar Ignaz Goldziher, after he visited a mosque in Cairo: “In the midst of the thousands of the pious, I rubbed my forehead against the floor of the mosque. Never in my life was I more devout, more truly devout, than on that exalted Friday.” The entire surrounding area, from horizon to horizon, seemed to revolve around this dome. Everything else paled in comparison.
And then I went back to Tel Aviv. As one returns to the coastal plain, the Temple Mount is gradually forgotten. First it disappears from your field of vision, and then from your consciousness. All that is so clear when you are standing and looking out at the dome again becomes vague and distant. Things take on a different, mundane meaning. They resume their ordinary place and colors, as if you were coming off of a high.
Once more it feels like life in this country revolves around materialistic things – consumerism, real estate, career advancement. Once more it feels like everything here has a price. But that isn’t so. The Temple Mount is 35 acres that has no price. Unlike the Vatican, for instance, which has effectively become a tourist site, saturated with merchandise and people taking selfies, the Mount repels capitalism, like a force field that repels bullets in a sci-fi movie.
It’s sometimes said that the streets in Tel Aviv turn their backs on the sea. But to an even greater extent, they turn their backs on the Temple Mount. To the mind of the secular Israeli, it would be better if it just didn’t exist. All these holy places are a nuisance that we have to tolerate. Only the Herut movement ascribed real meaning to the site’s existence, but that meaning was distorted. It recognized the Mount’s existence only by virtue of what doesn’t exist there. It clung to the fantasy of an imagined Third Temple, while the shrines already exist, there, now.
For the secular left, the words “Temple Mount” or “Al-Aqsa” are little more than an irritation – something that makes its way periodically into the headlines, and messes up a vacation, or a planned concert, or the latest business cycle. But when the irritation spills over into an intifada, the whole thing can seem senseless, chaotic and devoid of logic. Some kind of irrational fury that was awakened from its slumber, like an anthill accidentally bumped into. The only question up for discussion is technical: how to maintain order, how to prevent a burst of violence, how to contain the heated emotions. The talk is not about justice, but about “sensitivity.” But as marriage counselors usually explain, constantly swallowing anger is itself a form of aggression.
Even those who don’t advocate the “managing the conflict” approach generally adopt the “managing the Temple Mount” approach, at least temporarily. The left prefers to view the conflict as a territorial issue, because its political instruments, which it largely imports from other places in the world, can only deal with the territorial aspect of the conflict. Every so often, it warns of the potential of a “religious war” erupting – as if the conflict to date hasn’t long involved religion.
“Why won’t you declare war in the name of God?” asked Omar al-Abed rhetorically of his fellow armed Palestinians, in a post. Abed, who committed the massacre at the Halamish settlement last Friday, stated that he was heading off to die for Al-Aqsa. Gideon Levy tells us that the killer’s text is “accompanied by religious terms, because the writer believes in God.” Religion, he says, is being “harnessed in service of the nation” here – as if nationalist motives are the only ones that have any legitimacy, and religion is totally secondary. This is an odd reading, considering that it explicitly contradicts the writer’s words. But this kind of misreading is typical.
We attempt to superimpose our terminology on the Palestinians who worship at Temple Mount (I heard one leftist argue that the Mount is a “safe space” and the metal detectors installed there are “triggers”). We want to identify the algorithm behind the outbreaks of violence that we’re experiencing, but the formula that’s at the base of it is inaccessible to us. Nowhere else is the secular left so tragically isolated – not just from the millions of religious-nationalist Jews who wish to return to the Temple Mount, but even more so from the millions of Palestinians who swear fealty to Al-Aqsa. This is also what makes the situation so frustrating: Not the violence itself, but our inability to make any sense of it. A nationalist struggle is something we can still identify with, but a struggle over a holy place – not so much. From the secular standpoint, defending the Mount is a mission we have a hard time empathizing with.
The Temple Mount has no place in our dreams and aspirations. I know people who can talk for hours about Radiohead, but who have nothing to say about that site, let alone dream or pray about it.
There is no simple solution to this problem. There is no way to fake interest in the Temple Mount. But it can still be useful to remember that griping about “religious madness” won’t help anything. In general, the world is getting madder. And we secular leftists are in a lousy position. We live in the lobby of the Temple Mount, and in the long term, that’s the main significance of this piece of land. All around us, emotions are surging, but we’re totally indifferent to them. We’re like a eunuch who stumbles into an orgy, and can do nothing there other than whimper.