How and Why a New Jewish Temple in Jerusalem can become a Symbol of Peace
Christians have their most important sanctuary in Jerusalem; Muslims have one of their most important sanctuaries in Jerusalem; only Jews are still missing their great sanctuary in Jerusalem, and instead bemoan the fact at the Wailing Wall.
And there seems to be little chance that they will ever get it. Christians just want to keep up the status quo, and Muslims, who own the Temple mount, don’t give Jews any hope. In my eyes, this is one of the major motives behind the Israeli settlement policy. The symbol of wholeness is missing.
The following anecdotes could help us to understand the correlation.
A while ago I talked to two highly educated young Turks about the conquest of Palestine by the Caliph Umar. They shocked me with a statement which I would never have expected from Muslims.
They, of course, knew of the Prophet’s famous “Night Journey … to the farthest Mosque” [Qur’an, Sura 17,1] and the narratives that go with it, telling how the Prophet was taken by the Archangel Gabriel from the Kaaba in Mecca to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and from there to heaven in order to meet with all the Prophets who had gone before him.
Then I spoke of how Caliph Umar entered Jerusalem, his visit to the Holy Sepulcher, and his request to the Christian Patriarch, Sophronius, to show him the Temple Mount. This request was quite embarrassing for the Patriarch, because the place had been left in ruins by the Christians, and even worse, it had been turned into a garbage dump.
But, disregarding the garbage, the Patriarch took the Caliph up the mount, and he also showed him the site of the Holy of Holies of the former Temple. Sophronius knew the location because once a year Jews walked up the mount in order to anoint a certain rock.
The Caliph asked to be shown every detail. He took possession of the mount. He had his people clean it. Close to the location of the anointed rock, the Dome of the Rock was built and at the south-end of the mount the “Al Aqsa mosque” – “the farthest mosque” of Sura 17,1.
When I spoke of how the Caliph took possession of the mount my listeners grew nervous. I didn’t understand why. They said the Caliph shouldn’t have done that. What should he not have done? I asked. I had no idea what they were getting at. “He shouldn’t have taken possession of the mount,” they said. In my perception as a historian, the Caliph had done nothing wrong. Every conqueror would have acted that way. I asked what the Caliph should have done instead, and I was shocked by their reply: “He should have handed the Temple Mount over to the Jews.”
I was speechless. But from my theological understanding of Islam I knew that the answer of my young listeners was inspired by the Qur’an, because Muslims are required to respect the “people of the book”, Christians and Jews. My young listeners had just heeded that decree. Their natural sense of justice had told them that in the heat of conquest the respect due to the Jews had been forgotten. – And their naïve sense of justice mirrors the exact feelings of religious Jews when they think of the Temple Mount.
Historically it is very important to know that only 24 years (!) earlier Persian Jews had been able to persuade the Persian king to attack the Byzantines and to conquer Palestine – with the hidden agenda of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.
The campaign was successful. In the year 614 Palestine became Persian. But the reconstruction of the new Temple came to naught as in 617 an anti-Jewish party gained control and Persian policy shifted radically to being pro-Christian and anti-Jewish. – Then, as early as 629 the Byzantines recaptured Palestine.
Still, the Byzantines were severely weakened by these two wars. And in 638 they had not regained enough strength to resist the military campaign of Caliph Umar. Thus the Caliph was able to take the whole of Syria almost without a battle.
From a historical perspective he owed his practically effortless victory to the Jews.
I hope these details will help readers to understand the deep longing behind the idea of a New Temple, and the sustained intention to build it, and why “a New Temple for the Jews” can become the quintessential symbol of peace today.