Today is another anniversary. So was yesterday. Both anniversaries are highly relevant to the situation today in the Middle East.
Yesterday was the fast of Tisha be’Av – the 9th of Av. In the Jewish calendar, that day commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples – the first, in the 6th century B.C.E. by the Babylonians, the second, in the year 70 C.E. by the Romans. The destruction of the Second Temple marked the start of the almost 2000 year exile of the Jewish People. There are some who say that now, with the re-establishment of the Jewish State, there is no longer any need for the Fast of Tisha be’Av. They are wrong. True, we now have our own state in the land of our fathers. But the site of our ancient Temple is more or less off limits. Could there have been a Jewish heart that did not beat faster, on that day in June 1967, at hearing the news: "The Temple Mount is in our hands?" And yet, what did the Israeli government do? They gave the keys to our holiest of holy places back to the Waqf!
Even now, 39 years after the Israel Defence Forces liberated the Old City of Jerusalem, any vaguely religious-looking Jew (i.e. one wearing a kippa, or openly sporting tzitzit, or carrying a prayer-book or, indeed, any religious artefact) is only allowed to enter the Temple Mount precinct after receiving a list of instructions from the policemen guarding the entrance to the Mount, not to pray out loud, not to bow or take out a prayer-book – in short, not to do anything that might upset the Muslims. Because the Muslims don’t recognise any Jewish rights on what they call the Haram e-Sharif. In fact, they go so far as to deny that there was ever a Jewish Temple there – so much so that the Waqf has been diligently occupied in erasing any and every piece of archaeological evidence pointing to a Jewish presence on the Mount.
I travel by taxi a lot – as often as not, with Arab taxi drivers – and since I have always believed that if you want to know what "the People" are thinking, talk to the taxi drivers, that’s exactly what I do.
"Why shouldn’t Jews pray on the Temple Mount?" I ask them. "I’m not talking about knocking down the mosques and rebuilding the Temple. I’m talking about simply standing there and praying out loud. Or not out loud, as the case may be. Just taking out a prayer-book and praying silently."
"Impossible," they tell me. "Jews are impure, unclean. You can pray at the Western Wall – not in our mosques."
"But I don’t want to pray in your mosques," I persist. "There’s plenty of room on the Temple Mount for all of us."
Room there is aplenty. The Temple Mount can – and, on Muslim holidays, does – accommodate 100,000 worshippers and more. Is it so outrageous to dream of a Jewish Temple alongside the mosques? Could there be a greater expression of unity? Do we not pray to the same God, the God of Abraham? And does the ancient Biblical prophecy not say: "My House shall be a House of Prayer for all Peoples"?
"No, no. It’s forbidden. And anyway, how do you know your Temple was there? You never had a Temple there."
"How do you know that? Who says so?" I ask.
"Our scholars, our religious leaders," they reply.
True, we too have our religious fanatics. They point out that in ancient times, the Temple was divided into courtyards, the innermost courtyards for the priests and Levites, then a courtyard for the Israelite men, the outer courtyard for the women (no comment ) and finally, an area on the outermost rim beyond which, no Gentile was permitted to go, on pain of death. The archaeologists have even found a stone plaque bearing a Greek inscription – Greek being the lingua franca of the ancient world – warning the Gentiles of the penalty for passing beyond this point. But in ancient times, you either worshipped the God of Israel or you were an idolator. It is no longer so simple. Muslims are not idolators – and Judaism, even orthodox Judaism, has learned to adapt itself to the times. So has Christianity. Could not Islam also – I will not say change, because all religions claim they are God-given and therefore immutable – but could not Islam evolve to meet the challenges of the modern world? Perhaps – and it’s a very big perhaps.
I said that today is also an anniversary. A year ago today, the day after Tisha be’Av, was the start of the so-called "Disengagement" (i.e. Unilateral Withdrawal) from the Gaza Strip. It could and should have been an opportunity for the Palestinian Authority to start re-building its institutions,even to start physically building – homes, schools, hospitals, industries. Israeli opponents of the withdrawal warned that it would only allow the Palestinian warlords (sorry, the commanders of the various "security services" and "resistance movements") to regroup and re-arm and to fire their Kassam rockets from an even closer range, not just at Sderot, but also at previously "safe" cities, such as Ashkelon.
As we see – they were right.
I would like to end on a more positive note. It seems that this war has brought out the best in my fellow Israelis. And – despite the popular perception here that the whole world is against us – not just Israelis. I saw on TV that a group of New York firefighters – most, but by no means all of them, Jews and many of them 9/11 veterans – have come to Israel to replace the Jerusalem firefighters called to the North to deal with the many fires caused by the Hezbollah rockets. I read in the paper the personal stories of the many refugee families, bombed out of their homes in the North, who have been welcomed into the homes of volunteer families in the centre of Israel (only they don’t call them "refugees", they call them "guests") and of the hundreds of families who offered the hospitality of their homes to total strangers, because despite the social and political differences which sometimes seem about to tear this country apart, despite the widening gap between rich and poor, religious and secular, left and right – in times of crisis, we all pull together.
I also read in today’s paper how Russian-Jewish multimillionaire Arkady Gaidamek has set up a tent city on the beach at Nitzanim for 6000 refugees from the north of Israel, at a cost of $500,000 a day (that’s right – half a million dollars a day). He has provided generators, food, and even psychological counselling services for the refugees. (Yes, I said "refugees" – the Lebanese don’t have a monopoly on suffering.)
Now Gaidamek is a controversial figure here, rumoured to be mixed up in all kinds of shady business. Unkind souls have even hinted that he must have some ulterior motive for his apparent philanthropy – even if it’s only to purchase respectability. I say, give the man some credit. Is it so impossible that he should be doing this simply because he has a warm Jewish heart? I would like to hope that there is some Saudi billionaire, some fabulously wealthy oil sheikh from the Gulf States doing the same thing for the people of Lebanon. But evidently, there is not. That must be why the British newspaper The Independent has found it necessary to launch its "Save the Children" appeal solely for Lebanese children, with no mention of the Israeli children bombed out of their homes in Haifa, Acre, Kiryat Shemona, Afula, Ma’alot, Nahariya, Tiberias and other places, traumatized, and uncertain what tomorrow will bring.
On that note, I will leave you.
Shabbat Shalom and Lehitra’ot