There is a fascinating story evolving in Jerusalem that most westerners barely understand. This development is crucial to peace in the region and it represents essentially what misfires constantly in the troubled land of Israel/Palestine. And it centers on the most contested little piece of real estate in the entire world.
First, some backfill. At the heart of Jerusalem is the "Old City." Some of its ancient walls go back to Biblical times. At the heart of the Old City is Judaism's most sacred territory: the Temple Mount where two previous Jewish temples once stood millennia ago. After Jerusalem was defeated in a war with Rome in AD 70, this temple area was burned and abandoned for almost 600 years. Muslims conquered the city in AD 637 and soon the abandoned temple area was converted into Islam's third holiest site. The hilltop was soon graced by the world-famous Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque which still stand today. The Muslims have never called it the Temple Mount. For them, it is the Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary).
And so things remained for 1300 years. Jews came to the wall on the west side of the old temple site to pray but they never came to the upper Muslim areas. But everything changed in 1967 when Israel conquered the Old City of Jerusalem. Immediately Jews understandably wanted to pray in large numbers near their old temple site. The Arab neighborhood near the western perimeter wall was razed and a plaza for Jews was built where thousands of Jewish men and women could pray separately undisturbed.
So far so good. Separate spaces - peaceful coexistence. This is the status quo. The Muslims prayed above on the hill - the Haram - at their two magnificent shrines (The Dome is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The Jews prayed below at the "Western Wall Plaza." And while this is going on a million tourists weave among them fascinated at the passion each side exhibits for their holy space.
But this year something that has been simmering became public. Fundamentalist Jews (led perhaps by the American-born Yehuda Glick) have formed a coalition to demand the Jewish right to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram. Glick has led walking tours for Jews on the Mount and tried to lead public prayer there. This is both a violation of a 1967 Israeli law and an offense to a rabbinic rule that feared transgressing the Temple's sacred space. His efforts have been so provocative that a Muslim activist tried to kill him this year. Even moderate Jews worry about these provocations. In 2000 Ariel Sharon entered the Temple Mount/Haram with a Likud delegation and a heavy military guard to assert the Jewish access to the space. Many think that this one provocation ignited the Second Intifada.
But the fundamentalist plan is larger than small prayer groups alongside the Muslims. Glick and others want to build Jewish structures on the Haram. And for some - I've heard it spoken myself in the offices of the Temple Mount Faithful - the plan may lead to the destruction or replacement of these sacred Muslim shrines. Secular Israeli leaders know such an act is insanity. One group has even produced a video showing what the new Temple Mount with a new Jewish Temple (called "The Third Temple") might look like. Images like this are nothing short of an incitement to violence for millions of Muslims around the world. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned that these provocations (changing the status quo) would lead to a "religious war." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused him of inciting such a war by saying this.
Two things to keep in mind.
First, it is interesting that that Israeli religious fundamentalists want to claim the right to pray anywhere - including the Temple Mount/Haram. I applaud egalitarian ideals. But will they extend this right to the Muslims as well? Will Muslims be free to pray (kneeling toward Mecca) anywhere in Jerusalem too? Including the Jewish area most sacred area at the Western Wall? Unlikely. It is the same on the West Bank. Israeli settlers cry out to "live anywhere" without racial discrimination but are unwilling to extend the same right to Palestinians living under strict Israeli military occupation.
Second, this skirmish is symbolic of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian land losses in E. Jerusalem and the West Bank have been enormous since 1967. And now - based on a religious zeal that has become a virtual mythology - Israeli religious fundamentalists demand access to the most sacred space in the Palestinian Muslim imagination. This is land that Muslims in the Arab world might happily die to defend. The Israeli government seems singularly incapable of putting restraints on these extremists just as it can't seem to stop those who build and expand illegal settlements in the West Bank.
But there is one more thing that's even more important.
American Christian Zionists have not been helpful. For them, the building of the "Third Temple" is a part of an imagined prophesy fantasy that has taken churches by storm. They speak loudly about the need to build this temple, the prophesied war that will erupt, and the conclusion of history with the Second Coming of Jesus. And they send millions of dollars to Zionist organizations to help advance this fantasy and the resulting conflagration to come true. Lord have mercy.
The balance of peace is delicate in this part of the world. If extremist provocateurs like Yehuda Glick cannot be stopped, we can expect war to reignite year after year. But in addition if Christian Zionists (their preachers, academics, and writers) do not stop supporting and encouraging these provocations, they will be complicit in what may erupt.
Jesus once ended a sermon in Jerusalem with these sobering words as he looked over the city, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace--but now it is hidden from your eyes.."
Gary M. Burge, Ph.D., is a professor of theology at Wheaton College in Chicago, IL. He writes extensively on the Middle East and has traveled frequently to countries from Iraq to Libya. He is also the author of numerous books and articles on theology as well. His recent publications on Israel/Palestine include Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to Holy Land Theology (2010) and Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians (2013). www.garyburge.org.