Save The Temple Mount’s Antiquities
The Jewish Week
By Morton Klein and Daniel Mandel
Largely unnoticed and unreported, destruction and irreversible damage to priceless Jewish antiquities beneath Judaism’s holiest site, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, has been proceeding unhindered for some time now. How can this be? Because the Temple Mount and the two mosques built on it have remained under the control of the Waqf, the Muslim religious authorities, since Israel reunited the two halves of the city in the 1967 Six-Day War.
The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism, to which Jews turn in prayer, but is of far lesser significance to Muslims than Mecca and Medina, which Muslims face while praying. Mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible but not in the Koran, Jerusalem held little interest for Arabs during the years of Jordanian occupation (1948-’67).
Other than Jordanian King Hussein, no Arab leader visited the city in these years. Today, however, the Arab world speaks of liberating the city from Jews; Jerusalem Day parades attract throngs in Muslim capitals, including faraway Tehran; and the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Waqf explicitly deny history and Jewish religious attachment to the city and even the past existence of the biblical temples.
Three examples: Yasir Arafat stated: “That is not the Western Wall at all, but a Muslim shrine.” Former PA minister of religious affairs, Hassan Tahboub, asserted: “The Western Wall is Muslim property. It is part of the al-Aqsa Mosque. Once we control it, Jews must remain six feet away from our holy wall.” And the PA Ministry of Information maintains: “Thirty years of Israeli excavation has revealed Islamic holy places, Roman ruins, Armenian ruins, but no tangible evidence of anything Jewish was revealed in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Jews have implanted a biblical myth in the mind of the world.”
It is in this context that recent events must be understood. In July, the Waqf commenced digging a trench five feet deep and some 150 yards long for the laying of electrical cables and water pipes, using a mechanical digger, cutting through the subsoil and piling it up beside the trench. New photographs of the work zone show carved stones casually dumped in a pile that appear to be a section of the outer wall of the Second Temple, according to archaeologist Eilat Mazar.
Mazar, a member of the faculty at Hebrew University and of the Public Committee for Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, explains that the current ground level of the Temple Mount is slightly above the original Temple Mount platform, “meaning anything found is likely from the Temple itself.” Mazar attempted to inspect the site some weeks ago, but was stopped by Israeli police who are protecting the construction.
Gabriel Barkai of the Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount calls the current digging an act of barbarism. “They are digging in the most crucial and delicate point of the Temple Mount — of the whole country. They should be using a toothbrush, not a bulldozer.” Barkai identifies the area currently under excavation as the outer courts of the Second Temple, built by Herod the Great in the first century BCE. He maintains it is where the best preservation of antiquities was anticipated, since other parts of the compound are built on exposed bedrock.
Yet the Israel Antiquities Authority approved the construction despite the archaeologists’ concern that precious artifacts are being destroyed. The Authority, which digs for religious artifacts across Israel, has not inspected construction even once since the work began, despite continuous calls for the construction to be supervised and halted. Israeli Police spokesman, Mickey Rosenfeld, asserts that the police stationed on the Temple Mount will not prevent the construction because the Antiquities Authority approved the dig. Meanwhile, the Waqf denies any wrongdoing and says that the Temple Mount is in “occupied territory.”
This is but the latest episode in archeological vandalism beneath Temple Mount committed by the Waqf. Already in 1970, the Waqf undertook excavation that exposed a 16-foot-long, six-foot-thick wall scholars believed might well be the eastern wall of the Herodian Temple complex. The wall was dismantled, destroyed and covered up. The Waqf’s activities led Israel’s Supreme Court to declare in 1993 that the Waqf had violated Israel’s antiquities laws on 35 occasions, many involving irreversible destruction of important archaeological remains. The court expressed confidence that in the future Israeli authorities would correct past errors, but this has proved unfounded.
In 1999, the Waqf dug an enormous stairway down to an underground mosque, which involved the removal of hundreds of truckloads of archaeologically rich dirt that was dumped into the adjacent Kidron Valley. When archaeology student Zachi Zweig began to explore the mounds of dirt for antiquities, he was arrested at the behest of the Israel Antiquities Authority — for excavating without a permit. Subsequent sifting has yielded precious artifacts from biblical times.
Such a disastrous history of failed protection obliges the Israeli government to act immediately to preserve what remains of the holiest site in the world to Judaism and of world significance to civilization. No digging with heavy machinery should ever be taking place at such a site, which surely demands, at a minimum, the usual safeguards, care and archeological supervision that would be applied in excavating any other site of even minor archeological significance.
Morton A. Klein is national president of the ZOA and editor of The Dangers of a Palestinian State (2002). Daniel Mandel is director of the ZOA Center for Middle East Policy and author of H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (2004).
The Zionist Organization of America, founded in 1897, is the oldest pro-Israel organization in the United States. The ZOA works to strengthen U.S.-Israel relations, educates the American public and Congress about the dangers that Israel faces, and combats anti-Israel bias in the media and on college campuses. Its past presidents have included Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Dr. Abba Hillel Silver.