the real source of tension in Jerusalem’s Old City is not Israel’s presence there since the June 1967 war but, rather, the longer-standing rejection of Jewish national legitimacy. One sees this clearly in the most seemingly refractory conflict of all: the one over the Temple Mount.
Conventional wisdom has it that any attempt to change the status quo on the Mount—where, ever since 1967, Israel has allowed the Islamic Waqf to retain its authority over the Muslim buildings as well as access to the plaza itself—will enrage the entire Muslim world and ignite a conflagration. But why? The Holy of Holies in the ancient Temple—the spot on the Mount most sacred to Judaism—was located, according to most authorities, in the middle of today’s 37-acre plaza. That spot is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock, which dates from the 7th century and is one of the most ancient and beautiful of Muslim monuments.
Unlike Al-Aqsa, the famous mosque located on the southern edge of the terrace, which faces south to allow worshippers to pray toward Mecca, the Dome is not and never was a mosque. According to some sources, it was built to protect the rock known as the foundation stone, and thereby to mark the place of the ancient Jewish temple. Its creators had no intention of denying the site’s Jewish importance, or of Islamizing it; indeed, some claim that the site was used as a synagogue in the Middle Ages, and until this day the whole platform is also known as Bayt al-Muqaddas, an Arabic version of Beyt Hamikdash, the classical Hebrew term for the Temple and its immediate environs.
Sadly, despite this history of former coexistence, today’s political struggle over the fate of Jerusalem has corrupted religious understandings. Al-Aqsa, coopted by the Palestinian resistance movement, has stretched symbolically over the entire Temple Mount, so that Jewish attempts to pray anywhere in the vast open areas of the plaza are portrayed as a threat to the mosque. Yet the truth is that Israel for its part has never repudiated the significance of this holy place to Muslims, and no amount of Jewish prayer, not even the building of a synagogue on the Mount, would harm the mosque in any way.