Monday, April 05, 2021

The Murder at the Temple Mount

This article appeared originally at the Jerusalem Post Magazine and I've added more graphics here:

The Murder on the Temple Mount

On April 11, 1947, Asher Itzkowitz, along with his acquaintance – and despite the shared family name no family connection – Yitzchak Itzkowitz, walked from entered the Old City through the Damascus Gate and continued on towards the Western Wall.  It was Asher’s first time visit.

For some reason, perhaps first-time disorientation, they turned left towards a gate and proceeded towards the Temple Mount. Asher never made it to the Wall and never left the Old City alive.

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It was either during the late Ayyubid 1187-1250, or the early Mamluk (1250-1517) period, or perhaps from the time of Saladin’s victory over the Crusaders in 1189, that a ban was instituted forbidding non-Muslims from entering the compound of the Temple Mount.

Islam’s tenet was it was the sole true religion rather than Christianity or Judaism. It alone carried on the heritage of Abraham. That ban was extended also to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the form of the infamous ‘seventh step’. It is quite possible that despite Jews visiting the Temple Mount in the previous centuries, notably, Maimonides, that ban was sublimated into later Rabbinic prohibitions on Jews from entering the site.

Nicholas Tavelić, Peter of Narbona, Deodatus of Ruticinio and Stephen of Cuneo became the first Franciscan martyrs of the office of the Custody of the Holy Land when, having been in Jerusalem since 1384, they decided to take their charge to spread their faith to the Qadi of the city who was singularly unimpressed.

On November 11, 1391, they entered the Temple Mound compound, appeared before the Qadi’s gathering and began to preach. They were arrested, refused an option to convert to Islam and near the Jaffa Gate on November 14, they were executed, beheaded, their bodies blown up and their remains completely burned. Their ashes were scattered. In June 1970, they were declared Saints in the Vatican Basilica by Pope Paul VI. 

In May 1818, Sarah Belzoni disguised herself as a Muslim female and, retaining the services of a 9-year old Muslim boy in order to facilitate entry, she managed a peek inside the Dome of the Rock. On November 13, 1833, the English architect Frederick Catherwood dressed up as an Egyptian officer and entered the sacred precincts, eventually spending six weeks “investigat[ing] every part of the mosque and its precincts" and made the first complete survey of the Dome of the Rock.

In 1839, following the Tanzimat reforms in the Ottoman administration, non-Muslims were permitted to enter Temple Mount on receiving the special permit from the governor. In the 1850s, an Italian military engineer named Ermete Pierotti was engaged as architect and engineer to the Ottoman authorities in Jerusalem, a position that provided him unrestricted freedom to study the Temple Mount. His 1864 book, Jerusalem Explored, describes his findings.

In March 1855, the Duke of Brabant, the future King Leopold II of Belgium, toured the Temple Mount while club-wielding Sudanese from Darfur guards were locked in their quarters for fear they would attack the infidel. In June that year, Archduke Maximilian, the heir to the Habsburg Empire, also was permitted entry. 

As for Jews, Moses Montefiore and his wife Judith toured the site on July 26, 1855 including the underground Ancient Al-Aqsa to the Southern Wall and, apparently, on other occasions. The Palestine Exploration Fund got Charles Warren of the Royal Engineers into the area in 1867 and his diary entry of April 8, 1869 begins, “I visited the Dome of the Rock.” 

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On Wednesday, January 29, 1873, the 56-year old Yosef Assa, like Asher Itzkowitz six decades later, erred while walking to his study session at an Old City bet midrash. Being blind, he missed a turning perhaps and entered to Temple Mount. As reported in HaLevanon on February 5th, his body was found the next day, seemingly tossed over the ramparts into the valley below. Obviously, unauthorized entry was an extreme danger. 

In the few years prior to World War One and just after, matters were more relaxed. We know that Tel Aviv’s Herzliya school pupils toured the site during Passover 1912 as did others during the Second and Third Aliyah periods. Rahel Yannait did so in 1908, Berl Katznelson in 1918 and Uri Tzvi Greenberg in1924.

Asher Itzkowitz, most probably born in Ivanovice Vilkhovets (Irhóc) in the Máramaros district of north-east Hungary in 1927 although another source has his birthplace as Drohobycz, was taken to Auschwitz during the war. His parents, from whom he was separated, did not survive the Holocaust but a sister did. Making his way to Budapest, he joined a Dror Zionist youth group despite being religiously observant, boarded the Yagur clandestine immigration ship and was sent to a Cyprus detention camp. He arrived in Israel in late 1946. He lived in Tel Aviv and worked as a carpenter.

On the last day of Passover, Shvi’I shel Pesach, April 11, 1947, he walked from the Beit Yisrael neighborhood with a friend (but not a relative), Yitzhak Itzkowitz, 36, to the Western Wall. Becoming perhaps disoriented in the alleyways unfamiliar to them, they walked down David Street and missed the right-hand turn to the Western Wall. 

They approached the Chain Gate at approximately three o’clock in the afternoon. The presence of non-Muslims so close to the Haram precincts incensed the crowds. Some records note that the Moslem holiday of Nebi Mussa, always a heightened time of potential violence since 1920, was coetaneous that day. Both were set upon by over 30 rowdies. They were beaten with heavy sticks, called nabbot, metal rods, stoned and stabbed. The newspaper reports were contradictory as to what happened next. 

The first information was that they had unwittingly entered the Temple Mount. Such an act would have been cause for such violence. Indeed, as reported in this paper on December 16, 2020, over 70 years later, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, a Palestinian Authority appointee, declared there is “no place for non-Muslims in any way in this mosque, whether through schools, churches or other places of worship.” 

In fact, the Palestine Government press office had issued a press release that was broadcast over the official Mandate’s Voice of Jerusalem radio that the murderous assault indeed took place inside the compound. Subsequent items appearing in the press related that they were attacked outside. 

Yitzchak was saved by an Arab policeman, a corporal, who dragged him into the courtyard who then closed the gate on the mob. Asher was left outside to be finished off. Suffering severe loss of blood and critical head injuries, Asher died. The HaTzofe newspaper indicates the corporal, who was on duty inside the sacred compound, at the police station on the north side of the raised platform, found them inside the gate when he rushed over in response to the shouting.

Asher’s funeral service was conducted Saturday night in the courtyard of the Bikur Cholim Hospital and was addressed by Rabbis Aryeh Levin and Zalman Brizel. From there, his bier was carried through Meah Shearim until the police intervened and insisted it be placed in a van. Shouting and shoving then ensued. Eventually, the procession made its way to the Mount of Olives where Itzkowitz was buried. If you seek out his grave, you will find a barely recognizable plot with the text illegible.

The “Situation Committee” of Jerusalem’s Jewish Community Council decried the murder and demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice. At the same time, they called for restraint on the part of Jews as on the Shabbat, two Arab ice cream vendors along Aggripas Street were beaten moderately by a crowd. The previous week, in a retaliation against the Palestine Police for the murder of Moshe Cohen on April 7, the Lechi underground had shot the 20-year old Basil Forth, who had been in the city but a week, killing him.

Most papers did not carry the story on their front pages. By the following Monday, he murder disappeared from the pages of the Yishuv’s press. The Communist organ, Kol Ha’Am, devoted but seven lines to the incident. Other news, of the escape of Geula Cohen and the forthcoming hanging of Dov Gruner and his legal battle were more prominent. 

There is no memorial plaque near where he was murdered. He lies in a forsaken near-unmarked grave. He has no progeny. He is a forgotten martyr.





The grave two years ago

The grave today

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