Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Har Ha Bayit

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 6 January 2001

I have always loved history. Learning about the past, and finding its connections to the present, satisfies something within me. Even though so many things have changed over the course of human history, I imagine that one thing has not: human emotions. Two hundred years ago, I couldn't have picked up a telephone to call my parents, much less sent them an e-mail with an attachment of a photograph taken just moments before. But the love that would motivate me to take such actions is the same in either case.

Many people, both in Israel and around the world, are now debating whether or not the Israeli government should return complete control of the Temple Mount (known in Hebrew as Har Ha Bayit - literally mountain of the house, but referring to the Holy Temple of ancient Jerusalem) to the Arabs as part of a peace agreement. A number of people believe that it is senseless to hold back the peace process over a piece of real estate, even if it is the place considered the holiest on Earth to Jews. (In fact, Jews around the world are always careful to face Jerusalem, and thus the Temple Mount, when they pray.) Their feeling is that enough people have died in the struggle toward peace, and the sooner we make the concessions demanded of us, the better. I would guess that those who hold this opinion aren't particularly interested in the value that religious Jews bestow on the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.

In a way, I can see their point. The Western Wall (called the Wailing Wall prior to the 1967 Six Day War, which brought about the reunification of Jerusalem and allowed Jews to pray at that spot for the first time in centuries) isn't even a part of the ancient Temples of Solomon and Herod. It is, in fact, nothing more than a humble retaining wall, built to support what was once a massive compound above, including but not limited to the Temple. It is, however, an ancient structure, and the only remaining piece of something that was built almost three thousand years ago. Even to someone for whom the religious significance is meaningless, the historical value should be clear.

But even laying aside the religious and historical worth of Har Ha Bayit, there is another distinction to consider. This ancient spot, and most particularly the Western Wall (called the Kotel in Hebrew), is a powerful symbol even to non-religious Jews. Particularly to Israelis, the Kotel serves as a focal point. Many army units hold their induction ceremonies in front of the Kotel. Couples who marry in Jerusalem stop at the Kotel for photographs before the wedding. The annual national Memorial and Independence Day ceremonies, broadcast live on national television, are held there. One secular Israeli recently told me that Har Ha Bayit is a symbol for the state of Israel; that if we relinquish it, we might as well abandon the entire state. Or, in the words of one person's assessment of the situation (which I read on-line): "There are many paths to peace; one of them is surrender."

I can certainly appreciate this point of view, particularly in light of what happened several months ago at Joseph's Tomb. As you may remember, Israel fought desperately to maintain control of this holy site, reputed to be the resting place of the remains of one of Judaism's patriarchs. Finally, the army concluded that the cost of keeping up the fight was too high, and turned the site over to the Palestinian Authority, which promised to protect the site. Within minutes of the Israeli Defense Forces' withdrawal from the area, Palestinian rioters began burning, hammering, and literally pulling the tomb apart, stone by stone; all the while brandishing submachine guns and chanting slogans calling for death to all Israelis.

I, for one, find it inconceivable that Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, is even considering for one instant turning over Har Ha Bayit to the Palestinians. As the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana (1853-1952) said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Any student of Jewish history knows that ours is a legacy of suffering and oppression. With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, there is one country in the world where Jews are the majority. Of the three major world religions, only Jews have but one tiny country, 300 miles north to south, less than 30 miles across its narrowest point. How far are we willing to go in our search for a peaceful existence? How much are we willing to surrender for what will be, at best, an uncertain peace? I can only hope that we will remember our past, find the connections between our history and our future, and decide wisely.

(c) Amy Samin

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