Palestinian Public Discourse Claims that the Jewish Temple Never Existed in Jerusalem
March - April 2011
The recent round of peace negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, when it was not interrupted by disputes over settlement freezes and other marginalia, focused on the same set of issues that has typified the negotiating agenda for many years: borders, Jerusalem, security, refugees, water and so on. We know them so well that we can recite them even in our dreams.
There are now, however, two new nightmares to trouble our sleep.
The lesser one concerns the recent Israeli demand that the Palestinians explicitly recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”; this demand may well cause more problems than it can solve.
Closely related is the greater nightmare: the Palestinian leadership’s insistent denial of history. To be specific, Palestinian public discourse claims that the Jewish Temple never existed in Jerusalem. It refuses to even acknowledge, let alone tolerate, the universally accepted history of the city and of other parts of the country.
For example, the Palestinian Authority recently complained to the Chinese organizers of the Shanghai Expo (through its representative in Egypt, Barakat al-Farra) about Israeli exhibitions that speak, among other things, of the history of Jerusalem. More recently, UNESCO acceded to Palestinian and Arab demands to recognize the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the Tomb of Rachel as “Palestinian” sites. And still another is the appearance in November 2010 on the Information Ministry web page of the Palestinian Authority government of a paper written by Al-Mutawakel Taha, a Ministry official, denying any Jewish historical association with the Western (outer) Wall of the Second Temple Mount.
Where does this spasm of resistance to accepted historical narratives come from? What do Palestinian activists hope to achieve by it? Are they unaware of how deadly it is for the peace process? Or are they rather very much aware?
Most Israelis were first exposed to the Palestinian denial of history in July 2000. According to U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross, when Jerusalem was discussed during the second Camp David summit, Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat asserted that “the Temple never existed in Jerusalem, but rather in Nablus.” Another senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, asserted, the “Jerusalem Temple is a Jewish invention.” President Bill Clinton was astonished:
“Not only do all of the world’s Jews believe that the Temple was located on the Temple Mount, but most Christians believe it, too.”For the Israeli delegation, however, as then-Foreign Affairs Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami tells us, it marked a decisive moment in a more practical way: All the Israelis instantly understood that the Palestinian negotiators were not ready to sign a peace agreement to end the conflict.
After these events went public, 91 percent of Israelis (according to a public opinion survey conducted by Mina Tzemach) rejected a compromise deal based on exclusive Palestinian control of the Haram al-Sharif, the holy shrine where the two Jewish Temples once stood and which Jews call Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount). The Palestinian rhetorical innovation has clearly been a major factor in persuading Israelis of the moderate left peace camp that Israel has “no real partner for peace” among Palestinians. Indeed, it is reasonable to surmise that if the same Palestinian denial of Jewish affinity to the Temple Mount had been voiced in 1993, the Oslo Accords would never have been signed.
As it happened, the September 1993 “Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements” agreed to delay discussion of the core issues, including Jerusalem, to the final stage of negotiations. That probably explains why Arafat did not refute the Jewish connection to Jerusalem at that time.
Looking back from Camp David in June 2000, Arafat’s refusal to sign the May 1994 Gaza-Jericho agreement until he received a letter guaranteeing the continuation of Palestinian political institutions in Jerusalem also makes more sense. By August 1994, when he visited South Africa as the guest of Nelson Mandela, he had let the cat out of the proverbial bag. Speaking at a mosque in Johannesburg, Arafat cited the Hudaybiyyah Pact of 628 between the Prophet Muhammad and the infidels of Mecca as a precedent for signing the Oslo Accords:
“This agreement, I do not regard it as anything more than the agreement the Prophet Muhammad signed with Quraysh.”He then called on his audience to be prepared for jihad to liberate Jerusalem (if the Palestinians did not receive it in political negotiations). Arafat sought in his Johannesburg speech to have it both ways: to justify the signing of the Oslo accords vis-à-vis his opponents by grounding it in the Prophet’s practice, and, at the same time, to convey a tough message in advance of the political struggles that awaited on the Jerusalem question and other core issues.
The Johannesburg incident underlines that Jerusalem was a top priority for Arafat. Negating the historical Jewish connection to the city in 2000 reflected not just his calculation that denial provided an emotive, rhetorical tool in the struggle over the sovereignty of Jerusalem, but also his deep-seated belief. But the question remains: Where did Arafat acquire this belief? It contradicts not only widely accepted scholarship by Westerners and others, but also the traditional views of Muslim prelates and scholars lasting well into the 20th century.
A thorough study of contemporary Arab and Muslim public discourse, books and other publications shows that the denial process is widespread in the Arab and Muslim world.1 The following story gives the flavor of this process. On September 25, 2003 a delegation of Arab leaders from northern Israel visited Arafat at his Muqata‘a compound in Ramallah to show solidarity with the Palestinian Al-Aqsa Intifada (the second Palestinian uprising), which started in September 2000. The guests were surprised when Arafat lectured them on al-Aqsa, insisting that no Jewish Temple had existed in either Jerusalem or Nablus; rather, he claimed it had been in Yemen. Arafat said that he himself had visited Yemen and been shown the site upon which Solomon’s Temple had stood. A year earlier, another Palestinian public figure, Haj Zaki al-Ghul (Jerusalem’s “shadow” mayor from Amman), voiced a similar claim. In a 2002 lecture at the annual al-Quds conference in Jordan, al-Ghul stated that King Solomon had ruled over the Arabian Peninsula, and that it was there, not in Jerusalem, that he built his Temple.
It was not al-Ghul, however, who introduced Yasir Arafat to this Palestinian version of invented history and it was not even another Palestinian. The honor belongs to Kamal Salibi, professor emeritus at the American University of Beirut and subsequently Director of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies in Amman. By any Middle Eastern measure, Salibi is an unusual person. Born in Beirut a Protestant Christian, he earned his doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London under the direction of Bernard Lewis.
Many years distant from Lewis’s mentorship, in 1985 Salibi published The Bible Came from Arabia, in which he claimed that the Children of Israel originated in the western Arabian Peninsula. This strange theory, which is largely based on the discovery and interpretation of an obscure sundial, lacks support from any other scholar. Salibi claimed that Biblical Jerusalem was located in the Arabian Nimas highlands, halfway from Mecca to Yemen. This is an instructive example of how a single book, however esoteric its theory, can have significant influence when one side of a polemical discourse finds it useful.
The real impetus for delegitimizing Jewish claim to Jerusalem, however, dates back further, to the denouement of the Six-Day War. The Palestinian need to refute Jewish history (and their own) regarding the Temple and Jerusalem in general arose only after Israel conquered the Old City of Jerusalem. Even though Israel left the administration of the Temple Mount to the Muslim waqf clergy (then under exclusive Jordanian control, and later joined by a Palestinian partner), the fall of the al-Aqsa Mosque into Jewish hands triggered a process of historical denial among Arabs and Muslims across the world. By 1981, this process yielded the first written denial by the PLO that there was any historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem. Four years before Salibi’s book saw light of day, Samir Jiryis (another Christian scholar, as it happens), stated in a PLO publication that there was no foundation for Jerusalem’s sacredness to Judaism.2
Post-1967 Palestinian historical revisionism stands in stark contrast to the Arab and Muslim narrative about Jerusalem dating back more than a thousand years. As recently as 1929, when bloody communal riots broke out in and over Jerusalem, the Supreme Muslim Council of Palestine published a Guide to al-Haram al-Sharif, which maintained the following:
“Its identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute. This, too, is the spot, according to the universal belief, on which David built there an altar unto the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings (2 Samuel XXIV, 25).”
The 1929 Arab riots were fed by fantasy, but not a fantasy about the history of Jerusalem. Those bloody riots, fomented by the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, flowed from an unfounded fear that the Jews were about to use the Western Wall as a launching pad to gain control over the Haram.
Throughout it all, however, Palestinians never denied the existence of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. They merely claimed that the Western Wall, rather than being a remnant of the Temple’s outer wall, was instead the Wall of the al-Aqsa Mosque (meaning the entire Haram compound) where, according to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad tethered his steed Buraq on his Night Journey from Mecca to al-Aqsa (Quran 17:1) before he entered the Mosque.
The tradition, however, says that Buraq was tethered to the “entrance” of the mosque, and gives no further information about location or which side of the entrance is meant. The Palestinian Arabs claimed that this site was the “Al-Buraq Wall”, a Muslim holy site. The commission that looked into the riots concluded that the Wall is Muslim-owned but is a holy site only for Jews.
The absence in 1929 of any Palestinian denial that Jewish Temples stood in Jerusalem was, as already suggested, no oversight. Rather, it reflected a Muslim historiographic tradition in all forms of Arab Muslim literature in which the story of the Jewish Temple and its construction, traditions about the divine worship that took place within it, and even details about the First Temple’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar were all well-established motifs.
Several widely known classical Arab sources identify the site upon which the al-Aqsa Mosque was built as the place where Solomon’s Temple stood. The 11th-century Jerusalem geographer and historian al-Maqdisi and the 14th-century Iranian religious-legal sage al-Mustawfi both linked the al-Aqsa Mosque to Solomon’s Temple. Similarly, the 13th-century poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi defined the construction of the Solomonic house of worship as the building of the “al-Aqsa Mosque.”
The Arabs also have usually identified the rock that lies within the site as Solomon’s Temple and the heart of the al-Aqsa compound. Abu Bakr al-Wasiti, who preached at al-Aqsa in the early 11th century, also refers to various traditions related to the Temple’s Jewish past in his work in praise of Jerusalem.
Several Arab classical sources maintain, too, that Caliph ’Abd al-Malik’s construction of the Dome of the Rock (in 691 or 692 CE) contrasted with the Christian custom of pillaging the Jewish Temple site by dumping the city’s garbage there. According to these sources, ’Abd al-Malik ordered the construction because he was influenced by his belief in the place’s connection to Abraham and the Binding of Isaac.
This historiographic tradition remained unbroken well into modern times and, indeed, beyond 1929. Writing in the 1950s and 1960s, a leading Palestinian historian, ‘Arif al-‘Arif, affirmed that the Jewish Temple was located where the Dome of the Rock stands today. In his two-volume history of Jerusalem (Ta’rikh al-Quds and Al-Mufassal fi Ta’rikh al-Quds) al-‘Arif wrote that the Haram al-Sharif is located on the Mount Moriah mentioned in Genesis, the site of Ornan the Jebusite’s threshing floor, which David purchased in order to build the Temple. He affirms, too, that Solomon built the Temple in 1007 BCE, adding:
“Among the remnants of the era of Solomon is the structure that lies under al-Aqsa Mosque.”The place, al-‘Arif explained, was owned by the Jews for a certain period and afterward returned to Muslim proprietorship. The Muslims called it al-Haram al-Qudsi (the Jerusalem shrine) because it was sacred to all Muslims. Al-‘Arif also wrote that the quarry to the west of the Damascus Gate of the Old City is called “Solomon’s Mine” because it provided the stones that Solomon used to build the Temple.
These statements, written at a time when Jerusalem’s Old City was a part of the Kingdom of Jordan, are almost entirely absent from Arab history books written after 1967 and, generally, from the contemporary Arab discourse. Yet al-‘Arif himself wasn’t exactly an objective historian. He contended that the Temple Mount is no longer a holy site for Jews and has not been since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. He wrote that, in contrast to Muslims, who have hundreds of holy sites in Jerusalem (which he enumerates at length), and to Christians, who have dozens of them, sacred Jewish Jerusalem is limited to the Wailing Wall and to a handful of old synagogues and tombs of saints. Al-‘Arif attributes the dearth of Jewish holy places to the Jews’ absence from the city:
“After the Jews were defeated by the Romans they were dispersed around the globe. There is, thus, no mention of the Jews in connection with Jerusalem for hundreds of years.”
In contrast to the classical sources, post-1967 Islamic writing (by Palestinians and others) that denies the Jewish connection to Jerusalem claims that the Temple never existed and that Solomon’s Temple, if there ever was such a thing, was at most the King’s personal prayer room. In any case, Solomon is regarded as an early Islamic figure, Sulayman. The mythology is so strong that it occludes its own origin.
To support this contention, Palestinians and other Muslim writers must logically contend that there are no archeological findings from the Temple period that would refute their view. This is rubbish of the archeological sort. British archeologist Kathleen Kenyon, who dug in Jerusalem before 1967, wrote,
“The site of the Temple is not in doubt . . . . [T]he retaining walls of the platform of Herod’s Temple are still visible today, now crowned by that supreme example of Moslem architecture, the Dome of the Rock.” Arab writers deny this conclusion. For example, a Palestinian named Arafat Hijazi wrote in a 2002 article on the website of the Islamic Movement in Israel’s southern branch that “42 archeological teams excavated at al-Aqsa between 1891–1925, and hundreds [yes!] have excavated since 1967, but not one archeologist has found a remnant of the Temple or any indication of the existence of Jews in Palestine.”
There is no shortage of such stark denials of reality. Palestinian-Jordanian historian Kamil al-‘Asali maintains in his 1992 book on travelers’ accounts about Bayt al-Maqdis (the original Arabic name for al-Quds, or Jerusalem) that,
“Modern archeology has not succeeded in proving that the site on which the Temple stood is located in this place, since no remnants of the Temple have survived.”The refuters neglect the fact that because the Temple compound rests underneath the Dome of the Rock—a Muslim holy shrine—excavations have never been conducted under the entire Haram compound. Sheikh Abd al-Hamid al-Sa’ih, the President of the Palestinian National Council from 1984–93, was until 1967 the highest Palestinian religious authority in Jerusalem. In his book he claimed that the Egyptian engineer who restored the Dome of the Rock during the 1960s told him that he had dug several meters under the Rock and “found no evidence of a more ancient structure.”
In a January 2001 Die Welt interview with the former Palestinian Mufti, Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, Sabri claimed that there are no artifacts that support the Jewish claim that a Temple was located on this site, and that Jews themselves are not sure where their Temple was. In 2001, Egyptian waqf Minister Mahmud Hamdi Zaqzuq stated that the Jews have no connection to the Western Wall, which according to him “was never a holy site for them.” Zaqzuq added that no historical evidence exists to support the Jewish claims regarding the existence of Solomon’s “alleged” Temple anywhere in the city. The denial phenomenon is also manifested in official publications. A 2002 Palestinian Authority book on the history of the al-Aqsa compound makes no mention of the site’s sacred status in Judaism.
Another Palestinian claim is that the Jewish presence in Jerusalem was short-lived, consisting merely of some seventy years of David and Solomon’s reigns. The truth is that the First and Second Temples together functioned for about a millennium—from roughly 1006 BCE to 586 BCE, and from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The Palestinian al-Quds University website nonetheless underlines in the chronology of the city that the Jews ruled Jerusalem for only 73 out of 5,000 years.3
While Palestinians were perhaps the first to deny the existence of a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, today, 44 years after June 1967, the denial phenomenon is so widespread in both the Arab and the Muslim worlds that Palestinians have taken to relying on the writings of others. The most extreme assertion in this regard was made by the Egyptian archeologist Abd al-Rahim Barakat, who wrote that,
“The legend of the alleged Temple is the greatest crime of fabricating history.”4According to him, David and Solomon built small houses of worship, not a Temple, while the Israelites did not in any case adhere to the religion of Solomon, who preached faith in Allah, the One God. In other words, King Solomon was more a Muslim, some 1,600 years before the birth of Muhammad, than he was a Jew. This is a view shared by the vast majority of Muslims.
Indeed, many Muslim authors now refer to the Jewish Temple with the term al-haykal al-maz’um, meaning “the alleged Temple”, as if the Temple itself was a Jewish invention lacking any factual basis. For example, Egyptian writer Abd al-Tawab Mustafa writes in his book dedicated to refuting the “Jewish lie about the Temple”:
“We came to realize that the Jews’ belief in the Temple is no more than a false allegation that does not hold up in the face of scientific criticism, since the Jews’ supposed scholarship on the topic is not true scientific research, but rather speculations and hypotheses.”In July 2000, after the second Camp David summit, Palestinian Authority Cabinet member Nabil Sha’ath told the al-Ayam newspaper that “Israel claims that its alleged Temple existed there [in Jerusalem].” Similarly, Ahmed Khalil, former Jordanian waqf minister, who served as the head of the royal commission charged with restoring the al-Aqsa Mosque, stated in a January 2003 press conference that Israel consistently tries to interfere in al-Aqsa affairs and to excavate underneath the Mosque “in order to establish the alleged Temple.”
There are noteworthy exceptions to the post-1967 trend. For example, Palestinian archeologist Dr. Marwan Abu Khalaf of al-Quds University has noted that a Christian pilgrim called Arculf, who spent nine months in Jerusalem around the year 670, wrote that “[o]n the site where the Temple once stood” a mosque had been erected by the Muslims. But these exceptions are few and far between. Whatever serious Palestinian scholars may think about such matters, most are reluctant to buck the party line in public.
For the sake of balance we should note that some right-leaning Israelis and diaspora Jews seek to belittle the importance of Jerusalem for Muslims. (Some also support and are undertaking politically incendiary archeological projects in, around and below the City of David.) They often emphasize the fact that Muhammad changed the direction of prayer (qibla) from Jerusalem to Mecca (“while facing Mecca Muslims from our area are turning their back to Jerusalem”), and they stress that the only period when Jerusalem was important to Muslim Arabs was the relatively short period of Umayyad rule between 661 to 750, particularly under Caliph ’Abd al-Malik, who built the Dome of the Rock. They also argue that the term al-Aqsa mentioned in the Quran could not refer to Jerusalem because the city was still in Byzantine hands during Muhammad’s entire lifetime.
Moreover, those who seek to undermine the importance of Jerusalem to Arabs and Muslims argue that Jerusalem is not mentioned by name in the Quran or in the early hadith literature, and that the classical Arabic name of the city Bayt al-Maqdis is a direct translation of the Hebrew Beit HaMikdash (the Holy House/Temple). The city has been called “al-Quds” (”the Holy”) only since the 10th century. In addition, they claim that the name “al-Aqsa” in the Quran refers, according to some Muslim interpretations, to a heavenly mosque and not to any building in earthly Jerusalem. They also point out that Jerusalem is only the third-holiest city for Islam after Mecca and Medina and has never been an Islamic political capital.
In contrast to the Muslim phenomenon of completely denying the Jewish attachment to Jerusalem, however, the Jewish counterpart does not deny the holiness of the al-Aqsa mosque and the Islamic affiliation with the Old City. Nor has this narrative ever been promoted by senior Israeli leaders, not even those in the current right-of-center coalition government. Jews do not deny that the Muslims consider Jerusalem and the Haram al-Sharif as their third holy city and shrine. However, they believe that the holy status of the city and the al-Aqsa compound is a late development aimed at strengthening their arguments in the political arena.
The political struggle for Palestine since 1967 has led Palestinians and many Muslims to intensify their efforts to discredit the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the holy sites. Based on statements by Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians and others, this denial phenomenon has already taken root among a large proportion of the Muslim population in the Arab world and, presumably, beyond.
Given that many Arab publications since 1967 have rejected the existence of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, Arafat’s denial of the Jewish connection to the site at the July 2000 Camp David talks should not have come as such a surprise to Jewish and American publics. But it did come as a great surprise. Since the Jerusalem question remains unresolved, and because Palestinians wield the al-Aqsa compound as a central identity symbol to foster Muslim solidarity, the denial tendency has remained strong since Yasir Arafat’s death.
Behind closed doors, in track II diplomacy meetings I have attended, I have heard from Palestinian leaders and academics that they understand that Arafat’s denial at the Camp David Summit of 2000 was a mistake. So far, however, not one has publicly expressed this understanding. Prominent Palestinian Authority leaders are careful not to repeat Arafat’s assertions, but they remain reluctant to correct his views.
It would be best if the two parties articulated their mutual respect for each other’s attachments to the city and to their respective holy places. Indeed, it seems absolutely a precondition to a sustainable end-of-conflict agreement. A joint Israeli-Palestinian project to educate people about the history of Jerusalem and the importance of the city to the three Abrahamic faiths would also be helpful. The sooner the Palestinians return to their own thousand-year-old traditions on the topic, the better.
1 See my Jerusalem and Its Role in Islamic Solidarity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
2 The Arabic source for this and all subsequent citations in this essay are available from the author upon request.
3 See www.jerusalem-studies.center.org.
4 See www.Islamic-aqsa.com, article 232.