While the military conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues, there is one war the Jewish state appears to have lost -- without even a struggle.
That is its claim to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Jewish people's connection to the First and Second Temples as the holiest site in Judaism.
Though it is hard to imagine, the fact is that the Waqf, the Muslim religious authority that controls the Temple Mount (thanks to Israel's post-Six-Day War beneficence), has been quietly and steadily undermining Jewish connections to the area without any serious protest by the Sharon government. Over a period of time, and more aggressively in the last two years, the Waqf has literally bulldozed away historical proof of Temple artifacts in the area, carrying out extensive excavations in violation of Israel's antiquity laws. Clearly, the political goal of the Waqf is to remove evidence of any Jewish connection to the holy site and introduce Muslim ties as part of the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem as its capital.
Ian Stern, an American-born tour guide in Jerusalem, recently gave a series of lectures in the New York area, complete with photo slides, to call attention to the travesty of science, religion and history taking place in the Old City. He offered photos and other proof of the Waqf blatantly and illegally carting away thousands of tons of "debris" from the Temple area, some of which has been found to contain large columns and other relics dating back to the Temple period. He showed how the Waqf has paved over ancient stones indicating Israel's ties to the spot and brought in water from Mecca to sanctify the site to Muslims. It is only a matter of time, he said, until the southern wall of the Temple Mount will collapse due to a water problem unless repairs are made.
As many in the audience expressed outrage and wonder, Stern patiently explained that, alas, this information is not new, and that the successive governments of Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon have allowed these violations to continue without raising any serious objection, even though Israelis from left to right and secular to ultra-Orthodox are united in their outrage.
Why, Stern was asked repeatedly, does Israel allow this to go on, particularly in light of the symbolic and political ramifications of undoing the Jewish presence at the Temple Mount? For this he had no satisfying answer, nor do historians and politicians, other than the most obvious: that Israel is fearful of the international Muslim reaction if the Jewish authorities were to stop the Waqf's illegal actions.
How else do you explain why protests are ignored from the Committee for the Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, made up of prominent Israelis from all walks of life, including former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, leading archaeologists and academics, as well as legal experts and writers like A.B. Yehoshua. Also fruitless have been Knesset votes and a 1993 Supreme Court ruling citing numerous Waqf violations as illegal and historically harmful. Still no Israeli government has acted.
Surely one would think that international outrage could be focused on the Waqf's activities: much as the world condemned the Taliban in Afghanistan several years ago for destroying ancient Buddhist columns of great historical value.
Perhaps one could argue that in the scheme of things in Israel today, with women and children being targeted and suicide bombers on the loose, raising a ruckus about the displacement or even destruction of old stones is not a priority. But on the contrary, the Waqf's archaeological crimes speak to the heart of the conflict, of the Arab unwillingness to recognize Israeli sovereignty of the Old City and even to acknowledge Jewish historical ties to the land. How can there be parity and mutual respect between two ancient peoples sharing a land when the Arabs insist the Jews are modern-day usurpers who appeared a little more than 50 years ago on the scene and evicted them from their homes? The brazen refusal to admit that the Jewish people have historic ties to the land underscores the Arab emphasis on ideology over reality and hatred over compromise.
It is understandable why so many Jewish leaders, religious and otherwise, have second-guessed Moshe Dayan's decision 35 years ago to cede control of the Temple Mount area to the Waqf as a Muslim holy site.
"Handing over the keys of the Temple Mount to the Waqf was a major historic mistake over which generations will weep," noted Israel Meir Lau, Israel's chief rabbi.
The only thing we can do is raise our voices about this matter, letting the Sharon government know that its uncharacteristic quiescence on this matter is unacceptable and harmful to Israel and Jewish history. We should be joined by historians, archaeologists, legal experts and others with a sense of fairness and a concern about the truth, putting pressure on the Waqf to cease their unholy quest to make the Temple Mount area historically Judenrein.
For centuries, Jews have prayed daily for the rebuilding of Jerusalem; the least we can do today is insist that our holiest site not be undermined.