Masjid al-Aqsa in Contemporary Jewish Imagination
21 December 2022
The holy city of Jerusalem holds immense meaning for the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The unique identity of Jerusalem has allowed inter-faith harmony to coexist aside geopolitical rivalries. The Masjid al-Aqsa stands as a rare symbol of Arab-Jewish harmony. Could the political rise of powerful Zionists compromise its future?
Jerusalem, the ancient city of Israel, has forever been an object of veneration and is arguably the oldest prayer capital of the world. Jerusalem is held sacred by people of all three Abrahamic faiths and can be validly dubbed the most religious place on Earth. For the Jews, it is the place of their prophets and kings. For Christians, it is where Jesus died on the crucifix, also having been born only ten kilometers south of it, in Bethlehem. In Islam, Jerusalem is the place where Muhammad, the founder prophet, was miraculously transported to on his mythical “night journey” called the al-Isra.
Jerusalem, therefore, has also been one of the most contested cities in history, and the reins over it have changed hands among rulers of various religious faiths. Today, Jerusalem is under the administrative control of the State of Israel, having fallen under its control following the six-day war in 1967. The site that makes Jerusalem the flashpoint of the Israel-Palestine or rather an Israel-Arab conflict is the holy site of Temple Mount. At the site, the Jews had their temple, the only one in the world, that was last demolished during the time of the Roman conquest of Israel. The al-Aqsa compound houses the Masjid al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. Before going on to understand the current and the contemporary, it is crucial to dive a little into the history of Temple Mount and al-Aqsa.
Importance of al-Aqsa in Jewish Faith
The Temple Mount's hallowed Jewish history has both Jewish and global aspects. As per the Jewish tradition, Jerusalem is the center of the world. The Babylonian Talmud claims it includes the Foundation Stone, where the world's creation started. Because of this, Jews believe, every human has a connection to the location. But on this same stone, Isaac was chained by his father, Abraham, according to Maimonides, who cites an old legend, was delivered by an angel sent by God. To make a mythological/historical case for the Jewish claim over Jerusalem, in the second version, God selects Isaac as the victim rather than Abraham's other son, Ishmael. According to the most basic Jewish interpretation of the story, Isaac is the loving son, and his descendants are the followers of Abraham and the true successors of the holy sanctum.
In Isaiah 2:2, it is predicted that "In the days to come, the Mount of the Lord's House shall stand firm above the mountains, and all the nations will flow to it". It is also for this reason that for the Jews, the very conception of Jerusalem cannot be devoid of Jewishness. Jerusalem, therefore, is not only the religious center of the Jews worldwide but is also fused as the national center for the Jews. It is the Jerusalem that King David made the center of his empire and to which he transported the ark of God; it is the Jerusalem where King Solomon constructed the Temple, which was off-limits to outsiders and where God bestowed his benefits.
What Could be the Future of al-Aqsa?
History and mythology apart, the future of Jerusalem rests little on the prophecies and promises of Yahweh and more on the Israeli deftness to play the cards they have been dealt. The masjid al-Aqsa is Islam’s first qiblah, the second mosque ever built, and the third most sacred place on Earth for Muslims. After Israel’s conquest of Jerusalem in the 1967 war, Jordan and Israel came to an agreement that the Islamic Waqf would oversee the holy site's interior while Israel would be in charge of its security from the outside. Non-Muslims would be permitted to enter the grounds of the al-Aqsa Mosque during visiting hours but not for prayer. However, several religious Zionists who support the Temple have made significant inroads into the Israeli political leadership in recent years and have attempted to alter the status quo. The sixth of the old city is made up of the al-Aqsa mosque, which symbolizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This held even during the British occupation of Palestine when numerous uprisings broke out because of encroachment on the al-Aqsa Mosque's al-Buraq Wall.
Recently in 2017, after President Donald Trump’s Peace Plan, which put minimal strictures and concessions on the State of Israel, while recognizing Israel’s control of Jerusalem, the future of al-Aqsa was visibly seen to be in a fuddle. The severely criticized move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel came only two years after Joe Biden’s reiteration of his old statement as Vice President in 2015, “As many of you heard me before, were there no Israel, America would have to invent one.” After the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and launch the Peace Plan, which was vehemently opposed and rejected by 14 of the 15 UN Security Council members, apart from drawing flak from the UN, the EU, and Turkiye. Despite the scrapping of the peace plan, the direction envisaged in the plan hints at the road, the State of Israel and the United States may be willing to take, albeit not immediately.
The insistence of Trump’s peace plan over Jerusalem being the undivided and eternal capital of Israel problematized the status of the Masjid al-Aqsa. Per this proposal, "undivided Jerusalem" was to be under Israeli authority, encompassing all its sacred sites, including the al-Aqsa Mosque, and Israel was to be tasked with preserving religious freedom and protecting these holy sites. The proposal, which asserted that the status quo will be upheld, disallowed Palestinian control over the Al-Aqsa Mosque/Haram al-Sharif. The plan also spoke of the annexation of some parts of the Jordan Valley and the West Bank but remained conspicuously silent over the future of the Masjid al-Aqsa.
There are fewer chances that the State of Israel and the Biden Administration will announce the death of the Peace Plan and odds stack in favor of the US and Israel, furtively following it. However, it will be unintelligent to discount the long-term vision of the State of Israel and the United States.
The Temple Mount/al-Aqsa in the Contemporary Jewish Imagination
In contemporary Israel, the topic of constructing a Temple atop the al-Aqsa compound was forbidden; many still wish to do so, but they are waiting for divine intervention. Before the last ten years, religious Zionism avoided discussing the subject, but it is now one of the community's most influential voices. The discussion has now become a topic of general discourse, thanks to the rising Temple movements' involvement in Israeli politics. Even though Zionists are not more than a quarter of the total Israeli population mix but are considered the most formidable political force, many of them are pro-Temple. They have also shown disregard for the status quo by defying the Jewish inhibitions, have prayed in the al-Aqsa, and are vocal about their support for building the third temple. The growing Zionist influence in the Likud and the government has not been without the entry of the third temple in the political discourses. However, it is not to say that the opposition/Labor Party of Israel does not support full Israeli sovereignty over al-Aqsa, but it falls short of pushing for extended Jewish access in the compound.
Charting a Course
To summarize, the political clout of the Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox Jews in the government does not seem to be decimating. With the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu, it has been written on the wall that a stable government is impossible without Likud. The al-Aqsa therefore will remain a place of Jewish fancy, aspiration, and longing. It will be interesting to see if the Zionists will wait for the Messiah to arrive, or hail anyone who takes it upon himself to build the temple, as the prophesied Messiah.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Anurag Mishra is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His research areas include American politics, US foreign policy, American society and culture, Religion in Politics and the Italian-American Mafia. He tweets @RealAnuragM.
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