Revealed: An Arab prince’s secret proposal to sell the Western Wall to the Jews

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

Revealed: An Arab prince’s secret proposal to sell the Western Wall to the Jews

A quixotic overture by a courageous prince lay hidden in files at the UK Colonial Office for 90 years, where this author discovered it. Now it can proudly take its place in history

On August 29, 1929, Prince Mohamed Ali Pasha, the uncle and future regent to King Farouk of Egypt, walked into the British Embassy in Istanbul and hand-delivered a letter to British Ambassador Sir George Clerk. The letter was addressed to the British High Commissioner for Palestine, Sir John Chancellor. The prince asked Ambassador Clerk to forward the letter to Chancellor in Jerusalem.

The prince had written and signed the letter less than one week after the shocking August 24, 1929, massacres in Hebron, following months of rising tensions at the Western (Wailing) Wall. The letter began by deploring the violence, with the prince expressing hope the Arabs and Jews could settle their differences peacefully. The prince then offered a stunning suggestion:

My proposal for a solution is that, instead of fighting or dealing unjustly by one party or the other, it would be infinitely better to come to an understanding. The Mohametans may be willing to accept a sum of money which would help them to do good for the community and as the Jews are rich, if this thing [the Wailing Wall] is so much desired by them, there seems no reason why they should not pay for it. If this could be done, it would avoid coercion and possibly injustice to one or other of the parties. Certainly I am sure the Mohametans and Arabs will not accept a small sum such as £10,000 or even £20,000 for a matter in which their honour is so far involved… Let them give £100,000 and I feel sure this would settle the difference.

This is the story of Prince Mohamed Ali Pasha’s surprise proposal to sell the Western Wall to the Jews, revealed here for the first time.

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The Temple Mount and the Western Wall today represent the defining religious symbols of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The same was true during the 1920’s, following the British conquest of Palestine. Muslims and Jews clashed repeatedly over the Wall throughout the 1920’s.

The Jews claimed rights of prayer at the Wall, the only surviving remnant of the ancient Temples and the holiest and most sacred site for Jews to pray. Jews had been praying at or near the Wall nearly continuously since the Roman conquest.

‘The Mohametans may be willing to accept a sum of money which would help them to do good for the community and as the Jews are rich, if this thing [the Wailing Wall] is so much desired by them, there seems no reason why they should not pay for it’

The Muslims, for their part, also regarded the Wall (or the Buraq, named for Mohammed’s steed whom the Angel Gabriel, according to Muslim legend, tethered to the Wall at the end of Mohammed’s celestial journey from Mecca) as an Islamic Holy site that had been dedicated as Wakf property nearly a millennium ago. The Muslims asserted absolute ownership of both the Wall and the narrow strip of pavement facing the Wall. Prior to 1967, as shown in the following photograph, the pavement was sandwiched between the Wall on one side and an area of small dwellings, known as the “Moghrabi Quarter,” on the other side:

The Western Wall and narrow strip of pavement, late 19th Century (Library of Congress).

The Muslims refused to accord the Jews any rights to pray at the Wall, for fear the Jews would use that as a wedge to encroach further on Muslim property and eventually seize control of the entire Temple Mount area. During Ottoman times the Jews would pay small bribes to bring chairs and benches to the Wall, even as the Ottoman authorities issued formal rulings banning such practices as late as 1911.

After the British captured Jerusalem in December 1917, General Allenby immediately pledged to honor the so-called Status Quo prevailing at the Holy Sites. Allenby’s pledge became embedded as a legal concept five years later in Article 13 of the Mandate for Palestine, requiring the British to “preserve existing rights” at the Holy Sites.

The British soon found themselves caught in the middle between conflicting Jewish and Muslim assertions of rights and claims to the Western Wall and the pavement facing the Wall. The Mandatory authorities struggled to enforce the shaky Status Quo that had prevailed during Ottoman times, when Jews were allowed to utter individual prayers at the Wall, but not allowed to take any steps which could be viewed as asserting symbolic ownership of the Wall. Thus, the British enforced the Turkish ban on the Jews bringing chairs and benches to the Wall, as well as most other accoutrements of congregational prayer.

Jewish Legion soldiers at the Western Wall after British conquest of Jerusalem, 1917 (Public Domain)

The tensions led to controversy at the Wall during Passover 1922, Yom Kippur 1923 and Yom Kippur 1925. The most notable confrontation occurred on Yom Kippur 1928, when the British Deputy District Commissioner for Jerusalem, E. Keith-Roach, ordered the forcible removal of a screen (mehitza) the Jews had placed on the pavement in front of the Wall to divide men from women, causing the Jews to file an angry protest with the League of Nations. Tensions continued escalating during 1929 as the Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, launched the so-called Buraq Campaign to galvanize Muslim and Arab Nationalist sentiment around the Wall dispute. The Jews likewise formed groups to “defend” their asserted rights to the Wall.

The tensions reached boiling point and exploded into violence in August 1929. On Tisha b’Av (August 15) 1929, a group of Jewish youth marched to the Wall, where they raised the blue and white flag, listened to a brief speech from one of their leaders, and sang the Hatikvah. The Muslims held a counter-demonstration the following day, the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. The Muslim demonstration quickly turned violent, resulting in the murders of several Jews outside the Old City. The violence continued throughout the following week, culminating in the Hebron massacre of August 24, 1929, where approximately 60 Jews were butchered.

Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem, August 1929. (US Library of Congress / Public Domain)

While the history of the violent clashes at the Wall during the 1920s has been told many times, less-known were various attempts by the Jews and British to strike a deal with the Muslims to buy the area in front of the Wall and the Wall itself.

Sir Ronald Storrs (Library of Congress / Public Domain)

In the spring of 1918, for example, Chaim Weizmann approached the British military government about buying the Wall and pavement area, along with the Moghrabi dwellings. The Military Governor, Sir Ronald Storrs, floated the idea with the Muslim community. Storrs reported the Muslims were offended, and “it would be a grave error of policy for the Military Government to raise the question at all.”

In August 1918, another British Official, Brigadier General Sir Gilbert Clayton, told the Muslims they might be able to secure “a large sum of money for a property which is to-day of little value.” The Muslims, however, opposed any such initiative, fearing it would be the first step toward Jewish encroachment on the Temple Mount.

In October 1918, Clayton notified London of an unauthorized Jewish attempt to buy the Wall, interfering with Clayton’s ongoing, quiet efforts to persuade the Arabs to consider selling the Wall:

“Up to quite recently signs were not wanting that the Moslem Dignitaries and notables were beginning to be impressed with the arguments explained to them at great length in favour of the scheme [for the Jews to buy the Wall]. The hopelessness … of obtaining the funds to put into effect … the restoration of the Haram es Sharif, the possibility of replenishing the Wakf coffers and so promoting Moslem education of a liberal scale, the comparative unimportance and squalor of the buildings and their [Moroccan] inhabitants in the precinct, the lurking fear that they might have one day to yield for nothing (as a City improvement scheme or otherwise) that for which they would now receive a very large sum of money – these and a variety of other considerations appeared to be modifying a ‘non possumus’ attitude into one of critical apprehension and fear of the effect on the local and general Islamic world. From the moment, however, that an attempt was apparently made by a Jerusalem Jew (doubtless without the knowledge of the Zionist Commission) to get into direct pecuniary contact with the Moslems concerned something approaching a panic set in, and from that day things have gone from bad to worse in so far as concerns the Zionist hopes in this respect.”

In 1926, a Jewish effort was launched to buy properties in front of the Wall as a first step toward acquiring the entire Moghrabi area and eventually the Wall itself. In early October 1928, Frederick Kisch, a Jerusalem-based Zionist official proposed, in a confidential letter to the Zionist Executive in London, that the Muslims be compelled to sell the pavement and the Moghrabi area to the Jews for £100,000, “in exchange for another suitable area in the Old City, with the inevitable addition of a cash payment for the benefit of the Wakf authorities.”

But these efforts, like those preceding them, went nowhere.

Three unique initiatives

Suddenly, however, in the days immediately following the Hebron massacre, three new initiatives appeared. While none of these new initiatives succeeded, their close proximity to each other and the dramatic nature of their presentation make them, especially Prince Mohamed Ali Pasha’s proposal, unique in the history of Mandate Palestine.

The first initiative came from a prominent Egyptian Jew, the Baron Felix de Menasce, the President of the Israelite Community in Alexandria. On August 26, 1929, only two days after the Hebron Massacre, Menasce walked into the British Embassy in Paris and met with Adrian Holman, the Second Secretary at the Embassy. Later that day Holman cabled the Foreign Office in London and reported as follows:

“[Menasce] explained to me at some length that the frequent cases of rioting at the Wailing Wall were due to the fact that the buildings surrounding the Wall were in the hands of the Moslems and had always been looked upon by the British Government as bearing a religious character. It had consequently always proved impossible for the Jews to buy the buildings in question and thus prevent troubles in the future. He maintained that the buildings were purely civil as opposed to religious and that the present moment might be an opportune one for the British Government to reconsider the possibility of arranging for the Jewish community to buy the buildings for demolition or other purposes. He was sure that if this were done, the Jewish community throughout the world would easily be able to find the necessary sum of money.”

George W. Rendell of the Foreign Office’s Eastern Division responded to Holman’s cable on September 7, noting the Muslims viewed the Wall as a religious site and would not be willing to sell the nearby dwellings to the Jews. Rendell poured more cold water on the idea, adding, “[t]he Colonial Office are, I think, familiar with the advantages and difficulties of a solution on the lines of the Baron de Menasce’s proposal, and seeing how overworked they are at the moment with a variety of Middle Eastern crises, I am not adding to their correspondence by passing the suggestion on to them.”

Dr. Chaim Weizmann. (AP Photo 1938)

Menasce sent a handwritten letter in French to Weizmann reporting on his meeting with Holman at the British Embassy in Paris. Menasce wrote, “J’ai la conviction c’est le moment psychologique de transfer tout l’argent necessaire, si jamais les Juifs deraint acheter ce Wakf …” (“I am convinced that if the Jews are ever going to buy this Wakf, this is, psychologically, the right time to find all the necessary money …”) No record has been found indicating whether Menasce had been acting on Weizmann’s behalf, or whether Weizmann ever responded to Menasce.

The second initiative came from Pinchas Rutenberg, the Managing Director of the Palestine Electric Corporation. On August 29, 1929, three days after Menasce’s meeting at the British Embassy in Paris, Rutenberg sent a letter to Lord Reading (previously known as Rufus Isaacs, a Jew and Chairman of the Palestine Electric Corporation), urging the British government to expropriate the entire area in front of the Wailing Wall to create “a suitable and dignified Jewish praying place.”

This was not the first time expropriation had been floated, but never at such a high level. Rutenberg was the preeminent Jewish businessman in Palestine and the future Chair of the Va’ad Leumi. Lord Reading took matters to the very highest level of the British Government, forwarding Rutenberg’s letter to Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald the next day, with a cover letter of endorsement:

“I would therefore earnestly represent that the necessary measures should be adopted as soon as practicable to make a complete end of this cause of dispute by expropriating the more extended area, as suggested by Mr. Rutenberg in his letter to me. I understand that this could be accomplished without interfering with any part of Moslem ‘Holy Ground.’”

But nothing came of Rutenberg’s expropriation proposal. The Colonial Office reacted negatively, noting “the present time is not opportune for considering the question of compulsory expropriation… Quite apart from the legal aspect, such action would be intensely resented by the Moslems and we have taken the line hitherto that expropriation is out of the question.”

In addition, High Commissioner Chancellor had already told the Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC) of the League of Nations in July 1929 that the first conclusion he came to after arriving in Palestine as High Commissioner and studying the Western Wall issue was that “there must not … be any attempt to expropriate, in favour of the Jews, the area of the pavement in front of the Wall.”

Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini (Library of Congress / Public Domain)

However, at that same PMC meeting, Chancellor disclosed he personally had asked the Mufti to consider selling the Moghrabi dwellings (“mean hovels,” as he described them) to the Jews, assuming the Jews would pay to relocate the Moghrabi inhabitants to superior accommodations elsewhere. Chancellor explained the Jews would be able “to make there a courtyard surrounded by a loggia where they could say their prayers in peace and in dignified surroundings.”

Weizmann embraced the idea and had £70,000 at the ready. But the Mufti rejected the plan, even after Chancellor suggested the Mufti consider an indirect sale, whereby the Mufti would transfer the property to the Mandatory Government as middleman, which would then complete the sale to the Jews, thereby allowing the Mufti to avoid looking as if he had sold Muslim property to the Jews.

An unprecedented proposal

The third initiative involved Prince Mohamed Ali Pasha of Egypt. Ali Pasha had built the famous Manial Palace on Rhoda Island on the Nile River in Cairo. The prince was the uncle of and future Regent to Farouk, the future King of Egypt. Those who knew Ali Pasha regarded him as a “very liberal-minded man,” with a “courtly bearing.” Storrs described Ali Pasha in his memoirs as “Prince Muhammad, afterwards Regent, with his great “lucky” emerald ring, the revived Oriental splendours of his Manial Palace, his courtly bearing and graceful entertainment; his fine devotion to his mother.” The Jewish, Alexandria-based lawyer Alec Alexander once described Ali Pasha as “the one person who could use his good offices to bring about peace between Muslims and Jews.”

Prince Mohamed Ali Pasha (Public Domain)

In an amazing coincidence of history, Ali Pasha entered the stage on August 29, 1929, the same day Rutenberg had sent his letter to Lord Reading, and only three days after Menasce’s meeting with Holman at the British Embassy in Paris.
On that fateful day of August 29, 1929, Ali Pasha, while on a visit to Istanbul, hand-delivered to the British Ambassador to Turkey, Sir George Clerk, a letter addressed to High Commissioner Chancellor in Jerusalem. The letter contained a stunning proposal from Ali Pasha for settling the Muslim-Jewish dispute over the Western Wall:

“Having heard about the troubles going on in Palestine between Jews and Mohametans, and having a certain knowledge of the Arab and Mohametan aspirations, I thought I might be of service outlining a proposal by which this quarrel might perhaps be ended peacefully.

The Mohametans and Arabs having been masters in Palestine for over one thousand years, they are fighting for their honour and do not want to lose anything which they have acquired as a possession. They fear that either through administrative channels or by force they will be compelled ultimately to relinquish rights they have held for so long.

Every one knows that in every country in law after the lapse of a certain period proprietary rights are established. In this case the rights of the Mohametans go back one thousand years.

My proposal for a solution is that, instead of fighting or dealing unjustly by one party or the other, it would be infinitely better to come to an understanding. The Mohametans may be willing to accept a sum of money which would help them to do good for the community and as the Jews are rich, if this thing is so much desired by them, there seems no reason why they should not pay for it. If this could be done, it would avoid coercion and possibly injustice to one or other of the parties.

Certainly I am sure the Mohametans and Arabs will not accept a small sum such as £10,000 or even £20,000 for a matter in which their honour is so far involved. In Zurich the Zionists have collected £240,000 for Palestine. Let them give £100,000 and I feel sure this would settle the difference.”

Although the letter does not specifically mention a “sale” of the Wall, Ali Pasha made clear in his meeting with Ambassador Clerk that selling the Wall was precisely his intention. According to Clerk’s contemporaneous recollection of their conversation, Ali Pasha “submit a suggestion which would, he thought, provide a solution to the question of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem;” specifically, “the idea of the Jews buying the Wall.”

Ali Pasha’s letter was extraordinary. No one in the Muslim world had previously – or ever since – proposed to sell the Western Wall to the Jews. Surely Ali Pasha never spoke a word of this to anyone in the Muslim world, as he lived peacefully for nearly three more decades

But Ambassador Clerk never forwarded Ali Pasha’s letter to High Commissioner Chancellor in Jerusalem. Instead, Clerk sent Ali Pasha’s letter directly to the Foreign Office in London, along with a cover note adding his own observation that “the idea of the Jews buying the Wall has long been considered and rejected, and recent events seem scarcely favorable to the idea of the Muslims accepting even as fancy a price as £100,000, supposing the Jews were prepared to offer that sum.”

The Foreign Office kept Clerk’s original cover letter in its files, together with a copy of Ali Pasha’s letter. The Foreign Office made the following file notation regarding the prince’s letter:

Foreign Office File entry, E 4557/204/65 (September 3, 1929; photo by the author).

W. L. Knight of the Foreign Office made a sarcastic handwritten file entry several days later:

“It would appear from the last para. of the prince’s letter that while the Jerusalem Arabs would scorn to sell their honour cheap, they would probably be prepared to do so for £100,000!”

Foreign Office File entry, E 4557/204/65 (September 10, 1929; photo by the author).

The Foreign Office later recorded the prince’s letter in its official index for 1929 as, “Suggested sale of wall to Jews by Moslems: proposal of Prince Mohamed Ali Pasha:”

Foreign Office Index, 1929 (photo by the author).

The Foreign Office sent the original of Ali Pasha’s letter, along with the calling card Ali Pasha had given to Ambassador Clerk, to the Colonial Office, where both items were tucked inside an envelope and filed away for the next 90 years.

The prince’s calling card, given to the British Ambassador to Turkey, Sir George Clerk, on August 29, 1929 (CO 733/163/5, British National Archives, London; photo by the author).

Ali Pasha’s letter was extraordinary. No one in the Muslim world had previously – or ever since – proposed to sell the Western Wall to the Jews. Surely Ali Pasha never spoke a word of this to anyone in the Muslim world, as he lived peacefully for nearly three more decades. Nor is there any evidence he had any authority from the Muslim authorities in Jerusalem to make the offer. But his letter nevertheless represents an extraordinary and courageous – if not somewhat Quixotic – step for a highly prominent Arab and future Regent to the King of Egypt to have taken so soon after the August 1929 violence.

The letter also seriously undermines Muslim claims regarding the holiness of the Buraq. Surely Ali Pasha would never have dreamed of proposing to sell any truly sacred Muslim shrines, such as the Dome of the Rock or the Al Aqsa Mosque, to the Jews. Clearly he did not regard the Western Wall as even a minor Muslim religious site. Indeed, no evidence exists of any Muslim prayer or veneration at the Buraq since the 7th Century Muslim conquest of Jerusalem.

Moreover, during a 1930 courtroom trial presided over by three League of Nations-approved judges, pitting Muslims against Jews regarding their respective rights and claims to the Wall, the Jewish side offered evidence that the Muslims had repeatedly defiled the Wall and the pavement. Dr. Mordechai Eliash, the Jerusalem-based lawyer representing the Jewish side, said the following in his opening statement (pages 53-54 of the transcript, the only surviving copy of which is located at King’s College, London):

“Evidence will be brought before you that time and again the Wall was desecrated by actually smearing human excreta on its stones. Filth and rubbish were always allowed by the Mughrabis to accumulate there, while time and again have Jewish individuals and organized communities paid for the sweeping and cleaning of the area in front of the Wall, and it will be shown to you that it was through Jewish intervention that a sewage drain was not laid close to the Wall …”

In any event, no record was found of any further action by Ali Pasha or the British Government regarding Ali Pasha’s proposal, nor is there any evidence in Chancellor’s files or his diary proving or even hinting he ever learned of the letter’s existence.

The original Ali Pasha letter, containing the only Arab offer ever to sell the Wall to the Jews, remained buried in the Colonial Office files for the next 90 years.

Prince Ali Pasha’s letter, August 29, 1929 (CO 733/163/5, British National Archives, London; photo by the author).

Prince Ali Pasha’s letter, August 29, 1929 (CO 733/163/5, British National Archives, London; photo by the author).

Two of Israel’s leading historians of the Mandate era, Professor Motti Golani of Tel Aviv University and Professor Hillel Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, examined Ali Pasha’s letter and the related documents at the author’s request last year. Both professors said they were unaware of Ali Pasha’s letter or of any prior publication mentioning it. Golani called it a “major discovery.” Cohen initially noted the absence of any specific reference to “selling” the Wall in the text of Ali Pasha’s letter, but after reading Clerk’s cover letter to the Foreign Office, Cohen acknowledged Ali Pasha’s letter indeed conveyed an implicit offer to sell the Wall.

One lingering question remains: is it possible Ali Pasha and Menasce knew of each other’s initiatives? Two very prominent Egyptians, one Muslim and one Jewish, within three days of each other separately approached the British Embassies in Istanbul and Paris to float the idea of the Jews buying the Western Wall and the surrounding area. Perhaps they had coordinated their efforts and stage-managed them as carefully as possible to avoid detection. Or perhaps neither had any idea of the other’s activity, and their visits to the British Embassies in Paris (Monday) and Istanbul (Thursday) of the same week were purely coincidental. We will leave that mystery for others to solve.

In any event, Prince Mohamed Ali Pasha’s letter stands as a remarkable testament to the bravery and creativity of this urbane and worldly Egyptian prince, who at great personal risk launched an initiative to bring peace to the Muslims and Jews of Mandate Palestine.

Law and the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Steven E. Zipperstein

The prince’s letter, concealed in the files of the Colonial Office for the past 90 years, can now proudly take its rightful place in history.

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Steven E. Zipperstein is the author of the forthcoming book “Law and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Trials of Palestine” (Routledge, March 2020), from which this article is derived. Zipperstein, a former United States federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA. He also teaches in UCLA’s Global Studies program and School of Public Affairs, and as a visiting professor at the Buchmann Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University.

(Copyright Steven E. Zipperstein, 2020)

Tens of thousands pray at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem in Selichot (forgiveness) prayers, early on September 27, 2019. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
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COMMENTS

Israel: Is History Being Destroyed At The Western Wall?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

Is evidence of Temple’s destruction being destroyed by a bid for Jewish unity?

Archaeologist Prof. Dan Bahat files a High Court petition to stop Western Wall construction. What is the archaeology that is currently covered, and what is in the provisional plan?

  • A Spanish-speaking teen tour rests on the Robinson's Arch prayer platform, April 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)
    A Spanish-speaking teen tour rests on the Robinson’s Arch prayer platform, April 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)
  • The egalitarian prayer platform at the Western Wall's Robinson's Arch archaeological area. (Eilat Mazar)
    The egalitarian prayer platform at the Western Wall’s Robinson’s Arch archaeological area. (Eilat Mazar)
  • The view from the Western Wall section of the Robinson's Arch prayer platform to the larger, impermanent area that was established in 2013. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)
    The view from the Western Wall section of the Robinson’s Arch prayer platform to the larger, impermanent area that was established in 2013. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)
  • View of fallen Second Temple building blocks from the Robinson's Arch pluralistic prayer platform next to the Western Wall. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)
    View of fallen Second Temple building blocks from the Robinson’s Arch pluralistic prayer platform next to the Western Wall. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)
  • A 19th century image of Robinson's Arch. (public domain)
    A 19th century image of Robinson’s Arch. (public domain)

June 7, 1967. It is the third day of the Six Day War and after 19 years of exile by the Jordanians, the Old City of Jerusalem has been captured by Israeli forces. Dan Bahat, a soldier stationed in the country’s now reunified capital, asks for two hours of leave from his commanding officer. A secular Jew, Bahat makes his way to the Temple Mount.

“I came to the Western Wall the moment I heard it was liberated,” he told The Times of Israel. He recalled that he reached the wall exactly when former prime minister David Ben-Gurion arrived for the first time.

Called the “Wailing Wall” since the 13th century, it is here at this remnant of the two Jewish Temples’ retaining wall that Jews have historically mourned their destruction: the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, and the Second Temple, first modestly built some 70 years later, was fully renovated and massively enlarged by Herod circa 20 BCE, then destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

Following the 1967 war, the houses surrounding that portion of the Western Wall were razed, making way for what is now the stone-paved plaza used for prayer and state ceremonies. On the south side of the plaza, the Mughrabi Bridge, the only entrance available for non-Muslims to ascend to today’s Aqsa compound, separates the prayer pavilion from the section of the Western Wall that was set aside for archaeological research and a national park.

A soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade’s reserve reconnaissance company cleans his rifle as his injured comrade reads the newspaper near the Western Wall on June 7, 1967. (Micha Bar-Am/Defense Ministry’s IDF Archive)

Standing in the park, what immediately captures the imagination is the massive stone rubble, lying exactly where it landed when Roman soldiers pried the huge ashlar stones from the Temple Mount high above. Here, more than in any other place in the park, one can resoundingly conceptualize the horror of the fall of the Second Temple and the destruction wrought there.

However, since a High Court case in 2000, the archaeological park is also officially used as a space for egalitarian prayer. And now, after decades of contentious struggle and negotiations between all major Jewish denominations in Israel and abroad, under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, a large permanent prayer platform is in the final planning stages for construction.

“The Western Wall is sacrosanct,” said Bahat, now retired from a career as a prominent archaeologist. “But out of a national monument, it has become a synagogue.”

It is the unrivaled historical value of this site and the antiquities in it that led former Six Day War soldier Bahat to petition the High Court of Justice in March for a stay of construction in the Western Wall’s Robinson’s Arch area. A hearing is set for December.

From 1963-1990, Bahat was employed by the predecessor to the IAA, eventually becoming the district archeologist of Jerusalem. From the mid-1980s on, he served as the long-time lead archaeologist on the Western Wall Tunnel excavations.

Preparations for the creation of a plaza next to the Western Wall, June 17, 1967. (From the collection of Dan Hadani, National Library of Israel).

Represented by the prestigious Yigal Arnon law firm, Bahat’s March petition is against the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and its head, the Prime Minister’s Office, Culture Minister Miri Regev, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who all have played a role in the planned platform.

The platform’s implementation is a remnant from the much-negotiated, now-frozen 2016 government decision that earmarks the site as a permanent location for egalitarian prayer, would have granted the non-Orthodox movements and feminist prayer group Women of the Wall a seat at the table in its planning, and somewhat equal public status with a new joint entrance to the renovated prayer pavilions.

Archaeologist Prof. Dan Bahat (courtesy)

“Unfortunately,” said Bahat, the Robinson’s Arch site “has become easy prey for those who decided to make a non-Orthodox prayer plaza.”

Bahat told The Times of Israel that because he is no longer employed by the IAA and doesn’t need the agency for an excavation license, he is able to speak out against what he sees as a destructive, desecration of the hard-won Western Wall archaeology — and the IAA’s role in it. According to a deal reached with the PMO over the planned expansion of the permanent platform, the IAA is deeply involved in the construction project. In February, it began preliminary checks in the area intended as a new, much widened entrance to the planned platform.

The Israel Antiquities Authority, said Bahat, is the body “in charge of guarding all the archaeological sites.”

“This is not protection, it is a desecration of the site,” said Bahat. “The IAA should be on my side not to touch the place. But they are the ones who are undertaking the work of destruction,” he said.

The Davidson Archaeological Park, said Bahat, is “the pearl in the crown” of ancient Jerusalem archaeology. “There is nowhere else where you can so clearly see the results of the 70 CE Roman conquest. What you see today is really how everything ended.”

Jewish tradition states the Second Temple was destroyed because of “sinat chinam” — baseless hatred and infighting among the Jewish people. Today, as the Israeli government pushes forward with a construction plan designed to bridge gaps with Diaspora Jewry, archaeologists fear that the evidence that preserves a previous time of destructive Jewish factionalism is set to be erased from history.

Ahead of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of mourning over the destruction of the two Temples, The Times of Israel spoke with archaeologists about what exactly is currently being “destroyed” at the Robinson’s Arch prayer area, and, after getting a glimpse of still unfinalized plans for the new expanded permanent platform, what other evidence of Judaism’s historical past may be “desecrated” — or even potentially better preserved.

What archaeology is there exactly in this crown jewel?

In 1968, head of the Hebrew University Prof. Benjamin Mazar began his large-scale excavation alongside hundreds of workers and volunteers. According to Mazar, remains from as early as the Iron Age and as late as the Arab period have been uncovered at the site.

These were heady times for Israeli archaeology. Yigael Yadin called Mazar’s excavations there “the greatest archaeological enterprise Jerusalem has witnessed.” Numerous questions of Jewish identity and heritage that had been left unsolved began to receive answers.

Herbert W. Armstrong and Prof. Benjamin Mazar present the Jerusalem excavations to the Japanese Ambassador. (courtesy)

One riddle, left over from the campaign of American Bible scholar Edward Robinson was the meaning behind an arch he discovered in 1838 while charting Holy Land sites for his landmark book, “Biblical Researches in Palestine.” Then, the arch jutted out of the wall about a meter above street level and was most used as a bench. Robinson saw it as a clear identifier of the spot of the ancient Jewish Temples.

Robinson writes in “Biblical Researches in Palestine,” “The existence of these remains of the ancient bridge, seems to remove all doubt as to the identity of this part of the enclosure of the mosk with that of the ancient temple. How they can have remained for so many ages unseen or unnoticed by any writer or traveller, is a problem, which I would not undertake fully to solve. One cause has probably been the general oblivion, or want of knowledge, that any such bridge ever existed.”

For years, Robinson and other scholars felt the arch, which springs out from the Western Wall, was used to support a bridge. As he writes in a 1980 Biblical Archaeology Review article, Mazar, however, determined it was indeed part of a support system — but for a monumental stairway.

Reconstruction of ancient Jerusalem’s Keshet Robinson, as found in the Tower of David Museum. (CC-BY-SA Водник at ru.wikipedia)

The staircase led to one of the main entrances to the Temple Mount, originating from the well-preserved Herodian road that visitors can still walk on today, and was supported by the 17-meter-high Robinson’s Arch. At the southern end of the Temple Mount built on a man-made plateau was a massive, impressive structure called the Royal Stoa.

Jewish pilgrims of all sorts — possibly even Jesus — would have walked these steps supported by Robinson’s Arch to ascend to the Temple.

Among the other early discoveries there, Mazar found a Hebrew inscription in the Western Wall just under Robinson’s Arch reading, “You shall see and your heart shall rejoice. Their bones shall flourish like grass,” which appears to be a paraphrase of Isaiah 66:14: “When you see this, your heart will rejoice and you will flourish like grass.”

Mazar, writes granddaughter Dr. Eilat Mazar, today a leading Israeli archaeologist, believed the inscription to have been written by the few Jews who, in Emperor Julian’s day in 363 CE, were briefly allowed back into the city to rebuild the Temple. Others, she writes, tie the inscription to mass burials about a meter and a half below it, which took place in 900 CE.

A 19th century image of Robinson’s Arch. (public domain)

Standing in the Davidson Archaeological Park near the Western Wall today, visitors are struck by the Herodian road, the shops that sold sacrifices to pilgrims on their way to the Temple Mount, and a 1st century CE cornerstone fallen from the wall above inscribed with, “the trumpeting place.” The stone arguably indicates where priests may have sounded the entrance of the Sabbath and holidays during the days of the Second Temple.

What is currently covered up?

Archaeologist Prof. Ronny Reich uncovered the section of the park that is adjacent to the current egalitarian prayer platform in excavations there from 1994 -1996. Reich told The Times of Israel that while the road and other finds are significant, the in-situ rubble of the destroyed massive wall is of unparalleled importance.

“This is the only place where you can touch, experience, become excited by the very impressive stone collapse from the destruction of the Second Temple,” said Reich. He said it has incomparable educational, emotional and historical value that is unmatched by any other in the country.

A family celebrates a bar mitzva at the small egalitarian prayer platform at the Robinson’s Arch, July 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

When Reich excavated this area of the site, the entire roadway next to the wall was covered by these massive ashlar stones. A portion of these stones, the heaviest of which weighed some 14 tons, were lifted out by a crane, so archaeologists could study the debris from beneath. But a decision was made to merely dig around the section that remains today, and leave a visceral reminder of the wide-spread razing of ancient Jerusalem.

Today, the small 12-meter-wide egalitarian prayer platform in the north corner of the Robinson’s Arch area that is adjacent to the Western Wall covers over a portion of these ancient stones, which are now inaccessible to the public. Visitors on this platform can also see, in a corner adjacent to the wall and the Mughrabi Bridge, a pier that was excavated by Mazar and shows many other deeper courses of the Western Wall. Now it is used as a de facto garbage can.

The second, much larger “temporary” platform erected in 2014 by then-Jerusalem Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett covers much more territory, and therefore more antiquity.

According to Reich, who excavated this area, much of what is covered comes from the Byzantine (Christian Roman) and early Muslim periods, although there is also still some evidence of Second Temple shops similar, but less preserved than what is on display directly under Robinson’s Arch.

A 1st century inscription found in Robinson’s Arch reads, ‘The trumpeting place.’ (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

In his 1980 aricle, Mazar writes that between the series of arches that supported the staircase were shops of the Lower Market. “We found the remains of these shops as well as some of their contents: stone vessels, weights, pottery and coins,” noting one of Emperor Agrippa I, who ruled from 41–44 CE. “We may assume that the shops served those coming to the Temple, pilgrims in particular.

Is the evidence of destruction being destroyed?

Both Reich and Bahat said that none of the antiquities covered by the prayer platforms have been caused irreparable damage — so far.

At the same time, Bahat called the Ezrat Yisrael platform built by Bennet “ugly,” and that “the dirt underneath is unbelievable.” The construction of the platform is “inserting an artificial element into an archaeological site.”

“It’s as if, suddenly in the middle of Beit Shean, they’ll build a big platform to celebrate [the Moroccan Jewish holiday of] mimuna,” he said, or, at Tel Megiddo “to put up a platform to celebrate Allenby’s victory. Can you imagine such a thing?”

Attorney Amnon Lorch (courtesy)

According to Bahat’s attorney, Amnon Lorch, the former Chairman of the East Jerusalem Development Company, 250,000 visit the archaeological park annually. “Instead of seeing the awesome site that was there until a few years ago, today they see the porch with the umbrellas that looks like an entrance to a swimming pool in the Bahamas. It is a complete desecration of the site.”

For Lorch, the matter is both professional and personal. He worked there as a volunteer in the massive excavations. All the site’s unique archaeological glory will be covered, he said, “because maybe someone will pray there? The fact of the matter is that a few thousand yearly pay there, whereas hundreds of thousands pay tickets into the park. There must be a balance of public interests.”

Lorch’s case targets the IAA, which he claimed was formed as an independent authority to defend the antiquities of the People of Israel. “That’s their job, their mission, their legal obligation,” he said. Instead, “they have bent their head before the politicians at the whim of the prime minister who, after the government froze the decision to build the porch there, gave an order to build it.”

In his case, Lorch references past IAA heads’ statements fending off previously planned construction. Likewise, he claims that the current platforms do not have the required Jerusalem municipality building permits, nor the approval of the recently headline-making ministerial committee on Holy Places, which has yet to sign off on the project.

But more than anything, in speaking with The Times of Israel, Lorch sounded personally betrayed by the government, which is overlooking its heritage and the preservation of it.

“If the Polish would have done a thing like this to Auschwitz, the [Israeli] government and the Jewish people would have gone crazy,” he said. “But here we’re taking the destruction of the Second Temple,” he stopped the sentence there, apparently astounded.

The IAA as ‘protectors’ of Israel’s ancient past

The IAA of yesteryear also used such strong language in fending off the archaeological site from encroaching construction. Today, it takes a much more pragmatic approach.

Attorney Firas Badhe, legal advisor for IAA, spoke with The Times of Israel this week about the Bahat case and evaluated its chances of success as slim. It is not the first time Bahat has petitioned on similar grounds, he said.

A Spanish-speaking teen tour rests on the Robinson’s Arch prayer platform, April 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

There is no finalized construction plan, said Badhe, and there won’t be one until the IAA is satisfied it can preserve and protect the antiquities there. The IAA is further making sure that the archaeology is as accessible as possible to the public — both what is uncovered now, and what may be revealed in the future.

“If something is found in the [building] process, then the planning must accommodate the new finds,” said Badhe.

A glimpse at an architectural simulation of the provisional plans indicate that the new platform will be much higher than the current one, allowing for much more access to the massive stone rubble from the Temple Mount. Likewise, the platform will basically maintain its size on the portion closest to the Western Wall, and gradually fan out over the now temporary prayer section. There, the plans indicate that it will be slightly more narrow, potentially allowing for visual access to the pilgrimage shops’ remains.

The temporary, larger prayer platform at the Robinson’s Arch, July 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

Badhe confirmed that the current provisional plan shows more accessibility, but repeatedly emphasized that there will be no final approval until all professional checks, including consultations with archaeologists and engineers are completed.

“We promise more accessibility and promise that the antiquities will not be harmed… We are standing guard,” he said.

Badhe said that many archaeologists are divided over the platform’s construction due to a misunderstanding of the planned work.

“It is a very sensitive place, we are very carefully working towards a solution that will promise preservation and accessibility — and not according to how the petitioners conceive of what will be harmed,” he said.

This construction is where the new, much wider entrance is planned for the renovations and permanent prayer platform at the Robinson’s Arch, July 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

Archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, who has vocally stated her opposition to the construction, when learning that the construction will be much higher than the current platform, cautiously said that it appears the planners are taking the archaeologists’ concerns into account. “The important thing is to expose [the rubble]. Even if they take one more meter and raise the whole section — it is very significant,” she said.

Reich was even more enthusiastic. “If it will be higher, we will get an underground space where visitors can see it [the rubble] exactly as it was. See and touch, without having to crouch down,” he said.

As for the covered pilgrimage shops and some ritual baths which may be inaccessible in the new plan, he said, “It’s all a question of proportion. If there are already shops on one side, will whether there’s another shop or two on the other side change the picture?” he asked.

What’s needed in addressing the the evidence of Second Temple Roman destruction of the capital of the Jewish people, according to Reich, is an agreement that allows parties to overcome their ongoing, factionalizing conflicts and live together in peace.

Wryly using a Latin phrase, Reich said, “Really, it’s a matter of modus vivendi.”

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COMMENTS

(Philosophy Poem) Fear, Anger, And Life

FEAR, ANGER, AND LIFE

 

My heart my heart, how faint are thee

Throbbing, pulsing, connecting my life to Soul

Will you desert me now in this moment of many tears

Do I bow down now for my first time to a local Societies Deity

We all need be sure to Whom it is whose heart we so wish to please

Heart given to Light our Soul freed like an Eagle on a mountain breeze

 

We were all born Alpha in your own life, our’s to give or to keep

To Whom do we bow our head and Soul, to whose Throne is worthy to be

The most precious Jewels of our life, have we ever given so another could live

O Spiritual Soul why would you cower here to another, who is it that you host

Use your Spine, you are not a sterile seed, but a Vine in the lineage of future History

Stare in your mirror, deep eye to eye, your Soul is looking too, can you see, that is you

 

Life is filled with beauty though clouds sometimes do skew our Spiritual view

Humans must hold dear to love, let it overflow heartaches, melting our fears

As we all spin with the Sun, anger sometimes inevitable in the human cycle of life

Dust to dust, too late, if fear or anger ruled our day, and the dreams of our nights

O Heart, O Soul, while air of blue sky from the thought’s of God you still breathe

When a Heart is given in Love, fear only your losing the giver of the heart their of

 

Soul are you one whose Heart’s Beam gives the World no light of which to see

Fear only the darkness of He who stealthily can steal your Soul’s light and love

Andes gives Light to knowledge, Aramaic buried one through nine long ago

Could Ten be The End, when two come down to die by The Weeping Wall, then live

Many of us walk through this life bathed in Light, yet with our eyes tightly closed

Don’t be a coward, angry at any and all, diluted to the beauty of God’s gifts within

 

Stand Up For Israel Against The UN’s Ignorance, Stupidity And Cowardliness

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE INTERNATIONAL FELLOWSHIP OF CHRISTIANS AND JEWS)

Standing for Israel’s Biblical History

October 20, 2016

Dear Friend of Israel

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, was formed in 1945 in a world that had just been torn apart by a devastating war. It was founded with worthy aspirations: to foster peace and respect for human rights through the promotion of education, science, and culture.

Somewhere along the line, UNESCO lost its way. Like its parent organization, it became dominated by countries that showed no respect for peace or human rights, and that displayed an overwhelming hatred toward one particular nation: Israel.

This hatred was displayed again recently, when UNESCO passed an absurd resolution denying the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount and Western Wall in Jerusalem. By adopting this resolution, UNESCO denies what all Christians and Jews, and all people with any knowledge of history, know already: Jewish claims to a home in the Holy Land, and to Jewish holy sites located there, have an irrefutable biblical, historical, and political basis.

First and foremost is the biblical claim that God promised the land to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 13:15). Second, there has been an uninterrupted Jewish presence in the Holy Land for thousands of years. Third, numerous international agreements and resolutions have conferred political and legal legitimacy on the Jewish state. And finally, there is the fact that Jews, through vast amounts of hard work and ingenuity, made Israel the vibrant, successful, productive nation that it is today.

By denying Judaism’s claim to these sites, UNESCO violates the very principles of religious tolerance and pluralism that the organization professes to champion. It also supports a radical Islamist agenda that states Jews have no legitimate claim to these sites – the resolution refers to Israel as “the occupying Power” and references Israeli “escalating aggressions,” with no reference to Arab terrorism. It fosters a culture of hatred against and misinformation about Israel, and makes peace that much more difficult to attain.

This appalling and biased resolution must be challenged. Today, I ask you to sign our petitiondemanding that UNESCO repeal it, and forward the petition to your friends, family, and church members. By doing so, you’ll be adding more voices to the vast chorus of freedom-loving people who recognize Israel for what it is: a bastion of democracy in the midst of the tyrannical regimes of the Middle East.

Israel needs our prayers now more than ever, so please act today. And continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and for the day when UNESCO, the United Nations, and the entire world will treat Israel as a full and equal member of the community of nations.

With prayers for shalom, peace,


Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President