December 30, 2000 Update

Letters from Israel


Saturday, December 30, 2000

Dear Family and Friends,

This Shabbat I was in central Jerusalem with a visiting relative and as I try to do as often as possible, I went to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall, one of the supporting walls which are all that remain of the ancient Temple complex destroyed almost 2000 years ago by the Romans. This wall is the closest Jews can come today to our holiest site, the Temple Mount itself, which is now the site of Muslim shrines built in the 7th century.

I am always awed by walking in ancient Jerusalem, and especially when standing and praying next to those ancient stones of the wall my ancestors built millennia ago. Of course it is a cliche to wonder at what those stones have only witnessed, but all the same, I cannot help but think of that whenever I am there. These stones which my forefathers walked past on their pilgrimages to the Temple - who knows, perhaps some of my ancestors were even priests in the Temple, or market vendors selling pottery and livestock to the pilgrims.

Even more so than the stones though, the mount which they support, the Temple Mount itself, is a physical symbol of the eternal Jewish people, the very soul of the Jewish nation. Three times a day I face the Temple Mount in prayer, just as my Jewish forebears have done for millennia. Thousands of years ago, this is the site on which the Temple stood, the centre and symbol of Jewish religious life, political sovereignty and freedom, the centre of the Jewish universe to which Jews made at least three pilgrimages a year. Centuries before Christianity or Islam even existed, my ancestors came to offer sacrifices at this site, recited Hebrew prayers at this site - the very same Psalms in the same language that I recited today by the remains of the Western Wall. And when invaders destroyed the Temple and forced the Jews into a millennia long exile, wherever they have wandered in the world, whether they were exiled to Babylon, Egypt, Spain, Russia, Britain, Iran, the USA or anywhere else, Jews have turned to face the Temple Mount and pray for a return to Zion and the redemption of the Jewish people.

Even more than the ancient stones, I am awed at the fact that I have been granted the privilege to stand right next to Judaism's holiest site, to look up upon the Mount itself, a site which for centuries millions of Jews have longed to see even just once in their lifetime, and which I can look upon with my own eyes whenever I choose to take the bus into Jerusalem.

No Jews are allowed to go up to the Mount itself, not since the intifada began in late September, sparked allegedly by a Jewish Israeli politician visiting the site. Following the 7th century Muslim Arab conquest of the Holy Land the Muslims built a mosque and shrine on the ruins of the Temple, claiming it as their own holy site and refusing to share the site with the Jews. For that matter, in modern times they refuse to even acknowledge that this is indeed a Jewish holy site at all, insisting that it is only holy for Muslims and that Jews have no history here. In order to avoid antagonising the Muslim world, Israel, since gaining control of the site from Jordan during the Six Day War, has granted the Muslim religious authorities control of the Temple Mount, forbidding Jews to pray at our holiest place in the world.

The Muslim authorities don't even really like Jews to visit the site, following around Jews who do so in case they try to mumble a prayer when no one is looking. It they catch you trying to pray they call the Israeli police and haul you off the site, or, if you're really unlikely they might beat you up. Muslim kids can play football on this holy site, non-Jewish visitors can picnic here, tourists can click their cameras and marvel at the beautiful Muslim shrines here, but Jews may not pray here.

Well, that's the way it is, the closest we can get is a building near the Mount which looks down onto it, or we can sneak up disguised as foreign tourists and whisper a prayer in our hearts while pretending to admire the view or photograph the golden Dome of the Rock, but it's better than nothing. At least we can freely get close and pray at the Western Wall below. Thirty-four years ago we couldn't even do this because the whole area was under Jordanian control and Jews were not allowed into Jerusalem's Old City at all. Today, except on the rare occasions when Palestinians riot on the Temple Mount and throw rocks down onto Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, Jews can freely visit at least the Western Wall.

Well, at least for now I can go and gaze up upon the Mount whenever I want to. At least for now. There is a reason that I'm writing all this, and it isn't because I suddenly feel like waxing romantic about Jewish history. It's because suddenly a Jewish Israeli government is on the verge of doing the unthinkable - signing away the Temple Mount and most of the surrounding Old City to the Palestinians. So you say, I've just written that we don't really control the Temple Mount anyway, and at least we'll still have the Western Wall, what's the big deal? Well, here is the big deal. The Temple Mount is the focus of Jewish prayers, at the core of the Jewish soul, it is the heart of the Jewish nation, the nexus of Jewish identity, the symbol of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem - it is in short big. A place like that is not something that you consider giving up even to a friendly neighbour who recognises your religious and historic rights to the site, let alone to a supposed "peace partner" who is right now acting more like an enemy and who denies that the site even has any connection to the Jewish people.

Right now Muslims are free to worship at the site, security permitting, Jews are in theory allowed to at least visit the site. If it comes under Palestinian control Jews won't even be able to visit, as was the case when it was under Jordanian rule. Aside from that, though today Jews may not be able to pray on the Temple Mount, the police guarding the area, protecting the Western Wall below from possible attacks from the Temple Mount above, are Israeli police. How would people feel about going to pray at the Western Wall knowing that instead there were Palestinian police up there, the ones who are currently taking potshots at Israeli homes and vehicles. Shall we say that Israelis don't really feel that comfortable with the idea?

And now you understand why it was that this morning I not only prayed at the Western Wall, I also wept at the Western Wall. Also known as the Wailing Wall, it is here that ever since the Temple was destroyed Jews have come and wept as they suffered the terrors and indignities of foreign rule and exile. Today for the first time in my life I joined the millions of Jews who have come to this wall and cried their hearts out. As I looked up at the Mount, looked at the Israeli police ensuring my safety, at the other Jews praying around me, I wondered sadly if this would be one of the last times I could come here freely and openly as an Israeli and as a Jew.

This week we celebrated Chanukah, commemorating the day some 2200 years ago when the Maccabees recaptured the Holy Temple from the pagan Syrian-Greek occupiers and rededicated it for Jewish worship. This Chanukah, for the first time, a government of the modern State of Israel voted to endorse a plan which would relinquish sovereignty over the site of the Temple to Israel's enemies.

If the Clinton agreement goes through the Western Wall and the adjacent Jewish Quarter of the Old City will become an isolated Israeli enclave surrounded by Palestinian-controlled areas. Israel will be allowed access to the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall via a narrow corridor along one edge of the Old City. According to the agreement the Palestinians will be obligated to allow Israelis free access to these sites.

In theory it sounds good enough - if Israel were signing an agreement with Switzerland perhaps. Unfortunately Israel is negotiating with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. They have already been granted control of other Jewish holy sites which under the Oslo agreements they were bound to protect and allow free Jewish access to. So far they have ransacked Joseph's Tomb in Nablus/Shechem and built a mosque in its place and set fire to the ancient Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue in Jericho. The Palestinian minister in charge of religious affairs pledges that when they get control of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the burial place of Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leiah, they will not allow Jews to visit. The Palestinian press crows about how they hope to wrest Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem from Jewish control and do to it as they did to Joseph's Tomb. Palestinian negotiators refuse even to acknowledge that the Jews have any ties, historical, religious or otherwise, to the Temple Mount. This doesn't sound like peace to me. It certainly doesn't sound like people I want to entrust any more Jewish holy sites to, guarantees or no guarantees.

We've been through this before though. In the 1948-49 War of Independence the Jordanians took the Old City and besieged the Jewish Quarter whose defenders were eventually forced to surrender, and the surviving Jews were expelled from the Old City. Under the armistice agreement which ended the war Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan, with the Jordanians granted control of the Old City, including all the Jewish holy sites. Officially Jordan was to grant Jews free access to the Western Wall. In practice Israelis were not allowed to enter Jordanian-held Jerusalem and during 19 years of Jordanian rule Jews could not pray at their holy sites, including the Western Wall. In addition the Jordanians systematically desecrated Jewish holy sites, destroying almost every synagogue in the Old City and using the tombstones from the ancient Jewish cemetery on the nearby Mount of Olives to pave roads and build homes and latrines. Last year I worked as an editor for a professor writing a book on the history of this period, of divided Jerusalem from 1949 to 1967. It does not make for comforting reading.

Usually I come to the Old City with a sense of wonder, My mind reels with verses about Jerusalem from the bible, Jewish prayers and modern Hebrew literature. King David, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi and Naomi Shemer's words resound in my ears. I look up at the Western Wall and the Temple Mount above and I think of my great-grandparents and their great-grandparents and all the pious and learned Jews in generations before me, far more righteous than I, who have not merited to stand before this most sacred of all places. My heart fills with gratitude that I can so easily and freely visit the place for which my people have yearned for millennia. Today I wondered whether my children will ever stand where I stood today. Whether, please God, when I am old and grey I will be able to come and pray here like the elderly lady by my side. I wondered whether even in a few months time, this Pesah, one of the three pilgrimage festivals on which Jews from all over flock to Jerusalem, I will be able to come here as I do every pilgrimage festival. How could I help but weep at the prospect of a millennia-old prayer, a realised millennia-old prayer, being dashed, not by an enemy, but by our own Jewish Israeli government under pressure from America and Europe.

At the end of minha prayers on Shabbat afternoon many have the custom to recite Psalms 120-134. I managed the first few clearly, and then the tears began to come, slowly at first, and then uncontrollably as I read on. "My soul has had its fill of dwelling with those who hate peace. I am peace, but they are for war... I rejoiced when they said to me we will go to the House of God. Our feet stood within your gates, oh Jerusalem... Pray for the peace of Jerusalem... Peace be within your precincts and your palaces. For the sake of my brothers and friends I will say peace be yours... May God bless you from Zion and may you see the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life."

How can I read that in today's Jerusalem and not weep?

As I sat and cried over my siddur (prayer book) a young mother who was asking worshippers to offer special prayers for a seriously ill relative came and sat by me. "Everyone has her own burden to bear" she said. "It is forbidden to weep on Shabbat, we must rejoice the best we can." I tried to find a way to rejoice on the Sabbath but I have never been more frightened for the future of Israel.

Shavu'a tov,



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Copyright 2000 by Leiah Elbaum.