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The al-Aqsa conspiracy theory redux

The views represented in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of BICOM.

The myth of a “Jewish plot to destroy al-Aqsa” reappears every decade or so to mobilise violence. Its purpose since as far back as 1928 has been to turn a local disadvantage (Palestine Arabs vs Zionist Jews) into a global advantage (Arabs/Muslims vs Jews).

At any sign that the Palestinian cause might be losing its death grip on Arab politics (for example, a possible regional opening to Israel by moderate Arab states), Palestinian leaders will always seek to weaponise the al-Aqsa conspiracy theory.  And it is a testament to the power of this conspiracy theory that it works every time.

The reaction that this conspiracy theory elicits (entering a house and stabbing its residents, for example) should be proof of how pathological it is, but it is currently being processed as proof of how serious the grievance is.

Westerners and liberals will continue to struggle with these issues as long as we fail to distinguish between the two.

The idea that Israel is up to something devilish with al-Aqsa has always stretched the bounds of irony to breaking point, and for at least four reasons, as I wrote in 2016:

First, immediately after conquering the Old City, Israel handed control of the Temple Mount to the Islamic Trust, or Waqf, and forbade any Jewish religious rite on the entire Mount, not just in the mosques, a status quo it has maintained to this day. Read that carefully: The world’s only Jewish state had just scored an astonishing victory over enemies who only days earlier were promising a war of extermination against it and, in the process, liberated the Jewish people’s holiest site — and then promptly handed it over.

Second, conspiracy theories aside, Israel has not conducted any excavations, archaeological or otherwise, under the Mount or the mosques on the Mount. The only large-scale excavation in recent times was carried out by the Islamic Waqf on the site formerly known as Solomon’s Stables, now the El-Marwani Mosque.  The construction of the El-Marwani Mosque on the southeast corner of the Mount, directly adjacent to al-Aqsa, entailed a wanton and unrecoverable destruction of archaeological treasures ranging across three millennia of human patrimony. Unlike the imagined archaeological damage fantasists and fanatics accuse Israel of committing, this was never condemned by UNESCO or any other international body.

Third, Israel does actively restrict the religious rights of worshipers on the Temple Mount—but these are Jews, not Muslims. It forbids any Jewish prayer or religious activity of any kind anywhere on the Mount and limits visits of non-Muslims to a few hours a week. During a particularly tense period from 2000 to 2003, Israel forbade the entry of Jews altogether. No international human rights group has ever protested this entirely prudent denial of religious freedom. It is the visits of Jews in 2014 and 2015 — to the Mount, but never inside the mosques — that is preposterously described in the UNESCO resolution as “storming Al Aqsa”. I guess when you deny that Jews have any reason to want to visit a place, their presence must be described as some kind of invasion. In fact, the only worshipers regularly harassed on the Temple Mount are the few Jews have the temerity to silently visit their faith’s holiest site. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has repeatedly affirmed that it will uphold this status quo, including in Arabic.

Fourth, Israeli control of the Old City of Jerusalem in the last half century has meant that Al Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam, is the rare Islamic holy site not to be a stage for some kind of massacre of Muslim worshipers by one or another rival branch of radical Islam.

Here is one way to summarise the last 12 days. Two Arabs murder Israeli policemen, because they believe in a secret Jewish plot to destroy their holy site.  Violent clashes erupt because of the belief that metal detectors are part of a secret Jewish plot to destroy an Islamic holy site, resulting in three deaths (none by the holy site itself).  A Jewish family is hacked to death during Shabbat dinner by someone who believed that there was a secret Jewish plot to destroy an Islamic holy site and that the family he was murdering were somehow implicated in it by virtue of being Jewish. One thing connects all these events, but I’m not sure anyone could make that connection reading what has passed for intelligent commentary these last two weeks.

Yes, some of us Israelis have criticised our government’s actions as imprudent, but only because they did not properly take into account the potency of this conspiracy theory and its power to mobilise violence.  In other words, it was foolish to place metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount because of the power of the conspiracy theory that Jews are out to destroy a holy site.  And it was prudent to remove them for the same reason.

Shany Mor is an Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard University and an Advisory Editor of FathomThe views represented in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of BICOM.

Main image: cartoon published in the PA official daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida