Politics, gay marriage, entertainment news, separation of church and state -- sure, these things get our attention. But the continual clash of faiths in Jerusalem -- a conflict that may yet overwhelm us all -- gets comparatively little coverage.
Except for a searching, savvy story by Reuters on who gets to pray on the Temple Mount -- and what happens if they can't have it for themselves.
What happens, as Reuters reports, is a series of tense incidents as religious Jews climb the stairs to the mountain -- called the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims -- and attempt to pray. Worst cases have included the five-year riot known as the Second Intifada, which sent 4,000 people to their deaths.
Even between riots, a Jewish terrorist group some years back tried to blow up the Dome of the Rock. And last October, Reuters says, a spokesman for Temple Mount groups was shot four times and spent 10 days in a coma.
Although this story is in labeled as a blog item, it's written as a sophisticated newsfeature, with a clear attempt at balance. But even in 2,300 words, it misses or discolors a few points. We'll get to that in a few.
"There are few patches of land more contested than this 35 acres," Reuters says, and truer words were never written. The article paints a vivid picture of being there on a near-confrontation: a visit of "religious-nationalist Jews" to the mountain, shadowed closely by Israeli police and guards of the Waqf, the Islamic trust that runs the area:
On one recent visit, a pious Jewish teenager, yarmulke on his head and long curls hanging either side of his face, fell to the ground in the act of prayer. Police quickly hoisted him to his feet and warned that he would be thrown out if he tried to pray again.
As the group passed in front of Al-Aqsa mosque, the police urged them not to get too close. Several ignored the warnings and stepped towards the portico, where Muslim men and women enter via separate doorways.
A group of women in headscarves and veils began shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Greatest”) at the top of their voices, protesting the group’s presence.
As the Jewish group moved away from the mosque into a grove of trees on the eastern edge of the plaza, it was left alone, allowing surreptitious prayer to begin.
Reuters tells us much of what's at stake, although mostly in a sidebar. The sidebar says the compound is the site of the long-razed Jewish Temple, with only the retaining Western Wall left. The area is also the present locale of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the "third holiest site in Islam." Finally, the area also includes the Dome of the Rock, "at the point where the Prophet Mohammad is said to have ascended to heaven."
The story carefully quotes Jewish and Muslim leaders alike -- from the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, to the rabbi who created the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation, to an Israeli police official, to an Arab guard at one of the 11 gates to the site. I have to admit that it's more balanced than my 1991 Hanukkah story, which surveyed Temple Mount movements but not their Muslim opponents.
Here, Reuters quotes Yehuda Glick, the Temple Mount activist who was shot four times:
“I respect the Muslims’ right to pray,” he told Reuters as he recovered from his injuries. “But there is no reason in the world that at the only holy place for the Jewish people, a Jew should not have the right to pray.
“The Temple Mount is the holiest place in the world according to the Bible and there should be freedom to pray for all believers – Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
Reuters also quotes Mohammad Ahmed Hussein, who is both the grand mufti and the head of the Waqf:
“No one but Muslims are allowed to perform any kind of prayers at Al-Aqsa,” he told Reuters, referring to the compound rather than just the mosque itself.
“Jewish prayer at Al-Aqsa is not so much an insult as it is an aggression. If Jews try to pray at Al-Aqsa, it will only create more tensions in the region.”
But the previous grand mufti, Ikrema Sabri, sounded like he wanted to prohibit Jews from even praying at the Western Wall. "There was never a Jewish temple on Al-Aksa," Sabri told the Jerusalem Post in 2007. "The wall is not part of the Jewish temple. It is just the western wall of the mosque ... And no Jews have the right to pray at the mosque."
Does Hussein think the same way? Reuters should have asked.
As sweeping as this story is, I looked in vain for a couple of items. Besides the Temple Mount groups, there are more businesslike groups like El-Ir David and American Friends of Ateret Kohanim, which are buying Arab properties inside the Old City in order to make Jerusalem Jewish once more. Reuters may have omitted them in order to keep focused on the Al-Aqsa compound. Still, both types of groups are part of a campaign to create a Jewish majority in the Old City.
I also note that these articles accuse the Temple Mount activists of "provoking" violence, like the Second Intifada. Arab rioters weren't responsible for their actions. It was all the fault of Israelis for provoking them.
Last month, for instance, fights broke out when 30,000 Jews marched through the Old City. Reuters cites unnamed Palestinians and "left-wing Israelis" blaming the marchers for the violence. What evil deed were the marchers doing? Parading to the Western Wall for Jerusalem Day.
So yes, Reuters produced a searching, savvy newsfeature on the claims and counter-claims to those 35 contested acres. I just wish they'd searched a bit more.