Jerusalem’s Sacred Mount can unite or divide the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
By Henry Bucher, Associate Professor Emeritus of Humanities, Austin College
Aug 3, 2017
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Jerusalem has been the center of controversy 118 times since 1350 BCE! In relation to the three Abrahamic faiths, tradition has Abraham about to sacrifice his son (at God’s command) on the very spot where (the golden) Dome of the Rock was completed in 691 CE under the Umayyad Caliphate. The “rock” is visible through a glass window on the floor. That a ram was provided at the last minute as an alternative sacrifice has enormous significance for the three faiths.

Also on the mount is the Al-Aqsa mosque first built in 705 CE.  Islamic tradition has Muslims, under the Prophet Mohammed’s direction, praying towards “the farthest mosque” (al-Aqsa) until he had the prayers directed toward the Kaaba in Mecca.

In recent history, after the U.N. General Assembly Partition Resolution (November 29, 1947), which divided Palestine between Jews and Arabs; and Israel’s proclamation of independence ((May 14, 1948), an armed struggle emerged between the Jewish forces (which had been in guerrilla warfare with British forces since the end of World War One), and the Jordanian army. So heated was the battle for Jerusalem, that a truce was drawn to save lives and to preserve the universally recognized holy site of Jerusalem’s old city.

The agreement between the new state of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan put the “old city” under Jordanian control with the Jordanian/Palestinian-led Islamic Waqf as administrator of the Sacred Mount. After the 1967 war, Israeli forces took all of Jerusalem and the West Bank of the Jordan, including the historic “old city,” but the Sacred Mount was left under the administration of the Waqf, while the “Western Wall” (Kotel) below became the place for Jews to pray. The Israel/Jordan peace treaty (1994) noted in Article 9 that Israel would continue to recognize the special role of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem.

The Sacred Mount continues to be a place of volatile activity, especially when Israeli troops were called to “restore order.” In 2000, Ariel Sharon, entered the area with armed soldiers. Palestinians argue that their response to Sharon was the beginning of the “Second Intifada” (violent uprising). The Western Wall continues to be a major source of conflict within Israel’s Jewish community and among those Jews in the USA who support Israel. Up to today, the disputes have been between Orthodox, Reform and Conservative views relating to who can pray where at the wall. Gender is one of the many issues, especially among the several branches of Orthodoxy.

Some ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are pushing for their right to pray also at the Sacred Mount and some want to replace the Dome of the Rock with the Third Temple. The Israeli government has been effective in thwarting their attempts, but cannot stop them from making paramental accessories for the day they hope for: the building of the Third Temple.

A major question behind these issues is: “What is the role of international law, and who will enforce it?” Particularly sensitive is the UN’s Security Council Resolution 242 (after the 1967 conflict) calling on Israel to return to the pre-1967 borders in exchange for peace. The most controversial aspect of this “land for peace” resolution is that it was passed unanimously: the first time the USA voted against those parties in Israel who were committed to expanding their new state. Today’s official position of the US confirms Resolution 242, but any action by Israel challenging it usually receives a mild rebuke along the lines of Israel “is not being helpful in attaining peace.”

Meanwhile Jerusalem, which was administered as an international area under four hundred years of Ottoman rule (ending in 1919), and was reaffirmed as a corpus separatum by the UN General Assembly Resolution 303 on Jerusalem ((1949), continues to be the vortex of controversy by those who see the city as exclusively sacred to their faith. Many proposals exist for a shared Jerusalem, but power is on the side of Israel’s Likud government and its Orthodox backers. The role of the US in “the peace process” after the 2016 elections is yet undetermined.