A holy site for Muslims and Jews

temple mount from aboveTalk about tiptoeing around the elephant in the living room.

Scores of mainstream journalists are literally trying to walk through a war zone as they cover the current clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians angered by a project to expand some of the pedestrian ramps used by people entering Temple Mount section of Jerusalem. This seems like a rather straightforward story to me, and one of the crucial elements has to be telling readers why this particular location is so important to Muslims and to Jews.

Apparently this task is harder than I thought. Take, for example, the report by Scott Wilson of the Washington Post Foreign Service. The lede says that this conflict centers on “one of this city’s holiest sites.” Later, we are told that the construction work is near “Haram al-Sharif, a complex of 7th-century mosques and olive groves known by Jews as the Temple Mount.” Thus:

The foreign minister of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic nation, demanded that Israel immediately halt the work here near the al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven, the third-holiest site in Islam.

… Israeli crews began work this week on a damaged access ramp that leads from the Western Wall plaza, where Jews pray at the base of the Temple Mount, to the Mugrabi Gate. The entrance, one of eight to the mosque complex, is used by Israeli soldiers and tourists to reach the plateau where the Second Temple stood until its destruction in A.D. 70.

In other words, if the story states that this is the third-holiest site in Islam, it would also be good to state — perhaps even as high up in the story — that this conflict centers on the holiest site in Judaism. These two facts must be presented together for readers to understand the emotions and history involved in this story. Right?

Actually, the language used in the New York Times report by Greg Myre is much better, although the section I am about to quote comes quite a ways down in the story — just before the end. It would have been good to have some kind of precise reference higher up in the text.

Perhaps the assumption is that anyone reading foreign news in this day and age is the kind of reader who already knows this information (audible sigh). Anyway, Myre does tell us:

The walkway, which is adjacent to the Western Wall, is used primarily by tourists and some Jews to visit the mosque compound, which is built atop the ruins of the biblical Temples.

The walkway was damaged by a snowstorm and an earthquake three years ago and needed to be repaired, according to the Israelis. … The office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a statement on Thursday that the renovations “do not constitute any damage to the Mount or Islamic holy places.”

. . . But the site is so holy to Jews and Muslims that any action by either side tends to provoke howls of protest. Many Palestinians claim that the Israelis want to destroy the mosque complex and build a new Temple. While some fringe Jewish groups have expressed that desire, the Israeli government says the compound will remain a place for Muslim worship, as it has been for most of the last 1,300 years.

That’s enough information, in a daily news report of this length.

I have received some emails from people who say they have seen or heard reports in which there is no material whatsoever about the importance of this site in Jewish tradition and history. Does anyone have any URLs for such a story? Perhaps there are wire reports out there in which the final paragraphs of a longer story have been cut off?

Hey, at least — so far — I have not seen a mainstream news report that links the violence to the influence of the Left Behind novels on U.S. foreign policy. Then again, I have not been listening to the BBC.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    In such a tinder-dry explosive location, maybe there is a technical solution as this story suggests. It’s sad but not expected that there is suspicion of what seems to be a sensible idea.
    (I’m not going to blockquote this story because I think that is what has gotten some of my posts to disappear into spam purgatory).


    Israel considering Internet solution for controversial repair project

    JERUSALEM Israel is considering a high-tech solution to allay Muslim fears at a contentious holy site in Jerusalem.
    A spokeswoman for the Israeli Antiquities Authority says the group is looking into installing Internet cameras and broadcasting a 24-hour video from a shrine that’s getting repair work.

    An Israeli lawmaker says the cameras could allow “all the Arab world” to see what’s going on at the site.

    However, the head of a Muslim group that oversees the complex is calling the camera proposal “ridiculous.”

  • http://www.acton.org/blog/ Jordan

    I heard a BBC radio news report yesterday on this. In the body of the report it noted the importance of the site for both Jews and Muslims. It struck me after the piece, however, when they do the brief line-item summaries of the latest news, that the summary said conflict centered around an area only identified as the third-holiest site for Muslims.

    This struck me as very odd, considering that it would only have taken 2-3 more seconds to have added that it is also the holiest site for Jews. I would think this would have greatly increased the interest-value for the story as well as adding greater depth and texture to the blurb.

  • Dale

    A couple of comments:

    1. Neither story provided a map or any kind of measurement that would disclose how far the work was from the mosques. That makes it difficult to determine the validity of the Muslim protests.

    2. Neither story discusses that the Waqf (the Muslim organization that controls the area of the temple platform) has established several new mosques in the area during the past ten or so years, has excavated portions of the temple mount and disposed of debris without notifying the Israeli government.

    3. A new minaret is scheduled to be constructed on the mount in 2007, funded by the King of Jordan.

    When the article doesn’t mention these facts, the reader is left with the impression that the Israeli government’s actions disturb a status quo. In fact, there has been a number of changes over the years on the temple mount, the majority of them brought about by the Waqf.

    That puts the behavior of the Palestinian protestors in a much more questionable light.

  • http://nickdupree.blogspot.com Nick Dupree

    As one of the few Jewish readers here, I want to emphasize that YES, the Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple) is the holiest site in Judaism! It is central in Jewish liturgy!

  • ScottAln2

    Thank you for catching this bias. Yahoo! news used the words “muslim holy site” in their link to an AP story this morning, and I was thinking it was a jewish holy site first!
    This slanting of stories is shameful.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    And though it isn’t the most important peice of earth to Christians, it still ranks as a Christian holy place. We believe the visible presence of God (the Shekinah) resided there, that Isaiah had a vision there, that an archangel appeard to a priest there to annouce the that John the Baptist was going to be born, that Jesus preached there, etc.

  • Jerry

    I read something that explains the uproar to me – one Muslim group said it’s not about what Israel is doing but about control; that is, who gets to decide what happens in that area.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I was one of the e-mailers who pointed out an almost complete lack of mention of the Jewish holy site. What I was looking at wasn’t online but on the AP wire feed that comes into the paper where I work. In other words, it was the complete story before cutting down for space. The sole mention of the Jewish veneration for the Temple was in the final sentence, which was isolated in its own paragraph as an afterthought. Hence, it would have been the first thing trimmed for space when it went to print.

  • Don Neuendorf

    Oddly, when the Jews were upset because of Muslim excavations at the Temple Mount, I never saw any news coverage of the issue outside of Biblical Archeology Review. Perhaps because no one was afraid that the Jews would start blowing things up.