Why is Al-Aqsa inaccessible to Jews? 

World heritage sites should be nondenominational, open to all

Israeli security forces stand guard as a group of Jews enter the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, during the Tisha B’Av, on July 18, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

In April 2016, UNESCO passed a resolution in which the global agency denounced “Israeli aggressions and illegal measures against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to the al-Aqsa Mosque.” In July 2021, the governments of Jordan, Egypt and Turkey condemned Jewish visits to, and prayers at, al-Aqsa, which the Israelis call Temple Mount.

The discrepancy between UNESCO’s call for “freedom of worship” for Muslims and Jordan, Egypt and Turkey’s opposition to “freedom of worship” for Jews, at the same location, is glaring. Why do Muslims get access to al-Aqsa, but not Jews?

The Islamic answer is that the mosque is holy to most Muslims, as stipulated in Islamic — mostly legendary — literature (unless you believe that a pegasus from heaven was actually tied at the Western Wall in the seventh century CE).

Like their Muslim counterparts, the Jews use religious texts as a proof that the spot is also holy to them.

Then each side, the Muslims and the Jews, try to use history and archeology to substantiate their claims. The UN’s cultural arm, UNESCO, is often dragged into the fight, and the global agency rarely uses common sense in its statements, which are dictated by the power of votes of its board members. Whichever side can recruit more members ends up forcing its language on resolutions, which are then treated as history deeds proving ownership.

But no part of this fiasco makes sense. Freedom of worship stipulates that any person, regardless of faith or denomination, should be granted access to any location that UNESCO classifies as “world heritage site.” What prayer visitors then decide to recite, while visiting, is their business.

Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount houses two mosques that are built atop a mound of archaeology that — in all likelihood — was left behind by Jews who lived in this spot around the turn of the Common Era. These were known as the Hasmoneans. 

Israel has invested an extraordinary effort to excavate and preserve this archaeology, most of which is open to visitors of all faiths.

The Islamic mosques on top of the mound should likewise be accessible to everyone. For Islamic rituals, Muslims can seal off a corner here or there, and expect visitors to respect the sanctity of worship, just like historic Christian cathedrals are open, throughout Europe, to tourists, while the faithful go around their worship business without interruption.

Not all Muslims assign much importance to the two Islamic mosques, just like not all Jews think they should ascend to the Temple Mount and pray. To depict both sides as monolithic blocs, each dying to eject the other, is politics, not reality.

And because it is politics, all three governments that denounced Jewish prayer, at al-Aqsa, see their ties with Israel growing stronger. Jordan just asked Israel, and was granted, a request for Israel to double its water supply to Jordan to help alleviate the country’s draught problems. Egypt’s coordination with Israel — to mitigate the miserable situation in Hamas’s Gaza — has been near exemplary, while Turkey’s bilateral trade with Israel nears its all time high.

We know that these governments — Jordan, Egypt and Turkey — are certain that Israel will never allow Jews, or anybody else, to demolish the “word heritage site” al-Aqsa. We also know that these governments value their ties with Israel. 

Yet, the these governments find in religious instigation a good populism pitch to curry favor with their bases. Instead of leading their citizens into accepting diversity and allowing Jews, Christians and others access to al-Aqsa, these governments say what pleases their bigoted audiences, and thus aggravate an already volatile situation.