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I have many friends who find the New York Times’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be “anti-Israel.”  By this, I think that they mean that given a (surprisingly large) number of possible narratives through which to present a news story, the Times often picks one that lies somewhere within the Palestinian spectrum.  I never really bought this argument.  The Times to me reads somewhat to the right of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.  While the Times maintains a fairly consistent bias, that bias would fit well within the current Israeli spectrum, and not even all that close to the left edge.  So I have not always agreed with the coverage, but it has rarely riled me.  Today’s article by Rick Gladstone, though, Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place, was so misleading and confused that it really got my goat.

The article claims that there is no definitive evidence that the two ancient Jewish temples stood on the present day Temple Mount.  The article strongly implies that this remains a live historical controversy.  The problem with posing the issue that way is that it confuses several distinct historical questions.  Once those questions are teased apart, it is clear that there is actually very little disagreement among professional historians about most of them.  These questions are:

  • Did a Jewish temple stand on the present day Temple Mount?  Yes.  This is as historically certain a fact as one can get in the study of ancient history.  The Temple Mount was built by Herod beginning at the end of the first century BCE – the Western Wall is the western retaining wall of that reshaping of the natural hill – and on top of it were a number of structures that belonged to the Jewish temple.  These included courtyards, altars, and the Holy of Holies.  Now it is true (and has long been recognized even in Jewish law) that we do not know precisely where on the Temple Mount those structures stood, but there is no question that they stood there.
  • Prior to Herod’s renovation of the temple, did it stand at this site?  Almost certainly.  I would give it a 98% possibility.  The second temple was built around 520 BCE and underwent a few renovations before Herod gave it a major overhaul.  If Herod moved the site of the temple we would know, both from the extensive archaeological excavations conducted all around the temple as well from literary sources.  People notice stuff like that.
  • Was the second temple built on the same site as the first?  Here there is scholarly uncertainty.  The first temple was destroyed in 586 BCE along with the entire city of Jerusalem.  When Jews returned from Babylonia to rebuild the temple, were they careful to find the site of the old structure, clear the rubble, and build it on the same exact spot?  It seems likely, but this we really don’t know.  The question is further complicated by the biblical record, in which God never tells Solomon precisely where in Jerusalem he is to build a temple.  It is possible that the precise spot did not matter very much to the Israelites at this time.  If the first temple did not stand within the confines of the present Temple Mount, though, it would have been within a couple of hundred meters.

The historical issues are thus both more complex and far more interesting than Gladstone implies.  But this article is not really about history, it’s about politics.  For some Jews and Muslims, this history really matters: it stakes claims to this plot of land.  Yet to my mind ancient history can never add clarity or provide a solution to the very real and disturbing conflict presently being played out.  It is just too great a burden for history to bear.  Israelis, Jews, Palestinians, Arabs, Christians, and Muslims (overlapping groups that are themselves quite internally diverse) all have legitimate claims and grievances.  To admit the simple historical truth that there was a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount in no way lessens Palestinian claims or grievances or supports Israeli claims to sovereignty.  Denying it equally serves no useful purpose.  By encouraging a broad readership to focus on the ancient history, and by distorting history in order to promote specific claims, stories like this bring us all only further away from peace.