The author of a controversial new Palestinian Authority report says his claim that the Western Wall is not a Jewish historic site does not constitute Palestinian propaganda but is rather an attempt to educate world Jewry.
“I want to speak to all Jews and say — this wall is not for you; it’s for the Muslims,” Al-Mutawakel Taha, the PA’s Deputy Minister of Information, told the Forward. “I want to tell this to all Jews in all of the world.”
Taha, who is politically aligned with — though not a member of — the Fatah faction of the PA led by President Mahmoud Abbas, said during the November 23 interview that he “didn’t bring anything from my own ideas – everything mentioned in this study is written in books and documents.” But critics were quick to point out basic shortcomings, such as the fact that an edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia that Taha cites as one of his main sources does not exist.
The report, which Taha describes as a work of scholarship, was also published not in a peer reviewed scholarly journal but released on the website of his own Information Ministry on November 22. It has provoked an outcry in Israel, from peace activists on the left to nationalists on the right. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as “reprehensible and scandalous.”
Netanyahu, who publicized his reaction in a statement sent to journalists, condemned the document as a setback for the chances of peace. “When the Palestinian Authority denies the link between the Jewish People and the Western Wall, it calls into serious question its intentions of reaching a peace agreement, the foundations of which are coexistence and mutual recognition,” he said.
The Arabic language report argues that historical research proves that the Wall is a part of the Al-Aksa Mosque owned by a Muslim family, and that Jewish attachment to the site is a new phenomenon. In Taha;s version of events, “there is no evidence that [the Wall was] Jewish before 1840.” Communal Jewish prayer never took place there until 1917, he added.
These assertions contradict statements even Taha makes elsewhere in his own report. In a separate passage he claims that the Wall only became part of Jewish religious tradition around 1520. Taha cites the 1917 edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia as his source for this separate claim. But in fact, on this point, the Jewish Encyclopedia text in circulation that year refers to ancient rabbinic traditions regarding the Wall, and a document of 1333 that suggests that a Jew showed Muslim conquerors the site of the temple upon guarantee that the Wall would remain intact.
“If the Palestinians say this they are discrediting their culture,” Michael Berenbaum, the U.S.-based executive editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica, told the Forward. He said that no Jewish Encyclopedia edition was issued in 1917. Other Jewish scholars across the religious and political spectrum have also reacted with dismay.
Denial of the Wall’s Jewish heritage is not new among Palestinian Authority leaders, who tend to express doubt that the Second Temple itself – which was enclosed by outer walls, the last remaining of which is the Western Wall – ever stood. This doctrine became widespread after then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat insisted during the 2000 Camp David Summit – in contradiction to all Temple-era Jewish sources as well as the New Testament – that the Jerusalem Temple had never existed.
This is, however, the first time that the PA has presented what it bills as a “scientific” report directed against Jewish attachment to the Wall. The impetus, said Taha, was the approval by the Israeli cabinet on November 21 of $23 million for redevelopment of the plaza in front of the Wall. If the Wall is Muslim, he reasoned during his interview, “Israel must leave the features of the Wall as they are,” rendering its plan for the plaza unacceptable. In his document he concluded that no Arab, Muslim or Palestinian should give up ownership claims over a “single stone” of the Wall.
The authorship of the report is significant – not just an anonymous government official but Taha, who in Palestinian society is considered a respected intellectual. A Ramallah-based poet who has published 38 books, 52-year-old Taha headed the General Union of Palestinian Writers and Scholars for two stints totaling 15 years, the second of which ended six months ago.
Taha said that he was able to publish the document so quickly after the Israeli cabinet vote on the plaza redevelopment because he gathered the material some years ago during his postgraduate studies at the University of Jordan and Cairo University. He was researching and writing poetry about the 1929 Palestine Riots, also known as the Western Wall Uprising as violence erupted at the Wall. “Then I started searching for what was the reason for these incidents in 1929; then I discovered that the Jews were fighting for this wall but it has nothing to do with Jewish heritage and does not belong to them.”
Taha insisted that the contents of his document “is history – this is a study that has nothing to do with politics.” But he said that he cannot answer the question of whether there was a Temple. “I’m not a politician to answer you — I’m a poet, a writer.”