Islamic authorities managing the Temple Mount attempted to have a veteran Israeli archaeologist ejected from the Jerusalem flashpoint holy site on Sunday for using the term “Temple Mount” in a lecture to American students. Waqf guards brought him to Israeli police at the site to complain, and the police, while saying there were no legal grounds to eject him, advised him to refrain from using the phrase “Temple Mount” for the rest of the group’s visit.
A multi-faith group of students from the University of California, Los Angeles, was visiting the Temple Mount as part of a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories to understand facts on the ground. Dr. Gabriel Barkay was brought in to explain the archaeological history of the site.
Barkay, a veteran Israeli archaeologist, devotes much of his time in recent years to sifting through tons of fill illegally excavated from the Temple Mount by the Waqf — the Islamic endowment charged with administering the flashpoint holy site — in the 1990s.
The incident, which was witnessed by this reporter and which other tour guides said was not without precedent, highlighted ever-present tensions over the nomenclature used at the site, months after Israel furiously protested a UNESCO resolution that refers to The Temple Mount and Western Wall as solely Muslim sites.
The American students were gathered around Barkay just to the northeast of the Al-Aqsa mosque as he was explaining some of the history of the contested holy site, inevitably using the words “Temple Mount” now and again, when he was abruptly interrupted by a man in a black zip-up jacket.
The man was one of two Waqf guards who had been hovering near to the group. A patch on his arm was emblazoned with the gold Dome of the Rock and the words “Guard of Alaqsa Mosque.” A burst of Arabic punctuated with English got his message across: Don’t use the term Temple Mount, the guard barked at Barkay.
The two Waqf guards stayed a couple of meters behind the cluster of students. Barkay, who was seated on a low wall, continued to speak, addressing the history of the site during the Byzantine period, the centuries preceding the Islamic conquest of the region.
In passing, he once again referred to the site as the Temple Mount; its Arabic name is Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. Incensed, the guards interrupted once more, ordered 72-year-old Barkay to stand, and marched him over to a cluster of Israel Police officers who were standing beneath a clutch of pines.
The Waqf guards protested Barkay’s use of Temple Mount, the term routinely used by Jews and Christians to refer to the area — a platform built by Herod in the first century BCE to house a refurbished Jewish Temple. The Waqf guards made clear they wanted the police to eject Barkay from the site.
While the Jordanian-run and Palestinian-staffed Waqf manages the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, it has no authority over who enters the Temple Mount compound, which is guarded by Israeli police.
The nomenclature of the contested holy site has been a fraught subject in recent months, after the UN’s culture and education body passed a resolution referring to it exclusively by its Muslim names: Haram al-Sharif and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
But the issue is not new.
The Palestine Liberation Organization issued a statement in November 2014 exhorting journalists to refrain from using the term “Temple Mount,” saying reporters should “adhere to international law and correct any other existing terminology used.”
Jews consider the site the holiest in the world, where two temples stood in antiquity; Muslims regard it as the third holiest after Mecca and Medina.
The police made clear to the Waqf guards that there was no legal reason for them to take action against Barkay. But the cops advised Barkay to refrain from using the term during the rest of his and the groups visit. For the rest of the tour he simply referred to it, a bit confusingly, as “TM.”
“Everyone was sort of thrown off by the incident,” Nima Ostowari, one of the UCLA students on the 10-day trip, said. The trip aims to show the history of the different religions and peoples and their ties to the region, and the Waqf guard’s aggressive interjection was “unsettling” to many of its participants, he said.
“The man just coming up and saying that we couldn’t use the words ‘Temple Mount’ was, in a way, saying that the Jewish people don’t have a connection to the land, which I think borders on problematic,” Ostowari said.
An Israel Police spokeswoman said there was no policy banning the use of the term Temple Mount in Hebrew or English while in the holy site compound, nor was she aware of any formal complaints by the Waqf against tour guides who employ that terminology.
An Islamic Waqf spokesman wasn’t available for comment about the incident.
Sunday’s altercation between Waqf staff and Barkay doesn’t appear to be a solitary incident. Yanay Cohen, who has worked as a tour guide in Israel for eight years, said he had two similar experiences while leading groups around the site in the past several months.
“The most serious thing that happened to me,” he recalled over the phone, was an argument started with him by Waqf guards over a National Geographic illustration of the history of the Temple Mount, showing its appearance during the First Temple period, Second Temple period, and Islamic period until present.
“It’s the most historical; there’s nothing provocative; in my opinion the most neutral,” he said of the poster produced by the magazine in 2008.
He started explaining the history of the site to his group using the poster when he was approached by a man who insisted he put it away, without giving a reason. The man began arguing with Cohen and tried to take the poster from him, and some Waqf guards hurried over and demanded Cohen give them the poster. Only when he put it away in his backpack did they leave him be. Another guide, he said, recalled another recent incident in which Waqf guards protested the use of a timeline of the historic site with accompanying illustrations.
In another recent incident, Cohen’s group was shadowed by Waqf personnel, who “heard me say ‘temple’ and started in with me.”
Cohen said he tries to avoid taking tourist groups onto the Temple Mount. “If they really insist, I’ll go,” he said, but the long lines for security, severely limited visiting hours, modesty regulations apparently changed arbitrarily and occasional harassment by Waqf guards make it an unsavory experience.