One of the first stories I was assigned as a young journalist in Israel in 1969 was the trial of an Australian sheepshearer who set fire to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, an act that threatened to unhinge the Middle East. It remains for me the most vivid story I covered during my 25 years with The Jerusalem Post, a period that included several wars.
August 23 marks the 50th anniversary of the event. The Muslim world assumed that Israel was responsible for the arson and Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal ordered his armed forces to prepare for a holy war. The Arab League met in emergency session, and from distant India came reports of rioting in Muslim areas, with many casualties.
As cries of jihad rose with the plumes of smoke over the Temple Mount and international condemnation loomed, the Israeli government gave top priority to apprehension of the arsonist. In annexing East Jerusalem after the Six Day War two years before, Israel had declared itself guardian of the holy places of all religions; its claim to sovereignty in Jerusalem rested on that pledge.
Within 24 hours police tracked a suspect, Denis Rohan, 28, to a kibbutz where he worked as a volunteer. He immediately confessed to the arson with an enthusiasm that startled his interrogators.
The trial was for Rohan the high point of his life. To stand “before the judges of Israel,” as he put it, confirmed the chosen status that had only recently been revealed to him by a voice. The journalists and diplomats packing the courtroom would, he knew, pass on that revelation to the world. He would build a temple in Jerusalem, the voice had said, on the ruins of the biblical Temple, and there be anointed king of Judea. His torching of the mosque was intended to clear space for the new structure.
“My trial is the most important event for the world since the trial of Jesus Christ,” Rohan told a psychiatrist who interviewed him.
Post-Six Day War Jerusalem was aswarm with self-proclaimed messiahs and prophets from many parts of the world. They no longer drew much attention, but for the Israeli government the desecration of one of the holiest sites in Islam had to be defused by a transparent public trial if a furious backlash from the international community and the Muslim world was to be averted.
And thus it was. It took only two months for the trial to get underway in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Hauma convention center. There was something oddly reminiscent of the trial of Adolph Eichmann eight years before in Beit Ha’am, a mile across town. Both were held in theaters (in Rohan’s case, a hall used as a cinema) and the accused sat onstage in a bulletproof glass enclosure wearing earphones for translations.
Instead of the horrors of the Holocaust evoked by the earlier trial and the murder of millions, Rohan’s was a fascinating examination of one individual’s psychosis. Nevertheless, the possible consequences of the trial were weighty and the prosecution went to great lengths to prove, even to Israel’s bitterest enemies, that no Jews were involved in the affair, and certainly not the Jewish state. The most telling witnesses were Arab officials from the Temple Mount responsible for al-Aqsa’s security.
Rohan’s performance on the witness stand was uncanny. Mocked as a fool all his life, consigned periodically to mental homes in Australia as his mother and at least one of his siblings had been, he jousted with the prosecution during the seven-week trial without faltering. Within the conceptual framework he laid down, he was consistent, logical, almost convincing. When the prosecutor, a future chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, asked whether God would have wanted him to commit a crime, Rohan was not at a loss.
“What did God tell Abraham to do?” he responded. “Sacrifice his son? Isn’t that a crime in today’s courts? First degree murder, isn’t it?”
What did God tell Abraham to do? Sacrifice his son? Isn’t that a crime in today’s courts? First degree murder, isn’t it?
When his court-appointed lawyer could not be heard clearly, a jaunty Rohan called on him to speak into the microphone so that his remarks would appear in the record. He displayed total recall of dates and incidents from long ago and was never caught out in a contradiction despite the intricate story he told.
“My mind has never been as well balanced as it is now,” Rohan said. “Satan has no more power over me.”
He could be surprisingly objective about himself and admit that “people feel uneasy in my presence.” He spoke with animation, and his melodious voice would come to rest on a pitch that conveyed a precise nuance.
He told of being punished in first grade by being made to stand in a tall wicker basket while his classmates filed by him. Although psychiatrists would testify that he was of average intelligence, his youth was played out as a classroom butt and then as village fool.
Satan has no more power over me
As an adult, he was not a recluse; he played cards Saturday nights in the sheep shearing sheds of rural Australia (“I was regarded as a clean shearer but not very fast”) and participated in village dances. But in periods of stress the voice came to him. He would sometimes fall to his knees as electric waves pulsed through his body and the voice spoke in his head. His testimony evoked sympathy in the courtroom for his tortured life and surprise at the vision with which he had resolved the pain.
One day Rohan came across some pamphlets from a California-based Christian cult which he joined by mail and began tithing. He internalized the pamphlet’s prophecies and its biblical cadence before setting out to see the world. He traveled to England and was to continue on to Canada for work, but the prospect of a Canadian winter prompted him to come to Israel instead.
“In Jerusalem,” he told the court, “it all came together. I understand why I was born, why I had to suffer strict discipline from my parents, why I was rejected and despised.” The tormented figure was at last serene. Asked what his attitude would be if found guilty, he said “I am above earthly courts.”
His most revealing testimony came on the last day, when he related what the voice had said to him in his cell a few days before.
“Because you have done everything I have told you even to your own hurt,” he quoted, “I shall exalt you above the whole earth and bring all the maidens of Israel to you to bear forth your offspring to my glory. You shall build the temple, and Zipporah will be your queen.”
Zipporah was a young teacher of Hebrew to the volunteers at the kibbutz. She would testify that Rohan had one day chosen a seat next to her on the bus out of the kibbutz, but had been too shy to converse.
Instead of his usual enthusiasm, Rohan bowed his head and had to force himself to share this most intimate of revelations. Psychiatrists who testified were in agreement that the underlying cause for his act had been neither religious nor political, but sexual.
Israel would continue to be condemned in the Arab world for years over the al-Aqsa arson, but the Rohan trial effectively sapped the event of its explosiveness. The trial established clearly that the fire had been set not by a Jew, but by a Christian obeying heavenly voices and empowered by the venality of Muslim guards.
For payment, they had permitted Rohan to enter the mosque by himself during off-hours with a backpack full of combustible materials, as attested to in court by the guards themselves and the sheikh supervising them.
With the passage of time, the impact of the fire would recede into the general turmoil of the Middle East. Rohan was sentenced to life in a mental institution. Initially he was sent to a facility in Jerusalem’s Talbiya neighborhood, where he was a much sought-after partner during Saturday night dances for the patients. After five years, he was transferred to a similar institution in Australia where he died in 1995, an almost forgotten footnote in the annals of Jerusalem.
Abraham Rabinovitch is author of “The Yom Kippur War,” “The Boats of Cherbourg” and “The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest.” firstname.lastname@example.org