The Mughrabi Bridge to Nowhere

By Alex Joffe
Tuesday, January 3, 2012

From the southern end of the plaza in front of Jerusalem's Western Wall, a temporary wooden bridge ascends eastward to the Mughrabi Gate, the only one of the 11 gates into the Temple Mount area that is accessible to non-Muslims.  Millions of tourists and pilgrims use the bridge and the gate every year.  In early December, Jerusalem's municipal engineer warned, yet again, that the wooden Mughrabi Bridge posed an imminent danger of fire and collapse.  Municipal authorities ordered it closed.  In a normal city this would have been government doing what it should do—protecting the public. 

But this is Jerusalem, where every action begets an unequal reaction and no deed, good or bad, goes unpunished.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swiftly intervened to re-open the bridge and postpone its demolition in favor of a permanent structure.  Jerusalem's mayor reacted angrily, decrying the government's "helplessness in dealing with this hazardous and dilapidated nuisance at the heart of the Western Wall."  A Hamas spokesman called the bridge closure "a violent act that amounts to a declaration of religious war on the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem."  Sheikh Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, made the bridge an issue in Egypt's parliamentary elections. In Jerusalem, municipal affairs regularly beget international crises.

Just as every stone in Jerusalem has a history, so does every temporary wooden structure.  The Mughrabi Gate sits adjacent to the old Mughrabi quarter of Jerusalem, where Moroccan immigrants settled after Saladdin's 12th-century conquest of the city. For centuries the gate was sealed. The Western Wall was accessible only via a lane a few yards wide; Jews had to pay off neighborhood residents to reach it.  Moses Montefiore and Baron Rothschild tried to buy the Wall and the neighborhood in the 19th century, but their efforts failed.  In the 1920s Haj Amin al-Husseini, Mufti of Jerusalem, opened the gate to create a thoroughfare from which Muslims could harass Jews praying at the Wall.  Local Muslims, from their own holy sites, regularly rained stones and trash on the heads of Jewish worshipers; but Mandate-era British authorities maintained a status quo that forbade the blowing of the shofar lest Muslims be disturbed and which permitted Jews to stand in the lane to pray—but not to sit down.

After the 1967 Six-Day war, Israel returned control of the Temple Mount and 10 of its gates to Islamic authorities.  Israel quickly demolished the old neighborhood, built the present plaza adjacent to the Wall, and replaced the existing roads to the Mughrabi Gate with an earth-and-concrete ramp, which collapsed in 2004.  The wooden bridge was built for temporary access, and plans for a permanent bridge began.  In 2007, a permit was issued for a huge new steel and glass structure, but that plan was dropped after objections from Israeli archaeologists, and the process re-started.  Meanwhile, routine archaeological excavations had begun as part of the permit process.  These were dozens of yards from the Temple Mount, but Muslims quickly accused Israel of planning to destroy Al Aqsa and other mosques and rebuild the Temple.

The Israel Antiquities Authority sensibly set up a webcam so the world could watch the excavations on the Internet.  A Turkish committee visited and found that all was in order—but declined to make its report public.  Even a 2007 UNESCO delegation found no serious fault with the excavations.  But predictable Israeli government inertia and an equally predictable lawsuit slowed progress.  In June the Jordanian government, which had agreed with Israel on a plan for a new bridge, decided the political costs were too high and reversed course, lodging a complaint with UNESCO over the project.

So, in the classic example of Israeli manner—preference for the temporary and expedient—the wooden bridge will now be sprayed with fire retardant.  A fire truck will be stationed nearby.

In the earth below the Mughrabi Bridge lies the heart of ancient Jewish Jerusalem, literally in the shadow of the Temple.  The most recent excavations nearby have revealed a mikveh (ritual bath) and a first-century, C.E. clay seal bearing the Aramaic legend "pure for God," suggesting that the object attached to or exchanged for the seal was dedicated to the Temple. 

The ancient Jewish character of the area is not in question by serious people, and therein lies part of the Muslim concern over the bridge.  The closure of the temporary bridge allows Muslim authorities to proclaim threats to holy places and mobilize worldwide anti-Semitism.  But a replacement and re-opening of the bridge would be worse, requiring additional archaeological excavations, which would undoubtedly demonstrate still further, if such evidence were necessary, the antiquity of Jews and the reality of the Temple.  Such investigations and likely results are a part of what Muslim authorities describe as Israeli efforts to "Judaize" Jerusalem, documented an erased Jewish past. 

So, Muslim authorities and their UNESCO allies criticize both Israeli action and Israeli inaction on Jerusalem and its holy sites.  Needless to say, Israel is not allowed to criticize Muslims in this area—even when they attempt expropriation through outright fraud, such as the planting of false graves at the site of the future "Museum of Tolerance," or when they engage in horrific vandalism at the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, or other Jewish sites.  World organizations like UNESCO do not take notice of such things, except when Jews are the alleged perpetrators.

This is an old pattern; the Mughrabi Bridge agitation is merely the latest iteration.  But the uproar is also an example of something altogether unsavory about Jerusalem: the way in which the mundane is imbued with what might be called anti-holiness.  Evidence, logic, and civility do not apply in Jerusalem.  The relentless supersessionism of Islam short-circuits reason, while a kind of idolatry overwhelms Jews.  Holy sites have become not simply religious or national symbols but a species of property outside of state control.  The need to possess and control them becomes a cosmic zero-sum game that pits all against all; principled concessions are met with hysterical accusations.  If this is the pursuit of holiness, perhaps temporary fixes are best after all, while we await more sensible lovers of Jerusalem.


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