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Jottings 11: self-immolators and suicide bombers?

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — on some aspects of religiously motivated suicide, and I’m not clear why I called this one a jotting, since it’s quite long and detailed ]
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I have been taking a couple of online courses on terrorism in recent months, and in one of them I ran across a Foreign Policy article titled Ultimate Sacrifice: What’s the difference between self-immolators and suicide bombers?

… there is another form of deadly protest that has made a resurgence in recent years. Not only did Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s fiery suicide ignite the region and inspire subsequent self-immolations in Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco, but a growing number of Tibetans have also set themselves alight to protest Chinese rule in Tibetan region

It’s an intriguing question, phrased by one of my fellow students as the question, “Can Tibetan Self-immolators be considered “terrorists”?

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I did my “due diligence” research, and came up with some articles worth reading:

  • Tenzin Tharchen, 125 Self-Immonlations: why suicide by fire protests continue in Tibet
  • Tsering Shakya, Self-Immolation, the Changing Language of Protest in Tibet
  • Martin Kovan, Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahayanist Absolute Altruism
  • while my interlocutor offered this one:

  • Jose Cabezon, On The Ethics Of The Tibetan Self-Immolations
  • But you know, the mind has indirect back-channels as well as direct information freeways, and the question seems to have been percolating while I’ve been asleep.

    **

    Sonam Wangyal, Lama Sobha, was the first Tibetan lama to self-immolate, and left a cassette tape in which he explained his motives:

    I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them — each of whom has been our mother in the past and yet has been led by ignorance to commit immoral acts — to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. My offering of light is for all living beings, even as insignificant as lice and nits, to dispel their pain and to guide them to the state of enlightenment. I offer this sacrifice as a token of long-life offering to our root guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual teachers and lamas.

    The full text of Lama Sobha’s message can be found at the bottom of an International Campaign for Tibet page titled Harrowing images and last message from Tibet of first lama to self-immolate — the “harrowing images” themselves are linked to, but not shown.

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    The Chinese come close to targeting Tibetan self-immolators as terrorists, using the terms “Splittist”– so often also used of the Dalai Lama — and calling their actions “intentional homicide”. This from the “>Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Tibet:

    Nonetheless, the response by the Chinese authorities to self-immolations by Tibetans has been extremely draconian, largely because of an assumption that all protest by Tibetans must be intrinsically “splittist” (that is, secessionist). In particular, it has involved the formulation of new laws that seem to target Tibetans specifically, and the imposition of collective punishments, and the application of the crime of “intentional homicide” to all those aiding, abetting, encouraging or even photographing self-immolations.

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    It occurs to me that sacrificing oneself for the benefit of other beings is symbolically enacted in the Tibetan Chöd ritual, in which one symbolically feeds the parts of one’s body to the pretas or hungry demons to satiate them and put them to sleep — and also in some of the Jataka Tales of the previous rebirths of the Shakyamuni Buddha.

    I’m thinking particularly of The Bodhisattva and the Hungry Tigress, and will quote here from Edward Conze‘s telling in Buddhist Scriptures, pp 24-26. On being told that self-sacrifice is difficult, Mahasattva (the future Buddha) replies:

    It is difficult for people like us, who are so fond of our lives and bodies, and who have so little intelligence. It is not difficult at all, however, for others, who are true men, intent on benefitting their fellow-creatures, and who long to sacrifice themselves. Holy men are born of pity and compassion. Whatever the bodies they may get, in heaven or on earth, a hundred times will they undo them, joyful in their hearts, so that the lives of others may be saved.

    His prayer before offering his own body and blood to feed an ailing tigress and her cubs is:

    For the weal of the world I wish to win enlightenment, incomparably wonderful. From deep compassion I now give away my body, so hard to quit, unshaken in my mind. That enlightenment I shall now gain, in which nothing hurts and nothing harms.

    Assuming the Jataka tales made it to Tibet, this one might be a potent influence on potential self-immolators.

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    A possible Tamil “comparable” — presumably Hindu rather than Buddhist, culturally if not religiously:

    When young Murugathasan Varnakulasingham (aged 26) committed self-immolation in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva on 19 February 2009 he was protesting against international failures of intervention in the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in northern Sri Lanka, where he believed that large bodies of Tamil people faced extinction by the Sri Lankan government. “The flames over my body will be a torch to guide you through the liberation path,” he wrote in his parting letter.

    There have been a few other protest suicides by Tamils in Tamilnadu and Malaysia, but Varnakulasingham’s altruistic act probably garnered the most attention.

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    Further thoughts:

    There’s always Samson, pulling down the pillars that upheld the roof of their temple on the Philistines, once he’d regrown his hair and strength…

    Then the lords of the Philistines gathered them together for to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god, and to rejoice: for they said, Our god hath delivered Samson our enemy into our hand. And when the people saw him, they praised their god: for they said, Our god hath delivered into our hands our enemy, and the destroyer of our country, which slew many of us. And it came to pass, when their hearts were merry, that they said, Call for Samson, that he may make us sport. And they called for Samson out of the prison house; and he made them sport: and they set him between the pillars. And Samson said unto the lad that held him by the hand, Suffer me that I may feel the pillars whereupon the house standeth, that I may lean upon them. Now the house was full of men and women; and all the lords of the Philistines were there; and there were upon the roof about three thousand men and women, that beheld while Samson made sport. And Samson called unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes. And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.

    — Judges 16.23-30 — not quite self-immolation, not quite suicide bombing, but certainly suicidal warfare with a religious motive.

    Okay, When Christians quote John 15.13:

    Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

    surely they include in their understanding of that verse, those who throw their bodies on top of grenades to protect their comrades — which would seem in its own way to parallel the teaching of the Jataka Tale.

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    Likewise, when Muslims quote the hadith from Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 53, in which the Prophet says:

    Narrated Anas bin Malik:

    The Prophet said, “Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah (in the Hereafter) would wish to come back to this world even if he were given the whole world and whatever is in it, except the martyr who, on seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again (in Allah’s Cause).”

    and from Sahih Muslim, Chapter 28, Book 020, Number 4626:

    It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace upon him) said:

    [ … ] By the Being in Whose Hand is Muhammad’s life, if it were not to be too hard upon the Muslims. I would not lag behind any expedition which is going to fight in the cause of Allah. But I do not have abundant means to provide them (the Mujahids) with riding beasts, nor have they (i.e. all of them) abundant means (to provide themselves with all the means of Jihad) so that they could he left behind. By the Being in Whose Hand is Muhammad’s life, I love to fight in the way of Allah and be killed, to fight and again be killed and to fight again and be killed.

    — how close are we to Nathan Hale:

    I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country

    — and behind that, to Joseph Addison:

    What a pity it is
    That we can die but once to serve our country.

    — that’s from Addison’s now obscure play, Cato, a Tragedy, Act IV, Scene 4

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    Of course, the way to stop self-immolations in Tibet is simple — put up a notice:

    See also New document sheds light on China’s campaign against self-immolations in Tibet

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    Every day is Ashura, every place is Kerbala

    Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — an Ayatollah’s video take-down of the Grand Mufti ]
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    Today’s latest news from the Long War Journal is titled Egyptian jihadists call for attacks in Shiite countries and opens with the paragraph:

    Twenty Egyptian jihadists have issued a statement calling upon Sunnis to launch attacks in Shiite-led countries in response to the Assad regime’s offensive in Qusayr, a city in western Syria near Homs. The chief signatory on the statement is Mohammed al Zawahiri, the younger brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.

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    I’ve been having some conversations on Twitter recently in which I’d been verifying my own sense that Hezbollah‘s ethos and imagery of martyrdom would presumably extend beyond the poppies and doves depicted here to include also the martyrdom of Husayn at Kerbala, and I’m grateful to Phillip Smyth for his confirmation and elaboration on that theme.

    Somehow in my wanderings, I came across this video, in which Ayatollah Sayed Hadi al Modarresi, a senior Shia cleric, bookends his even more senior Sunni counterpart the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, with his own commentary, speaking from the very heart of Shia passion — the shrine of Imam Husayn in Kerbala.

    The Ayatollah challenges the Grand Mufti’s assertion that Husayn erred in refusing his oath of obedience to Yazid, thus bringing his own death upon himself at the ensuing battle of Kerbala:

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    Things that impressed me:

    The simple but rhetorically effective use of one video quoted within another.

    The incredible passion of the crowd in Kerbala, which the poster called to our attention with a note saying:

    Keep watching to see the fury of the audience..

    The half-accusatory, half-conciliatory way in which the Grand Mufti expressed himself, with phrases that suggested Husayn — may God be pleased with him — was in error, while asking God to forgive him…

    and:

    and in response, the Ayatollah’s use of the imagery of the “red line”:

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    If the Long War Journal piece shows us an aspect of the current situation, this stunning video offers us a window into the passions such events are poised to arouse.

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    The Deep Shadow of Abraham Lincoln

    Monday, November 26th, 2012

    Just saw the Steven Spielberg epic Lincoln.  

    The performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln was titanic; all the anger and villainous darkness he channeled into his earlier memorable characters Bill “the Butcher” and Daniel Plainview are eclipsed in his Lincoln by wisdom and a transcendent, melancholic grace. The supporting cast was equally strong, with Sally Fields alluding in word and deed to the shrewish madness that troubled First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones humanized – probably more than is historical – the implacable political ferocity of Radical Republican leader Representative Thaddeus Stevens; and James Spader added lighthearted realism as Secretary of State Seward’s cagey political fixer and bagman, William N. Bilboe.

    Spielberg has done a magnificent storytelling of the passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery in the United States and he has done even better at capturing Lincoln’s towering stature as a statesman. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is Periclean – in possession of heroic, historical vision and mastery of grand strategy along with an intimate grasp of the granular, grubby mechanics of political deal making and a humane tolerance of other’s frailties needed to make things happen.  The scene where Day-Lewis explains to his squabbling Cabinet Lincoln’s coup d’oeil –  the real Constitutional, moral, military and political exigencies of emancipation governing the imperative questions of the 13th Amendment –  is one of the most brilliant expositions of strategy in the fusion of policy, politics and war that I have ever seen on screen.

    In a sense, that was the genius of Abraham Lincoln – surpassing his own humble origins to solve herculean problems without ever losing sight that lasting resolution of Civil War and slavery were going to have to occur on Earth with fallible human beings, operating in a political reality that would never be ideal. The limits of vision of Lincoln’s contemporaries, copperhead and abolitionist, is marked but the comparison between Abraham Lincoln and politicians of our own day is yet for the worse.  Our problems are so much smaller, our resources and capabilities infinitely vaster than the severe test the Republic faced in Lincoln’s time, yet our leaders are grossly inadequate even to these.

    Martyrdom naturally magnified the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, but even without the assassination he would have still been reckoned our greatest president, one of the rare individuals whose leadership made an irreplaceable mark upon history. If one of Lincoln’s rivals for the Republican nomination had become president in 1860 instead, or had Lincoln not been re-elected in 1864, the Union cause would have failed.  We would not be who we are nor the world what it is without a United States in the 20th century to stem the tide of  first German domination, then Fascism and then Soviet Communism. The world would be a poorer, darker place and we would be lesser peoples of lesser nations of the former United States.

    Lincoln’s shadow is not merely long, it is deep.

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    Three from Haaretz on the Temple Mount

    Sunday, October 7th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — growth and mainstreaming of Rebuild the Temple movements in Israel, parallels with perceived slights against the Prophet of Islam, volatility of the situation ]
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    You saw the New York Times headline, New Clashes at Site in Jerusalem Holy to Both Muslims and Jews? That was just a taste, here’s more of the story:
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    Haaretz has posted three pieces in the last couple of days about the movement to build a Third Temple on the Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem. I’ll give you the title, link and brief summaries of for the two shorter pieces, and some significant quotes from the Longer one.

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    I’d also like to suggest considering the issues here as analogues of those in the recent “blasphemy” incidents.

    We might think in terms of freedom of speech being akin to freedom of worship — but we should also consider the dangers inherent in what would likely be perceived as a huge provocation, in what may be the most volatile hot-spot on earth.

    Consider: building the Third Temple might involve the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, whether by an act of God or by human intervention. Whether it would or not is in dispute, as we shall see — but as we shall also see, attempts to destroy it have already been made…

    Bearing that in mind..

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    1: Temple Mount Faithful: From the fringes to the mainstream

    Once consigned to messianic extremist fringes, movements fighting the ban on Jewish
    prayers on Temple Mount are now endorsed by moderate rabbis. Even the Education Ministry has taken sides by encouraging pupils to visit the site.

    If that’s accurate, it’s a significant shift in relation to what my American-Israeli journalist friend Gershom Gorenberg called in his book about the Mount, The End of Days, “the most contested piece of real-estate on earth” — for a quick overview of the importance of the site, see my piece of that name from July of this year.

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    2: Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court: Jews should be allowed to pray on Temple Mount

    Police currently enforce the Muslim ban on Jewish prayer at the site, citing security concerns.

    Put those two pieces together, and you have a sense of momentum gathering for an epic clash, one which would have immense apocalyptic significance in terms of those eagerly awaiting a Coming One in each of the three Abrahamic traditions

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    3: Following the dream of a Third Temple in Jerusalem

    More than 90 percent of Israel’s religious public wants to be allowed to pray at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Some groups, though, wish to go even further and build a Third Temple in place of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. What fuels the dreams of these Jewish extremists?

    Shany Littman, the author of this impressive magazine-length piece which is behind a paywall on the Haaretz site but has been reposted here, expresses through the voices of a diverse group of people she met and talked with, the deep-seated longing behind the movement —

    I pray for it three times a day and I wanted to take seriously what I say. I say, ‘Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem.’

    and the theological logic behind that —

    It is the heart of Judaism. Numerically, one-third of the 613 commandments are not fulfilled today because of the absence of a Temple. The Temple is the Jewish public sphere that we lost. I want a transnational Judaism, which will encompass all the commandments.

    the sacred politics —

    I want to take the movements to a place that is more sensible: a Temple-based state, where the state’s entire content revolves around the Temple.

    the somewhat archaic-sounding motivations involved —

    the fulfillment of the three commandments the Israelite nation was given in anticipation of its imminent entry into the Land of Israel: to appoint their king and establish his kingdom, to wipe out the seed of Amalek and to build their Holy Temple.

    the progress that has already been made in terms of preparation —

    only two vessels that are not yet ready are the Ark of the Covenant, which cannot be reconstructed because it contained the stone tablets from Mount Sinai, and the huge external altar, on which the sacrifices were performed.

    and recent trends on the part of Israeli police and politicians that seem to show an increasing willingness to allow Jews to pray in what is, after all, their holiest of holy places.

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    I have been pondering these things, and I think we can helpfully, if carefully, draw a parallel between the extreme caution with which the Israelis have approached the issue of the potential for Jewish behavior — up to and including the possible removal of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and or Dome of the Rock — enraging not just Jerusalem’s Palestinians but the Islamic world, and the far smaller provocations of Charlie Hebdo, the puerile video, and the Qur’an-burning Revd. Jones.

    Consider the rules and regulations invoked by the Israeli poloice on Jewish visitors to the Mount (compare also the rabbinic decree in the “traffic sign” at the top of this post):

    Because this was the month of Ramadan, no food or drink was to be brought. Also forbidden were praying, bowing, kneeling, singing and anything that might disturb the public order. And have a good day.

    Prayer is banned — have I heard that phrase somewhere before?

    Prayer is banned because it would be blasphemous — the ironies, the echoes, the resonances and paradoxes here are endless.

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    To understand the depth of feeling here — and remember, we are only examining the Judaic side of the issue here, and there are other perspectives in play — let’s peer a little deeper into the sacred / sacral motivation:

    Sacrifice, not a very “contemporary” word but one with strong, archaic / archetypal meaning, is the heart of the Temple’s purpose:

    Animal sacrifice was the primary ritual activity in the Temple. Rivka spoke of the practice yearningly. “Today it is hard to understand what sacrifice is,” she said. “When a person errs, makes a mistake, sins ? instead of bringing himself, he brings a substitute; he brings either an offering or an animal whose blood atones for his soul. This is something we have lost today. The media always talks about korbanot [the Hebrew word “korban” means both “sacrifice” and “victim”] ? victims of traffic accidents, victims of the peace process, victims of terrorism. And I say to myself, despairingly, that there is a place for korbanot ? and it is here. And what is the root of the word ‘korban’? It is from lehitkarev, to draw closer. To draw closer to Hashem.

    Indeed, the sacrifice of a red heifer is widely believed to be necessary to purify those who would enter the Temple grounds — note in this next paragraph the reference to the return of the Messiah:

    According to religious belief, until the ashes of a red heifer are obtained, access to the courtyard of the Temple is prohibited for Jews (see Numbers 19:1-22 and Mishna tractate Parah). Water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer can cleanse people of the impurity of the dead, which clings to everyone. Tradition holds that there have been only nine ritually suitable red heifers, and that the 10th will appear upon the advent of the Messiah. The absence of the ashes of a red heifer, with the concomitant inability to become ritually clean, is one of the reasons that many Jews are unwilling to visit the Temple Mount. However, the Temple movement activists claim this is only an excuse, and that there is no problem obtaining a red heifer today.

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    Now back to “on the ground” realities — and risks, including the risks of terrorism and war.

    This situation of contesting claims to one of the world’s most sacred sites the has been simmering for quite some time, and I think the gist of the three Haaretz articles could be read as “the stew’s beginning the bubble”.

    For another glimpse of the potential volatility of the situation, we can turn to a decade-old piece by Jeffrey Goldberg in the NYT — though if the situation is as significant as I take it to be, you’d also be well-advised to read Gershom Gorenberg’s book The End of Days.

    Back in 1999, Goldberg wrote a piece which carried the sub-head:

    There are Jews who want to seize the Temple Mount by any means necessary. And Christians who want to see the Jewish Temple rebuilt — and destroyed to bring on Armageddon. And Muslims who will never give up the Dome of the Rock. Will the peace process be stalled by the apocalypse?

    It’s a long magazine piece, and like Littman’s piece for Haaretz, well worth pondering. Here I’ll just pull a couple of excerpts that touch on how Temple movement participants view the possible repercussions of their actions. Gershon Salomon is the leader of one such movement, and not infrequently raises funds addressing Christian audiences.

    “The mountain is within reach,” Salomon told me. “God is waiting for us to move the mosques and rebuild. The Jews may not be ready, but the Christians are.”

    In Casselbery, I saw Salomon work the Christian congregants into a flag-waving — Israeli flag waving — frenzy. After, as the congregants lined up to give Salomon checks and even their jewelry to pay for rebuilding the Temple, I asked him, “Do you think these people believe that God will remove the Dome of the Rock, or that man must remove it?”
    He smiled beatifically.
    “They know that God will make this miracle happen.”
    By the hand of man?
    “Only God knows.”

    [ … ]

    I ask him how he would feel if someone blew up the Dome of the Rock.
    “The question is, Why did they build their mosque on our holy mountain, anyway? Who gave them permission? God didn’t.”
    Would you be saddened if the destruction of the Dome of the Rock led to war?
    “I don’t think it will come to that. The Muslims know in their heart that this belongs to us.”
    “But what if it did lead to war?”
    Salomon smiled. “The Temple will be a reality. God has promised it.”
    But what about war?
    “O.K.,” he said impatiently, “so we’ll have a war.”

    Returning to the Haaretz magazine piece, we can perhaps temper that last remark with a word of moderation.

    Journalist Arnon Segal is the activist son of a member of the Jewish Underground of the 1980s — one of whose leaders, Yehuda Etzion, plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock. His views are accordingly of considerable interest.

    Contrary to the usual image of those who are involved with the Temple, they are a great deal more soul-searching and hesitant than people think. People did not want to join with Yehuda Etzion, who was the one who raised the idea [of blowing up the mosque].

    “I think it is nonsensical to blow up [Al-Aqsa Mosque]. We would not have achieved anything by doing that. That is not how to solve issues. The Arabs are against the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount as such. If the State of Israel were to permit sacrifices to be made, that would already be enough to make me jump for joy. Obviously my inspiration is from home, but not from a fanatic place. I was not brought up to hate Arabs. But an as-yet unattained Jewish national purpose and the concept of the Temple Mount? those are definitely notions I got at home.”

    Segal insists that the debate over the Temple Mount is basically an internal Jewish issue and is not related to the conflict with the Arabs. “I am not an enemy of the Arabs. I do not say that I don’t want Arabs on the Mount. Even Rabbi Dov Lior said that all nations are permitted to pray on the Mount. We will not tell others not to pray to God on the Mount, even though the Muslims do not respect our right to pray there. I am ready to leave them Al-Aqsa. But Al-Aqsa is not the whole Mount.”

    And here is Segal’s pragmatic evaluation of the risk:

    I don’t think the Arab states are lovers of Zion, even now; if they could destroy us, they would already have done it. The Temple Mount will not irk them more than other things.

    Would you want to test that hypothesis in “real life”?

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