The Al-Aqsa Fire—The Dangers of Manipulative Education: What Can Be Done

Every year since 1969, during the hot month of August, Palestinian politicians and media have commemorated the “Al-Aqsa Mosque Arson.” A wave of declarations and condemnations then ensue.

The Palestinian Authority history schoolbooks describe the event as a “huge fire ignited by a Jewish extremist.” The PA and Hamas media outlets regularly follow suit.

In fact, the 1969 fire was started not by a Jewish extremist, but by a mentally-ill Australian visitor, a Christian fundamentalist belonging to a marginal group who considered himself the “Lord’s emissary.”

Denis Michael Rohan hoped he would hasten the Second Coming of Jesus. Rohan was tried, found to be insane, and hospitalized in a mental institution. He was later deported from Israel “on humanitarian grounds, for further psychiatric treatment near his family” in Australia, where he died in 1995.

In order to get access to the mosque, Rohan became friendly with the guides and guards employed by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf. There were no police on the mountain because two years earlier the government had voluntarily and unilaterally ceded most of its rights on the Temple Mount to the Jerusalem Waqf. Nevertheless, Israel, having sovereign control, was still blamed for the arson; a wave of anger immediately swept the Muslim world, which included calls for Jihad. Importantly, the event served as a catalyst for the creation of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which some believe signaled the rise of Muslim influence throughout the world.

The main damage incurred by the fire was the almost complete destruction of the Aleppo-made ancient wooden pulpit [minbar], donated by none other than Saladin in the twelfth century. While tight coordination between Israel and a number of Arab countries allowed for fast renovation of the mosque, the restoration of the pulpit took much longer. In fact, it took fourteen years for a Jordanian-led international team of experts and craftsmen from Muslim and Western countries (with Israel’s blessing) to complete the minbar in 2007.

Instead of focusing on this Jordanian-Muslim-led cooperative enterprise, (which obviously required Israel’s cooperation) or even on the creation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Palestinian history textbooks describe this episode as “another” Jewish attack on “Al-Aqsa.” Even worse, the fact that Israel unilaterally gave up rights to Judaism’s holiest place—out of consideration for Muslims worldwide—is nowhere mentioned in any Palestinian narrative.

The repetition of this imaginary “Jewish Attack” has been featured in Palestinian textbooks at least since IMPACT’s 2001 research through the coming academic year, 2016–17. The Al-Aqsa Fire is misrepresented as a singular narrative—a link in a chain of events—supposedly beginning in the 1929 riots leading to the Al-Aqsa Intifada of 2000–2003 (also known as the Second Intifada). The 2015–16 Knife Intifada—also revolving around imaginary plans to attack Al-Aqsa—has not yet appeared in the curriculum.

Examining this small case study against UNESCO’s standards, as applied by IMPACT-se, we can see that the textbooks miss the mark on all relevant points. There is no RESPECT for the Other; there is no recognition of the INDIVIDUAL Other’s (Israel’s) work in bringing the arsonist to justice and cooperation for the renovation and restoration of the mosque. The UNESCO benchmark to provide students with UNBIASED INFORMATION is not met. Furthermore, the curriculum avoids the issue of SOUND PROSPERITY and COOPERATION with Israel like the plague. Large segments of this picture are left out of the Palestinian version of what happened, including the Islamic, Jordanian and international efforts to improve holy sites in Jerusalem—let alone the Israeli cooperation and sacrifice given out of respect for Muslims (and Islam). In its place, there remains education for HATE and a complete absence of PEACE TEACHING: A mentally ill Australian visitor is replaced in the narrative by an imaginary “Jewish extremist.” An incident that could happen anywhere and at any time is framed as a series of malevolent schemes and attacks perpetrated by Jews against Muslims. (Realistically, the Rohan incident pales in comparison with bloody clashes, mishaps and calamities such as at the Muslim Holy Sites in Saudi Hijaz and the Shiite Shrines of Iraq.)

In short, all Palestinian students have for decades learned that a “Jewish extremist” burned Al-Aqsa; this remains part of a continuous attack on the compound. The two most violent conflagrations, the Al-Aqsa Intifada and the Knife Intifada were unleashed by the Palestinian Authority under the false pretext of protecting Al-Aqsa. Palestinians have been taught to believe this claim because they never learned about the heroic international effort of people from many faiths and nationalities (including Israelis) to renovate Al-Aqsa, resulting in access to a greater number of Muslims than ever before.

Once again we realize that a society’s educational curriculum should be the first place to look if we want to assess the measure of that society. Unfortunately, it is also the one of the most difficult areas to influence. Partly, this is because not enough people are aware of the correlation between a culture’s manipulative education and the eventual disastrous consequences to that society.

One distinct way to resolve such problems is to incorporate interfaith-based peace and mutual understanding within education. Such events as the Al-Aqsa Fire can serve as an important teaching point. All students in the Middle East should learn the entire story. They should learn that bad things happen, but things can change for the better when people from all faiths and beliefs come together with love and understanding to repair the damage and heal the wounds.