The Taliban Islamic rulers of Afghanistan last week destroyed two monumental Buddhas carved out of a limestone. The two Buddhas of Bamiyan stood along the great Silk Road to China for at least 1,500 years, since before the birth of Islam. They have withstood a great deal, including the cannon fire of Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes.
The world is understandably horrified. Though few of those protesting the destruction last week had likely ever heard of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, much less seen them, knowledge that they are no more is depressing. One thinks of all the travelers along the historic route between Europe and Asia who passed the giant Buddhas over the centuries and the awe that they must have felt at the sheer amount of human labor that went into their construction. That awe will be felt no more.
The Taliban’s minister of information and culture best summarized the lesson of last week’s vicious wrecking: "It’s easier to destroy than to build.’’
Meanwhile the Western world has been far less concerned about the threat to ancient artifacts far more central to its own cultural patrimony. Since 1999, massive construction work has been carried out on the Temple Mount by the Moslem Waqf. That work has employed heavy trucks and earthmoving equipment. Much of it has been unauthorized by the Israeli government, and unsupervised by the Israel Antiquities Authority as required of the Antiquities Law.
From the beginning of the Al Aksa intifada archaeological supervision has been non-existent, even as the Waqf accelerated its paving of the Temple Mount Plaza and began digging for the first time since 1967 under the Dome of the Rock, which most scholars believe to be the site of the Temple.
This story has generated little or no international coverage, outside of specialty journals like Biblical Archaeology. The lack of interest of the international press, however, is, in this case, forgivable. With the notable exception of Nadav Shragai in Ha’Aretz and the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli media has not paid much attention to the story. Apart from the efforts of the Committee for the Prevention of the Desecration of the Temple Mount and professional archaeologists there has been little public outcry.
At the outset of the Barak government, the Waqf was permitted for the first time to undertake massive digging on the Temple Mount in the process of turning an underground area known as Solomon’s Stables into a mosque. Over 6,000 tons of dirt was removed from the site without archaeologists being given any opportunity to sift through it. Among the items dumped unceremoniously into the Kidron Valley was a 3-foot long stone fragment. According to one archaeologist that fragment was "the most important artifact ever recovered from the Temple Mount, and it could very well have been from one of the entrances to the Temple itself.’’
This past January, Shragai reported of the digging of a long underground tunnel from the Al Aksa Mosque, which is above the Hulda Gate to the Second Temple, eastward towards Solomon Stables. Danny Zaken, an Israel Radio journalist, testified that he saw the tunnel, including a grill in the floor through which an ancient floor was visible. Another 1,500 tons of material was reported removed from the Temple Mount in connection with this project, once again without archaeological supervision.
Since 1948, residents of the Shikun D neighborhood of Beit Shean have been forbidden by law from so much as putting a shovel into their backyards because the neighborhood is an ancient Roman site. Yet Prime Minister Barak chose to ignore the advice of Attorney-General Rubenstein to bar heavy equipment from the Temple Mount and to insist on archaeological supervision at Judaism’s holiest site. In the midst of negotiating sovereignty of the Temple Mount, he feared doing anything that would call attention to the fact that the Waqf cannot be trusted with the preservation of Jewish holy sites.
Even as Hebrew University archaeologist Eilat Mazar warned of Waqf intentions to destroy all evidence of a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount and the Mufti of Jerusalem proclaimed that the Temple Mount contains no remnants of Jewish history, Barak hesitated to prevent the Waqf from turning the entire plaza into a series of mosques.
The Waqf and the Taliban share a similar contempt for what they view as competing cultures to Islam, though the former are a good deal more public relations savvy. Yet there is another lesson from the Taliban that may be of equally great significance to Israel’s citizens. Jeff Jacoby pointed out in the Boston Globe last week that not only were the Taliban immune to the entreaties of the UN and world governments, they relished the horror their smashing excited. They sought to mock the non-Islamic world and its values.
In so doing, they revealed a strain of Islam that is irremediably hostile to the West. Xenophobia caused by confrontation with technologically superior societies is not, to be sure, confined to Islam; it characterized China in the 18th and 19th centuries as well. But Islam seems particularly prone to it. Khoumeni’s railing against the Great Satan America is but one recent precedent. Without understanding this strain of hatred for the West, in hardline Islam, we cannot fully appreciate the hatred that our presence here generates.
George Will wisely commented at the outset of the renewed intifada, "It’s not that Israel is being provocative; Israel’s being is provocative.’’ But it is not just Israel’s existence that infuriates; it is the presence of Jews here at all. The Arabs of Palestine watched as Jews from the West drained unarable swamps. The existence of a society in their midst, with a per capita gross national product over ten times that of its Arab neighbors is a constant reminder of their failures. No wonder that Shimon Peres’ vision of a New Middle East, in which Israel would join the Moslem League, struck such horror into Arab hearts. They feared Israel’s economic hegemony in the region.
The Taliban’s wrecking of the Bamiyan Buddhas and its harboring of Bin Laden, the most wanted international terrorist, are of a piece. Both are means of lashing out at the technologically superior West and the values that gave rise to that superiority.
It is the same hatred directed at us.