The Saudis authorized a group of Israeli reporters to come to Saudi Arabia to cover President Joe Biden’s visit last week. This was clearly another sign of the warming relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
It is in this context that we must understand how shameful it was for one of those Israeli journalists—Gil Tamary—to enter Mecca, film there and then tell the world by releasing videos of his visit. In doing so, this non-Muslim journalist committed a serious offense against Islam. As a result, we can expect Israel-Saudi relations to cool down for the foreseeable future.
Why is this so? According to Islamic law, only Muslims are allowed to enter Mecca. Non-Muslims who violate this prohibition are seen as religiously contaminating the holy city, and are therefore punished severely. Whatever non-Muslims might think, Muslims do not see the world as non-Muslims do. It is therefore hard to explain in Western terms how serious this transgression is and the extent to which it will set back Israel-Saudi relations.
The Saudis do not have a free press and, like others in the Muslim world, have great difficulty accepting that Western governments cannot rein in their journalists. Even Muslims who know the West well often have difficulty understanding this.
One example is a conversation the late Professor Bernard Lewis once had with the then-Shah of Iran in the mid-1970s. Lewis was visiting Tehran and the Shah asked to see him. The Shah had studied in Europe and had a good grasp of American culture. In spite of all his experience with the West, however, the Shah asked Lewis, “Why do the five largest American newspapers and media outlets—all owned/controlled by Jews—oppose me? I am your greatest ally in this region!”
Trying to explain the meaning of a free press to the Shah was futile because the Shah was simply unable to internalize its ramifications—that, in this case, the American government or the Jewish community had no control over the press. In the same way, trying to explain to the Saudi Crown Prince that Israel too has no control over its press proved futile.
Where does the above-mentioned Israeli-Jewish journalist who went to Mecca fit into this picture? To the best of our knowledge, he is a secular Jew who has little appreciation of the concept of holiness in any religion—including his own. If he cannot even appreciate holiness in Judaism, how can we expect him to try to appreciate it in other cases?
The Saudi rulers’ claim to fame in the Islamic world is that they protect Islam’s two most holy places—Mecca and Medina. To Muslims, it now looks as though Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was unable to do so. This shames him and Saudi Arabia, thus undermining their claim to be protecting the holy cities. That’s how Muslims view what happened. Even worse, as the videos he filmed demonstrate, Tamary clearly had fun sneaking into Mecca. From a Muslim perspective, he, and by extension, all of Israel have undermined the Saudi regime.
From our perspective, this analysis might seem a bit overblown, but what we think is irrelevant. It’s how Muslims see things that matter in this case.
So how can we help repair the Saudi-Israel relationship and get the two regional powers back on a track towards normalization? It was essential for both the Israeli journalist and his TV channel to issue apologies, yet those statements did not demonstrate that they sufficiently internalized the gravity of the offense in the eyes of religious Muslim eyes.
Moreover, the statements issued did not demonstrate that Tamary or his network recognize the sanctity of holy places in general, be they Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Secular Jews often seem easily willing to relinquish Jewish claims to the Temple Mount and even the Western Wall, the holiest places in Judaism for the unlikely hope of achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians. They are willing to cede these landmarks because they don’t confer to them the concept of holiness.
Given the above, the Tamary incident presents an opportunity for the government of Israel to condemn the insensitivity displayed by both Tamary and his television station regarding how Muslims view Mecca. It is also an opportunity to place this incident in the wider context respecting holy sites of all faiths. In this context, Israel’s government should consider issuing statements framed in the context of respecting the rights of all holy places for all religions. This includes Jewish rights and presence on the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.
Such a statement would subtly imply by extension that Muslims should similarly demonstrate respect towards the holy places of others, and cease trying to destroy Jewish holy places such as Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. Muslims should similarly respect the rights of Jews to ascend to the Temple Mount and pray at the Western Wall.
Even with such statements by Israel, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Saudis put on hold their improving relationship with Israel for the time being. Patience is a prized virtue in the Middle East. Jews would do well in dealing with Middle Easterners to temper their impatience.
Even the most secular Muslims in Turkey fear that when push comes to shove, that non-Muslims will always side with each other against the Muslims. It is in this context that so many secular Muslims understand Tamary’s violation of the sanctity of Mecca.
Why? Because regardless of how religiously observant a Muslim may be, this episode has conjured up within the Muslim soul the Muslim Hadith “al-Kufr Millatun walida.” that all non-Muslims are a single people united eternally against the Muslim world.
Harold Rhode received in Ph.D. in Islamic history and later served as an adviser on Islamic culture for 28 years in the Office of the U.S. Department of Defense. He is now a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute.