Jews and Arabs and the occasional Roman have held competing claims to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, otherwise known as the Noble Sanctuary, for several millennia. The hill is thought to be the spot where Abraham bound his son Isaac, where the First and Second Temples stood and where Mohammed began his ascent to heaven. The Wailing Wall is on the Western side; the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock sit atop the platform.
In all, it may be the most highly contested 324,000 square cubits on the face of the earth.
The site is controlled by the Israeli government and administered by an Islamic council. And the mayor? As of this writing, that would be Ariela Ross, a 24-year-old ”4Sq fiend” and “political and cultural advocate,” as she is described on her Twitter page. Ross is a user of Foursquare, the location-based social networking app, which enables users with smartphones to “check in” at various locales, letting friends know where they are. The user with the most check-ins at a given spot becomes the mayor. Ross is also mayor of the Damascus Gate, the Christian Quarter, Dr. Calderon’s Dental Office and a number of local watering holes, including Jabotinsky, Egon, Madness and Paparazzi. She holds 43 mayorships in all.
Ross has also unlocked 20 badges, including “Crunked” (four or more check-ins in a night) and “Overshare” (a suspicious 10 check-ins in an hour).
In a recent piece in the Jerusalem Post (behind a paywall, but accessible here), Sharon Udasin detailed the Foursquare battle between Ross and other early adopters in Israel. The application seems to have relatively few users there-which explains how Ross captured the mayorship of the Al-Aqsa mosque with just nine check-ins.
Ross, editor of a geek culture website called Walyou, says she discovered Foursquare when she lived in San Francisco and uses it to “see who’s in the area and what there is to do.” When she returned to Jerusalem in September, she decided to become mayor of as many of her favorite haunts as possible. “I thought for sure I’d be fighting forever, but since it’s barely catching on and data plans are very expensive here, it was easy,” she told The Observer.
She did have one rival, David Abitbol, who runs a website called Jewlicious. He was briefly mayor of Al-Aqsa, before Ariela “told me on Twitter she was going to ‘steal’ it,” he wrote in an online chat. “The whole concept is weird. I check in because I want to let my friends know where I’m at. Not for the mayorship. I mean, what does that get me?”
Jewish law expressly prohibits Jews from walking on the Temple Mount, due to the possibility of treading on the remains of the ancient Temple, though many nonreligious Jews do visit the site (Ariel Sharon famously went there shortly before the beginning of the Second Intifada).
“I’m bad,” Ross said of having broken the rule. She visited the mosque at the invitation of the mother of a Muslim boyfriend, a Bedouin Israeli, but she admitted that many of her check-ins were not strictly from within the mosque itself. “Usually I’m sitting right outside of it,” she said, “but I didn’t see any reason to create a new location” on Foursquare.
As for Abitbol, he frequents the Temple Mount because “it’s really pretty, the workmanship on the mosques is remarkable, the views are great and, most importantly, it is the holiest site in Judaism.”
While he would like to see the Jewish Temple rebuilt one day, he said, he expects the restoration to happen by divine intervention—”not by man.”
Abitbol was asked if checking in at Al-Aqsa is a way of laying claim to the site.
“Well, obviously,” he replied. “4square and its mayorships are the equivalent of marking one’s territory.”
“It’s not about religion or politics for me,” Ross said. “It’s just the technological realm. I could imagine, if they make a version in Arabic and Hebrew, people maybe wondering, ‘How is it possible this Jewish girl is mayor of Al-Aqsa?’ But I’m kind of an anomaly. I have a lot of types of friends—Arabs, religious Jews, soldiers, police…”
Despite being “very open-minded socially,” however, Ross—who is above draft age but still applied and “would drop everything” to serve, considers herself right-of-center when it comes to defense. “I’m cool with everybody but don’t mess with my nation. As long as you don’t try to kill me or my people, I’m okay with you.”
Asked whether she’d relinquish her Al-Aqsa mayorship if Muslims objected, she said, “They can just take it from me. If they go there often enough and join the website and check in, let them have it. But I’m not going to just give it up just because someone has a problem with it. My Muslim friends aren’t offended. They laugh. It’s like, ‘Oh, Ariela…’ That’s just who I am. It’s my personality to do things that are against the grain.”
So far, the local Arab community has been slow to embrace the new platform—”I don’t see any Arab-language locations on 4square in Jerusalem at all,” Abitbol noted. Still, he said it seemed “inevitable” that the territorial disputes that have been ongoing in the region for so long would play themselves out on the new application.
In fact, the technology may well introduce some new areas of disagreement. “The obsessives cheat,” Abitbol explained. He added that Ross had defriended him on Foursquare after he questioned several of her Al-Aqsa check-ins that he said occurred at times when the mosque was closed to non-Muslims. She says she removed him after a fight about her religious beliefs.
Still, Ross admitted to some minor fudging. She said her personal rule is that if she visited a location and couldn’t get wifi, it seemed kosher to check in later that day. As to her disputed Al-Aqsa check-ins, she said she has a lot of friends on the police force in the Old City. “I can pretty much get into any location I want to at any hour, because of the people I know.”
Interestingly, there’s no word yet on whether the Israel Defense Forces have gotten hip the new application. Military authorities recently used Facebook to prove that nearly 1,000 women who’d avoided the draft by claiming a religious exemption were not as pious as they seemed-updating on Shabbat?-but “I doubt they have a policy on 4sq yet,” Abitbol said. “Basically, if you’re on a mission behind enemy lines, it’d be really dumb to check in.”
He added, “Shlomo Jewstein is now mayor of Gaza City!”