Last week, our synagogue in Beit Shemesh made its annual High Holy Day week visit to the Temple Mount. We began the tradition six years ago when the site was reopened to non-Muslims. During the first three years following the start of the September 2000 war launched against Israel by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Hizbullah, the government decided to reward Arab terror by barring all non-Muslims from even setting foot on the Temple Mount.
Visiting the Temple Mount is a schizophrenic experience. When standing there, it is impossible not to be awestruck by the magnitude of where you are and the enormity of the colossal events that took place there. It is on the Temple Mount that both the First and Second Temple stood for nearly 1,000 years, where millions of Jews from all over the Land of Israel and the Diaspora made the three festival pilgrimages and where, according to Jewish belief, the Third Temple, ushering in the days of the messiah, is destined to be built. Throughout history, whenever and wherever Jews were engaged in prayer, they faced Jerusalem. And when in Jerusalem, they pray in the direction of the Temple Mount.
It boggles the mind to imagine your family tree and to consider when the last time anybody in the family line had been on the Temple Mount. Might that ancestor have been one of the survivors of the fighting that took place there prior to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE? Might it have been on Shavuot of that year, the final pilgrimage festival celebrated by the Jewish people prior to the destruction?
But now that I was standing in that holiest of places, which generations of Jews for 2,000 years could only dream of visiting, I was forbidden to pray. Simply moving my lips in whispered prayer could be grounds for removal. Why? Because I am a Jew. And only a Muslim can pray on the holiest site in Judaism. A Jew may not.
DURING THE War of Independence in 1948, the Old City of Jerusalem fell to the Jordanians. Nearly 1,500 Jews, including many women and children, were killed. While it was under Jordanian control, dozens of Jewish synagogues, many centuries old, were destroyed and the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, where Jews have been buried for 2,500 years, was desecrated. For 19 years, no Jew was allowed to set foot in the Old City or pray at the Western Wall, the retaining wall of the Temple Mount closest to where the Temples stood.
In June 1967, when Egypt, Syria and Jordan embarked on a war to annihilate the Jewish state, Israel recaptured Jerusalem's Old City. One of the most stirring announcements in Jewish history was the message transmitted from the front during the Six Day War: "The Temple Mount is in our hands."
But then, in a mind-boggling display of attempted appeasement of an enemy that just days before had sought Israel's destruction, defense minister Moshe Dayan decided to allow the Muslim religious council, the Wakf, to retain administrative authority over the Temple Mount. Thus, a truly bizarre and unacceptable situation developed.
Israel has scrupulously upheld Muslim worship at the Aksa Mosque, which was built just off the supposed site of the Temples, even when the site has been used to stone Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall and sermons are delivered calling for the demise of Israel and the US. Nor have Muslim prayer services been banned even in the worst periods of Arab terror attacks. During the just-completed Ramadan, hundreds of thousands of Arabs prayed at al-Aksa and held nighttime picnics on the Temple Mount breaking their fast. The garbage and leftover food items we saw strewn over the Temple Mount during our visit was appalling.
But in glaring contrast, Israel has, for the past 43 years, failed to challenge the Muslim ban on Jewish worship on the Temple Mount. On our visit, the number of Jews allowed up at one time was severely limited, we were checked for any religious items, which cannot be brought onto the Temple Mount by a Jew, and we were warned by the police not to even whisper a prayer.
THE STATUS quo is woefully offensive and intolerable. Never mind that at no time during the lengthy Muslim control over much of the Middle East did the Muslims ever designate Jerusalem as an imperial capital or even as a provincial or subprovincial capital. Even if we choose to overlook this very relevant history, the pattern of Islamic religious imperialism, exemplified by the Wakf's contemptible conduct on the Temple Mount, must not be ignored.
The problem is not simply that the Arabs have attempted to take as their own every site in Israel holy to Judaism, whether it be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem or Joseph's Tomb in Nablus. But in doing so, they have consistently attempted to obliterate the historic Jewish connection and claim to each of those sites.
In the same manner, in the years following the Oslo Accords and Israel's withdrawal from Bethlehem, a concerted policy by the Palestinian Authority to Islamicize the city and terrorize the Christian population resulted in a reduction in the percentage of Christians living there from 60 percent to less than 15% today.
We pay a terrible price when we close our eyes to the trampling of human rights and religious freedom out of fear of enraging the Muslim world. The Temple Mount is a huge area. It is the length of nearly five football fields north to south, and nearly three football fields east to west. It is certainly large enough to accommodate the ancient call of the prophet Isaiah recited in fervent prayer by Jews on Yom Kippur: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations."
The sooner we take action to help bring this about, the better.