Mounting tensions

The assassination attempt on right-wing activist Yehudah Glick is the latest in a sequence of violent incidents that have taken place against the backdrop of the Temple Mount throughout history.

Dome of the rock and Israeli flag (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Dome of the rock and Israeli flag
Last week’s assassination attempt on right-wing activist and Temple Mount Faithful member Yehudah Glick, which led to the closure of the holy site to Jews and Muslims over the weekend, raised the tensions in Jerusalem to new heights and caused serious concern that the rioting in the city would escalate.
But historian Hillel Cohen, 53, a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Department of Islam and Middle Eastern Studies, an expert in Palestinian society and its relationship with Zionism, tries to quell the flames.
“For a long time there has been tension between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem,” he said. “There’s a chance that it might erupt, but only occasionally does a specific incident spark a flare-up.”
Do you remember what happened last decade when Ariel Sharon went up to the Mount?
And if he hadn’t ascended the Mount? Would the Palestinians have received their own state and not rioted? It’s a fact that a large part of the violent events in Jerusalem in modern history are connected to the Temple Mount.
In the course of the events of 5689 (1928-29) – to which I devoted my book Tarpat/1929: Year Zero of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Keter) – the tension in Jerusalem began over the issue of Jews praying at the Western Wall, which according to the Muslims was considered part of al-Aksa compound. Toward the end of the first intifada, an attempt by Jews to lay a foundation stone for the third Temple ignited an anti-Palestinian protest that ended with the deaths of 13-14 Palestinians.
Where does the Temple Mount’s importance come from?
Its importance to whom? According to Jewish tradition, the Temple Mount is the place where creation began. Later, Abraham stood in the same place when he attempted the Binding of Isaac.
According to Muslims, Abraham the forefather was there, at the place where the world was created, but he wasn’t considered Jewish as in his time there was no Jewish religion and the Torah had not yet been given to the Jewish people.
They see his as the father of Islam and see themselves at the perpetuators of the Abrahamic tradition. So according to them, the Temple Mount, or Al Haram a-Sharif, as they call it, belongs to them and they have rights to the place.
When the Arabs conquered Jerusalem from the Byzantines in the seventh century, they built al-Aksa Mosque. If in the Byzantine era it was forbidden for Jews to live in Jerusalem, the Arabs were the ones who renewed Jewish settlement in Jerusalem and turned Al Haram a-Sharif once again into a holy site. By contrast, the Byzantines turned the Temple Mount into Jerusalem’s garbage dump, to demonstrate the Jews’ lowliness.
When Khalif Omer Ibn Khattab conquered Jerusalem from them, he cleaned up the Temple Mount, prayed there and built a mosque there. Afterward, Muslims didn’t prevent Jews from praying on the Temple Mount as part of a united front against the Christians, until they forbade it from the 13th century.
Who gave them the authority to forbid and permit?
It wasn’t a question of authority. As far as the Muslims were concerned, when they gained control of the place where Abraham walked, they didn’t appropriate something that belonged to someone else, because they see themselves as his descendants no less than we do.
Alongside the Muslims’ decree [that Jews can’t pray on the Temple Mount], most halachic authorities also decreed that it was forbidden to ascend the Temple Mount, and they found a “substitute” in the Western Wall. Until the beginning of the British Mandate, in 1917, there was no argument about that, and only a handful of Jews, including Moses Montefiore, ever entered the Temple Mount, which caused great anger among Muslims. That question stopped being relevant during the period of Jordanian rule, between 1948 and 1967. The problem resurfaced after the Six Day War, when the Temple Mount was in Israeli hands.
ACCORDING TO Cohen, the Jewish ruling against ascending the Temple Mount is based on “reasons of holiness and purity, not on political reasons. To enter the site of the Temple, according to Halacha one has to be pure,” he says. “According to Halacha, everyone in this generation carries the impurity of the dead.”
This means, Cohen says, “Anyone who has ever been in a cemetery, for example, is forbidden from entering the Temple site, unless [he has access to] a red heifer’s ashes, which are sprinkled on the ascender, and then he is purified. Because we don’t have a red heifer in our generation, it is impossible to become pure, and therefore it is forbidden to go up to the Temple Mount.”
So why do Glick and the rest of the Temple Mount activists, who are observant, go up to the Mount?
They rely on a halachic solution that says the prohibition only applies to the building of the Temple, whose exact location is not known. According to them it is permissible to go up to other areas of the compound after immersing in a mikve, or ritual bath, to purify themselves. They don’t go to the area where it is assumed that the Temple stood.
Did the government make a mistake when it didn’t deal with the situation after the Six Day War?
When the Temple Mount was conquered in 1967, an IDF soldier hung an Israeli flag on the Dome of the Rock, and defense minister Moshe Dayan gave an order to remove it for fear of angering the Muslim world. There are those who believe that had Israel imposed its sovereignty over the Temple Mount, the situation would have been different. Maybe yes, maybe no. Another decision of Dayan’s was to leave the administration of the Temple Mount in the Wakf’s hands, allowing it to deploy guards on the Mount who make sure that Jews who go up there do not pray there.
“IN FACT,” adds Cohen, “If Jews go up to the Mount it is usually a demonstrative act to show that we are also here and it’s our right to pray there. The Temple Mount activists feel disgusted that even under Israeli sovereignty they can’t pray on the Temple Mount.”
What about the other player, the Jordanians?
The Wakf is under tight Jordanian control, and there is a power struggle between the Palestinian Authority and the Wakf and the Muslim Brotherhood.
What do you think will happen in the future?
There is no reason the Jews will forgo their right to pray on the Temple Mount, and on the other hand there is no reason for the Muslims to allow them to. It’s a power struggle, which shifts depending on who is stronger at any given time. And neither side is likely to give in.
In the past you were quoted as saying: “The Roman Empire also got stronger until it collapsed.” Is it likely that this will happen in Jerusalem?
I think Israel’s leaders are not alert to what is happening around them, and they are not acting wisely in relation to the Palestinians, which is not to our benefit. We control the Palestinians and deny them a large portion of their rights on the assumption that it will be OK, when we do something else it will work out, like it has until now, as the story of Zionism shows.
My point is that at some stage these successes will run out. I fear that we are very close to this point, in everything that pertains to the Temple Mount and the Jewish land acquisition in Judea and Samaria. So they say that we built one more outpost and we added a few more thousand dunams to one local authority or other, and it will be OK. But my feeling is that is like a balloon that you blow up more and more until it pops.
It is worth our while to really understand the other side and come to an agreement in order to prevent this. We can no longer just work on the assumption that we’re entitled to everything, and everything we give them is a concession. If we don’t understand that they have rights just as we do, the rest is just cosmetic fixes. 
Translated by Nechama Veeder.