Mounting Tensions

A growing movement among Jews strives to assert sovereignty over the Temple Mount

temple mount311 (photo credit: courtesy)
temple mount311
(photo credit: courtesy)
ON THE EVE OF THE 17TH of the Hebrew month of Tammuz (June 29), a fast that commemorates the beginning of the destruction of the Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Romans, 22 school children, accompanied by their teachers and rabbis, ascended the Temple Mount, referred to by Muslims as the al-Haram ash-Sharif, in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The visit was a reward for 11-year-olds from the Hebron Talmud Torah, in the Jewish settlement of Hebron, who had faithfully attended their morning prayers throughout the school year. Excited and moved, the boys, dressed in their finest Sabbath clothes, walked along the site reverently.
“Considering the success,” says the principal of the school, “we will probably, with God’s help, make more visits as of next year.”
Although the visit attracted almost no public attention, it marked an important first in the difficult history of the Temple Mount: this was the first time since 1967, when Israel captured the Temple Mount from the Jordanians during the Six Day War, that students from a recognized school were ever brought to the site and permitted to visit the Mount.
And the fact that the principal confidently intends to continue these visits points to a littleobserved but growing trend among religious Jews in Israel. Based on political and religious developments, Jewish religious and political leaders are increasingly demanding the right to visit and pray on the Temple Mount, thus threatening to throw a spark into the already-combustible situation in Jerusalem.
The Temple Mount is a small, trapezoid-like shaped hill that slopes slopes from north to south, above the Kidron Valley to the east. Jews consider this their most holy site, the location of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by Titus in 70 CE. According to Jewish tradition, this is where the third Temple will be rebuilt when the Messiah arrives.
The al-Haram ash-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) consists of nearly 40 acres of religious structures and gardens, including the Aqsa Mosque in the south and the Dome of the Rock in the center. Muslims consider this to be the place from where Muhammad made his journey from Jerusalem to heaven. It is their third most holy site. According to evangelical Christians, the Temple Mount must be rebuilt in order for Jesus to return and bring on the End of Days.
Jews have been prohibited from performing any religious ritual on the Temple Mount ever since Moshe Dayan, defense minister during the Six Day War, fearing that conflict over the site would highlight the religious aspects of the Israel-Arab conflict, handed over the management of the site to the Muslim waqf (the Islamic council, which, according to historians, has managed the site continuously since the Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem in the 12th century).
According to restrictions imposed by the waqf, Jews are allowed to ascend the mount, but not to pray or to participate in any religious ritual.
They are not allowed to visit in groups that exceed eight people, to bring religious ceremonial objects with them, or to hold a prayer book or even a single piece of paper on which words of prayer have been printed or inscribed. While walking on the Mount, Jews are not allowed to stop at any spot for more than a few moments.
Until a few years ago, most Jews seemed satisfied with praying at the Western (“Wailing”) Wall, which is what remains of the retaining walls that surrounded and supported the Temple Mount. Furthermore, ultra- Orthodox and many Orthodox Jews, based on a religious ruling by the medieval scholar, Maimonides, believe that it is forbidden to ascend to the mount because it is not known where the “Holy of Holies,” where only the high priest after complex purification procedures was allowed to enter, was located.
In 1993, in response to a petition bought by small group known as the Temple Mount Faithful, the High Court of Justice ruled that any and all Jews have the right to pray on the mount. But the court left the decision of whether to permit Jews to pray at any given time in the hands of the police, and the police have never given the Temple Mount Faithful or any other group such permission. Even within the national religious camp, the Temple Mount Faithful, which has never managed to bring more than 30 people to any of its demonstrations, had been considered extremist and provocative.
But then, in February 1997, the committee of rabbis of Judea Samaria and Gaza, published a guide to the Temple Mount, popularly known as “the safe map,” which outlined the areas where it is forbidden to walk and those where it is permitted.
According to Nadav Shragai, a journalist at the Israel Today daily and author of “The Struggle for the Temple Mount,” this guide reflected a trend among religious nationalists allowing for increased flexibility on religious rulings. The trend, Shragai says, stemmed, among other reasons, from fears that Israel, which was engaged in peace talks with the Palestinians, might renounce sovereignty over the site.
Since then, the trend has accelerated, first slowly and, in the past few years, much more quickly. According to Attorney Dr. Shmuel Berkovitz, a leading expert on the status of the holy places and a senior researcher for the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, while the groups who speak openly about a reconstruction of the Holy Temple on the Mount (which, they acknowledge, would require the destruction of the mosques) are a small minority, today there are some 13 different organizations involved in promoting visits and prayer to the Temple Mount. “Some of them are extremists and some are faithful believers. But these are no longer merely the initiatives of an isolated rabbi here and there. This looks more like a mass movement.”
IN JUNE 2007, ON THE EVE OF THE pilgrimage festival of Shavuot, when, during the Second Temple period Jews would bring their sacrifices to the Temple, and in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem in the Six Day War, a group of prominent and influential rabbis from the national religious camp, none of whom had been affiliated previously with any of the groups such as the Temple Mount Faithful, openly visited the Temple Mount. Standing barefoot in a row, visibly moved, they issued a call on Jews throughout Israel and from abroad to come to the site “in order to renew the love for the holy site, through worship in the heart, in the place where prayers are heard the best.”
While the ultra-Orthodox denounced the visit and maintained their objection, the call by these rabbis was the first and most influential break in the wall of taboo surrounding the Temple Mount. In numerous rallies and conferences, rabbis and leaders called for the need to “do something in order to wipe of the shame” of the Jewish capitulation to the waqf.
On October 25, 2009, the Temple Institute, a once-marginal organization that has been gaining increasing prominence, held a rally at the Chief Rabbinate’s Heichal Shlomo facilities in central Jerusalem. The gathering brought together on the same dais individuals who, until then, had never publicly commented on Jewish or Israeli claims to the Temple Mount, including MK Uri Orbach from the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party and Jerusalem Deputy Mayor David Hadari, a close ally of Mayor Nir Barkat, as well as well-known figures from the extreme right of the national religious camp, including Rabbi Dov Lior from the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba near Hebron and MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union party), a former member of the now-outlawed Kach group founded by Meir Kahane.
The event was attended by hundreds. After evening prayers, all the speakers focused on the need to “improve the attitude of the police” regarding Jewish prayer on the Mount. “It is not the job of the police to do the job of the waqf,” declared Yehuda Glick, a former spokesperson for the Absorption Ministry and now the director of the Temple Institute. “We feel that the police are after us, and we want to send a message to the prime minister that we won’t accept it anymore.”
The speakers also all expressed deep religious, even existential, longing for what they referred to as “the real thing” – that is, to pray on the Temple Mount and not merely at the Western Wall. “We are required to renew our ties with the holy site of our faith and tradition, declared Lior. “This is our essence as Jews.”
The Temple Institute, rapidly becoming a major player in the campaign to permit Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, was founded in 1987 by Rabbi Israel Ariel, a former paratrooper who was among the first soldiers to reach the Temple Mount in 1967. It is a non-profit educational and religious organization, with its headquarters located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. According to its own publications, the Institute is dedicated to “every aspect of the Temple Mount” and its primary goal is to “rekindle the flame of the Holy Temple in the hearts of mankind, through [the means of] education” and to “do all that is in our limited power to bring about the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in our lifetime.” The Institute is funded by private donations and does not make the names of its funders, nor its budget, public.
To this end, the Institute sponsors seminars, rallies and other public events, publishes educational materials and is engaged in research in order to reconstruct the vessels and other objects that were in use during the time of the Second Temple.
For several years, the Temple Institute has been sponsoring a monthly tour of the gates to the Old city. This summer, the police canceled the tour for the Hebrew month of Tammuz, in mid-June, because of rioting in the Old City. In response, in mid-July, marking the Hebrew month of Av, during which the Temple was destroyed, the Institute’s regular tour ended at the Golden Gate, the blocked gate through which the Messiah is supposed to come.
Dressed in striking uniforms – white shirts with a logo of the Second Temple and distinctive hats – and carrying long gold-colored trumpets, ushers from the Institute maintained disciplined order among the crowd. Transported by some 75 buses from across the country, the thousands of participants (7,000 according to the police and 10,000 according to the organizers) collectively took an oath that they would never “forget or give up the Temple Mount.”
Hodaya and Liat, two 18-year-old girls, came from Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv, together with their parents and siblings to take the oath.
“There is a serious threat that the government will give up the Temple Mount, heaven forbid, to the Arabs. It is important that as many Jews as possible come to these rallies, to show the world and the Americans that we will not give up,” Hodaya tells The Report.
Adds Liat, who was evacuated with her family from the settlement of Neve Dekalim during Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, “I know now that the government and the leftists will not hesitate to give everything to the Arabs, so it is important to show them that we will not let them do it. This is not only a matter for the religious – it is important to the entire people of Israel.”
Some two months ago, a smaller group, Har Kodshi (known in English as God’s Holy Mountain) organized a group of Jews, many of whom declare that they support dialogue and peaceful resolution of the Israel-Arab conflict, to discuss “how to bring Jews back to the Temple Mount through peaceful and harmonious means.” Dr. Or Margalit, who teaches Jewish Thought at Bar-Ilan University and is the main mover in the group, tells The Report that “there is enough room on the Mount for both Jews and Arabs. Religion is part of the solution and need not always be a source of conflict.” The group, which is in contact with a like-minded group of Sufi Muslims, promotes the re-establishment of a Jewish Temple that will exist side by side with the Aqsa and Omar mosques.
While Har Kodshi would appear to have little support among Jews or Muslims, the meeting serves as yet another indicator of the extent to which the Temple Mount issue has proliferated throughout the Jewish public.
FOR SOME, IT IS A MATTER OF sovereignty. “It is unacceptable that the State of Israel, which represents our sovereignty, is the one which prevents us from implementing that sovereignty on the most important and sacred site of our history and heritage, on the Temple Mount,” Orbach declared at the rally held at the Great Synagogue. “So I am asking: Are we or are we not the sovereign here?” And Hadari later confides to The Report that while he does not identify with the political views of some of the people who attended that gathering, “the issue of sovereignty on the Temple Mount should not be abandoned and so I decided to participate.”
Agrees Glick, the issue is “first and foremost a religious issue. The Temple Mount is the real thing… the Western Wall is only the external wall of the compound... Despite the humiliating restrictions imposed by the waqf, which enjoys the full cooperation of the police, we will not give up.”
Similarly, Rabbi Dov Haneman, a teacher at a religious college who lives in the West Bank settlement of Psagot, tells The Report, “The religious aspect is certainly important: People feel the Western Wall is not enough anymore; they look toward the ‘real thing.’ There is a sense of a need for something that is more meaningful.”
Others view the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, in 2005, as the major trigger, which brought the issue of Israeli Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem, and especially over the Temple Mount, to the fore. “People began to realize that once it – evacuation of Jews – happened, it could happen again. We, the settlers, still remember how prime minister Ariel Sharon said that ‘[the Gaza Strip settlement of] Netzarim is like Tel Aviv.’ Nevertheless he kicked us out. So who can trust that the government won’t renounce Jerusalem and the Temple Mount tomorrow? We feel genuine fear that anything can happen, and thus we feel the urge to express our ties to this holy site,” Haneman says.
Jews complain that “two policemen and a representative of the waqf follow them when they walk on the Mount to ensure that they do not even utter a prayer.” Glick tells The Report about an “incident that shows you how humiliating and painful the situation is and why we cannot be silent anymore.” According to Glick, several months ago, a young bride came to the Mount on the day of her wedding. Accusing her of praying, the waqf representative called over a policeman, who arrested the young woman, who then spent several hours at the police station before she was released. “This shows the absurdity of the situation. As a result, more Jews, including some who until recently weren’t at all concerned about the situation on the Mount, are now ready to act.”
To this can be added the archaeological wars, in which Israelis accuse the waqf of illegal excavations on the Temple Mount that have destroyed valuable proof of Jewish history, while the Muslims accuse the Jews of digging tunnels under the mount in order to destabilize the al-Aqsa mosque.
THE TEMPLE MOUNT HAS figured prominently in Jewish-Arab violence. The Arab riots of 1929, which marked the first major violence in the Arab- Israel conflict, started when Jews attempted to take control of the Western Wall. In the 1980s, Israeli authorities uncovered a Jewish extremist plot to destroy the Dome of the Rock, and in early 1996, the “Tunnel Riots” took place when Israeli antiquity authorities began excavating beneath the Temple Mount.
After the Camp David summit in the year 2000, the Palestinians stated that the Jewish people do not have, and never did have, any religious or historical claims to the Western Wall or the Temple Mount. In response, Ariel Sharon toured the compound on September 28, 2000, adding to the sparks that set the fire of the second intifada.
While many of these incidents were expressions of the nationalist struggle between Arabs and Jews, they point to the powerful symbolism of the Temple Mount and the extent to which both Jews and Palestinians have constructed much of their national narratives around it.
“The Temple Mount has always been at the center of national awareness,” says Berkovitz. “The call of the rabbis from the Zionist religious movement has enhanced the longing that has always existed for site.
Currently,” he concludes, “there is a vacuum of sovereignty on the Mount. And we all know that a vacuum like this cannot be sustained.”