A few months ago, a new official sign was posted at the entrance to the security checkpoint leading up to the Temple Mount by the Israel Police. It listed nine restrictions for “visitors and tourists,” the code term for all non-Muslims.
While it termed the site in a vague fashion “sacred” and stated that its “holiness must be respected,” no specific religious identity was applied to the location.
The sign was but another reflection of Israel’s unwillingness to forthrightly express the Jewish dimension of the Temple Mount.
Earlier this month, on May 13, taking advantage of Israel’s relatively insipid stance on the compound’s importance to Jewish national history, US President Joe Biden, continuing the devaluing of the site’s Jewishness promoted by former president Barak Obama, announced after a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II that there was a “need to preserve the historic status quo at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.” He then added he “also recognized the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s crucial role as the custodian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.”
And so, 55 years after Paratroopers Brigade commander Motta Gur’s famous shout over his unit’s radio on June 8, 1967, that “the Temple Mount is in our hands,” we witness yet another loosening of the state’s grip on it, and a further minimizing of the value quotient of the most central and sacred piece of national territory of the Jewish people.
One could have expected that to counter Muslims’ rallying slogan of “al-Aqsa is in danger,” we should be hearing a parallel “the Temple Mount is in danger.” Yet our senior government officials are rather low-key on the issue.
Summing up a meeting with US officials on April 21 this year, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted out “5 facts about the Temple Mount” yet did not mention it is also a Jewish holy site. The term “Jewish” he did use but only in describing “Jewish extremists who sought to inflame.” Indeed, when Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi declared “Our demands are clear that al-Aqsa and Haram al-Sharif in all its area is a sole place of worship for Muslims,” Israeli officialdom was quiescent.
On May 11, this paper reported that Safadi stated, “Israel has no sovereignty in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa.” The Prime Minister’s Office laconically responded, “There is no change or new development in the situation on the Temple Mount. Israeli sovereignty has been maintained.” What has been adopted is a policy of simply avoiding the issue.
When Biden said he “also recognized the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s crucial role as the custodian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem,” that formulation was intended to echo what was agreed in Article 9 of the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994, which includes Israel’s commitment to respect “the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem.”
But there is an additional nuance in that article, for it is written that “when negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines.” But that relates to the future. What about now?
Biden, and even Israel’s government, may be surprised to read that Jordan, together with Israel, “will act together to promote interfaith relations among the three monotheistic religions, with the aim of working towards religious understanding, moral commitment, freedom of religious worship, and tolerance and peace.” That is not the reality, at least as regards Jordan’s actions and statements.
Should not Israel’s political leadership and its diplomats be voicing a modicum of criticism that Jordan’s actions and words do not work toward religious understanding, tolerance, peace, as well as full freedom of worship for all in Jerusalem? Why not affix a sign, sponsored either by the Tourism Ministry or the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry, at the entrance explaining to visitors why the Temple Mount is important also to Jews and Christians? Is it embarrassing? Or are our officials a bit too timorous to assert its non-Muslim character and history?
FEW TODAY realize that when Moshe Dayan arranged the 1967 “status quo” policy, his thinking stemmed from the 1928 success of the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini to have the British force upon the pre-state Yishuv a status quo on the Western Wall and then reinforce it with an internationally created status quo two years later. Jews couldn’t leave benches, lanterns, tables and Holy Arks overnight. The shofar could not be blown.
The November 18, 1928, largely forgotten British White Paper, as the JTA report noted 10 days later, “assert[ed] that the status quo, as established under the Turkish regime, was infringed by the Jewish worshipers at the Jewish Holy Site,” and that “innovations were made” when a mechitza (partition) was set up.
It is that un-Jewish “status quo” that Jordan, with American backing and Israeli acquiescence, is seeking to force on us all. And to be clear, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s admission on October 24, 2015, that “Israel will continue to enforce its long-standing policy: Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount,” while ignoring its Jewish value, was not a positive contribution.
An unstatic status quo
The irony, however, is that the “status quo” is anything but static. The Wakf Islamic religious trust has altered times of entry and prohibited Shabbat visits. Since 2013, Ramadan closure was artificially extended. The Wakf created new holiday periods, planted tree orchards, paved over new pathways, built outdoor prayer platforms and constructed three new mosques. The police permit youths to stay overnight, knowing they are gathering stones and fireworks to attack Jews in the morning or attempt to throw stones over the wall to the Western Wall Plaza below.
Israel yielded and, despite security concerns, does not have surveillance cameras or metal detectors in place, even though police and Jews have been shot dead and stabbed to death there or just outside the gates. Most importantly, no archaeological digs are permitted, and, on the other hand, in 1996 many tons of earth were removed and dumped outside the compound.
And while Jews have succeeded in having a High Court of Justice ruling of decades ago applied, that is, allowing non-demonstrative silent prayer, Jews looking like Jews are subjected to special profiling procedures and must walk in a small groups along a separate route surrounded by police and Wakf guards because Jews are viewed by the Wakf as “storming” and being “provocative.”
Moreover, there has been a name change. The term “al-Haram al-Sharif” has all but disappeared, while “al-Aqsa Mosque” has become dominant. The Palestinian Authority’s denial that Jews have any connection to the Temple Mount or Jerusalem increases. Tayseer al-Tamimi, former chief justice of the PA Religious Court, said recently “the blessed Aqsa Mosque is Islamic and belongs to Muslims alone... and the Jews have no right to it... or the right to pray in any part of it.” And he added, “al-Aqsa Mosque includes all its courtyards... and specifically its western wall.”
“The blessed Aqsa Mosque is Islamic and belongs to Muslims alone... and the Jews have no right to it... or the right to pray in any part of it.”Tayseer al-Tamimi
PA Minister of Religious Affairs Mahmoud al-Habbash also asserted that “al-Aqsa Mosque... will not be shared with anyone, and no one besides Muslims will pray in it.” In December last year, Habbash stated that the Western Wall is “an authentic part of al-Aqsa Mosque only.”
If al-Aqsa is supposedly in danger, it is due to Islamist extremism and the increased violence of Muslims championing exclusivism, as well as a government standoffish approach, as if the matter will just go away. It won’t. Israel’s descent from identifying with the Jewishness of the Temple Mount, as if dismounting, will not placate Islamists but only encourage them.
The writer, a research fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, comments on issues of Zionist history and politics.