It was the proverbial molehill being turned into a mountain. But it wasn’t any old mountain. It was the Temple Mount, the ancient hilltop in Jerusalem which is Judaism’s holiest site and Islam’s third holiest.
This week, newly-appointed National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the far-Right Otzma Yehudit party, made the ascent (as he has done before) and drew upon him and on Israel the wrath of the world.
You didn’t need to be a prophet to foresee what would take place.
Some people tried to temper their complaints by accepting Ben-Gvir’s right to go up to Temple Mount but asking why he needed to do it now, so close to the government being sworn in, when the situation is so sensitive.
The significance behind Itamar Ben-Gvir visiting the Temple Mount
They missed the point. To most of the world, Ben-Gvir made his Temple Mount visit on January 3, a date with no particular significance. But Tuesday this week was not just any other day in the Jewish calendar. It was the Tenth of Tevet, a fast day commemorating the beginning of the siege by the Babylonians on Jerusalem in 588 BCE which ultimately led to the destruction of the First Temple.
The fact that Jews today, in 2023, still commemorate that link to the Temple lost to the forces of Nebuchadnezzar II more than two and a half millennia ago is pertinent and poignant. All those who emphasize the importance of al-Aqsa Mosque and surrounding compound to Muslims should recall that the religious and emotional ties that bind Jews to Jerusalem predate both Christianity and Islam by centuries.
Ben-Gvir is no stranger to provocations, but this week’s visit wasn’t one of them. Indeed, by his standards, the early morning visit was particularly low-key. Ben-Gvir had every right to ascend Temple Mount. He doesn’t need the approval of the US, Jordan, the Palestinians, the United Nations or the world’s media.
His visit lasted less than 15 minutes but his proverbial 15 minutes of fame (or infamy) are likely to accompany him for his entire term in office. The world was waiting for him to act and he didn’t disappoint. What his opponents don’t realize is that they are strengthening his hand and his voting base. Ben-Gvir was elected precisely because of his stand on personal security during ongoing Palestinian violence and attacks on Jews and Jewish rights in Israel.
Last week, ahead of the inauguration of the new government, Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned Israel against making any changes to the status quo in Jerusalem where it has a role as custodian of the holy sites. “If people want to get into a conflict with us, we’re quite prepared,” Abdullah told CNN.
On Wednesday, Jordan summoned Israel’s ambassador for a diplomatic reprimand, and a string of Arab countries condemned Ben-Gvir’s “storming” of al-Aqsa. The Palestinians warned that Ben-Gvir’s visit could result in violence, and a rocket was fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in the direction of southern Israel the night after his visit.
Those who worry that more Palestinian rockets will fly as a result of the visit rushed to condemn Ben-Gvir rather than tell the Palestinians that violence is not acceptable. The world is more upset about Ben-Gvir’s brief tour than about the Palestinian threats. Perhaps that’s because they have come to see Palestinian violence as something that is natural – and Jewish rights on the Temple Mount as something that is not natural. Take the time to digest what that means.
We have seen over and over again that the Palestinians and their supporters do not need a particular reason to launch an intifada. So-called “Days of Rage” have expanded into weeks and months. Often, the reason has nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with internal Palestinian politics and rivalries – particularly between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and between Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hamas, for example, used the pretext of Israel’s annual Jerusalem Flag March in May 2021 to launch a mini-war on the Jewish state, helping deflect attention from domestic unrest in Gaza and boosting its image as the “defender of al-Aqsa.”
Contrary to common lore, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount as prime minister in 2000 was not the cause of the Second Intifada. Having turned down the astonishingly generous peace agreement offered by Ehud Barak, Yasser Arafat instead launched an all-out terror war on Israel to try to achieve his aims of a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea.” Sharon provided only a handy pretext.
Following Ben-Gvir’s visit, the Palestinians and Jordanians with the help of the United Arab Emirates, asked the UN Security Council to convene to discuss the events on the Temple Mount, at least their version of events. But it is not Jewish visitors who threaten the sanctity of the site. On the contrary, most religious Jews who make the ascent carry out rigorous physical and spiritual preparations, refraining, for instance, from wearing leather shoes. It is young Muslims who play football on the holy ground before or after prayers. And there can be no greater desecration than when Arab rioters stockpile rocks and weapons in the mosques there waiting to attack Jews.
There are religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews who won’t ascend to the Temple Mount for fear of treading on the Holy of Holies whose exact location is not known. But increasing numbers of Jews do make the ascent. And gradually they are also being allowed to pray there, albeit quietly.
In what warped world are only the prayers of Jews at their holiest site considered a threat?
Jews do not “storm al-Aqsa Mosque” or “conquer it.” It is Jewish worship that is limited there. The Muslim extremists object to any Jewish presence in the area where the First and Second Temples once stood.
Israeli politicians and commentators rightly noted the sensitivity of the site to Muslims. But backing down from visits due to fears that an incident there could sweep up the entire Muslim world is counterproductive. Palestinian bullying will not bring about peace.
Talk of maintaining the “historic status quo” is also deceptive. Jordan held part of Jerusalem for 19 years, from 1948 to 1967, between wars launched by the Arab world with the intention of wiping out the Jewish state. During those 19 years, Jews had no access to the Temple Mount or the Western Wall below it. The situation in which Israel in 1967 failed to fully assert its full sovereignty over the reunited city was a strategic error.
THE INTERNATIONAL response to Ben-Gvir’s trip didn’t come from nowhere. There has been a mounting assault on Israeli and Jewish rights in Jerusalem, led by the Palestinians and abetted – innocently or otherwise – by various international bodies and organizations.
One aspect of this gradual delegitimization of Israel’s rights is evident in the terminology being used. There’s nothing pedantic about semantics. When the UN General Assembly last week voted to call on the International Court of Justice in the Hague to examine the issue of Israel’s “occupation, settlement and annexation” those weren’t the only terms that were loaded. The motion refers to the Temple Mount only by its Arabic name, al-Haram al-Sharif. By constantly calling it just by the name with its Muslim association, the UN is slowly but surely erasing the Jewish links to the Temple Mount.
Similarly, when Judea and Samaria are known only as “the West Bank” it grants a belated second victory to the Babylonian forces who brought down the Kingdom of Judea and sent the Jews (the Judeans) into exile.
Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas seems set on the path of lawfare. It’s warfare by other means. The goal remains to eradicate Israel’s standing as the Jewish state. Abbas’s moves are not about peace or progress. That won’t come about until the day that the Palestinians can admit that there were Jewish Temples on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem millennia ago. And the Christian world should also take note. Every erasure of Jewish links to Jerusalem is necessarily an assault on Christian ties too.
Respecting the rights of all worshipers and honoring the holiness of the site is a moral imperative. There can be no greater irony – or sacrilege – than Palestinian attempts to make the Temple Mount in Jerusalem Judenrein.