On Tuesday, a number of US officials convened in the White House and were discussing, among other issues, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount earlier in the day.
It was a routine get-together of staffers, in this case involving aides both to US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Such discussions are aimed at sharing information for later, when the bosses of these officials – the president and secretary of state themselves – are also present to hear background briefings, and establish official Biden administration positions and talking points.
A short while later on Tuesday, the US State Department spokesman Ned Price said: “The United States stands firmly for preservation of the historic status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem. We oppose any unilateral actions that undercut the historic status quo. They are unacceptable.”
“The United States stands firmly for preservation of the historic status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem. We oppose any unilateral actions that undercut the historic status quo. They are unacceptable.”Ned Price
That was part of the statement which was drawn up for the outside world, including Muslim and European allies, and at home for various Democrats in the US Congress.
Inside the staffers’ get-together earlier at the White House, a Biden aide – with whom I’ve been in touch frequently – apparently told a story to his colleagues based on a conversation I had with him exactly a year earlier.
The Jewish fast day angle to Ben-Gvir's Temple Mount visit
Tuesday was the 10th day of Tevet on the Jewish calendar. It’s a fast day. Others present at this meeting in Washington had certainly heard of Yom Kippur, one or two participants had heard something about Tisha Be’av. The aide, who is Jewish, explained to his colleagues that Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. There were nods among those attending, he told me in a phone conversation which he and I conducted later on Tuesday.
But then, he says, he introduced to the White House foreign policy conversation, the ancient angle; there are Jewish fast days which mark occasions which led to the destruction of the first and second Temples, with Tisha Be’av being the day when the destruction itself is marked.
“I told them: today is one of those fasts which mark the lead-up to the destruction. Where the Israeli minister went today is the place where both Temples existed and were destroyed,” said the Biden aide.
He then told his colleagues: “The minister involved might very well have been seeking a good headline to please his supporters, and might very well be full of glee over any condemnations which he and the Netanyahu government receive from enemies and even allies, but just for a moment, you should think about the symbolism that many Jews feel over the ability to ascend the Mount on a day like today.”
FRANKLY, I was impressed but also very surprised that this presidential aide had remembered what I had told him in that phone conversation between the two of us on the 10th of Tevet last year.
My conversations with the aide have been taking place for nearly two years, after Mr. Biden became president. I share Israeli life with him and he tells me about life and decision-making in the White House.
However, when he called me again on Wednesday this week, it might have been the first time that he and I had spoken two days in a row.
“I just gave my heart and soul in the explanation to my colleagues of why it’s so meaningful for a Jew to tread on the Temple Mount on a day like the 10th of Tevet, and then I hear Knesset Member Moshe Gafni, an Orthodox Jew, criticize Ben-Gvir for doing it. Gafni doesn’t think it’s meaningful to return to the Temple Mount? He’s not a leftist; what’s his problem?” said the aide.
He seemed flustered. He and I have had many conversations about the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. Now it sounded as though the Biden aide felt Gafni had just delivered a slap in the face of his best effort at the White House the day earlier to explain to uninformed US government staff that it was an important thing for a Jew to do.
I tried to explain the situation as well as I could. It’s the Holy of Holies, still holy, and many rabbis say to stay away. Others say that the area can be delineated to ascend the Mount while safely staying out of the forbidden area. I added that even those who permit such visits require going to a ritual bath beforehand.
I apologized to the White House aide that I had never spoken to him about this dispute. I told him that it’s been a point of argument for many years. Just as one example, I told him of a debate in the Knesset several years ago at which I was present, and in which the same MK Gafni had charged that anyone ascending the Mount was “igniting a powder keg” in the Muslim world by doing so.
On the other hand, then-MK Zehava Galon, of the leftist Meretz Party, said at the same debate that she objected to Jewish visits due to the sensitivity of the situation but that, in principle, acknowledged that a Jew should have the right to pray there.
The aide had to go; there were many pressing matters on his agenda, and this issue which he and I were discussing was even more complex than he had thought it was. I expressed my gratitude for his efforts to explain the case of the Jewish connection to our land to his colleagues at the White House consultation.
His parting words were: “The more time I spend in international affairs, the more I understand why this conflict has never been resolved. I wish the Israeli people true fulfillment of their aspirations, to live in peace and tranquility, treating one another with full human dignity, and being allowed to live according to their beliefs despite the external threats which they still face from those who would destroy them.”
The writer is op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post.