Why I went up to the Temple Mount

I had religious qualms, but these were overwhelmed by important political imperatives.

temple mount 224.88 (photo credit: Areil Jerozolimski [file])
temple mount 224.88
(photo credit: Areil Jerozolimski [file])
Jewish historical memory is focused on several fundamental experiences, among them: hurban - the destructions of the First and Second Temples, and korban - ritual temple sacrifice, both of which are grounded in the Land of Israel. I thought of this when I was recently told of a tour of the Temple Mount on a Sunday morning. I hesitated. The last time I'd been at the site was just after the Six-Day War. I had joined a group of volunteers who came to Israel from all over the world in response to what the Arabs and the media predicted would be another Holocaust. Israel's victory turned the situation into a huge party. Not observant then, I joined thousands of people who thronged into Jerusalem's Old City for the first time in almost 20 years, walking through dust and rubble to witness the devastation and visit the site that is the center of Jewish consciousness: the Temple Mount. Entering the golden Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine built at the end of the 7th century CE and prohibited to Jews by both Muslim and Christian conquering armies for 2,000 years, I saw a piece of the mountaintop (the "Foundation Stone") where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob encountered God, and where the First and Second Temples stood. It was like a vindication of Jewish suffering, perseverance and strength. Ravaged throughout history, Jews once again - some say miraculously - controlled the Temple Mount. And somehow, I was part of it. After conquering the site, however, as a gesture of good will, minister of defense Moshe Dayan returned partial sovereignty to the wakf, the Muslim trust. Most Orthodox rabbis (and all haredi rabbis) prohibit their followers from treading anywhere on the Mount, especially near where the Temple's holy of holies once stood (a spot restricted even in Temple times to the High Priest on Yom Kippur). That area is presumed to be where the Dome of the Rock is today. I VERY much wanted to join the tour of the Temple Mount, so I asked my Orthodox rabbi for his approval. That was not forthcoming, but knowing me, he cautioned that I not walk near the Dome of the Rock; I was to follow the path around the perimeter. "Mikve" [ritual bath] and no leather shoes," he added. I was still hesitant, feeling the weight of rabbinic injunction. At the end of morning prayers, I read the Psalm of David for Sunday: "Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord, and who may stand in the place of His sanctity?" Was I worthy of such an experience? Was I violating Halacha? Not to go, however, would also be to make a statement. The wakf was illegally and systematically excavating on the Temple Mount, and destroying all Jewish remnants. Archeologists from around the world reported desecrations of the site. The wakf had excavated the area beneath al Aksa mosque at the Mount's southern end (called erroneously, "Solomon's Stables") and dumped what they had dug up as garbage. The Israeli government, despite Jewish protests from around the world, refused to intervene. IN CONTRAST, a few months ago, minor excavations and reconstruction by Israeli authorities of an area adjacent to the Western Wall (outside the Temple Mount area) led to Arab riots, calls for terrorist attacks and condemnations from around the Muslim world. What's "ours," and what's "theirs"? And where did I belong in all of this? Pessah is one of the three holidays during which Jews in ancient days were required to come to the Temple with offerings. Unable to bring a Pessah sacrifice, should I instead re-enact this ancient tradition of ascending the Temple Mount? Still unsure of what I should do, I prepared myself and arrived at the walkway leading to the Mughrabi Gate - the only entrance allowed by the wakf to non-Muslim civilians. And, according to their rules, we had to be out in two hours, by 10 a.m. Passing workers digging and filling pails, I joined a few dozen people, mostly non-Jewish tourists, as we were checked for weapons and prayer books. The wakf does not allow non-Muslims to pray on the Temple Mount. As I stepped through the gate and onto the broad plaza, I suddenly felt lighter, as if another atmosphere surrounded me. Arab guards located throughout the area with walkie-talkies watched as I walked past the mosque to the eastern side of the compound. Standing alone in stocking feet, two tall lanky Orthodox young men with long payot dressed in white greeted me. They told me they were from a yeshiva, and gave its name. "Where's that?" I asked. "Yad Binyamin. In Gush Katif." Shaking inside, I remembered the yeshiva in Neve Dekalim, the synagogues and thriving community that were destroyed a year and a half ago. A thousand five hundred families, some 9,000 people thrown out of their homes, many remaining unemployed and without permanent housing or adequate compensation. Twenty-one thriving communities bulldozed. A stain on the Israeli nation; an ongoing trauma. Jewish refugees. Exile and destruction. Walking along the pathway on the eastern side of the plaza, we were accompanied by two wakf guards. I pointed to garbage strewn around; a guard shrugged. Piles of rubbish and building materials were scattered all around. On the northwestern side of the compound I stopped to chat with another guard. He told me he has a degree in history from Hebron University. "There's no Jewish history here," he informed me. "Nothing Jewish." "The Temple?" I asked innocently. "Maybe another hill. Not here," he said curtly and pointed to his watch and the exit. It's 10 am. The writer, a former assistant professor of history, is a journalist living in Jerusalem.