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Why it matters that Jews are standing on the Temple Mount

Jews are increasingly staking a claim to the Muslim-controlled Temple Mount, testing the Israeli government’s resolve to avoid conflict by protecting Muslim sovereignty over the site.

As Yehuda Glick strides across the Temple Mount, his bare feet scuffing along the paved stones and a kippah tucked under his baseball cap, the Muslim worshippers who know this sacred space as the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) start chanting tauntingly in Arabic, “God is great, praise be to God!”

Trailed by a group of religious Jews, an Israeli police escort, and a Muslim community representative, Mr. Glick responds in Hebrew, “Shalom – peace to you all.”

Behind him rise the two sites that make Jerusalem the third-holiest city in Islam: the Al-Aqsa mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine commemorating the prophet Mohammed’s ascension to heaven. It is built on the spot where Jews believe the very presence of God once rested in the Jewish temple. This is considered the holiest place in Judaism, yet it has been largely off-limits to Jewish worshipers because of concerns that range from violating Jewish law to provoking riots.

But in recent years, religious Jews are increasingly asserting their right to be here and are pushing for Israel to claim sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Their effort is testing the resolve of the Israeli government and the patience of 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. At stake are freedom of worship and the future of the most contested sacred space in the world. And the effort could potentially inflame the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is increasingly taking on a religious tone. 

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“I’m pretty left-wing Orthodox and even I think there’s no reason Jews shouldn’t be allowed up here,” says Mark Shayne, a financial consultant from New York who visited last week on the eve of Sukkot, one of hundreds of Jews who have visited the Temple Mount during the Jewish holidays this month. “If you can’t share a holy place, there will never be peace.”

The Islamic waqf, which governs the Haram al-Sharif, endorses the idea of Jerusalem as a “jewel of peace” for Muslim, Christians, and Jews, and are happy to welcome Jews as tourists to the Noble Sanctuary, but they are pressuring Israeli police to prevent access to the area for Jews with religious or political motivations.

“We are asking the Israeli police not to provide permission for the huge numbers of Jews who visit and especially to bar the extreme Jews from entering the Noble Sanctuary,” says Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, director of the waqf, in between a flurry of phone calls about the rising tensions amid the Jewish High Holidays. “These extreme Jews … are trying to create new facts on the ground.” 

Muslim concerns over the Temple Mount come amid rising Arab frustration with the “Judaization” of Jerusalem, where Jewish groups promoting (and funding) a greater Jewish presence have increasingly acquired properties in sensitive areas including the Muslim quarter of the Old City and predominantly Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Among Muslims’ greatest concerns is that Jews will try to destroy the Muslim holy sites in order to rebuild their temple. In 1984, Yehuda Etzion was imprisoned for a plot to destroy the Dome of the Rock, and in 1991, Israeli police intervened to thwart a plan by the Temple Mount Faithful to airlift a 5-ton cornerstone for the new temple.

“If the Jews and the Israelis destroy the Noble Sanctuary, then they would have actually destroyed part of the holy Quran and destroyed part of the Muslim belief,” says Sheikh al-Khatib. “If that were to happen, then Muslims all over the world would conduct jihad.”

Why there’s a rise in numbers

Israeli general Moshe Dayan captured the Temple Mount in the 1967 war, but instead of restoring it to Jewish control for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, he let Muslims retain control. Some saw it as the largely secular Israeli leadership’s attempt to appease Muslims.

Though Israeli courts have since supported Jews’ right to pray on the Temple Mount, Israeli police have enforced a ban on it to avoid provoking the Muslim community.  But as Israel’s religious Jews have gained influence they have pushed back against the restrictions. 

“[Muslims] can play soccer over there, … they can have picnics, they can urinate on the [ground], but I can’t say a word of prayer? Does that sound reasonable?” asks Glick, gesturing back to the compound where he sometimes holds a cellphone up to his ear while reciting a chapter of Psalms in order to disguise his prayer. “The only place in the world where a Jew cannot pray is over there.”

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Glick, who heads the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation and supports right-wing lawmakers’ efforts to restore Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, has been coming up here for 25 years – first alone, and now with groups of up to 100 or more. Last year 12,000 Jews visited, he says, and this year he hopes it will be double or triple that, solidifying the connection between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount. Israeli police statistics, though more conservative, support the general trend and indicate that Jewish visits this year will outpace previous years.

To be sure, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel still has a sign posted at the entrance of the Temple Mount forbidding Jews to visit the area. Since no one knows the exact location of the Temple or the inner sanctuary that was off-limits for all but a priestly elite, and Jewish law requires a level of ritual purity to enter the area that some say is unattainable at present, many Jews have long steered clear of the Temple Mount so as not to inadvertently commit an infraction of such religious precepts.

But that is changing.

“Today as archaeological findings become firmer, and there’s more awareness of realities on ground, the number of rabbis who are taking that stand that there’s no reason Jews should not be allowed to pray in the holiest place in the world is growing,” says Jeffrey Woolf, a rabbi and senior lecturer in the Talmud department of Bar Ilan University, who also credits growing spirituality in Jewish society for the surge in interest. “It’s true that God is everywhere, but His presence is experienced more intensely, tangibly, and experientially on the Temple Mount.” 

Spiritual rebuilding needed first

All that remains today of the Second Temple is the western wall, which has become a major focal point for Jewish prayer, attracting millions of Jews each year.

Glick would like to see more and more of those Jews visiting the Temple Mount and praying side by side with Muslims and Christians. “My dream is to be able to hug a person from Saudi Arabia and a person from Spain, and together all pray together to God,” says Glick.

But some worry that could spark a third intifada; the Second Intifada broke out in 2000 after a controversial visit by Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, with more than 1,000 Israeli police and several Israeli lawmakers in tow, in what his spokesman later described as a bid to show Palestinians that “Jerusalem was not for sale.” 

Jewish tradition teaches that the house of God shall one day be a house of prayer for all nations, but some say the Jewish people need to get their own house in order first.

The destruction of the First and Second Temples reflected the Jews’ own inner spiritual state, and thus rebuilding the temple requires first and foremost a spiritual rebuilding individually and societally, says Rabbi Dovid Ben Meir, who teaches in a religious Zionist yeshiva in Eli.

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“If we try to physically go up to the Temple Mount and walk in certain areas, even if we’re within the limitations prescribed by Jewish law … it won’t bring us any closer to an understanding of what the temple actually means,” he says. “We’ll satisfy ourselves with going up barefoot and saying a few Psalms and feeling as if we’re on a higher spiritual level, when the truth is what we really have to be striving for is to bring ourselves and all of humanity to an entirely higher spiritual, psychological sphere of living.”