The Temple Mount Revisited

It has long been apparent to me that the logic of Zionism as a political movement requires a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount.  The question is what kind of presence, and how can it be maintained.


I first started going up to the Temple Moiunt when my wife and I spent a year in Jerusalem at the time of the first Gulf war.  Then as now, the so called “status quo” defined the Temple Mount as a Muslim holy site which non-Muslims were permitted to visit provided they did not engage in any religious activities there.  However in practice the ban on prayer by non-Muslims on the Temple Mount has served as a ban on religious Jews going up to the site.  It would seem that wearing a kippa was defined as a religious activity by the Muslim authorities and rather than make an issue of it the Israeli government refused to let religious Jews go up to the Temple Mount.


In a pathetic attempt to avoid confronting this ban various rabbinical authorities ruled that Jews were forbidden to go up to the Temple Mount for fear that they might set foot on ground under which the Holy of Holies of the Temple once stood.  Some religious Jews accepted this ruling but others did not. I can recall seeing a group of teenagers in modern Orthodox attire and headed by a teacher request permission from the Israeli security people to ascend to the Temple Mount.  They were politely turned away  In all the many times that I have visited the Temple Mount I have never once seen a man with a kippa standing there.


When I first started going up to the Temple Mount, the ban on religious Jews was accompanied by an accomodating attitude towards everyone else.  Christian tour groups, some clearly identified as such, were admitted without any problem.  Arab tour guides stood just outside the entrance to the site offering to show and tell individuals or small groups what there was to see.  If you didn’t want a guide that was OK too.  I spent hours roaming the site and never once was stopped or harassed.  I was even permitted to spend time meditating inside the subterranean chamber which surrounds the visible portion of the bare rock after which the “Dome of the Rock” is named.


But when we returned to Jerusalem seven years later for another stay of a year, I was no longer allowed to enter the subterranean chamber.  Surveillance of the site by the Muslim authorities was more intense.  Once I was standing around and on impulse stretched out my arms sideways.  Within a minute a man with a walkie-talkie came up to me and asked if I was praying.  When I said no he let me alone but I no longer felt so comfortable as before.  In retrospect it seems clear that the shift in atmosphere on the Temple Mount was due to a shift in control of the site from Jordan to the PLO.  Although Jordanian control of the site was formally recognized by Israel in the peace treaty with Jordan, the PLO gradually took over and placed their own appointees in charge.


In the hands of Arafat and the PLO the Temple Mount became a vehicle for anti-Jewish agitation.  By the time that my wife and I made aliyah in the summer of 2001 it had become too dangerous to visit the Temple Mount.  We settled in Netanya and although we spent time in Jerusalem we stayed away from the Temple Mount for many years.  It was during this period that first Arafat and then Abbas popularized the Big Lie that there had never been a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount.  Any assertion of a Jewish connection to the site was met with the rallying cry, “al Aksa is in danger”, followed by a wave of violence.  Under these conditions the only non-Muslims who could visit the Temple Mount in safety were Christian tour groups, and even their access was closely monitored.


We found this out for ourselves.  About three years ago my wife and I succeeded in gaining access to the Temple Mount with the aid of a tour group from Ireland.  They let us pose as members of the group and vouched for us when the tour guide, who was Israeli, wanted to know who we were.  But only a short time after we got in the site Muslim security personnel began warning everyone that it would soon be time to leave.  The site was only open to non-Muslims for a few hours in the morning.  Theoretically we could stay till 10:30 but they wanted us out by 10.  After a brief inspection of a small part of the site the members of our tour group headed for the exit, and we went along with them.  The message was loud and clear: non-Muslims were not welcome.


When the Palestinians speak of preserving the status quo on the Temple Mount, this is the status quo they have in mind: no Jews at all and a highly restricted access for everyone else  But there is no way that the govenment of the state of Israel can accept this state of affairs.  Zionism is first and foremost a movement to establish a Jewish state in the land of Israel, and the Temple in Jerusalem was always the main bastion of the original Jewish state.  Many hundreds of thousands of Jews died defending Jerusalem and the Temple against the Greeks and Romans, and it is from this fact and none other that the sanctity of the Temple Mount derives.  It is simply not possible for the Israeli government to have physical control of the Temple Mount, which it does, and not facilitate some form of Jewish access to the site.  What form this access should take is the question that must be answered in order to defeat the current Palestinian campaign to bar Jews from the site altogether.


Why did the early Muslims who conquered the Temple Mount treat it from the start as a holy site?  For the same reason that they claimed descent from Abraham, practiced circumcision and refused to eat pork: to present themselves as the legitimate heirs of the Jewish struggle against Greco-Roman imperialism in the Middle East.  But over time the Muslim debt to the Jews was forgotten and the sanctity of the Temple Mount came to be attributed to Mohammed’s mythical night journey to “al Aksa”.  Islam evolved into an imperialist ideology in its own right, one which was fundamentally hostile to the national aspirations of the Jewish people.  Yet without the inspiration provided by those aspirations there never would have been an Islam in the first place.


Forgotten today is the fact that in 614 CE, just as Mohammed was beginning to preach in Mecca, Jewish forces with Persian support seized control of Jerusalem from the Byzantine Christians and established a Jewish government over the city.  Jews at this time were not a tiny minority in the Middle East but a mass movement in North Africa, Ethiopia, Yemen and Iraq.  But after a few years the Christians returned to Jerusalem and drove the Jews out, at which point Mohammed  turned against the Jews of Arabia and killed or exiled many thousands.  Nonetheless Judaism was so well established in Yemen that a large Jewish community remained there right down to modern times despite Muslim hostility and persecution.  The survival of Judaism in Yemen in the face of an official Muslim ban on all non-Muslim religions in the Arabian peninsula speaks volumes about the Jewish role in the origins of Islam.


“Al Aksa” means simply “the most distant” and in its original context did not refer to any specific place.  It was only identified with Jerusalem and the Temple Mount in order to provide a non-Jewish reason for venerating the place on which the Jewish Temple had once stood.  However it was not until modern times that the Palestinians, starting with the pro-Nazi mufti Haj Amin, took the additional step of treating “al Aksa” as not only non-Jewish but anti-Jewish.  So long as the Temple Mount remains a center of anti-Jewish agitation, Jewish access to the site will always be problematic and difficult.  Nonetheless Jewish access can be achieved on the basis of first a short term and then a long term strategy.


In the short term affirmation of the status quo is clearly the way to go, but the long term prospects of this strategy are not good.  It is important to remember that traditionally the Muslims barred access to the Temple Mount to anyone who was not a Muslim.  In the wake of the 1967 war they feared losing control of the site altogether and so they agreed to a compromise which became the basis of the status quo,  The Muslims would control the Temple Mount and Israel would control access to it.  But what has happened over the years is that the Muslims have used their control of the Temple Mount to control access to it as well.  By claiming that the presence of religious Jews represented a challenge to their religious authority they succeeded in banning them from the site, and by harassing anyone they perceived as Jewish they have succeeded in excluding Jews from the site altogether.


Israel can and should protest this exclusion as a violation of the status quo, but so long as the status quo is understood to grant the Muslims complete control of the Temple Mount such protests will prove ineffective.  That control must be challenged, and Israel has already done so in several ways.  With the aid of the Jordanians Israel has forced Abbas to agree to the installation of security cameras to scrutinize just what the Muslims have been doing on the Temple Mount.  And without fanfare a few Israeli border police have been stationed on the Temple Mount itself with a view to discouraging incidents of harassment.  These measures represent a step in the right direction, but in the long run a more fundamental challenge will prove necessary.  The more that Israel is forced to influence what is done on the Temple Mount, the greater the need for something beyond the mere right to visit as the basis of Israeli policy.


What is needed is a conception of the history and destiny of the Temple Mount that is equally compatible with Jewish and Muslim tradition.  No such conception exists today.  Existing Jewish and Muslim conceptions do have one thing in common: unllike Christian tradition they both treat the Temple Mount as a sacred space.  But their ostensible reasons for doing so are so widely divergent that it is hard to see how they can be reconciled.  For Jews the Temple Mount is where the Temple once stood, and for some Jews it is where a new Jewish Temple ought to stand.  For Muslims “al Aksa” is where Mohammed ascended to heaven, and for most Muslims, especially the Palestinians and Islamists, it is the very antithesis of Jewish tradition.  Implicit in both conceptions is an affirmation of sovereignty over the land of Israel, and sovereignty, as is well known, is not something which is easily shared.


Before a new conception of the nature and function of the Temple Mount can take root there must be a relaxation of the ban on non-Muslim religious ceremonies.  From the start this ban was interpreted in an arbitrary and unjust way to exclude religious Jews while admitting busloads of Christians.  Some control over what happens on the Temple Mount is no doubt necessary but a strict ban on non-Muslim prayer is impossible to enforce.  Who can tell from a distance what someone else is saying?  Israel should stop cooperating with the exclusion of religious Jews from the Temple Mount and take steps to make sure they are not harassed if they go there.  However whatever religious ceremonies they might wish to conduct there ought to be within the framework of a conception of the Temple Mount compatible with Muslim tradition.


In my view, at some point down the road, when relations between Muslims and Jews are different from what they are today, Israel ought to call for the placement of a seven branched menorah on the Temple Mount.  The Temple Mount is a large place, with plenty of room beyond the three structures which are there now, and a menorah could be put there without interfering in any way with Muslim religious ceremonies.  A menorah stood in the Jewish Temple and was carried away by the Romans after they destroyed the Temple.  Ceremonies could be conducted around it, first byJews, then perhaps by others who might wish to associate themselves with the tradition of national independence which it represents.  In time the Temple Mount might emerge as a symbol of the right to self determination of all peoples, including the Arab people.  And since Mohammed never tired of repeating that he was the prophet sent to the Arabs, it cannot be said that the concept of national self determination is anti-Islamic.


But whatever the future of the Temple Mount, Jews have a right to a part in it.  In order to affirm this right my wife and I recently paid a visit to the Temple Mount.  The fact that Abbas agreed to the installation of security cameras on the Templ;e Mount made me think that for the moment it might be safe to go there, and so it transpired.  The Israeli security guards waved us through in a way that made it seem as if they were actually glad to see us.  One of them did ask if I had a kippa underneath the baseball style cap I was wearing, but when I said no he left it at that.  On the Mount itself all was quiet and peaceful and we were not harassed in any way.  We left feeling good about the status quo but hoping for a little bit more in the months and years to come..

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