ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 58

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Activist no more? Ben Gvir waffles about changing Temple Mount status quo

Poised to take control of police, who set day-to-day policies at Jerusalem site, far-right MK mum on whether he’ll let Jews pray but says he opposes current ‘racist’ situation

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, on June 27, 2021. (Screenshot: Facebook)
MK Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, on June 27, 2021. (Screenshot: Facebook)

Until recently an outspoken activist in favor of Jews being permitted to pray on the Temple Mount, Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir equivocated on the matter on Sunday — just as he’s poised to assume responsibility over the Israel Police, the body that sets the day-to-day policies at the site.

Ben Gvir, who is soon to hold the new title of national security minister, avoided answering when asked in an interview with Kan public radio if he planned to permit Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. Still, he said vaguely that he would work to address the current situation according to which Jews may not pray at the holy site, calling it “racist.”

The comments represented a notable departure from his unequivocal rhetoric about the Temple Mount on the campaign trail, when he repeatedly stressed the need for Jews to show that they are “the owners of the place.” Ben Gvir is a regular visitor to the flashpoint site.

“Will the national security minister allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount?” Kan journalist Kalman Liebskind asked Ben Gvir on Sunday.

“The national security minister will ask for clarifications and will work against the racist policy on the Temple Mount,” the MK answered.

Liebskind’s co-host, Asaf Liberman, noted that the person who would need to provide “clarifications” about the police stance on the Temple Mount would be none other than the national security minister.

“Itamar Ben Gvir would demand clarifications from the national security minister who would call Itamar Ben Gvir to clarify,” Liberman joked.

As much of the on-the-ground policies on the Temple Mount are set not by official government resolutions but by the police stationed at the site — from the visiting hours for Jews to what pilgrims are permitted to do on the mount — the minister responsible for the police would have significant power over those decisions.

Ben Gvir reiterated his opposition to a “racist policy” of restricting non-Muslim prayer, without explaining what a new policy would look like.

Pressed if he’d demanded that Jewish prayer be allowed on the Temple Mount as a condition for joining the government of presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ben Gvir refrained from answering as well.

“Some things are just between me and the prime minister,” he said.

In recent years, a group of far-right Jewish activists have worked to turn the once-fringe topic of Jewish visits to the Temple Mount into a mainstream issue in right-wing and religious circles. Though many leading rabbis proscribe Jews ascending the Mount as they may inadvertently tread on forbidden holy ground — including the rabbinic leaders who back the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, that are due to join the next government — more and more Orthodox rabbis have signed off on the practice.

Israel once firmly prohibited Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, but over the years the ban has slowly eroded, with individual silent prayer and occasional group services now not uncommon.

Temple Mount activists maintain that permitting Muslim prayer while banning public Jewish prayer on the holy site, the holiest place in Judaism, constitutes discrimination. Opponents assert that permitting Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount would spark major protests and riots from Muslims across the Middle East, as well as damage Israel’s diplomatic ties with Jordan, which has a special relationship with the Temple Mount.

The past year has seen a record number of Jewish visits to the Temple Mount.

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