Half of Jewish Israelis back prayer on Temple Mount, mostly to ‘prove sovereignty’

40% of those polled are opposed, while the rest are unsure; survey comes as record numbers of Jews ascended to the esplanade on Jerusalem Day

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

Jewish religious nationalists wave an Israeli flag on the Temple Mount, May 29, 2022. (Screen grab)
Jewish religious nationalists wave an Israeli flag on the Temple Mount, May 29, 2022. (Screen grab)

More Jewish Israelis support allowing Jews to pray on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem than oppose it, a recent survey has found.

Half of those polled by the Israel Democracy Institute said they supported Jewish prayer on the holy site, while 40 percent said they opposed it. The rest were not sure.

The poll, which was conducted last month, was first published shortly before Sunday’s Jerusalem Day, which police said saw a record-setting 2,600 Jews visit the Temple Mount.

Over the course of three days in late April, the IDI surveyed 601 people in Hebrew — a common means of collecting a Jewish polling group without asking for one’s religion directly — about their opinions regarding the Temple Mount and the restrictions against Jewish prayer on the esplanade under what is referred to as the “status quo.”

Generally, this arrangement is understood to mean that Muslims are permitted to visit and pray on the Temple Mount, while non-Muslims can only visit, not pray. The status quo has also been interpreted to refer to formal, organized Jewish services, not prayers said quietly by individuals.

The ban on prayer, as well as religious prohibitions against visits to the Temple Mount entirely, were once a matter of consensus among religious and secular Israelis, but in recent years, public opinion on the issues has begun to shift, save for among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population, which still overwhelmingly accepts and supports these restrictions.

This is principally due to a growing belief that equates Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount with Israeli sovereignty over the site, widely considered the holiest spot for Jews, where two Temples once stood and where the biblical patriarch Abraham is said to have nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, before God intervened.

To Muslims, the site is known as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. Home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, it is generally considered the third-most holy site in Islam, from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Some consider the entire 36-acre esplanade to itself be a mosque. Though now Muslims pray in the direction of Mecca, for a time, they too prayed toward the Temple Mount. In addition to its religious importance, the site carries immense cultural and national significance for Palestinians.

Muslim worshipers attend the morning Eid al-Fitr prayer, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, at the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 2, 2022. (Jamal Awad/ Flash90)

The survey found that, of the 50% of Jewish Israelis who support prayer on the Temple Mount, three-quarters said they held this view “because it is proof of Israel’s sovereignty” over the site. The remaining 25% said they supported it because it was “a religious commandment.”

Most of the 40% who opposed Jewish prayer did not necessarily do so out of ideological conviction, but due to practical considerations, with 57.5% of them saying it was because it would “invoke a severe negative reaction from the Muslim world.” The rest — largely ultra-Orthodox respondents — said they opposed it as it was forbidden by Jewish law.

The group that was most supportive of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount was Israel’s so-called national-religious camp — generally Orthodox Jews associated with right-wing politics — with 72% saying they were in favor of it and 21% saying they were opposed on religious grounds. The least supportive, among Jewish Israelis, were ultra-Orthodox Jews, with 86.5% saying they opposed it on religious grounds and 1.5% saying it was out of concern for a negative response by the Muslim world.

Secular Jewish Israelis were evenly split on the matter, with 42% saying they supported it and 45% saying they opposed it. The rest were not sure.

The responses were more striking in terms of political affiliations, with the significant majority (between 65% and 75.5%) of respondents who said they were part of right-wing parties supporting prayer on the Temple Mount. The minority of those affiliated with the centrist Blue and White, Yesh Atid, and Labor parties said that they supported Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. And just 10.5% of people who supported the left-wing Meretz party supported it.

Though it was unpopular in both, there were stark differences between Israel’s two ultra-Orthodox parties on the subject. In the Sephardic Shas party, 28% said they supported Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, compared to 3% in the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism party.

This shift in public opinion on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount can be traced in political discourse about the issue.

Earlier this year, when Foreign Minister Yair Lapid sought to calm tensions around the Temple Mount, he assured the international press that Israel was dedicated to maintaining the status quo at the flashpoint holy site.

“Israel is committed to the status quo on the Temple Mount,” he said. “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount, non-Muslims only visit. There is no change, there will be no change.”

And yet, even while maintaining the importance of the status quo, Lapid signaled this change in views on the issue with an aside. “By the way,” he added, “I don’t feel comfortable with the idea that Jews do not have freedom of religion in the State of Israel and that Jews are banned from the site.”

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