Israel has quietly started allowing Jewish prayers on the Temple Mount in recent months, in what would appear to be a major change to the status quo that has existed at the holy site since the Jewish state captured the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan during 1967’s Six Day War, according to a report Saturday.
Channel 12’s religious affairs reporter Yair Cherki filmed prayers at the site in recent days, as policemen — who in the past would eject any person suspected of prayer, and sometimes kicked people out for merely citing a biblical verse while speaking — passively looked on.
“For months now, every morning this unofficial prayer quorum has been praying on the Temple Mount,” Cherki said. The worshipers gather without prayer books, tefillin or any other symbols of prayer that could draw unwanted attention from Muslims at the compound that houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
But pray they do, with the cops turning a blind eye. The Islamic Waqf, which administers the compound, is aware of the situation and monitors them from a distance, but has so far not taken action, according to the report.
Cherki described the developments as “a revolution, unfolding quietly and gradually under the radar.”
The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism, as the site of the biblical Temples. It is the site of the third-holiest shrine in Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Israel captured the Temple Mount and Jerusalem’s Old City in the Six Day War and extended sovereignty throughout Jerusalem. Anxious to reduce friction with the Muslim world, however, and given that Orthodox sages generally counsel against ascending the Temple Mount for fear of treading on the sacred ground where the Temple’s Holy of Holies stood, Israel since 1967 allowed the Jordanian Waqf to continue to maintain religious authority atop the mount. Jews are allowed to visit under numerous restrictions, but not to pray.
In recent years, Israeli public perception of the ban on Jewish prayer has shifted. Through the fruits of a long-term concerted PR campaign, now using updated jargon calling for freedom of religion and human rights, the previously fringe Temple Mount movement is increasingly mainstreamed.
But in the face of Palestinian claims that Israel seeks to change the status quo on the Mount that have intermittently caused flareups of violence in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, successive Israeli governments have long maintained that Israel is committed to the status established there over the past few decades and does not intend to change the accepted practices.
Channel 12 reported that beyond prayers, lengthy Torah lessons have been held on the Mount, again with the tacit approval of the police.
The report cited two main causes for the gradual change: the growing number of Jewish visitors to the site — a record 35,000 came in the year before the coronavirus struck — and productive contacts between some of the religious activists and police.
Religious activists have even set up a “Temple Mount Management” body that built a shaded hut at the entrance area leading to the Mount, with refreshments for visitors and a model of the ancient Jewish Temple.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the apparent change in police policy on the Mount. It seemed unlikely such action, with such explosive potential consequences, would be authorized without the knowledge of top officials.
Contacted by The Times of Israel, the Israel Police commented: “As part of visits being routinely held in the area of the Temple Mount, police are acting in accordance with the visitation rules at the site that are meant to enable the preservation of public order and the public’s safety and are conveyed ahead of the visitors’ entry.
“The existing restrictions on visitors at the site are based on government decisions and High Court rulings on the matter over the years,” police added.
“Visitors” is the police’s term for Jews and non-Muslim tourists entering the compound.
A spokesperson for Public Security Minister Omer Barlev commented that there was “no change in policy from Tisha B’Av in previous years.”
In the past, attempts by Jews to pray at the site, even when quickly stopped by police, have sparked violence. So far though, the report said, the regular prayer sessions have been peaceful and have not led to unrest.
Asaf Fried, spokesman for an assortment of organizations active on the Mount, told the network: “The entrance area has been fixed up, there are no lines at the entrance… people go up to the Mount, there’s no Waqf following you. There’s a lot more room to breathe on Temple Mount.”
Channel 12’s Cherki stressed that this was still far from complete religious freedom for Jews on the Mount, noting that he was told by police not to film or interview people there, and, as a kippa wearer, to refrain from religious activity. But, on the ground, he says “the cops, in accordance with the new policy, look the other way.”
Some of the Temple Mount activists welcome the change, while others say there’s still a long way to go.
“Unfortunately it’s not prayer, in the sense that a Jew who has been to a synagogue or at the Western Wall would call prayer,” said Arnon Segal, one of the activists. “It’s very quiet prayer. Often a person who sways more than is allowed or mumbles too loudly is interrupted.”
“Praise the Lord for what there is, and there’s a lot more to be done.”