'Our ideals aren't limited to a state but the manifestation of our religious yearnings of the past 2,000 years'

On Temple Mount, some see a dome and imagine an altar

More and more religious Jews are visiting the holy site, part of a movement defying a centuries-old rabbinic ban and stoking tension with Muslims who also lay claim to the esplanade

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Religious Jews visit Temple Mount, August 25, 2015. (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Religious Jews visit Temple Mount, August 25, 2015. (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

The night before she visited Temple Mount for the first time last year, Aviya Fraenkel was so excited she couldn’t sleep a wink.

“I remember climbing the Mughrabi Bridge [leading to the Temple Mount] and seeing the Western Wall beneath me, so small, and and all these different Jews way down there,” Fraenkel told The Times of Israel recently, standing at the bottom of the same bridge and waiting to enter. “You ask yourself: ‘Hold on, what was I doing down there all these years? It just isn’t interesting. I’m up here now!’ That’s a feeling you can never take back.”

“We still go to the Western Wall and love it, but you suddenly realize the difference. Why settle for so little? Why settle for imitations when we have the real thing?”

Fraenkel, a 29-year-old doctoral student in Assyriology and Bible studies at Bar-Ilan University, is part of a new revival movement sweeping Israel’s national religious community. Defying a centuries-old rabbinical ban on entering the 35-acre compound — considered the holiest site in Judaism where the first and second temples stood — Fraenkel, who created a special tour guides’ course last summer tailored for Temple Mount visitors, now tries to go up every week.

“It was brewing in me for many years,” Fraenkel recalled. “So I took the ritual bath and went up. I can’t completely explain it. Part of it has to do with the belief that there’s a next stage, that our ideals aren’t limited to a state — which is a lot — but that the state must manifest our religious yearnings of the past 2,000 years.”

Aviya Fraenkel, a volunteer tour guide on Temple Mount, stands in Jerusalem's Old City following a visit to the site, August 25, 2015 (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Aviya Fraenkel, a volunteer tour guide on Temple Mount, stands in Jerusalem’s Old City following a visit to the site, August 25, 2015 (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

“I’ve made a decision that my Judaism isn’t just about the past, it’s an expectation for the future,” she said. “I’m tired of apologizing about this. If others want to apologize, they’re free to do so.”

Fraenkel is not alone. According to data provided to Israeli daily Makor Rishon, the number of Jewish Israelis visiting Temple Mount annually has steadily but significantly climbed in recent years: from 6,568 visits in 2009 to 8,528 in 2013 to 10,906 in 2014.

Those statistics frighten people like Ekrema Sabri, who served as grand mufti (Islamic legal expert) of Jerusalem and Palestine between 1994 and 2006. Sabri accused the “extremist” Temple Mount activists of attempting to carry out “Talmudic prayers” on the site of the “so-called Temple of Solomon,” backed by Israeli police.

“These groups want to impose a new reality: to pray according to Jewish tradition freely, with no opposition by Muslims,” Sabri told The Times of Israel in a telephone conversation. “They want time allocated to them for prayer during the morning hours.”

Former Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri AP/Joao Silva
Former Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri (AP/Joao Silva)

“There can be no single place for two religions,” Sabri continued. “Our position is clear: This is a place for Muslims by divine decree, and Jews have no place in this mosque.”

Muslims traditionally refer to the entire Temple Mount Plaza as the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a position Israeli authorities have tacitly accepted for decades.

In the wake of the Six Day War triumph, Israel’s leadership was wary of extending full sovereignty over the holy mountain. Hours after Israeli paratroopers captured Temple Mount along with the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan on the morning of June 7, 1967, defense minister Moshe Dayan ordered the removal of the Israeli flag from atop the Dome of the Rock. “If there’s something we should not do in Jerusalem, it’s to wave Israeli flags on the Mosque of Omar (the Dome of the Rock) and Jesus’ grave,” Dayan was quoted as saying.

Ten days later, a new status quo was fixed. Jews would be allowed to enter Temple Mount as tourists, but not as worshipers. The Islamic Waqf, which managed the compound under the Jordanian ministry of religious affairs, would continue to maintain effective control over ritual throughout the sacred space.

‘Abstaining from sacrificing the Pascal lamb is a mortal sin, akin to refraining from circumcision,’ Segal argued

But while the ban on Jewish prayer is still in force on Temple Mount, the attitude of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government seems to have changed dramatically. Yehudah Glick, a Temple Mount activist and member of the Likud party, recovering from a Palestinian assassination attempt last October, said he now meets with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan on a monthly basis to discuss the situation on Temple Mount.

Gilad Erdan, May 18, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, May 18, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“He told me this is his first priority after appointing a new chief of police,” Glick said of Erdan last Wednesday.

These lobbying efforts are already bearing fruit. Last week, Erdan ordered the removal of female Islamist activists known as Murabitat from Temple Mount. The women, who habitually harass and heckle Jewish visitors at the site, are now confined to the plaza gates during morning visiting hours. Erdan has also asked the interior minister to outlaw the group and its male equivalent, Murabitin.

Last Wednesday, Glick’s movement, The Temple Mount Heritage Foundation, published a guidebook for visitors to the plaza titled “Arise and Ascend.” Delivered in person to Netanyahu last week, the booklet features endorsements from Efrat rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Turkish author Adnan Oktar and Methodist pastor Keith Johnson, as well as from Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin. Currently available in English and Russian, the booklet will be translated into Hebrew next month.

Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick hands Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a copy of the guidebook Arise and Ascend (courtesy Yehuda Glick)
Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick hands Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a copy of the guidebook Arise and Ascend (courtesy Yehuda Glick)

The willingness of mainstream Orthodox rabbis such as Riskin to endorse the Temple Mount ascension movement against the rulings of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is a new development, said Arnon Segal, a 35-year-old full-time activist.

When Segal first visited the Mount 16 years ago with a friend from the Otniel Yeshiva in the South Hebron Hills, none of his rabbis would endorse the visit. “They themselves wouldn’t go up, but I know that today the same rabbis support it,” Segal said. “Today, most national religious rabbis don’t oppose ascension. Some are very active in supporting it.”

Segal decided to visit the site of the Jewish temple during the festival of Sukkot, 1999. At yeshiva, the young student had read a book by Shlomo Goren, Israel’s chief rabbi during the 1967 conquest of East Jerusalem and one of the few Orthodox voices willing to publicly support visits despite the Jews’ collective state of ritual impurity since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE.

The visit was a disappointment. “It was like tearing apart the Red Sea” — extremely difficult, he said. “They did everything possible to prevent us from reaching that moment.”

Unaware of the exact visiting hours, Segal and his friend were forced by police to wait outside for two hours. Then, singled out as Orthodox Jews, they were only allowed to enter in pairs and spend seven minutes on the Mount.

“Up until four or five years ago, the issue was in no one’s consciousness,” he recalled. “Ascension was considered very odd, incomprehensible, extreme, a religious transgression. Today it’s not a big deal. Even the ultra-Orthodox know about the option of visiting Temple Mount.”

The change came about, he said, thanks to “lots of people willing to seem crazy.”

“At the end of the day, how many crazy people can there be? If everyone is talking about it, maybe there’s some truth to it. People just spoke about it endlessly until a realization emerged that what is going on up there makes no sense.”

Arnon Segal accompanies a group of Jewish visitors on Temple Mount, September 2014 (Michael Naftali Unterberg Facebook page)
Arnon Segal accompanies a group of Jewish visitors on Temple Mount, September 2014 (Michael Naftali Unterberg Facebook page)

During the summer, visitation hours for Jewish tourists are 7:30-11 a.m, and 1:30-2:30 p.m. Israelis identified by police as religious (and hence as potential troublemakers) are allowed into the Temple Mount in small groups of 10-15 individuals, accompanied by armed Israeli policemen and Islamic Waqf attendants, who make sure they do not whisper prayers or bow down in reverence.

Visitors circle the periphery of the plaza counterclockwise starting from the Mughrabi Gate on the Western Wall, and exit from a nearby gate approximately 20 minutes later. Only when one Jewish group leaves the plaza is another permitted to enter.

“My job is to drive people crazy about Temple Mount all the time,” Segal described his current occupation. He writes a weekly column about the Temple Mount in the right-leaning newspaper Makor Rishon and in a pamphlet called Olam Katan which is distributed to synagogues in 70,000 copies every Friday.

“It is extremely important for Jews to be on Temple Mount,” Segal said. “State authorities joined hands with religious authorities in an un-kosher effort to brand activists as weirdos and involve the Shin Bet [internal security agency] in everything,” he said.

His explanation for why it is essential for Jews to visit Temple Mount is a medley of classic libertarianism and Jewish religious reasoning.

“In a democratic state, freedom of worship is part of freedom of expression,” Segal said, citing former chief justice Aharon Barak. “Freedom of worship includes everything that Jewish law obligates us to do on Temple Mount, including sacrifices, not just prayers.”

Jewish men and women attend a Passover Sacrifice in Jerusalem on March 30, 2015 Danielle Shitrit/Flash90
Jewish men and women attend a Passover sacrifice in Jerusalem on March 30, 2015 (Danielle Shitrit/Flash90)

According to the Israeli activist, more than one-third of the total number of Jewish commandments — specifically those related to ritual sacrificing — can only be practiced on Temple Mount. The exact historic location of the Altar of Burnt Offering is known to religious scholars, he declared, and the renewal of ritual sacrifice should be undertaken immediately for those interested in fulfilling God’s commandments.

“Abstaining from sacrificing the Pascal lamb is a mortal sin, akin to refraining from circumcision,” Segal argued, noting that the reconstruction of the Bronze altar would not interfere with any existing Muslim structure on Temple Mount. “The al-Aqsa Mosque is situated outside the holy perimeters of Temple Mount. With some goodwill from the Muslims, and more courage on the part of our Jewish leadership, we could all get along.”

And then there’s the political issue. Segal argued that every space not occupied by a Jewish presence will be taken over by Islamic radicals and become “a center for global terrorism.”

“Almost every week we see flags of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Nusra Front. We hear calls inciting terror,” he said. “There’s no vacuum up there.”

Israeli opponents to Jewish ritual on Temple Mount argue that any change in the status quo established by Dayan nearly 60 years ago would lead to severe Arab violence, as occurred following the visit of then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon on the Mount on September 28, 2000. That visit is widely viewed as a trigger or pretext for the Second Intifada, which erupted the following day.

‘Almost every week we see flags of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Nusra Front. We hear calls inciting terror,’ he said. ‘There’s no vacuum up there’

Visiting the site is not just a political taboo, though, but also a religious one. Since its destruction nearly 2000 years ago, the Temple has gone from the physical center of Jewish worship to an abstract place of prayers and dreams. Practical, individual ritual has replaced the historic slaughter and sacrifice of animals linked with the Temple, a change many spiritual leaders are wary to challenge. “Instead of devoting themselves to Torah and religious commandments, they [the Temple Mount activists] are busy with something that is not a commandment,” prominent national religious rabbi Shlomo Aviner of Beit El said in a recent interview.

Meanwhile, some activists are busy documenting infringements of visitation rights granted to religious Jews on Temple Mount. Last Passover, Elishama Sandman founded “Yera’eh,” a group of volunteers who issue daily reports on obstruction to Jewish ascension and share them on social media.

On Monday last week, Yera’eh reported in its daily roundup, a bride and a groom came for a visit, as did a Bat Mitzvah girl and a three-year-old boy celebrating a traditional first haircut with his family. A Christian tourist was asked by police to remove his yarmulka, regarded as an impermissible religious symbol. Otherwise, things were quiet.

“My goal is to show the public what’s happening there day by day,” Sandman, a 19-year-old yeshiva student from Safed, said in a telephone interview. “To give statistics, data, to highlight good and bad occurrences. Sometimes it’s hard to show the good because the situation is very complex.”

Sandman first visited the Temple Mount on Jerusalem Day just over a year ago. It was that experience — when he and a group of 30 Jews were allowed to enter the Mount for a mere three minutes and had to leave immediately from the next gate over — that spurred him to action.

“We were surrounded by policemen and crowds of angry Muslims throwing things at us,” he recalled. “I remember thinking I have to do something about this, to join the just struggle.” Sandman was inspired by the Facebook pages of Arnon Segal and Yehuda Glick, who regularly document and share their activity.

Right wing Jewish activists and Palestinian protesters, separated by Israeli police, shout slogans at each other during a demonstration outside the Temple Mount grounds, August 9, 2015 Hadas Parush/Flash90
Right wing Jewish activists and Palestinian protesters, separated by Israeli police, shout slogans at each other during a demonstration outside the Temple Mount grounds, August 9, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Today, he said, his goal is to improve the treatment of Jewish visitors by the police. “If the police had to deal with 600 Jews wishing to enter Temple Mount at 7:30 a.m., they’d have to let in bigger groups.”

Unlike his older mentor Segal, Sandman is unabashed about the final aim of his activity.

“Our ultimate goal on Temple Mount is to build the Third Temple and renew sacrifices,” he said. “It’s not a distant goal but an aspiration. First we need to accompany the people and help them understand the significance of the place.”

Temple Mount activist Elishama Sandman Elishama Sandman Facebook page
Temple Mount activist Elishama Sandman (Elishama Sandman Facebook page)

But what about the Dome of the Rock, a monumental structure build by the Umayyad Caliph Abdul Malik in the year 691 over the Foundation Stone, where Jews and Muslims believe the earth was created?

Sandman replied with a metaphor.

“If a burglar entered your home and told you that you don’t own it, you wouldn’t think about getting along with him,” he said. “You’d remove him and take the place. It’s the same here: The people of Israel own this place and it’s not our duty to consider those who stole it from us.”

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