On the Temple Mount, a battle brews over Jewish prayer

Religious Jews are paying more attention to the sacred enclosure in Jerusalem’s Old City. The effects could be dramatic

The Dome of the Rock, March 1, 2013 (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
The Dome of the Rock, March 1, 2013 (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

On Tuesday, the struggle of Jewish women fighting to worship with prayer shawls at the Western Wall in Jerusalem received renewed attention when protesters at the holy site were joined by several new members of Knesset, spotlighting Israel’s ongoing policy of imposing Orthodox practice on all worshipers at the wall.

But in the coming years a different battle over Jewish prayer, one unfolding a few paces away, is likely to be of more significance — a growing debate over whether Jews should be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount itself.

The desire to pray on the Mount, also the site of Islam’s third-holiest shrine, has found more acceptance among mainstream rabbis in Israel over the past decade, spreading gradually from a tiny fringe to a broader religious public. The numbers of Jews actually visiting the Mount for religious reasons is still tiny — no more than several thousand a year, according to police estimates — but inching upward, and the sacred enclosure is slowly gaining in importance as an issue of religious and political meaning for religious Zionists, a group with outsize ideological and political clout in Israeli society.

That could make it a flashpoint inside Israel and an inflammatory issue for local Muslims and the entire Islamic world.

If the issue comes to the fore, it will be in part thanks to the activities of Moshe Feiglin, once a figure from the margins of the Israeli right and now a member of Knesset from the ruling party, Likud. On the way to his swearing-in ceremony at parliament last month, Feiglin went to the Temple Mount, where he had been detained by police in January for violating the prohibition on Jewish prayer. Early this month he was there again, freshly armed with parliamentary immunity, striding around the sacred enclosure with the purposeful air of a landlord and causing a stir when he tried to go into the Dome of the Rock, where entry is limited solely to Muslims. He has promised to be back.

Few places on earth are as potentially explosive as the Temple Mount. The shrine has been especially tense in recent weeks, with protests erupting twice after communal Friday prayers. Riots on the Mount have tended to involve protesters throwing rocks and chairs, but last week, for the first time in memory, a Palestinian threw a Molotov cocktail, pitching it from inside the al-Aqsa mosque and setting a policeman’s leg on fire. The officer was lightly wounded.

Muslims believe the Mount is where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven in a mystical night journey recounted in the Koran, and call it the Noble Sanctuary. The day-to-day functioning of the site is in the hands of the Islamic Waqf, and Israeli governments have been stringent about maintaining the status quo. The enclosure, with its cypress trees and open stone esplanades, generally has the air of a peaceful urban park. But because of its importance to Muslims and the inherent tension of such a place being under the control of Israel, any violence there resonates across the Islamic world and has the potential for deadly results.

In an interview this week, Feiglin promised he would be visiting the Mount regularly as a lawmaker, and said he would bring others. The interview, part of a fundraising telecast for the Temple Institute, a group that says it is making practical preparations to rebuild the Temple, was broadcast Sunday, on what the institute dubbed its Fourth Annual International Temple Mount Awareness Day. The webcast was aimed at the institute’s supporters among evangelical Christians in the United States, and a 1-800 number was given for donations. The webcast’s hosts addressed the camera in front of a painting showing modern construction cranes erecting the Third Temple.

“Every Jew that goes to the Temple Mount puts another stone in the building of the Temple, and is making another step to fulfill Jewish sovereignty on the Temple Mount,” Feiglin told viewers. That is precisely what makes Muslims nervous.

Feiglin and other committed Temple activists have replaced the idea of Jewish renewal as represented by a powerful symbol — the Temple in Jerusalem — with the idea that if an actual building, a temple, is built on an actual site, the Temple Mount, Jews will somehow plug into a spiritual power source they have lost and restore themselves to greatness. The opposition of Muslims and other nations to Jewish practice at the site fits into their narrative: The nations know this, and don’t want it to happen.

Moshe Feiglin in court after an October, 2012, arrest for praying on the Temple Mount (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Moshe Feiglin in court after an October, 2012, arrest for praying on the Temple Mount (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jewish religious interest in the Mount is not monolithic, and includes those who merely want to visit a site of great Jewish importance, those who believe Jews should be allowed to pray there, those who believe Temple rituals, like sacrifice, should be renewed immediately, and those who support the construction of a Third Temple in place of the Islamic shrines of the Noble Sanctuary.

At the moment, Israeli police and Waqf guards keep close tabs on visitors identifiable as religious Jews. If someone is seen moving lips in prayer, or prostrates themselves on the smooth stones of the shrine, they are expelled and detained.

‘We took the Israeli flag off the Temple Mount two hours after we got this present from the King of the Earth, and we gave it to the children of a slave’

If some thought that Feiglin would moderate his tone to match his new position as a Knesset member, that has not happened. Israel was to blame for ceding sovereignty on the Mount after the Six Day War, he told this week’s Temple Institute webcast, noting that an Israeli flag initially hung by paratroops after they captured the site in 1967 was quickly removed to avoid harming Muslim sensibilities.

“We took the Israeli flag off the Temple Mount two hours after we got this present from the King of the Earth, and we gave it to the children of a slave, to the sons of Ishmael. So there’s a lot of work to do here, with ourselves,” the Likud MK said in the interview broadcast Sunday. Feiglin declined to comment for this article.

The activities of the new member of Knesset come against the backdrop of changing attitudes toward the Mount. Since 1967, religious sentiment has been focused on the Western Wall, a section of a 2,000-year-old retaining wall built around the platform on which the Temple sat. The number of Jews who visited the Temple Mount last year was estimated by police at under 8,000, a tiny fraction of the many hundreds of thousands who visit the Wall. The number was similar the year before, and significantly lower the year before that.

The status quo on the Mount is the result of a convergence of religious and political interests after 1967. Rabbis decided early on that religious law forbade visiting the site because of fears one might tread on the location of the Holy of Holies, the focus of ancient ritual, where people were forbidden to enter. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the most important Zionist rabbi of the latter half of the 20th century, ruled that it was prohibited to visit the Mount, a position still endorsed by  Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. With the threat of Muslim violence should their sovereignty at the site be harmed, Israeli authorities were eager to keep the peace and happy to channel Jewish worshipers to the Western Wall.

The desire for a Jewish Temple Mount was kept alive largely by a tiny group, the Temple Mount Faithful, headed by a secular nationalist named Gershom Salomon, with support from evangelical Christians, and by some in the religious settlement movement. When the Shin Bet internal security agency broke up a Jewish terror underground in the 1984, agents uncovered a detailed plot to blow up the Islamic buildings at the site to pave the way for the building of the Temple.

There were other enthusiasts, like the founders of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem’s Old City, which works to recreate the implements used by Temple priests. The institute is open to visitors, and Temple merchandise is for sale in the gift shop, including puzzles and balsa-wood models. Someone pondering the institute’s stab at a recreation of a model of the Ark of the Covenant, for example, might be struck by how this great object of the imagination, when made real, looks like something one might find in a store selling rococo antiques, all winged creatures and gilt.

As years have passed, the authority of Kook, who died in 1982, has waned. Important rabbis from the religious Zionist mainstream, like Yaakov Meidan of the influential Har Etzion yeshiva, now permit visiting the Mount. Pilgrims are supposed to undergo preparations beforehand, including purification in a ritual bath.

An Israeli policeman was hit by a Molotov cocktail in a March 8 riot at the shrine, suffering light wounds (Photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash 90)
An Israeli policeman was hit by a Molotov cocktail in a March 8 riot at the shrine, suffering light wounds (Photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash 90)

With the growing acceptance of visits to the Mount has come a growing impatience with the fact that Jews are not allowed to pray there. Before visitors are allowed into the site, Israeli security personnel search them for religious paraphernalia or books, and religious Jews are typically accompanied by special police escorts.

Activists have been unable to overturn the strictures, though there have been signs of support inside the legal system. Last year, a Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court judge, Malka Aviv, expressed displeasure with the security measures, saying at a hearing for an activist arrested for praying there that the police position “that Muslims don’t approve of Jews praying on the Temple Mount cannot, in and of itself, prevent Jews from fulfilling their religious obligations and praying on the Temple Mount.”

The judge suggested prayer should be permitted “in a structured fashion, in a place designated for it.”

The Temple Mount, said Jerusalem tour guide Eli Duker, is “the only place in the country where you feel you’re discriminated against because you’re Jewish.”

Last month, while leading a synagogue group up to the Mount, Israeli guards seized pictures of the Temple and a book that Duker had in his bag for instructional purposes. Duker protested, he said, but had to yield, and later wrote a letter asking for guidelines on what constituted material too inflammatory to be taken into the enclosure. He has yet to get a response.

Duker dated the new increase in interest in the Mount among religious Jews to the reopening of the site to non-Muslims in 2003, three years after it was closed because of the violence of the Palestinian intifada. The closure marked a break with the past, and its reopening led some Jews to re-evaluate their relationship with the place, he said.

‘We were not trying to demonstrate that it’s exclusively ours, or that we want the Muslims off, only that it’s a significant, if not the most significant Jewish site, archaeologically, historically, and religiously. This is the heart of it all’

At the same time, the Western Wall had begun to lose its luster for some in the religious Zionist world, because it is dominated by the ultra-Orthodox and because of its various annoyances, like the presence of beggars. In addition, Duker said, religious Zionists pride themselves on their knowledge of the country’s geography and history, and understand the difference between a wall that was an external feature of the Herodian compound and the site of the Temple itself.

For some Jewish visitors, visiting the Mount has nothing to do with a desire to harm the Islamic structures there or any plans to begin work on the Third Temple. Some are simply connecting with a place at the center of Jewish history and religion.

One recent visitor, Elli Fischer, from the city of Modi’in, said he came because of the “very strong Jewish connection to this place.”

“We were not trying to demonstrate that it’s exclusively ours, or that we want the Muslims off, only that it’s a significant, if not the most significant Jewish site, archaeologically, historically, and religiously. This is the heart of it all,” Fischer said.

Fischer wondered why those who supported the right of women to worship in prayer shawls and phylacteries at the Western Wall would not support the right of Jews to pray at Judaism’s holiest site. The theoretical question in both cases is the same: Can religious freedom be limited to avoid harming the religious sensibilities of others and to keep the peace?

“Israel’s current policy of granting control of these holy sites to intolerant religious bodies is, at the very least, consistent,” Fischer wrote in a blog post for The Times of Israel last year. “The government does not want to risk major disturbances by tampering with the status quo. The only way that the government will ever budge from its comfort zone, the only way that the patronage of religious bodies will yield to greater application of liberal democratic principles, is if these different groups, which are often at odds, form a coalition, transcend their special interests and truly advocate for these freedoms to be applied universally.”

Feiglin, for his part, told Army Radio on Tuesday that he supports the Women of the Wall’s fight to pray as they wish at the Western Wall.

In Jerusalem's Old City, depictions of the Jewish Temple (Photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
In Jerusalem’s Old City, depictions of the Jewish Temple (Photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

Among what might be termed hard-core Temple activists, rather than more casual visitors, the most prominent of the young generation is Arnon Segal, who writes a weekly column on the Temple for the right-leaning weekly Makor Rishon. Segal’s column tracks police restrictions and Waqf actions, and has brought attention to polls like one showing 52 percent of Israelis supporting the right to pray on the Mount. He has also included interviews with secular figures like the writer A.B. Yehoshua, who shared a proposal for turning the Old City into a Vatican-like religious zone run by representatives of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and suggested building a new Jewish temple near — but not on — the Temple Mount. (Yehoshua explained that his temple would be a cultural center with a library and museum dedicated to monotheism.)

Segal, who is 32 and was born in the West Bank settlement of Ofra, is the son of Haggai Segal, a journalist best known for his arrest as a young man as part of the Jewish underground of the 1980s. He first visited the Mount at age 19.

“I felt a cognitive dissonance,” he said. “I’m a Jew, I pray three times for the return to Zion, to the Temple. But in practice, we can do these things, but we choose not to. We choose not to relate to that part of our Judaism. We’ve erased that part of our religion.”

‘The first thing that we need to clarify is that this is a mosque’

Segal was putting his finger on an apparent inconsistency in religious Zionism, which has always believed that Jews should bring their own redemption by coming to Israel — but stopped short of believing they should take active steps toward building a temple in Jerusalem.

Religious Zionism, he believes, must take the next step and abandon the idea that Jews must wait for God to rebuild the Temple. “There were rabbis in Europe who said the same about returning to the Land of Israel,” he said.

Segal believes there should be a place in the enclosure not only for Jewish prayer, but also for sacrifice, and said this could be done immediately, without harming any of the existing buildings. “I want equal rights for Jews on the Temple Mount. What Muslims do, I want to do too,” he said.

Any move to change the status quo at the site would almost certainly result in bloodshed. Already sensitive to perceived threats to the Noble Sanctuary, Muslims reject any allowance for Jewish ritual within the confines of the shrine.

“The first thing that we need to clarify is that this is a mosque,” said Prof. Mustafa Abu Sway, an Islamic scholar and member of the Waqf’s governing council. “As other places are churches and synagogues, this is a private place that belongs to Muslims.” Islam sees the entire enclosure, and not just the buildings, as one house of prayer, he said.

The recent violence, he said, was the result of general tensions among Palestinians, exacerbated by what they see as threats to the integrity of the shrine.

“The general atmosphere is not at ease: the prisoners’ hunger strikes, the lack of progress on the political level, the expansion of the settlements, financial hardship, lack of freedom of movement. So in general, people are frustrated,” he said.

“Added to this are these almost daily visits, which are done in a way that antagonizes Muslims and invades the privacy of the mosque,” Abu Sway said.

Feiglin, for his part, seems to see himself as the representative of the Temple activists in Israel’s halls of power, and to relish the prospect of a religious clash.

“Everyone’s afraid,” Feiglin told the interviewer for the Temple Institute’s webcast, grinning from his new Knesset office. “Everyone’s afraid of the Temple Mount.”


Find Matti Friedman on Twitter and Facebook.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed