A member of a fringe group of Jewish Temple Mount activists was detained by police on Monday, apparently to prevent him from attempting to sacrifice a lamb at the flashpoint Jerusalem holy site ahead of the coming Passover holiday.
Growing calls to perform such a sacrifice caused the Western Wall rabbi on Tuesday to ban the entry of animals into the area from which Jews can access the Temple Mount.
Activist Rafael Morris was stopped in his car Monday as he was driving with his son near Latrun, about 35 kilometers from the capital, according to a statement from a far-right activism group calling itself the Temple Mount Administration.
Officers told him he was being detained on suspicion of a future plan to disrupt public order.
Morris is the head of Returning to the Mount, another activism movement, and is arrested nearly every year before Passover to prevent him from carrying out a sacrifice at the site. Mainstream Jewish leaders reject renewing the biblical rite of sacrifice on the Mount at this time.
His detention came the day after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said that Jews should visit the Temple Mount during the holiday but not perform the ritual sacrifice of a lamb, which he has repeatedly called for allowing in the past and has even attempted to perform himself.
The Passover festival coincides this year with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims also visit the site.
Ramadan has often been marked by clashes and high tension between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly surrounding the sensitive site, which is the holiest in Judaism.
For decades, Muslims have accused Israel of planning to take over the Temple Mount or destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, which it houses. Israel dismisses the accusation and has vowed repeatedly to maintain the status quo, whereby Jews are allowed to visit there — under numerous restrictions and only during limited hours — but not pray. However, Jews have increasingly been allowed to quietly pray there, while Palestinians have instigated violence at the site and unilaterally designated more parts of the site for prayer.
Meanwhile, fringe groups have tried to carry out ritual sacrifices — a regular occurrence in the time of the ancient temples but hardly practiced today — but have so far been prevented by authorities from doing so. The Returning to the Mount group makes a request each year to carry out the ritual but to no avail.
In a video posted to social media, apparently filmed by Morris himself, he is seen being stopped by police on the highway. A plainclothes officer tells him he is being detained on suspicion of disturbing the peace.
“What disturbance of the peace?” Morris asks the officer during the courteous exchange.
“A future disturbance,” the officer responds and informs him that his home will also be searched.
"מחשש להפרת הסדר הציבורי": יו"ר תנועת חוזרים להר, רפאל מוריס, עוכב בידי המשטרה – בחשד שינסה להקריב קרבן פסח בהר הבית pic.twitter.com/Neo8L8Chee
— Carmel Dangor כרמל דנגור (@carmeldangor) April 3, 2023
Returning to the Mount issued a statement urging the government to “act for freedom of worship for Jews on the Temple Mount and allow us to fulfill this important mitzvah [commandment].”
The movement has handed out flyers in the Old City in recent days calling on activists to bring a lamb onto the Temple Mount for the pre-Passover sacrifice, and promising a financial reward for those arrested by police while attempting such a sacrifice. The movement offered NIS 2,500 ($700) for anyone arrested on the Temple Mount with a lamb and NIS 20,000 ($8,240) for a successful sacrifice.
According to the Haaretz newspaper, the group has also been offering a cash reward to anyone in the Muslim Quarter who is willing to look after a lamb until it can be sacrificed on Passover eve on Wednesday.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Western Wall area, said in a statement Tuesday that following reports of intentions to bring a Passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount, Western Wall chief rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch was introducing a ban on animals being brought to the Mughrabi Bridge area.
The Mughrabi Bridge is the sole entry point to the Temple Mount permitted for use by non-Muslims, including Jews. It is adjacent to the Western Wall, is located within the Western Wall site and leads up to the Mughrabi Gate and into the compound.
“The Western Wall Heritage Foundation operates in accordance with the directions given by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel which, throughout the generations, has objected to any act of this sort [sacrifice], and in accordance with the authority of the rabbi of the Western Wall has prevented these sorts of acts for years and will continue to do so this year as well,” the foundation said in a statement.
Returning to the Mount responded to the statement by vowing to continue its sacrifice efforts and calling on the government to fire Rabinovitch for “a despicable attempt and a cynical use of the Holy Places Law to prevent Jewish access and worship to Judaism’s holiest place.”
On Sunday, Ben Gvir spoke to Channel 12 and was asked if he backs Passover sacrifices on the Temple Mount.
The minister, who leads the far-right religious Otzma Yehudit party and in previous years served as legal representation for Morris and other activists arrested for seeking to perform the act, responded that he now does not.
“Calm it down,” he said to such activists. “I’m not encouraging people to go there with a Passover sacrifice. Without a sacrifice — everyone can go.”
Morris spoke to Haaretz the same day, criticizing Ben Gvir for not doing more to promote Jewish rights on the contested holy site.
“We have not seen his influence at all on any level on the Temple Mount,” Morris said.
Ben Gvir has long been an advocate for formally altering the Temple Mount status quo, in which Muslims are allowed to pray and enter with few restrictions, while religious Jews can visit only during limited time slots via a single gate and walk on a predetermined route, closely accompanied by police. Ben Gvir’s ministry oversees the police force.
Most Israeli security officials believe that permitting the Passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount would spark fierce protests by Muslims in Jerusalem, the West Bank and neighboring Arab countries, who would see it as a major change to the status quo on the holy site.
Shortly after taking office, Ben Gvir paid a visit to the Temple Mount in early January, which was strongly criticized by Israel’s Arab allies. He has yet to return, despite vowing to continue such visits.
In 2006, Ben Gvir was stopped by police as he and several other far-right activists attempted to perform the Passover sacrifice, according to a Channel 13 news report from the time.
“Anywhere else it would be called antisemitic” to forbid Jews from performing the Passover sacrifice, Ben Gvir said at the time.
In 2017, Ben Gvir — then an attorney for a far-right legal defense group — represented a group of Returning to the Mount activists when they were arrested for planning to perform the Passover sacrifice.
A Channel 13 report in 2021 featuring Morris showed Returning to the Mount helping Jews to disguise themselves as Muslims in order to pray on the Temple Mount in violation of regulations.