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The battle to pray on the Temple Mount

reposted from The Jewish Chronicle
Monday 19 January, 2015

Why tensions have risen around Judaism's most sacred site

by Mordechai Beck

When Jerusalem's Old City and its eastern neighbourhoods were captured by Israel in 1967, it was obvious, for Israelis at least, that the city would never again be divided. A law was passed by the Knesset "legalising" the unity of the city, although it was never recognised by the rest of the world.

There was one place, however, where Jewish claims to sovereignty were considered limited. This was the Temple Mount, at the centre of the Old City. No less than the then Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, used his considerable influence to ban Jews from praying on the mount. He could have cited rabbinical opinion which found halachic objections to praying on an area where the Holy of Holies once stood.

But, ever the consummate politician, Dayan decided on pragmatism - allowing Jews to pray on the mountain, he claimed, would incite the entire Muslim world. Despite objections from such notable rabbis as Shlomo Goren, this arrangement was made the status quo. Unfortunately, the status quo is only relevant where the conditions that promoted the arrangement in the first place remain the same. And the conditions of the Temple Mount have changed, on the ground if not on paper. It is this change that must be taken into consideration when viewing the violence that flared up towards the end of last year.

Non-Muslims had been allowed on the mountain since the 19th century There are now many more Israelis who believe that Dayan's approach has run its term. Their arguments have some legitimacy. In 1996, the Waqf, the Islamic religious council which is in charge of the Temple Mount (or Haram al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, as it is known in Arabic), made changes in the infrastructure of the mountain.

It built a huge underground mosque, enough for 10,000 worshippers - the largest mosque in the Middle East. From 1999 onwards, it moved tons of earth in the process, earth that contained much historical material (Jewish and non-Jewish). This was illegal and moreover broke the status quo agreement. But the government of Israel said nothing. It was up to a professor of archaeology, Gabriel Barkai, to raise the protest and in 2004 set up a committee that called for the prevention of such illegal digs.

As a result of the intifada in 2000, the Waqf had already banned Jewish Israelis from entering the Temple compound, a practice that had been quite common for years. (In fact non-Muslims had been allowed on to the mountain since the 19th century). The Jordanians who are nominally in charge of the Temple Mount then objected to the Israelis rebuilding the entrance up to the Mograbi Gate through which visitors had to pass to gain access to the site. Israel claimed that this was for safety's sake only. Nevertheless, out of a sensitivity to the Muslims, work on the bridge was stopped.

At the same time, and perhaps as a response to the moves on the Muslim side, more Israelis began to demand the right to pray on the parts of the Temple Mount, which had been declared definitely not the site of the Holy of Holies (by rabbis, archaeologists and other scholars).

The Muslim reaction has been to stonewall any talk of compromise. For them (as for some Israelis), controlling the Temple Mount is a zero sum game, in which there is only one winner. This is the recipe for disaster.

Left-wing Israelis, such as the expert on Jewish mysticism Professor Rachel Elior, echoed the earlier fear that such a move would cause World War Three. On the other hand, such liberal Orthodox rabbis as Benny Lau have come out in favour of the late Rabbi Goren's stand, that it is certainly permissible to pray on certain parts of the mountain.

For Rabbi Lau, a turning point came after the attempted assassination of Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick last October. The struggle to assert Jewish rights, he said, should be supported by those who defend the free expression of religion and the rights of man, but he added, "not by a right-wing organisation that wishes to take over the mountain by force".

Just as there are extremists on the Muslim side, who wish to deny any connection of the Temple Mount to the Jews, so, too, on the Jewish side there are those who wish not only to pray on the Mount but to do so after having destroyed the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque and replaced it with the Third Temple. Both attitudes are dangerous and unnecessary. Israel for its part can announce unequivocally that it has no plans to build a Temple. It merely claims its right - historically and religiously - to pray on the most holiest site in Judaism.

The Muslims for their part should realise that they have no monopoly on monotheism and that by opening the mountain to others, no harm is done to them or their faith. Whether or not the politicians on both sides can control themselves and not use religious arguments for stirring up an already complex situation remains to be seen.


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