September 11, 2012
by Josh Hasten
This past Sunday, I was asked to take part in an organized tour of the Temple Mount, the holiest site in all of Judaism. I accepted after embarrassingly realizing that I had not been up there in nearly three decades.
While it is true that the Kotel 'Western Wall’ has become a substitute over the years - because of the many factors limiting Jewish visits to the Mount (some political, some spiritual, and many just psychological etc.), the 'Wall,’ while a Holy Site, should never be regarded in the same light, or seen as a suitable replacement to the Mount itself.
Israel regained control of Jerusalem’s Old City, and specifically the Temple Mount during the defining moments of the 1967, 'Six Day War,’ in which Israel fought a defensive battle for its survival against six Arab armies and won a victory for the ages, reunifying the city and at the same time placing parts of the ancient Jewish heartland – Judea, Samaria, the Golan, etc. back under Jewish control.
One of the most emotional moments of the war, and perhaps in all of Jewish history, was when IDF paratroopers succeed in taking over the Temple Mount and IDF Chief Lt. Gen. Mordechai "Motta" Gur broadcast the famous words, "The Temple Mount is in our hands!" Har HaBayit BeYadeinu.
But today, 45 years after that victory, is the Temple Mount still truly in our hands? That is the main question that I was aiming to answer on my tour.
While Israel ultimately has control over the site, namely in the form of a round-the- clock military and police presence, it is the Jordanian Muslim Waqf – or religious trust which acts as the daily caretaker of the area. As I would learn on the tour, the Waqf makes its presence felt at all times, and in many forms to ensure that Muslim-only religious practices, services, and even personal prayers are carried out.
The Mount these days houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and with its underground Islamic prayer chamber is able to hold thousands of worshipers – making it the largest Mosque in the Middle East. And of course there is the Dome of the Rock, a symbolic-holy site (not actually a mosque) where some claim the prophet Muhammad ascended to the heavens. One thing that we do know is that the structure was strategically and deliberately built over the Jewish Temple’s Holy of Holies, as an attempt to erase any Jewish historical or religious connection to that spot.
(Note: throughout the day, our guide showed us other examples of attempts by the Muslims to wipe out Jewish historical ties to the area. Namely, we saw ancient pillars from the times of Herod, where the Hebrew/Jewish lettering in gold had been rubbed out. In addition, we were shown where in the year 2000, after the start of the "2nd intifada," when the underground mosque was dugout, the Waqf deliberately and carelessly trucked out, thousands of tons of debris and dumped it all in the nearby Kidron valley. Archeologists today are still sifting through those piles, making discoveries from the Temple periods. How much was truly lost or destroyed in that Waqf project remains unknown.)
In addition, simply reaching the site itself is a burden for non-Muslims. It is open to the general public only on certain days and for a limited number of hours. Since that is the case, it wasn’t surprising that on this Sunday morning, waiting in the line to go through security and ascend the Mugrabi Bridge to reach the Mount, took over an hour.
For Jews/Israelis it’s even more difficult to gain access, as the Israeli police run a background check on visitors in order to assure that no religious zealots or 'trouble-makers’ in their eyes are attempting to access the Mount in order to cause a 'provocation.’ What constitutes a Jewish provocation these days? Anything at all resembling prayer.
Whether it’s reciting prayers out of a prayer book, standing in an apparent position of prayer, or even an attempt to touch the ground, this all could be perceived by the Waqf as a desecration, at which point they would alert the Israeli authorities and the guilty party would be arrested for trying to stir the pot.
Is it illegal by law for a non-Muslim to pray there? No. But the police who fear a rise in tensions (and many would say the reality is that their decisions are politically motivated) use the excuse that such gestures could incite violence – hence they feel warranted in carrying out their arrests (arrests are in fact made from time to time for anything resembling non-Muslim prayer).
So I decided I would heed my guide’s warnings about prayers and in addition, per his suggestion covered my head with a hat as opposed to a kippah in order not to warrant a constant police presence while on the tour (another group that ascended after us, consisting of religious Jewish students were accompanied by at least 3 officers at all times to make sure they were 'behaving’).
In regard to the Waqf presence, they assume many forms on the Mount – guards with walkie-talkies at the entrance to every building or structure, a 'modesty’ patrol at the top of the Mugrabi Bridge making sure that men are wearing long pants, and women are not wearing sleeveless blouses. Several of the Christian groups I saw in fact had their visits delayed as this patrol enforced it’s policy, requiring them to adorn themselves in different forms of coverings which they were handing out.
In addition, there are members of the Waqf strategically situated throughout the Mount, sitting and learning verses from the Koran, acting as normal religious scholars or devotees, when in reality they are essentially patrolmen scouting out any non-Muslims who may in their view be out of line.
But it doesn’t take a genius to see how all of this supposed concern and care for the 'Muslim holy sites’ is simply a ruse. In reality, it is the Waqf and the Muslims who are the cause of daily desecrations on the site.
There are mounds and mounds of garbage strewn about towards the Eastern side of the Mount. Also, our guide informed us that Muslim children have developed a custom of holding daily soccer tournaments around the holy sites and areas. In addition, as our group was off to the side listening to some background information from our guide, a Muslim man walked by and had no problem hacking a big loogie from this throat – as in spitting a ball of flem on the ground. Is that any way for a person to treat something holy?
So, it is obvious that the main goal of a Muslim presence on the Temple Mount (that is if you believe it has any religious significance at all – and if it does, is openly claimed by Muslims to be just the 3rd holiest site in Islam and prayer is directed towards Mecca), is simply to prevent a Jewish, or even a Christian presence in its place.
We spent nearly two hours exploring the area, hearing explanations, and taking pictures. Our group, consisting of observant Jews both men and women, were careful to only traipse through those areas permitted to walk on according to Jewish law. There are areas surrounding the current location of the Dome, which are off limits to everyone besides the Jewish High Priest. While the third Temple has not yet been built, it is customary not to come close to those areas due to their sanctity.
At around 11:30AM, we were approached by a representative of the Waqf to tell us that the Mount was now closed to tourists (read, non-Muslims). While there was still what to see, we headed for the exit in order not to cause any commotion.
On one hand the experience on the Temple Mount, as well as the preparations taken before ascending (dipping in a ritual bath) were spiritually uplifting. On the other hand, seeing the holiest site in Judaism strewn with garbage and being unable to worship freely was disheartening.
I remember having a similar feeling when visiting the Tomb of Joseph in Shechem. While Jews are supposed to have access to the site under the so-called Oslo 'peace’ accords, access is limited to once in a month in the middle of the night, and only with full military protection. Visiting there makes one feel like a bandit. Not to mention the desecrations by Muslims that have taken place there as well over the years.
So bottom line, is the Temple Mount Still in Our hands? I discussed the issue with one of the other members of my group who felt that the answer was "yes". His rationale was that at the end of the day, if necessary the Jewish military/police authorities could assume complete control over the Mount if there was a disturbance – for example if rocks were hurled at the Jews praying down at the Western Wall below – which has happened over the years. Also, a battalion of riot police are always present on Fridays and during other potentially combustible times of the year – during Ramadan for example. In other words, if we want control in his view, we can have it.
However, going back to that Six Day War victory, when Israel had the chance to assume full control and instead 'gave the keys back,’ or the 2000, desecrations, which were carried out without a peep from our leaders ( and there are other Muslim-backed archeological projects which are being carried out even today while our government turns a blind eye – which no doubt may be harmful to ancient Jewish artifacts), it seems that for one reason or another, our leaders sadly don’t even want full control of the area.
So if our elected leaders aren’t interested, and the Waqf is walking around proudly with their chests out – Is the Temple Mount truly in our hands? YES, but also NO. In other words MAYBE.
That being said, more and more Jews are visiting the Temple Mount every year. That growth represents the fact that more and more Jews are including the Temple Mount as part of their spiritual consciousness. If that trend continues, our elected officials might not have a choice but to stop ignoring the will of the people. Therefore, there is hope that perhaps one day soon, the 'maybe’ will turn into a resounding 'YES."