December 20, 2013
by Catherine Philp
A frisson runs through the faithful as the group of skullcapped Jews ascend the stone platform.
Murmurs of “God is Greatest” arise from the Muslim worshippers leafing through the Koran outside al-Aqsa mosque, growing into a cacophony.
The Jewish group presses on regardless, trailed by armed Israeli police and a Jordanian minder. Provocateurs or pilgrims, they are part of a growing movement demanding the right of Jews to pray at the place known to them as the Temple Mount, the site of their destroyed temple, now one of Islam’s holiest sites.
Once viewed as dangerous extremists, they are finding favour at the highest levels of the Israeli Government, embraced by a nationalistic wing of the ruling coalition that seeks to extend Jewish control over all the disputed sites in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Muslims call it the Noble Sanctuary, home to al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem’s famous shrine and the place from which Muhammad is said to have ascended into heaven. It is also the axis around which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict revolves, and the symbolic heart of each side’s religious and historical attachment to the disputed city of Jerusalem.
Jews have been forbidden to pray there for centuries, by Jerusalem’s former Crusader and Muslim overlords and by their own religious edicts reasserted by the Chief Rabbinate after Israel seized control of the Old City from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War.
Those hold that Jews must stay away on two counts: the fear that they would tread on what was once the holiest part of the temple, barred to all but the high priest, and by the prophecy that they can only return when the Messiah comes and the temple is rebuilt. The holy place where most Jews pray at present is the Western Wall, the surviving retaining wall of the original Temple Mount.
Temple Mount activists, however, reject the rulings. “The Temple isn’t just the holiest site in the Jewish religion, it’s the only place where Jews are commanded to pray,” said Yehuda Glick, the director of the Initiative for Jewish Freedom on the Temple Mount. “The Western Wall is not that site.” He leads daily visits of Jews — some religious, from places as far flung as the US and Australia, others motivated more by politics and the claim to the site. “This place is the heart of what it means to be Jewish,” Sarah Gluckman, a Jewish visitor, said. “It’s not religion, it’s about being a people.”
The agreement between the Jordanian authorities who control the site and the Israelis is that visitors should not “demonstrate prayer”. So the visitors partake in elaborate rituals, whispering prayers into their mobile phones while pretending to engage in conversation, shoehorning verses into the tour guide’s spiel, pretending to drop a coin to pick it up and sneak in an illicit bow.
Last month, Israel formally asked Jordan to allow Jewish prayer at the site, a request that was swiftly rebuffed. “If this happens, there will be a lot of bloodshed,” said Azzam Khatib, the director-general of the Waqf, the Islamic trust that administers the site.
Fears of Israeli encroachment on the site have boiled over into violence before. After Ariel Sharon, then the opposition leader, made a highly publicised visit in 2000 to demonstrate sovereignty over it, Israeli security forces used lethal force to put down the resulting riots, helping to spark the second intifada — uprising — in which thousands died.
The memory of the visit was invoked in Israel’s parliament last month at a hearing over a proposal from the religious affairs ministry to allow Jews an hour a day to pray at the site and calling on the rabbinate to rescind the prohibition. The hearing quickly became a shouting match. “Every citizen of Israel should have the right to pray at their holy sites without harassment or being attacked,” said Miri Regev, the chairwoman of the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee. “If Jews want to go up to the Temple Mount to pray, they should have that right.”
Arab Israeli MPs stormed out in protest. “Because of your games at the al-Aqsa mosque, a third intifada could erupt,” Ahmad Tibi, the deputy speaker of the Knesset, told Ms Regev. “You are a dangerous woman — to yourself, your children and all of us. Enough of playing with fire.”
Mr Glick insists that Jews would be happy to share the site with Muslim worshippers. The ultimate goal, though, is to rebuild the temple as Jewish scripture dictates — meaning Muslim places of worship would have to go.