There has not been a steady continuous status quo on the Mount since the Israeli victory in June 1967. Rather, there been a continuous erosion of Jewish presence and rights of the said status quo, aided and mistakenly abetted by the Chief Rabbinate and Israeli police in their quest to maintain what they define as religious behavior and public order
Many articles have recently been written about tension on the Temple Mount, highlighting Muslim youth rioting, and disputes over sovereignty. Innumerable other articles from other Israeli and foreign journalists have also been written about changes being demanded in the “so-called” status quo” from Jews wishing to pray on the Temple Mount. Pepe Alalu was recently quoted to say that “this is about Jewish provocateurs who go to the site solely to incite conflict”. Since when does choosing to pray on the Mount – the focus of Jewish prayers for 2000 years -amount to a provocation?
The issues seem to revolve around four major points:
- What is the status quo on the Temple Mount since June 1967 and unto this day? Has it been static or has it changed on both sides?
- Is the entire Temple Mount part of the so-called status quo – or only the Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa Mosque, built in the early 8th century?
- Is Jewish prayer, Jewish religious dress and group visits a fundamental right of religious expression in Israeli democracy –or a “provocation”, as too many public figures have inexplicably called it?
- Unusual police behavior and attitudes towards religious Jews on the Mount.
The so-called status quo:
In 1967, soon after the Israeli victory in the Six Day War, Minister of Defense Gen Moshe Dayan, gave back the keys to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa to Jordanian Wakf leaders as custodians to those sites. But those two buildings are not equivalent to the entire Temple Mount – and making that equation has led to extremely diminished Jewish religious rights over the years.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1967, and reiterated since then, that Jewish groups and individuals indeed had the right to pray on the Mount, but subject to police determination of “public order needs”. Thus the Jerusalem police commander, who may or may not have any Jewish religious knowledge, has become the daily arbiter of permitted Jewish behaviors and procedures on the Temple Mount, the holiest place in Jewish culture and civilization for more than 2,000 years since the destruction of the Holy Temple in 70 CE.
The Chief Rabbinate in 1967 then announced its policy to forbid Jewish presence on the Mount, given that the exact location of the Holy Temple is unknown. They preferred that no one go on the Mount and possibly traipse on holy ground. A prominent plaque is on display at the entrance to the Mount, vociferously discouraging Jewish presence on the Mount – and left the Mount to the supervision of the Moslem Wakf.
The Wakf Muslim Religious Trust, affiliated with the Jordanian government, was granted custodial responsibility for inside the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aksa mosque – not the entire Mount and certainly not the space underneath filled with Jewish antiquities from the Second Temple, photographed in 1967 but never archeologically excavated. Indeed, political tension has existed for some time between the Jordanian government and the Palestinian Authority over the authority to appoint a local religious leader responsible for these sites.
And is the entire Mount holy to Islam, a counterpoint to Jewish claims that the Temple Mount has always been its holiest site? Continual concern over Al-Aksa Mosque is expressed, which is of zero interest to Jews. Moslem rulers in centuries past blocked up the Hulda Gates, taking seriously the Jewish belief that the Messiah will come to Jerusalem via that entrance to the Temple Mount – certainly a tangible indication that the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount was acknowledged by Moslem political rulers.
Waqf historian Aref al Aref asserted in his 1929 publication, A Brief Guide to the Haram al-Sharif, that the Mount’s “identity with the site of Solomon’s temple is beyond dispute. This too is the spot, according to universal belief, on which David built there an altar unto the Lord, and offered burnt and peace offerings.”
However, the Palestinian Authority created a diplomatic scandal in November 2010 when it published a study declaring the Western Wall was not a Jewish holy site at all, but part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque! “This wall was never part of the so-called Temple Mount, but Muslim tolerance allowed the Jews to stand in front of it and weep over its destruction”. The U.S. State Department called this “factually incorrect, insensitive and highly provocative.” Many Palestinian Authority officials repeatedly proclaim that no historical basis for Jewish claims to the Temple Mount exists.
Since when did the entire Mount become holy – and even “holier” due to its role in the political aspirations of local Arabs, supported by Moslems world-wide? Since when did its status as the third holiest place in Islam become conventional wisdom? How can the Mount be holy to Islam when children play football freely on the Mount and families?
Has anyone seen children playing at Mecca or Medina, or in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron? No – and was this the status quo in 1967- 2000? The answer again is No.
The Temple Mount:
The post modern age abounds in sharply curtailed memories, with any event older than five years – the age of a functional computer – seen as old as a century. There have been extreme changes in the status quo since 1996, and even more so, since 2000. From 1967 until September 2000, Jews went up freely to the Temple Mount, with prayer books and prayed silently at will. No one searched for prayer books and absolutely no one checked whether silent prayer was being uttered. Several groups of distinguished rabbis prayed together in groups, on a regular basis, quietly but without prayer books. But no group of rabbis can come today to pray on the Mount. Instead, the status quo on the Temple Mount today has very limited Jewish prayer rights.
Four major events caused a changed the status quo.
1. In 1996, the Wakf requested permission from the Israeli government to do renovations under the Temple Mount, and expand Moslem prayer space under the Dome of the Rock. This permission was standard process since 1967 for any kind of repairs or renovations on the Temple Mount. In the context of negotiations between Ehud Barak’s government and the Palestinian Authority, permission was requested and received from the Israeli government. BUT, in a striking departure from the status quo heretofore, no on-site supervision occurred by the Antiquities Authority, the police or the Jerusalem municipality – all of whom stood by as massive destruction occurred in the area known as Solomon’s Stables under the Mount. Irreplacable First and Second Temple artifacts were bullzoed and trucked out in massive amounts to the municipal dump site.
Was this a deviation from the Status quo? Absolutely Yes. What then was the Israeli government response? Not a return to the previous status quo, not an injunction against further work or legal charges brought against anyone. Rather, the government retreated to a new “status quo”. Moslem leaders saw the lack of Israeli intervention and thus emboldened, further pushed the limits of the new so-called status quo. That new status quo now includes the reality of Palestinian and Hamas political rather than Israeli flags flying on the Mount.
2. In 1996, a northern exit from the underground Tunnels under the Temple Mount was created, in agreement with Wakf officials, to enable visitors to exit directly into the Old City and not return to the starting point near the Wailing Wall Plaza; despite the agreement, supposedly “spontaneous” rioting was staged – and the Israeli government caved in, not opening that exit to this day.
3. Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount with a large retinue of police in September 2000 and rioting again broke out – serving as a now acknowledged pretext for Yasser Arafat to launch the second pre-planned intifada, thus ending the Camp David negotiations with President Clinton. The police then arbitrarily again changed the status quo after this visit – and rewarded the rioters by closing the Mount to Jewish religious presence for three years. In 2003, Tzachi Hanegbi was convinced to open the Mount to Jewish individuals on alimited basis – small Jewish groups or individuals can go up on the Mount during morning hours and one afternoon hour–with severe new restrictions.
4. Pres Bill Clinton suggested in the Camp David negotiations to divide the holy space of the Temple Mount by giving all of the upper Temple Mount to the Wakf and the Wailing Wall to Israeli sovereignty – a suggestion not at all accepted by the Israeli government. Indeed, the Wakf then responded that the Wailing Wall Plaza was as holy to them as Al-Aksa itself – a false claim again being repeated today!
“Riots” have been consistently used by Moslem political leaders since the British Mandate in Palestine, to ensure that control of the Wailing Wall and the Mount remain in Moslem hands. In the1920’s and 30’s, “spontaneous” riots were used to pressure the British to not allow Jews to sit while praying at the Wailing Wall. The same tactic is being used again about any changes on the Temple Mount; planned “spontaneous” rioting ensures that today’s already eroded “status quo” remains unchanged.
The Israeli government has repeatedly capitulated to this rioting over the last two decades – as it did until recently to Taliban-like wreckage and rioting at Joseph’s Tomb, which was then turned into a Moslem mosque! Similar behavior has also been attempted at Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, proclaimed by Moslem political leaders as an Islamic site.
As Palestinian religious and political leaders continue to vociferously announce that there are no Jewish claims to either the Wailing Wall or the Temple Mount, the Israeli government – which never published an official brochure about the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount – responds minimally, even while discussions occur in the Knesset.
Absurd and bizarre police behavior on the Temple Mount: Police protocols in democratic Israel require the arrest and removal of the person who commits an offense or crime. But, in the case of the Temple Mount, when Moslem rioters go wild on the Mount, the police remove the Jewish victims of the rioting and let the rioters roam free – in contradistinction to police behavior anywhere else! Anyone arrested in democratic Israel is always entitled to legal representation and a written document detailing the accusations. Does this occur on the Temple Mount? An extraordinary No!
Since 2003, in the new status quo, Israeli police check Jews in religious dress and their bags before entrance to the Mount, not allowing Jews to enter the Mount with prayer books. An over-zealous policeman recently even asked a young tourist to remove his kippah so as not to offend Moslem sensibilities! Status quo – Absolutely Not.
In their determination to maintain “public order”, the police have developed an obscene relationship with the Wakf ‘s employees on the Temple Mount, who inform, supervise and monitor anything that looks like Jewish prayer on the Mount – especially Jews who can be visually described as religious. If they so determine, they report to the police who essentially act as enforcers for the Wakf! Police remove any individuals who give any offence to the Wakf from the Mount and are not allowed to return – without any due process. This absurd and obscene protocol shouldn’t be tolerated at Judaism’s holiest site.
In the Middle East, religious interests go hand in hand with political needs, as limits are pushed to see what governmental responses and world-wide public opinion will tolerate. For more than a decade – a lifetime for youth born after 1996 – a generation of Arab youth has grown up to see Israeli police ruthlessly check Jewish visitors, while Wakf members are permitted to monitor Jews and Jewish prayer on the Mount. Palestinian youth and their families are accustomed to regard the Mount as a public garden, where they legitimately play ball and have picnics.
Is it any wonder that the Arab street does not believe the Mount to be Judaism’s holiest spot? People respond to what they experience and see, not to what they are told. The clear message being experienced and transmitted is that Jewish prayer is seen by Israeli police, as illegitimate – so why should Moslems accept it as legitimate?
In an interfaith group I belonged to, an Arab student from Al-Kuds University asked me why Jews care about the Temple Mount – he said he knew that the Jewish people are very concerned about graves, like Rachel’s Tomb, Joseph’s Tomb or the Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron, (the latter of which has shared prayer space with Moslems since 1967). But, he asked, what connection Jews have to the Temple Mount which has only Islamic graves! It was a very clear instance of how messages can be perceived. Is that the message that we wish to present – that graves in Hebron and elsewhere in Israel are more important than access to the Temple Mount?
Our Chief Rabbinate needs to urgently rethink its policy of forbidding Jews from entering the Mount, and decide whether determined violent Moslem behavior on the Mount is preferable to encouragement of mass Jewish prayer visits. Jews have a legitimate yearning to pray in the closest place to God, a place that our prayers have focused on for 2000 years. Passion, ownership and enthusiasm can be shown in many ways – do Jews need to respond by rioting to show that This Place is important to us in a visceral way?
A status quo doesn’t remain static – it either becomes formalized or deteriorates in some way using both facts and fiction. Changes in the status quo can and should move in both directions, if both are seen as legitimate. The issue is not Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount as recently discussed in the Knesset– the issue is how that sovereignty is expressed by the Israeli government in these turbulent times of peace negotiations. Police need new directives now about freedom of Jewish religious expression at the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest location. Police do not set policy, but they do enforce it – be it on the Mount, the Wailing Wall or elsewhere.
Our government must not allow “rioting” to determine policy. The time has come to push back the current status quo “envelope” to tangibly clarify our position and Jewish prayer experience on the Mount – or we risk losing our fundamental rights to our holiest site by our confused official actions.
Frieda Horwitz, a student of international affairs and non-profit professional, has lived in Jerusalem for more than 25 years.