Winds of Change at Temple Mount

For the past decade or so, jihadists have been using the Temple Mount in Jerusalem as a platform to promote hostility toward the Jewish people and their homeland. They have also been using the holy site to promote hostility toward the West in general. As a result of ongoing campaigns of incitement, Israeli and European Jews have been subject to violent attacks at the hands of young disaffected Muslims. The problem has spread to the United States where radical imams have called for the destruction of Jews in the name of protecting the Temple Mount (which Muslims call Haram al-Sharif or “The Noble Sanctuary”) from destruction. The violent rhetoric is largely driven by Palestinian jihadists who are supported by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and by Muslim radicals elsewhere in the world.

Using the Temple Mount as an asset in the cognitive, or propaganda war against the Jewish people is not a new strategy, but one that was established by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al Husseini the prominent leader of the Palestinian national movement who, despite (or maybe because of) his vicious Jew-hatred, is a revered figure in Palestinian history today. He told Palestinian Muslims that Jews want to destroy Al Aqsa Mosque which is located on the Temple Mount, and after hearing this story, his followers went out and killed Jews in deadly riots during the 1920s and 30s. (Husseini went on to become one of Hitler’s allies in his efforts to destroy the Jewish people.)

The Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site has been used to incite hostility toward the Jewish people and the West in general for several decades. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)

In short, the Temple Mount is the center of an ugly campaign of incitement that encourages Muslims to attack or harass Jews who live nearby, whether in the Middle East, Europe or North America. This campaign makes it difficult for radical Muslims to live in peace with their non-Muslim neighbors throughout the world.

Instead of venerating the sacred site in a manner that promotes human dignity, jihadists insult the name of God by using the site to defame and denigrate Jews and to intimidate non-Muslims in general. To enlist the site to promote such a malevolent campaign is a disgrace, an abuse of the sacred, and a deep insult to God in Heaven.

Sadly, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which claims “custodianship” over the site, has failed to intervene and stop the Noble Sanctuary from being used in this criminal enterprise even though its 1994 treaty with Israel requires it to do just that.

Wasfi Kailani, an official from the Royal Hashemite Court and executive director of the Hashemite Fund for the Restoration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, declared in late 2017 that Jordan Kingdom lacked the ability to constrain the actions of Muslims the Temple Mount since 2003. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)

At a November, 2017 conference at Harvard Law School about the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, Wafsi Kailani, a representative of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, admitted, straight out that the Hashemite Kingdom lacked the ability to constrain the actions of Muslims on the holy site and has lacked this ability since 2003. It was a stunning admission, actually.

The Hashemite Kingdom wants the nations of the world to recognize its custodianship over the site even as it admits it has no control over what is happening there. To make matters worse, Kailani told his listeners a falsehood – that a Jew set fire to the Al Aqsa Mosque in 1969, when in fact, a Christian set this fire. Kailani, an official of a government that promised in a 1994 treaty with to promote interfaith interfaith relations repeated a lie that promised to make peace between Muslims and Jews more difficult.

On this score, the treaty between Israel and Jordan is quite explicit. Article Nine of this treaty declares that Israel and Jordan “will act together to promote interfaith relations among the three monotheistic religions, with the aim of working towards religious understanding, moral commitment, freedom of religious worship, and tolerance and peace.” By spreading the lie that a Jew set fire to the Al Aqsa Mosque, Kailani, a representative of King Abdullah II, violated this treaty.

Journalists are pretty reluctant to cover this campaign of incitement and to hold the Hashemite Kingdom to account for its failure to restrain the jihadists who have turned the Temple Mount into a volcano of hate. Reporters, do, however, pay lots of attention to Jewish activists who are intent on rebuilding the temple on the Temple Mount or who even want to pray on the site. To journalists, Jews who want to pray on their holy site, not jihadists who use the site to promote hate, are the extremists.

This is part of a pernicious double-standard at the Temple Mount that denies Jews the right to pray at the site and gives Muslims leave to use the site to foment violence. Muslim imams who preach jihad and promote Islamic supremacism are left unmolested by the Waqf, but a Jew who recites the Shema or even moves his lips in prayer is liable to be bundled up and removed from the site by Israeli police — at the Waqf’s insistence.

To make matters worse, the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf that has jurisdiction over the Haram al-Sharif has obstructed efforts to prevent the site from being used as a base of attacks on Jews — attacks which are used to reinforce notions of Muslim supremacy over Jews.

For example, Muslim leaders obstructed the installation of metal detectors on the site after the murder of two Israeli police officers last year. And when Israelis expressed a desire to build a net between the Haram al-Sharif (where Muslims gather to pray) and the Western Wall (where Jews gather to pray) the Muslim Waqf objected, effectively protecting the ability of Muslims to throw rocks at Jews at prayer. (For more information about these and other issues, see Yitzkhak Reiter’s book The Eroding Status Quo.)

Palestinian and Jordanian political and religious leaders have effectively protected the right of Muslims to denigrate, intimidate and harm Jews at Judaism’s holiest site. This is a violation of both the spirit and the letter of Jordan’s 1994 treaty with Israel.

These circumstances have provided an opening for Israeli activists such as Yehuda Glick, an American born Jew, who is fighting for the rights of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. Glick, who was nearly murdered by a Palestinian assassin in October 2014, is clearly getting under the skin of jihadists who use the Temple Mount to broadcast their hate with impunity.

Jihadists have good reason to fear Glick for he has proven particularly adept at challenging their use of the Temple Mount to denigrate Jews. And even better, he is offering an alternative to the status quo, where anti-Jewish invective and violence is allowed to run rampant.

Glick is not calling for the destruction of the Al Aqsa Mosque or for Muslims to be denied access to the site. He merely wants Jews to “become part of the scenery” at the Temple Mount. He wants to normalize Jewish prayer at the site.

In 2014, The Tablet, reported that “Glick does not believe that Jewish prayer should replace Muslim prayer” and that “he envisions the Temple Mount as ‘a world center for religious tolerance,’ where people of any religion can visit and pray.” Glick declares “We should not allow only one religion to take over the Temple Mount and to announce this is ours and nobody else has any right to it.”

What Glick is asking for is very simple: Equal rights for Jews on their holy site in Jerusalem. This is a revolutionary idea in the Middle East, where Jewish rights are generally disdained, but people who oppose Glick’s agenda have a tough challenge: Admit to their listeners that they think Jews should have less-than-equal rights and then explain why.

One practical concern that mitigates against Jews praying on the Temple Mount is the threat of Muslim violence, but caving into the threat of violence is not a moral argument, but one of expedience.

Because of these threats for violence, Glick’s calls for transformation of the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif into house of prayer for all nations where everyone gets to pray Glick is regarded as a threat by many commentators in Israel, including Moshe Halbertal, a law NYU and Professor of Jewish Thought and Philosophy at Hebrew University.

At the previously mentioned conference about the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif held at Harvard Law School in November 2017, Halbertal suggested that Temple Mount activists are using the language of human rights and religious freedom in an insincere way. He admitted that there has been a change in the discourse over the Temple Mount in Israel (more about that below), but that the people who use these arguments are not motivated by a “genuine identification with the language and the ethos of rights” and that “something else is going on in order to make a legal point.”

“The court that takes this idea seriously and implements it, this would be what I call liberal fetishism of a high order,” he said.

But Assaf Harel, Assistant Professor of Israel Studies at Binghamton University, warns against discounting the sincerity of activists like Glick who base their arguments on human rights. People across the globe use the language of human rights to advance their political causes, and Temple Mount activists are not any different.

“There are genuine elements to the invocation of human rights discourse by Temple Mount activists,” Harel said at the same conference Halbertal spoke at. “First of all, Jews are indeed being discriminated against on the Temple Mount. They are being discriminated against by not having the right to pray. They also see themselves as a threatened and victimized minority. Politically, some of them do identify with the human rights discourse. Yehuda Glick is an American and he was raised in an environment that took fundamental liberal values such as the freedom of worship for granted.”

Jane Kiel, an Evangelical Christian from Denmark (AKA “Jerusalem Jane”) is another activist highlighting the anti-Jewish discrimination that takes place on the Temple Mount. Kiel’s visits to the Temple Mount have generated a significant amount of attention and controversy on social media, particularly in Arab-language websites where Kiel is subjected to death threats. When she visits the Temple Mount, Kiel is harassed by the guards from the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, who recognize her immediately when she sets foot on the site.

“They’ve taken my phone and erased my photos,” she said in an interview in October, 2017.

Jane Kiel, AKA “Jerusalem Jane.” (Photo: Courtesy)

When Muslims recognize Kiel on the streets of Jerusalem, the angry stares, she says, are particularly fearsome. At one point Kiel was stalked in the Old City by Muslims who took photos of her without her knowledge. The images were subsequently sent to her with the message that she was being watched. The implication was clear: At some point, Kiel may be the target of jihadist violence because of her Temple Mount activism.

“They were not even two meters behind me when they took those photos,” she said. In any event, Kiel is not backing down. “I will stay here, being the boots on the ground.” Her message is a simple one: Jews have a right to pray on the Temple Mount. “The only place under occupation in Israel,” she says, “is the Temple Mount.”

Why is a Christian activist from Denmark treated so roughly by the Waqf Guards and threatened with death by keyboard jihadists in the Middle East?

Simple. Kiel, like Glick, seeks to transform the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif from a place where Jewish dignity is denigrated into a place where it is affirmed. That’s a revolution that Palestinian jihadists simply cannot accept. Denigrating the Jewish people is a central plank of the anti-Zionist campaign that they have embraced for the past several decades.

Like it or not, the movement for Jewish rights on the Temple Mount is gaining traction in Israel. Polling data indicates that two-thirds of Israeli Jews think Jews should be allowed to pray on the site. And a growing number of Israeli Jews are visiting the site despite a call from the Israeli Rabbinate for Jews to stay away from the site for fear of violating the Holy of Holies located on the site. Other rabbis assert that visits to the site are acceptable and others go so far as to assert that they are a good thing for Jews to do. This is a revolutionary change in Israeli society.

Speaking at the previously mentioned conference about the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif (that he organized) Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman reported that in the course of his lifetime, he has seen how the prohibition by the Israeli Rabbinate against visiting the site for fear of violating its sanctity has been effectively challenged by religious nationalists in Israel who now argue that it is lawful to visit the site “provided one has a reliable map.” (One needs a reliable map to stay away from the Holy of Holies on the site.)

“I’ve seen that change occur,” he said, adding that within the sphere of orthodox Judaism, scholars recognize that interpretations of Halakhah (Jewish law) change and that we are witnessing that process take place today in Israel.

“It’s pretty rare to see it happening that rapidly, that immediately in one’s life and be able to talk to and study the sources of the people who have been advocates for that transformation,” he said.

The upshot is that the winds of change are blowing around the Temple Mount and there’s no wonder.

In one respect, it an obvious demonstration of cause and effect. Use Judaism’s holiest site to defame the Jewish people and eventually Jews who live nearby are going to start thinking differently about the wisdom of staying away.

You don’t need a GED to see how the theo-politics are going to play out.

The Muslims who venerate the Noble Sanctuary and those who wield authority over it have some choices to make. They can use the Noble Sanctuary for the ignoble purposes of asserting supremacy over non-Muslims and promoting the theology of genocidal monotheism and in so doing, promote fear and loathing on the part of non-Muslims who live in the shadow of this hostility.

Or they can insist that it be used to affirm the dignity and agency of all humanity — Jews included — and thereby reduce much of the tension around the site.

The good feelings people have surrounding Bahai Garden in Haifa is instructive on this score. Regardless of what you think about Bahai doctrines, there is no doubt that the garden and the people who maintain it have been a blessing to the city and the people who live nearby — and to the world at large.

The Bahai Gardens in Haifa. (Dexter Van Zile)

I have been to the Haram Al-Sharif twice (once in 2005 and again in 2007) and never want to go back — at least until the Muslim leaders in charge of the message that is broadcast on the Noble Sanctuary put an end to the anti-Jewish and anti-Western incitement broadcast from the site. I simply don’t want to go to a place where I know people are calling for the destruction of the West. That’s where I’m from.

But after touring the Bahai Gardens in Haifa in 2014, not a day goes by that I don’t think about my visit to that site. It is a peaceful place run by people who want me to be happy, even though I do not subscribe to their faith.

What is happening at the Noble Sanctuary is part of a bigger problem of Islamic supremacism. Until Muslims start instituting on a wide scale new ways to interpret their sources — ways that encourage them to live in peace with each other and non-Muslims — the Haram Al Sharif will remain a millstone around the neck of Muslims in the Holy Land and a source of instability for governments throughout the region. Every time jihadists use the so-called Noble Sanctuary to incite violence and hostility, they bring the site — and Islam itself — into disrepute.

If this process continues unabated, non-Muslims and the people responsible for keeping them safe will start to wonder if continued Islamic control and custodianship of the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif represents a strategic threat to their safety and well being, particularly if the “Al Aqsa is in danger” narrative is continually used to whip up hostility toward non-Muslims.

Eventually, non-Muslims will start to regard the site, not as a sacred site that needs to be respected and venerated, but as a focal point for hate that needs to be confronted. On this score, the Al Aqsa Is In Danger” narrative may become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the jihadists who promote it.

For many commentators, the calculus currently tilts in favor of affirming, or at least acquiescing to Islamic control over the site. But as more and more people start seeing how the “Al Aqsa Is In Danger” narrative is used to justify hostility against themselves and the people they love, this calculus will change. The whole point of allowing Muslims to control the Temple Mount after the Six Day War in 1967 was to keep the peace with Muslims in the Middle East. Today jihadists are using the site to promote violence and hostility against their neighbors, not just in the Holy Land, but throughout the world, including the U.S. and Europe.

Such incitement cannot continue at the Temple Mount — or anywhere else — and there are signs that political leaders in the Middle East are starting to get it. Just recently, the Egyptian government sentenced extremist cleric Yusef Qaradawi to life in prison for incitement to murder. The sentence, handed down in abstentia, is not related to his rhetoric regarding the Temple Mount, which is egregious, but for violence perpetrated in Egypt in 2015. Nevertheless, the verdict and sentence indicate that in Egypt, at least, that political leaders are coming to grips with the problem of incitement in their societies.

At the November 2017 Conference about the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif that he organized, Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman expressed a hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict over the Temple Mount, a resolution that is somehow enshrined in international law. But for a legal resolution of the conflict to come about, Feldman said, it “will have to come after cultural re-imaginings of the site and what it has come to mean.”

This process of re-imagining has already begun in Israel, where a growing number of Jews have decided that the Temple Mount will be a place where they are going to pray in safety, even if the people who currently use the site insist on using it to assert their supremacy over them. The Muslim (and Christian) response will help determine what happens next.

It is time to pray for the peace of Jerusalem in a big way and ask that the Muslim leaders who determine what is preached on the Temple Mount learn what makes for peace.

About the Author
Dexter Van Zile is the Managing Editor of Focus on Western Islamism (FWI), established by the Middle East Forum in 2022.