“If we think you’re praying, you’ll be arrested,” the Israeli cop said impatiently as we walked up the Mughrabi Bridge, almost like a flight attendant reminding a delinquent passenger to turn off her iPhone.
One person in our Orthodox Jewish tour group was intent on being that passenger, the annoying one who gets kicked off the plane. As soon as we ascended the Temple Mount—to us, Judaism’s holiest site—he began moving his lips without speaking audible words, à la Hannah in the Book of Samuel. In other words, he was praying. Like Eli, the High Priest, our police supervisors were irate: a burly officer promptly whisked him off for detention. Suddenly scared of ending up in Israeli jail, none of us uttered a single word the rest of the trip.
Being on the Temple Mount in 2005, the whole atmosphere felt extremely tense, as if chaos could erupt at any moment. Maybe it was the ubiquitous presence of Israeli police, or it could have been the suspicious glances we received from the site’s Muslim patrons. Walking around, past instances of violence seemed very real: the 1990 riots that resulted in the death of 20 Palestinians, the 2000 riots triggered by Ariel Sharon’s visit that later turned into the Second Intifada, and the many smaller skirmishes that take place on a monthly basis. No fights broke out during my visit, but it felt as though one could have.
The Temple Mount has earned that resumé of instability through an entangled religious history. Known to Muslims as Haram al Sharif, it is host to twin mosques—Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock—and the former location of the First and Second Jewish Temples. When Israel captured the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif in 1967, it reached a compromise with Jordan, under which Israeli police would provide for the site’s security and the Wakf, an Islamic trust, would oversee the site’s religious functions. As the aforementioned incidents show, this arrangement has been far from peaceful.
I bring up my story from 2005 because the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif and the issue of prayer is, once again, in the news.
On Wednesday, a group of Jewish teenagers was arrested on the Temple Mount because they looked as though they were praying. The youth reportedly prostrated themselves, in violation of the same restriction I was warned of seven years ago.
These arrests are a common occurrence. A Reuters report released yesterday says that, “This month alone, Israeli police have hauled away half a dozen Israelis from the site.” During the holiday of Sukkot, 10 Jews were arrested for attempting to pray. Even Knesset members—notwithstanding their legal immunity—have been arrested on the Temple Mount.
Behind these arrests is a growing movement for Temple Mount prayer. Fifteen thousand religious Jews visited the Temple Mount in 2012, up from 9,000 in 2011. Ninety percent of religious Jews in Israel think they should have the right to pray on the Temple Mount, and a majority of the Israeli public agrees with them. Even the U.S. State Department has weighed in on the matter, mentioning Temple Mount restrictions as a blemish on Israel’s otherwise sterling record of protecting religious freedom. On its surface, the struggle for Temple Mount prayer has all the trappings of a liberal and democratic movement for religious equality. Temple Mount activists have drawn favorable comparisons between themselves and the Women of the Wall.
Some Knesset members have responded to this pressure by arguing for changes to the Temple Mount law. Their efforts clash with strong institutional backing: Israel has fiercely defended its restriction as necessary to security, fending off judicial and legislative challenges. Its security establishment is deeply worried that extremists, motivated by Messianic theology, might attack the mosques on Haram al Sharif to pave the way for the Third Temple. Even though extremists’ plots are unlikely to succeed, police worry that their attempts might be sufficient to provoke Muslim unrest and trigger widespread violence.
Palestinian Muslims, for their part, are extremely wary of any deviation from the status quo. Palestinian Authority officials, including Mahmoud Abbas, watch the growing Temple Mount movement with increasing concern—they believe extremists are actively trying to destroy Al Aqsa Mosque and build the Third Temple, not just seeking the right to pray in the enclosure.
Are their fears overblown? Can we trust the Temple Mount movement?
Having been a national-religious Jew once—obviously I only speak for myself—I would have loved nothing more than to see the Third Temple built. This is why I take seriously the threats of people like Moshe Feiglin; I know that they mean what they say. I’ve visited the Temple Mount Institute and have witnessed their plans in action: they’ve designed the Menorah, the showbread table, and the priestly garments, all to actually use in a Third Temple. In 1984, terrorists affiliated with this ideology came close to blowing up the Dome of the Rock.
But, as a religious Jew, I would also have seen prayer on the Temple Mount as a generous consolation prize in lieu of the actual Temple. This is why I think it’s unfair to impute the apocalyptic designs of Moshe Feiglin onto the rest of the Temple Mount movement. I understand when religious Jews say they only want to feel a historical “connection,” through prayer, to the site that was once the fulcrum of Judaism. I also believe, like an Israeli judge made clear on Sunday, that it is manifestly unjust for a liberal democratic country to limit the religious freedom of a particular group, even if there is reason to suspect that group has provocative intentions. Indeed, it violates the Basic Law on which Israel was founded—and is underpinned by the same logic that was used to justify discrimination against Israeli Palestinian Arabs.
Israel must do what it can to undermine the subversive activities of Moshe Feiglin and his ilk—and it already is. But in so doing, it should not discriminate against all Jews.
Ironically, the best solution is one that the most extreme Temple Mount activists would likely despise: for Israel to transfer sovereignty of the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif to an international body that could objectively govern the site and ensure religious access to all faiths. International control might not completely eliminate the possibility of violence, but it would ameliorate the perception of bias that fuels outrage on both sides. If the Temple Mount movement were to accept it, it would go a long way toward verifying their intentions as benign. It would reassure us that extremists are not at its helm.