Yesterday morning, I joined a tour of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem organized by the Women in Green. Called Har Habayit or Har Moriah in Hebrew and Haram As-sharif in Arabic, it is perhaps the most hotly contested religious site in the world. The ancient platform is revered by Jews as the site of the Binding of Isaac and the location of Beit HaMikdash and by Muslims as the last earthly stop of Muhammad’s Night Journey.
It now houses the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock as well as a more recently constructed subterranean mosque in Solomon’s Stables. A rather amazing map of the history of the site was published in 2008 by National Geographic which I have provided in miniature to the left. If you have never seen it or the issue in which it was released, it is definitely worth checking out.
Jewish access to the site has long been restricted by the Waqf, the Muslim religious authorities, a policy which reached its pinnacle after 1948 when Jordan occupied East Jerusalem and forbade Jewish access to the city including all religious sites against international agreements to the contrary. When the city of Jerusalem was reunified at the end of the 1967 Six Day War, Israel extended sovereign control over the former East Jerusalem including the Old City. However, the decision was made to preserve the existing status quo on the Temple Mount, leaving the entire site under the formal control of the Waqf.
A decision was also made by Israel’s rabbinic authorities to impose a ban on Jewish visits to the site. Based on a strict reading of the Jewish tradition meant to guard the most sacred of spaces on the Mount from trespass by the ritually impure, a loosely enforced blanket ban helped preserve a fragile status quo. As archaeology and religious scholarship has made more clear where forbidden sites were located and the political consensus has broken down, Jewish groups have begun returning to the Mount in greater numbers.
Access for non-Muslims (and even Muslims) varies according to security conditions, international pressures, and the Muslim and Jewish religious calendars. It is not uncommon during heightened tensions for Israel to restrict access to the site to young Palestinian men due to a history of violent riots on the Mount. For non-Jewish internationals, access to the Mount is open general (and often only) through the Mughrabi Gate which stands above the Western Wall. This is the only gate through which Jewish visitors can access the Mount. Here visitors are subject to vigorous security checks, instructed not to “pray, chant, sing, bow” or express any form of religious devotion, and any and all non-Muslim ritual and religious objects are confiscated excepting obligatory garments.
Upon ascending the ramp to the gate, our group was met by an Israeli police officer and a Waqf official, who accompanied us during our entire tour to ensure compliance and security. Our guide was an incredibly energetic and religiously knowledgeable man who shared with us the religious significance, meaning, and obligations associated with the Mount with a sprinkling of political commentary. While tours such as these are not meant to incite religious war or herald an apocalyptic end of days as ill-informed critics have claimed, they are certainly meant to express a dissatisfaction with the status quo and to assert Jewish religious rights to the site.
Between sharing biblical verses and rabbinical commentary, he discussed the challenges Jewish groups have faced ascending the Mount in recent years, the Waqf’s unsupervised excavations which have destroyed innumerable potential archaeological treasures, and his frustration with the Israeli state’s inaction in asserting Jewish control of the site. At the same time, he highlighted that Jewish tradition states that the Temple was to be “called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7), at which Jews and non-Jews alike could offer sacrifice. So too, he asserted that although he did not approve of the mosques which stand on the Mount, their future is in divine hands, not human ones. “We should act like everything depends on us and pray like everything depends on Moshiach.”
In the meantime, he asserted, it is important to maintain a Jewish presence. By visiting the Temple Mount, one fulfills three mitzvot (commandments) simultaneously, that of honoring the site by visiting with sacred intention in mind, respecting the site by avoiding forbidden areas, and control or conquest through one’s very presence. A sentiment regularly echoed by the tour’s organizers and many of Israel’s religious right, if larger Jewish groups would demonstrate their belief in the importance of this place by visiting more often, the status quo would have to change. Reflections such as these, when Waqf officials were at a distance, were interspersed with quiet prayers.
While few believe that the Third Temple will be built in the near future, many assert that important interim steps are possible. For organizations like the Temple Institute, this means preparing the ritual objects which are to be used in the religious service. For others, it means the establishment of a synagogue on the Temple Mount itself, a proposal which has not gained widespread support in Israel and certainly not in the world at large, although for which there is certainly historical precedent. For most, it means that there should be a continuous acknowledgement that Jews do have fundamental religious rights to this site. The specific manner in which these rights will be realized is up for debate, but it is certain that activists like those in the Women in Green are committed to ensuring the Temple Mount’s place on the religious, cultural, and national political agenda.