The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the holiest place on earth according to Judaism. It is where both Biblical Temples stood, whose destruction is commemorated this week with fasting and mourning on the Ninth day of the month of Av according to the religious calendar. The Western Wall is considered holy only because of its proximity to the Temple Mount. Jews everywhere in the world pray while facing the Temple Mount, and if they were to pray on the Mount itself they would face the Holy of Holies, the singularity point in between the cherubs that were positioned on top of the Temple Ark inside the Temple. While God’s presence is everywhere, according to Judaism, its most intense concentration is at that point. The Western Wall is simply the guard wall around the perimeter of the Temple Mount, and is of Herodian (Roman) origin standing upon earlier Hasmonean foundations.
The site has religious significance for Christians as well. After the destruction of the Second Temple, churches were sometimes erected there. When the Muslims conquered the area, they followed the practice of building mosques or proclaiming as sacred to Islam the religious sites of other religions. The Muslim general Umar bin al-Khattab was the second Caliph and led the armies of Islam. In his writings he expressed scorn for Jerusalem and never acknowledged its sanctity. When a temporary mosque was erected on the Temple Mount (long pre-dating the current Al-Aqsa mosque structure), it was placed in the southern edge of the Mount. A general in the armies of Umar, an ex-Jew who had converted to Islam, pointed out to Umar that placing the mosque in the northern section of the Mount would allow Muslims to pray while facing both the Holy of Holies of the Jews and Mecca. Umar insisted that it be placed on the southern margin so that Muslims would pray facing Mecca but with their backsides toward the Holy of Holies. That is where the Al-Aqsa mosque stands today.
Thus, the southern edge of the Mount, that is located above the ruins of what archeologists call Solomon’s Stables, has religious significance for Muslims. In the center of the Temple Mount is another structure known as the Dome of the Rock, famous for its golden domed roof. Some refer to it mistakenly as the “Mosque of Omar.” But the structure is not a mosque at all and has no special religious significance for Muslims. The problem is that this structure sits exactly on the spot that most (but not all) experts, archeologists and rabbis, believe is where the Holy of Holies once stood. It also contains the “Foundation Stone,” which has religious significance for Judaism.
The Israeli army conquered the Temple Mount in 1967 in the Six Day War, when Israel liberated Jerusalem from the illegal Jordanian occupation. At the time Israel should have dismantled the “Dome of the Rock” and moved it elsewhere, while leaving the Al-Aqsa mosque in peace. Muslims could then continue to control and administer everything associated with the mosque. But doing so did not require Israel to relinquish control over every inch of the Temple Mount. The Israeli government nevertheless decided to pursue tranquility through appeasement and cowardice (sound familiar?). Not only would the Muslim religious authority be granted de facto hegemony over the entire Temple Mount, they would also be granted the power to prohibit or restrict entry to it for Jews.
This has been the status quo ever since. Jews are often prevented altogether from entering the Mount. At other times, Jews are permitted some limited access, but under condition that they do not pray while on the Mount. Jews whose lips move quietly while on the Mount have been arrested and evicted, motivating a few to learn ventriloquism. Anyone daring to prostrate themselves while on the Mount in the direction of the Holy of Holies is treated even more harshly. So here we have the spectacle of the Israeli government backing a prohibition on Jews praying in the holiest site of Judaism for fear of upsetting Muslims.
Meanwhile, serious collateral damage from Israel’s cowardly decision to maintain Muslim control of the Mount has been the systematic destruction of artifacts and antiquities uncovered on the Mount by the Muslims, particularly in cases where the artifacts clearly point to the ancient Jewish presence on the Mount. Islamic radicals, including the “moderates” from the Palestinian Authority, have long denied that there ever were Biblical temples on the site, mountains of overwhelming archeological and historic evidence notwithstanding. They have destroyed priceless evidence to the contrary. UNESCO has never uttered a word in protest. It should be noted that radical Muslims also object to Jews praying at the Western Wall, which they also deny has religious significance for Jews. Jews at the Wall are regularly assaulted by stone-throwing Muslims on the Mount.
The status of the Temple Mount and the question of public access to it for Jews is further complicated because of some seemingly bizarre and esoteric features of Jewish religious law. Rabbinic law prohibits Jews from entering the grounds where the Temples stood while they are in a “state of impurity.” The notion of “state of impurity” is a Biblical one, where one becomes “impure” by having any contact with a dead body, including being present in a cemetery or funeral. This impurity is not a moral judgment, and in some cases indeed one is commanded to make oneself “impure” (such as attending a relative’s funeral or burying a corpse found in public space), but merely serves as a basis for prohibiting entrance into the Temple for ritualistic purposes. The Biblical “cure” for the impurity using ashes from a special red heifer cannot be used today because no such bona fide animals are available. The bottom line is that according to Jewish rabbinic law itself, Jews may not enter the grounds where the Temple stood, and especially not where the Holy of Holies stood.
On the one hand, the Jewish religious restrictions upon Jews make the politics of the Temple Mount seemingly easier to surmount. Religious Jews do not seek access to the center of the Mount for religious purposes, the area where the Dome of the Rock now stands. On the other hand, most of the Temple Mount is clearly outside the grounds of the Biblical Temple, in areas where the “impure” may enter, and there is no reason why Jews cannot enter these and conduct prayers there. (No one is seeking to conduct Jewish religious activities inside the Al-Aqsa mosque!!) But radical Muslim hegemonists consider this an affront to Islam. Not only must Jews be denied access to the Temple Mount to “defend” the Mosque, but Jews should be denied any sovereignty or presence in Jerusalem altogether.
All of the above puts some results from a recent public opinion poll into proper perspective. As published in Makor Rishon, July 12, 2013, the vast majority of Israelis oppose construction of a new Temple now, and opposition among religious Jews is even stronger. Those who say they favor building of the New Temple may actually mean they’d like the Messiah to show up and order such a move, not that government bureaucrats do so. No one seems opposed to “preparing” for the coming Messianic Age by doing things like tailoring garments for Temple priests, forging Temple trumpets, or learning the rabbinic laws concerning conduct of Temple ritual. Even the most ornery atheist can find nothing in such things objectionable. A minority of Israeli Jews favor some preliminary construction for a new Temple building, presumably including dismantling and relocating the Dome of the Rock, but no such proposal is being seriously considered by the government.
Interestingly, a full 72% of Israeli Jews favor partitioning of the territory of the Temple Mount so that Muslim control and administration is restricted to the Al-Aqsa mosque, and where Jews would have access to other parts of the grounds. A large plurality favor legal initiatives that protect Jewish rights of access to the Mount, including the right to conduct prayers there.
More generally, the entire legal status quo for the Temple Mount, under which Israel relinquishes control to the Muslim religious authorities, serves as yet another reminder that Jewish self-abasement and cowardice do not win Israel any tolerance or goodwill. The time has come for Israel to make it clear that it will no longer seek peace via gestures of debasement of Jewish dignity nor by auto-suppression of the legitimate religious rights of Jews. If the Muslim world should ever wish to come to terms with Israel and seek an actual modus vivendi, then it will have to do so with an Israel that insists on the defense of legitimate Jewish religious rights, including their right of access to (at least) parts of the Temple Mount.
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