Recently we have seen renewed unrest on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, with clashes between Muslims and the Israeli Police. The Temple Mount keeps returning to international headlines time and time again, with no sign of abating.
I wanted to write this post to explain what’s happening and why. The casual reader who is often confronted by news of unrest on the Temple Mount is rarely presented with any meaningful context. This guide is written as an introduction to the topic of the Temple Mount, exploring the historical background and religious significance of the site as well as its place within the Israeli-Arab conflict. I end by discussing the status quo and the inherent danger in any change thereof, however minor.
A Brief History of the Temple Mount From a Jewish Point of View
In Judaism there is no place more holy than the Temple Mount. Its history begins with the dawn of man and is still the focal point for all Jewish prayer.
According to Jewish tradition the Temple Mount is the place where God gathered the dust to create Adam. It is also the place where Isaac was bound, and about to be sacrificed, by his father Abraham. It was the place where Jacob dreamt of the ladder, where angels ascended and descended.
After the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent conquest of the land of Canaan, King David wanted to build the Temple but was prevented by God because he had participated in too many wars and had blood on his hands (1 Chronicles, 28:2-3) David’s son, King Solomon, eventually built the Temple in 950 BCE.
King Solomon’s Temple was later destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BCE. The Temple was later rebuilt after the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity and was consecrated in 516 BCE, although centuries later completely rebuilt by King Herod the Great. The 2nd Temple lasted until the Jewish rebellion against the Roman occupation, when it was destroyed in 70 CE.
Ever since the destruction of the 2nd Temple Jews have prayed for its reconstructionAccording to tradition the Temple will be rebuilt with the coming of the Messiah, when all the exiled Jews will return to the Holy Land. A minority of Orthodox Jews holds that it’s a commandment to build the Temple and re-institute the sacrificial rites even before the Messiah arrives.
An Even Briefer History From the Muslim Perspective
According to Islamic tradition the Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, is of special importance as it contains the Al-Aqsa Mosque which is the third holiest site in Islam.the Haram al-Sharif contains the Al-Aqsa Mosque which is the third holiest site in Islam It is also known as the Furthest Mosque, where the Prophet Mohammad made his journey to Heaven. The “Furthest Mosque” is mentioned in the Quran (17:1) and confirmed by Islamic tradition as referring to the mosque in Jerusalem. The Noble Sanctuary also contains the Dome of the Rock, which was constructed by the Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691 CE, after Jerusalem was captured from the Byzantines. The Al-Aqsa Mosque was somewhat later built by the Umayyads under Caliph al-Walid I in 715 CE. Islamic tradition agrees that this holy site is where the Temple of Suleyman (Solomon), as well as the 2nd Temple, was built.
Due to a lack of familiarity with Islam I can only apologize for not expanding on the significance of the Haram al-Sharif in Islamic thought. Alas I’m forced to echo the words of Forrest Gump:
The Temple Mount in the Israeli-Arab Conflict
The Temple Mount was not a focal point in the early Zionist-Arab conflict. The earliest source I’ve found mentions it was used to store arms during the Arab revolt against British support for Zionism in 1936 (Morris, 133). After the war of 1948, when the state of Israel was established and Jordanian control and annexation of the West Bank commenced, Jews were expelled from the Old City of Jerusalem and prevented from visiting its holy sites. Under the Ottomans no Jews or non-Muslims were allowed on the Temple Mount for centuries, until the early 19th century.
Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War of June, 1967 and annexed it by the end of the month. “We were like dreamers”, said General Lior, aide to Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. Religious Zionists proclaimed the “beginning of Redemption”, where settling and annexing the newly conquered territories were seen as a divine command. (Morris, 331).
Indeed, a religious fervor had begun which not only led to the building of settlements, but to calls for the reconstruction of the Temple. The former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren urged the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and when rejected out of hand by the political and military leadership he demanded the complete closure of the site to all visitors, regardless of religion.
Status Quo of the Temple Mount
While Rabbi Goren’s wishes fell on deaf ears he ascended the Temple Mount himself to pray. When he later led a group of 50 people to pray on 9th of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temples, the Islamic Waqf (or Trust), set up to care for the holy site, was alarmed. This led to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol handing over complete religious control of the Temple Mount to the Waqf, in whose hands it remains until today.
The status quo on the Temple Mount refers to an arrangement where everyone is allowed to ascend to the site, regardless of religion, but only Muslims are allowed to pray there. This arrangement dates back to 1757 and was confirmed by the Faisal-Weizmann agreement of 1919 which affirmed religious freedom and left Muslim holy sites in Muslim hands (Articles V & VI).
This arrangement was later upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1976. It ruled that while Jews technically have a right to pray at the Temple Mount, this was subject to the public interest and the rights of other groups. In practice, this decision by the Supreme Court means that the Israeli Police has the final say, allowing some visits by Jews while prohibiting non-Muslim prayer.
Riots on the Temple Mount
At least three major riots have broken out on and around the Temple Mount since it fell into Israeli hands in 1967. The first one took place in 1969 when rumors spread that Israel planned to demolish the Al-Aqsa Mosque and rebuild the Temple. This took place about a year after an Australian Christian tourist tried to burn down the Mosque. The second major riot took place in 1990, after the Temple Mount Faithful (more on this group later) announced it would place the cornerstone of the Third Temple. The resulting clashes led to at least 18 Palestinians killed. (Jerusalem Post)
The third and most famous riot broke out after, then opposition leader and chairman of the Likud Party, Ariel Sharon ascended the Mount in the year 2000. This riot is seen as the starting point of the 2nd Intifada. Sharon’s visit on September 28 was coordinated months ahead with the Palestinian Authority, with the Palestinian head of the security service on the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub, “promised-predicted that the visit would pass quietly” (Morris, 660). Nevertheless riots broke out, spreading like wildfire throughout the Palestinian territories and among Israeli Arabs. While the common perception is that Sharon’s visit started the Intifada, the Palestinian Authority itself acknowledged that the Intifida was planned in advance:
The Ongoing Struggle
While Israeli police prohibits Jews from praying on the holy site, small groups are variably allowed to briefly ascend. They are often met with harassment by Muslims and occasionally there are violent outbreaks. In recent weeks the Muslim women’s group Murabitat (or “Steadfast”) was first banned from the Temple Mount and later outlawed. They had engaged in both verbal and physical abuse of visitors. When US Congressman Dennis Ross visited the Temple Mount earlier this year he was met by women shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest):
Most prominent Rabbis prohibit Jews from visiting the Temple Mount, in keeping with an historical prohibition. This is at least in part based on the fear that Jews would accidentally enter a part of the Temple known as the Holy of Holies, which is strictly forbidden. However, an increasingly vocal group of believers which includes religious Zionist Rabbis, demand more access. The group known as the Temple Mount Faithful, has the long-term objective of rebuilding the Temple, while in the short-term they aim to build awareness among the public of the Temple Mount’s importance. During the Gulf War in 1990, the group’s founder announced that he intended to lay the foundation stone for the Third Temple on the Mount (Morris, 584). For security reasons this group is not allowed to visit, but many other such visits are organized by the Temple Institute, which is a more moderate group. The Temple Institute attempts to raise awareness through education, to recreate the sacred vessels and organize visits to the Temple Mount.
Muslims view these activities with suspicion and rumors of Israel’s nefarious plans are rife. Groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad claim that the Israeli government seeks to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and replace it with the Temple, echoing the old and persistent claims that led to riots in 1969 and in 1990. Tthe Palestinian Authority argues that Israel seeks to “divide Al-Aqsa”he Palestinian Authority argues that Israel seeks to “divide Al-Aqsa”, adding fuel to the fire and sparking further unrest. The Iranian PRESS TV had this to report during the unrest in October last year:
Where Are We Heading?
No one believes that the issue of the Temple Mount will go away anytime soon. It’s too important a symbol to both sides, both as a rallying-point for wider political aspirations and because of its centrality in both Judaism and Islam.
While the status quo is still upheld, certain Jewish groups with some representation in the Israeli parliament attempt to chip away at its edges. While Orthodox Jews expect the eventual rebuilding of the Temple when the Messiah arrives, a growing fringe wants to take matters into their own hands. For them it’s inconceivable that the holiest site in Judaism would remain under Muslim control when Israel holds complete sovereignty over Jerusalem under Israeli law. Although many Israelis may agree that Jews should be allowed to pray there in principle, it’s clear that such a compromise wouldn’t be far-reaching enough for some groups. The ones who most loudly demand a change of the status quo, by allowing Jewish prayer, are also the ones who have set their eyes on building the Third Temple.
On the other hand, Muslim incitement, harassment and violence will almost certainly continue. Israel cannot truly stop this without enacting draconian policies, which we neither want nor the international community would accept. Still, Israel needs to think long and hard about effective measures that increase security while disrupting everyday life and access as little as possibleIsrael needs to think long and hard about effective measures that increase security while disrupting everyday life and access as little as possible. It also needs to work more closely with the Jordanian King Abdullah, who is the official custodian of the Temple Mount according to the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, to calm tensions. The Palestinian Authority under President Abbas shows no sign of any willingness to be a partner in this. On the contrary, it often adds fuel to the flames, making it harder for the Jordanians to take an active role without losing credibility.
Claiming, as various terrorist groups and activists do, that Israel seeks to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and replace it with a Temple is patently unhelpful. While they can point to public statements by certain Israeli (often secular) politicians of the ruling coalition, it is clear that such irresponsible talk is about seeking nationalist and religious credentials among voters and securing better placement in upcoming primaries. For the time being such pandering politicians are far removed from wielding any real influence on the issues they speak up on. It is counter-productive to pay them any heed, as they rode into the public limelight on PM Netanyahu’s coattails and only enjoy a very limited support among the general population.
This brings me to a more troubling point. Religious Jews are on the rise in Israeli demographics. This is by itself is no cause for alarm as long as the rabbinical prohibition on ascending the Temple Mount is respected. What’s worrying is that there is an increasing acceptance and support for the religious nationalist positions. It is perhaps a sign of the times that pandering to voters in the nationalist coalition often involves taking positions with potentially very dangerous repercussions.
Any change of the status quo, which does not come about from an agreement with all parties concerned and international backing, will at the very least lead to massive riots. It also has the potential to shatter the peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt. Potentially it could lead to regional war, although many of Israel’s neighbors are currently occupied with their own conflicts. Israel would certainly win, or at least remain undefeated, in any plausible scenario, but the price would be very high. Even without war, the cost in the international arena would be far more than Israel is willing to pay, even given the unlikely scenario of a change of Israeli policy with regards to the status quo. In fact, even if such a change is warranted, as in allowing Jewish prayer that does not infringe upon Muslim access or prayer, it would never be perceived by the Muslim world as an acceptable or final rearrangement. On the contrary, it would be met with outright hostility and suspicion. According to this narrative it’s a slippery slope where Israel, piece by piece, displaces Muslims from the Mount until the Third Temple is built.
Those who would tread on the Temple Mount would do best to tread lightly indeed.
Source: Morris, Benny 2001. Righteous Victims: a history of the Zionist-Arab conflict, 1881-2001, Vintage Books