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The complex of historic structures atop Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah, known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount and called the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif in Arabic) by Muslims, has seen increased tension in recent weeks, as Israeli religious groups have called for freedom for Jewish visitors to pray at the site.
The location, at which Israelite King Solomon’s Temple was built in the 10th century BC, is also the site of the Islamic Dome of the Rock shrine, completed in the late seventh century AD. The Temple Mount was controlled by Jordan until the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel took control. After the site changed hands, Israel allowed an Islamic organization, the Waqf, to continue to administer it. While the Temple Mount is considered open to visits of a secular nature, access for non-Muslims is regularly limited according to the dictates of Waqf leaders.
The Washington Post described the day-to-day dynamic at this divided landmark, considered Judaism’s most holy site and Islam’s third holiest: “Each week, hundreds of Jews ascend the creaky wooden ramp built above the Western Wall and enter what is often called the most contested real estate on Earth. Many then embark upon a game of hide-and-seek with their police escorts—whispering forbidden prayers while pretending to talk into cellphones, and getting in quick but banned bows by dropping coins and then bending to pick them up.
“Their proposals, long dismissed as extremist, are now being debated in the Israeli parliament and embraced by an expansionist wing in the ruling coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Many do not realize that, while Jewish religious displays on the mount are banned by Islamic authorities, there is also a longstanding ban on Jewish visitors imposed by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for different reasons. Israelis were reminded of this on December 2: “Chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef have signed a declaration reiterating the Chief Rabbinate’s opposition to Jews visiting the Temple Mount.
“The Chief Rabbinate has—since its inception under Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook in 1921—banned Jews from visiting the site out of a concern they may inadvertently step into an area which, in Jewish law, it is forbidden to enter unless one is ritually pure. It is not possible to perform the purification ceremony today for various halachic reasons [rationale based on traditions of the Talmud]” (The Jerusalem Post).
The Washington Post continued: “On a recent weekday morning, a dozen Jews led by an activist rabbi assembled at Mughrabi Gate to enter the Temple Mount. Because they had skullcaps and some had long beards and were wearing religious garments, they were escorted by armed Israeli police and trailed by three escorts from the Waqf.
“Several times, one of the escorts pointed at a Jewish visitor and said to the police, ‘Watch that one!’ or ‘Hey! Is he praying?’ The atmosphere was tense, but the group was allowed to slowly meander its way around the compound.”
“The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that Jews are allowed to pray at the Temple Mount, but the court also grants the Israeli police power to curtail any activities that would create ‘a disturbance to the public order.’
“Jews who sing the national anthem or religious songs, and who pray, are regularly detained and escorted away.”
The notion of Jews praying openly at the site caused strong reactions among Muslim leaders from the Palestinian Territories to Saudi Arabia, some of whom warned of a popular uprising if existing policy changes.
The ongoing, unresolvable dispute over the Temple Mount does have a solution, but it will not come about the way that politicians or religious leaders in the region expect. Nonetheless, a roadmap to peace exists, and you can come to understand it!