Tensions are high in Jerusalem after a Palestinian attack left two Israeli police officers dead on the Holy Esplanade, the site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
For many, the attack and subsequent security lockdown are cause for alarm since protests over the sacred site at the center of the Old City could mushroom into a wider conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
One controversial Jewish religious movement, however, sees the crisis as a big opportunity.
Leaders in the Temple Mount movement are celebrating the unrest — and urging Jews to visit the deeply contested site which is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
“People in these Temple Mount circles are very excited,” said Tomer Persico, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and religion professor at Tel-Aviv University.
The Temple Institute, a group which seeks to rebuild the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, cheered as Jews arrived to the Temple Mount on Wednesday. Some of them reportedly carrying prayer books — and they were forced to leave by Israeli troops.
Yehudah Glick, a former leader of the Temple Institute who now campaigns for Jewish access to the Temple Mount as a member of the Israeli Knesset, also voiced his support for Jews gathering the site on Twitter. He called the act of going to the Temple Mount a peaceful mitzvah and invited other Jews to join.
Jews are prohibited from praying on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram esh-Sharif, and the Israeli security establishment believes that any change in that status quo could cause a major rift with the Palestinians.
But a growing movement of religious Jews is calling for the rules to change. According to the Jewish tradition, both Jewish Temples stood at this site. In Islamic tradition, the prophet Muhammad also visited the site.
This week marks a rare opportunity for members of this movement — Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount are not under scrutiny by guards from the Waqf, the Muslim body normally overseeing the site.
The Waqf called for a total Muslim boycott of the site in protest of new Israeli checkpoints in Jerusalem’s Old City in the aftermath of a Palestinian attack last week. That has left the large stone plaza that is home to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque relatively deserted.
PHOTO: Jews reciting kaddish at area where 2 Police officers were murdered on Temple mount, taking advantage of absence of Waqf officials. pic.twitter.com/qkixqTy9Ao— Israel News Feed (@IsraelHatzolah) July 17, 2017
“Activists ascended the mount and were quite elated that there were no Muslims there,” Persico said.
While there is a range of beliefs within the broader Temple Mount movement, some bodies actively call for the “removal” of the Muslim sacred sites and view the spaces as an essentially Jewish site.
The website of a group called the Temple Mount Faithful, for example, cites “liberating the Temple Mount from Arab (Islamic) occupation,” among it’s core goals.
“The Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque were placed on this Jewish or biblical holy site as a specific sign of Islamic conquest and domination. The Temple Mount can never be consecrated to the Name of G‑d without removing these pagan shrines,” the site reads.
The Old City has become a flashpoint in recent days, with Muslim protesters holding demonstrations in protest of the new security measures. The Palestinian political party Fatah called for a “Day of Rage” on Wednesday in protest.
An article in Breaking Israel News, a religious website that interprets daily news through a biblical lens, reported sympathetically on the increased Jewish presence, writing that some Jews “could not resist the temptation to pray.” The site also suggested that recent events may even have been prophesied.
“Today’s Jewish prayer is evidence that when it comes to matters concerning the Temple,” the site wrote, “anything is possible and the improbable is commonplace.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.