When Prayer Becomes Provocation on the Temple Mount

To tell Jews that their connection to the Temple Mount is a fraudulent invention, to attempt to erase thousands of years of documented historical ties, to ignore that every Jew in prayer faces that hilltop in Jerusalem from wherever he or she is in the world, to pretend that Jews are just colonialist interlopers on this sacred space, is an insult. A lie. A provocation.

And yet, it is an insult that is voiced repeatedly by those who don’t believe that the Temple Mount is and always has been central to Jewish tradition and practice. It is a lie repeated as recently as October 20, when six countries acting on behalf of the Palestinians drafted a resolution asking UNESCO to classify the Western Wall as part of the Islamic claim on the Temple Mount, thereby negating the Jewish presence. (Fortunately, they dropped the incendiary language the next day.)

This erroneous contention is not new, but it has gained renewed currency in the tinderbox that is now Jerusalem. And each time it is repeated, it exacerbates Jewish fears that Muslims are seeking to ignite a holy war aimed not at ending Israel’s occupation of a contested piece of land, but at ending Israel as a Jewish state. Period.

But to tell Palestinians that all the government of Israel wants is to maintain the delicate but so far surprisingly durable arrangements that constitute the “status quo” on the Temple Mount, to frame the disagreement as simply one of religious freedom, to overlook the persistent settlement activity circling what the Muslims call “the Noble Sanctuary” and the restrictions on Palestinian movement imposed by Israeli police and military in the area, is to deny reality. To shirk responsibility. To try and change the conversation.

This, too, must be recognized for what it is: a provocation.

Therein lies the crux of the brewing turmoil on the Temple Mount — the dilemma of two peoples refusing to acknowledge one another.

This is not a matter of seeking to establish blame and apportion it equally. We join with many Jewish groups in deploring the attempt by Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates on behalf of the Palestinian Authority to manipulate UNESCO and nullify the Jewish historical presence on the spot where the First and Second Temples once stood. It was a petty and destructive move. Ironic, too, since the P.A., based in Ramallah, seems not to care much about East Jerusalem, where its people languish in poverty.

This mindset corrodes Palestinian thought. Read even mainstream arguments about Jerusalem and the Jewish connection is denied or couched as an allegation, not a fact. That negation isn’t just an affront to Israelis, it is an affront to all Jews, who have maintained an emotional and spiritual bond to that small piece of the land of Israel long before there was a state of Israel.

And now, when irresponsible leaders with rabid social media followers whip up Muslim outrage over perceived Israeli designs on the Temple Mount, the affront risks becoming something far more dangerous.

Nothing — nothing — excuses the unacceptable violence committed against Jews in the name of protecting the Temple Mount for Muslims. It must stop, though Palestinian leadership is so ineffectual right now that we don’t know how that can happen. But there is more to the conflict over the Temple Mount than this Israeli government and its defenders admit.

It is disingenuous for Israeli leaders to cry that they want only to maintain a status quo that considers the Temple Mount a Muslim holy site open to all when they have enabled and supported assertions of Jewish encroachment. Framing this as an issue of religious freedom is stirring — who isn’t in favor of the right to pray? — but it’s also historically manipulative and politically irresponsible.

Jews have a complicated approach to prayer on the Temple Mount. For years, Orthodox rabbis forbade Jews even to go there (and many rabbis still forbid them), for fear that they would unwittingly step on the “holy of holies” from ancient times. Activists like Rabbi Yehuda Glick say that they simply want Jews and Christians to be equal to Muslims at the site that is sacred to all faiths. But Glick is also part of the movement to establish a Third Temple, which can be read only as a challenge to the survival of the Islamic shrines already in place. Far from a fringe figure, Glick (who survived a 2014 assassination attempt) presided over a recent celebration that was attended by Knesset members who are part of the governing coalition. Last year, the Knesset held hearings to explore changing the status quo. Indeed, Yedidia Z. Stern, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, wrote recently that 40% of Israelis want such a change.

Is it any wonder that recent polling shows that a majority of Palestinians believe Israel wishes to end Muslim domination there? Such hysteria has some basis in fact.

For the truth is, prayer all over that contested sacred space is restricted and regulated. Women cannot set foot in the much larger men’s section at the Kotel, the Western Wall. Imagine if a Palestinian leader attempted to go to the Kotel, the way Ariel Sharon strolled onto the Temple Mount in 2000 — surrounded by a thousand armed officers with riot gear.

We Jews can still believe in the right to prayer and access to the Temple Mount without aggressively asserting those rights in this potentially explosive moment. As Stern wrote: “We must distinguish between the world of emotion and the world of action. It is possible to long for the Temple Mount with profound sincerity but at the same time to exercise restraint with regard to actually satisfying that desire.”

Those few acres are the hardest ones on earth to share. And the most necessary.


Jane Eisner

Jane Eisner

Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.

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When Prayer Becomes Provocation on the Temple Mount

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