Staking a Jewish claim to the Temple Mount
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For many years, a fringe group of ultra-religious Jews have pushed for greater Jewish access to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, one of the world’s most contested religious sites. But now the campaign is moving up the Israeli political agenda.
At one of the world’s most contested religious sites, Max Freidzon puts his finger to his lips, gesturing for silence, before easing into a faint, defiant smile for the camera.
Freidzon, a 46-year-old Russian immigrant in Israel, is surreptitiously challenging the rules at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount – or Haram al-Sharif, as it’s known to Muslims.
Under the longstanding rules, non-Muslims can only enter the site, which is home to the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, for a few hours five days a week. Israeli police officials escorting small groups of Jews warn them that they are not permitted to pray as they pass close to the al-Aqsa mosque – no singing, dancing, bowing down, or even moving their lips in prayer here.
But Freidzon, a regular visitor to the site, is pushing the limits. He is silently praying – without moving his lips.
The site is the symbolic heart of the contesting territorial claims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and disturbances in this space revered by Muslims and Jews can have serious implications. In 2000, a controversial visit to the complex by Ariel Sharon, then a candidate for prime minister, helped spark what came to be known as the second Palestinian intifada.
The Temple Mount was captured by the Israeli military in the 1967 war, but returned to the control of the Muslim endowment, or waqf, that has been the site’s guardian for centuries.
While the access rules have helped maintain a fragile peace, a fringe group of ultra-religious Jews has been defying the constraints on Jewish access to the site for decades.
But these days, as hardliners have increased their political power in Israel, the issue has turned into a topic of public debate and has even moved up to the Knesset.
Earlier this week, extraordinary scenes erupted at Knesset Committee for the Interior, when Arab Israeli lawmakers objected to some of their fellow parliamentarians’ demands for Jewish visitation rights at the Temple Mount.
"The second intifada broke out because al-Aqsa was threatened, it will be the same for the third intifada and it will be your fault,” shouted Ahmed Tibi.
Political support, but no ‘political guts’
But their objections are unlikely to silence diehard supporters of the measure such as Yitzchak Reuven, deputy director of the Institute of The Temple Institute.
"When the Jewish nation is united and decides we need to come back here, then we are convinced that the other nations will respect our choice,” said Reuven.
Reuven believes that a third Jewish temple should be built on the site, where Jews believe the First and Second Temples stood about 2,000 years ago. He explains that all the plans are in place for his controversial project.
The campaign to claim Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount is testing the resolve of the Israeli government.
Yehudah Glick, director of the initiative for Jewish Freedom on the Temple Mount, notes that, “We have a lot of political support, but lack the political guts. Many members [of the Knesset] support our cause but they are afraid.”
Israel’s chief rabbinate suggests that many religious figures oppose changing the status quo for fear of sparking a conflict.
"Let’s authorise visits and exploration but without openly saying this is the site of the Jewish Temple. In other words, we give up a part of our heritage, our own rights and opportunities for the sake of peace and calm. This is a choice that I approve,” says Rabbi Barnea Levi Selavan of the Jerusalem-based NGO, Foundation Stone.
According to Israeli police figures, the number of religious Jews visiting the Temple Mount could reach 10,000 this year. But for the moment, the vast majority of Jews continue to pray – as they have done for centuries – at the Western Wall located well below the contested religious site.