The Temple Mount and Jewish Sovereignty

by Moshe Dann (August 2012)

The Israeli Police are very meticulous about Jews praying on the Temple Mount, site of the First and Second Temples. The holiest place in the world for Jews, they are forbidden to pray there.

Although the Temples were run by cohanim (priests), anyone could bring a sacrifice. It was in fact the first universal religious site in history. The center of Jewish worship, it was inclusive.

Strictly enforced by scores of guards employed by the Wakf (Muslim Authorities) who maintain surveillance of visitors, their discriminatory policy is enabled and assisted by Israeli (Arab) policemen. Non-Muslim religious items are prohibited by the Wakf, including Bibles and prayer books, and visiting hours are restricted.

According to UNESCO, Jordan is the legitimate authority in charge of maintaining and protecting the site and is the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.

Because The Temple and the Holy of Holies, an inner sanctum into which only the High Priest was permitted and only on Yom Kippur, was situated on the Temple Mount many Orthodox rabbis forbid visits by Jews. The Temple, however, was located in the middle of the plaza and the southern third of the plaza was added during the Herodian period.   

The exact site of the Temple, moreover, is unclear. Most believe it was in the area of the golden-domed “Shrine of the Rock,” built by Muslims about 1,300 years ago, close to the spot where 4,000 years ago Abraham bought Isaac. A Crusader church was built there until reconquered and rebuilt by Muslim armies. Another opinion places the Temples slightly to the north.

Accessible to non-Muslims only during morning and early afternoon hours, except Fridays and Moslem holidays, to avoid interfering with Moslem prayers, Jews who intend to visit are required by halacha (Jewish law) to immerse in a mikve (ritual bath), avoid wearing leather shoes and walk along the periphery of the plaza area.

My visit to the Temple Mount was prompted by protests of prominent archeologists over destruction of the site (“renovations”) carried out by the Wakf and recent discoveries, by chance, of First Temple period artifacts there.

More than a decade ago the entire southern portion of the Temple Mount, where the al-Aksa mosque is located was excavated by the Wakf and turned into one of the largest mosques in the Middle East. It can accommodate 10,000 people. In the process, however, 15,000 tons of valuable archeological material were dumped as garbage. Archeologists and volunteers sifting through the debris found thousands of important artifacts, some from the First and Second Temple periods – and their task is far from completed. How could Israeli authorities allow this travesty to happen?

After praying at the Wall, waiting in a long line (composed mostly of non-Jews), and being thoroughly checked at the entrance to the site, I walked up the ramp and stepped on to the huge plaza (it can hold 15 football fields). Seeing the golden dome so close was breathtaking. So were the Arab guards that surrounded us.  

Wandering over to a meter-deep ditch dug through the middle of the plaza, cutting along the northern and eastern sides of the golden dome, I found a small piece of pottery. Suddenly, a guard appeared, demanding that I give him my treasure.

Handing it over, I asked about the digging.

“None of your business,” he told me curtly and threw my pottery shard into the hole.

“What's going to be done with all this?” I asked innocently, pointing to the mounds of rubble. A policeman insisted that I move on.

“Nice place you’ve got here,” I tried to sound innocent and polite, pulling the visor of my baseball cap.  

On the northern side of the plaza, according to some experts closest to where the Temples once stood, tractors were dislodging huge paving stones and digging deep trenches “for electric cables,” I was told.

Trailed by suspicious guards, I met a dignified man wearing a white robe and head-covering. Recently retired, he'd worked at the Al-Aksa mosque for 30 years. We chatted, comparing our ages and smiled.

“Why can't Jews pray on the Temple Mount?” I asked.

“This is not a place for Jews. You pray below,” he said, motioning towards the Western Wall, the Kotel, or 'Wailing Wall' (a derisive term used to insult Jews who often wept there). Did he know I was hiding beneath my baseball cap? 

A group of Arab children played soccer nearby as a few black-cloaked women descended from the golden dome. Sounds of tractors and pounding pickaxes cut into the shimmering silence.

A guard approached, pointed to his watch and impatiently gestured towards the Chain Street Gate, the exit for non-Moslems, “infidels.” Turning for a last look, rays of sun gleaming from the golden dome, I hesitated, trembling in a kind of spiritual gravity, imagining what Jews had built there, destroyed by Babylonian and Roman armies, for 2,000 years occupied by non-Jews and forbidden to Jews. To whom, then, does this holy site belong? 

Silently I prayed: bring peace.

Back at the Kotel, surrounded by a cacophony of a half-dozen Bar Mitzvahs, Jews celebrating in languages and customs of countries from around the world, I closed my eyes.

 “What a party,” I thought, swept by waves of ecstasy, ululations from the women’s section followed by showers of candies.

Was it this way thousands of years ago, when our ancestors were on the Temple Mount, singing and dancing – and bringing animals for sacrifice? Better this way, I thought. Cleaner and easier. No mess.

I thought of the Prophetic vision, Kibbutz Galiyot, a gathering of exiles, the Jewish people back in their homeland, linked by prayer and promises, sharing the joy of strangers and family, and candies filled with love, sweet ecstasy and tears because once there was a Temple on the Temple Mount.

Carrying memory genes through generations and distances, Jews are on the long journey home. Their spiritual compass is directed to the Temple Mount, called the navel of the world, the womb of Jewish existence.

To whom, then, does the Temple Mount belong? To everyone who has prayed there and will pray there – to those who seek forgiveness and God.

Islamist exclusivity has debased the Temple Mount. It’s time to return this holy site to its original inclusivity and allow anyone who wants to pray there respectfully to do so. That is the meaning of Jewish sovereignty and human dignity.  

The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.

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