- USIEA Team
Week of January 1, 2023
Temple Mount: One of the biggest misconceptions regarding Judaism is the location of its most sanctified site. Many would answer that this must surely be the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In fact, the most holy site in the world according to Judaism lies about 100 feet from the Western Wall on what is called the “Temple Mount.”
This location was the site of both the first Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash), destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the second Holy Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. To put an even finer point on it, the holiest location in the world, according to the Jewish faith, is where the “Holy of Holies” – an enclave within the Holy Temple that housed the Ark of the Covenant– once stood. The Temple Mount is so holy that many Jews believe that entering it is forbidden until the Messiah comes. The mistaken belief that the Western Wall is the most holy site to Jews stems from the fact that for many years, Jews were forbidden from entering the Temple Mount, first by the Romans and eventually by the Muslims. As a result, the walls around it – specifically, the Western Wall – assumed religious importance.
The Temple Mount is holy not only to Jews. While most Moslems concur that two Jewish temples once stood on the Temple Mount, they assert that this holiness was superseded. Referring to the Temple Mount as “Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary),” they believe that it was here that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to the “Divine Presence” on the back of a winged horse called “al buraq.” Accordingly, the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount is the third-holiest site in Islam.
During the Six Day War in 1967, Israel captured the Temple Mount along with the rest of East Jerusalem. To reduce tensions, in Israel and around the Arab world, the Israeli government relinquished control of the Temple Mount almost immediately after it was captured and left the mount and its management in the hands of the Muslim Wakf – administered by the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Holy Places – while at the same time insisting that Jews would be able to visit it without restriction.
Today, Jews can indeed visit the Temple Mount but their visits are heavily restricted. They are not permitted to pray on the mount nor are they permitted to sing, dance, or even mumble under their breath, lest they be accused of praying. Jews cannot fly flags on the mount nor show any indication of sovereignty. These rules and regulations lie under the rubric of the “status quo.” The status quo is unwritten and it has evolved gradually over the past 55 years. It remains the only mechanism that prevents the tinderbox that is the Temple Mount from going up in flames.
Last Tuesday, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the newly-appointed Israeli Minister of National Security, ascended the Temple Mount for less than fifteen minutes. His visit was preceded by threats made by the Gazan Hamas that they would “ignite the Middle East” should Ben-Gvir visit the mount. Upon his arrival, Ben-Gvir said that Israel’s new government “will not give in to threats from Hamas.” He described the Temple Mount as “the most important place for the Jewish people” and said that Jews will continue to ascend to the holy site while stressing that Jews and Muslims will continue to be allowed “freedom of movement.” He also stated that “those who make threats will be dealt with an iron fist.”
During his visit, Ben-Gvir strictly adhered to the status quo: He did not pray. He did not sing. He did not dance. He did not wave flags. And yet, moments after he concluded his visit, Israel suffered an assault not of Gazan rockets, but, rather, of international condemnations. Unsurprisingly, the torrent began with the Palestinians, who urged members of the UN National Security Council to use the opportunity to act against Israel in order to avert a “religious war.” What was surprising was the American reaction. State Departmentspokesman Ned Price said, “The United States stands firmly for preservation of the historic status quo with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem. We oppose any unilateral actions that undercut the historic status quo. They are unacceptable.” He underscored that the Biden administration expected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government to preserve that status quo. “We took note of the fact that Netanyahu’s governing platform calls for the preservation of the historic status quo with relation to the holy places. We expect him to follow through with that commitment… in word and in practice, that is what we will be watching for,” Price said.
The American response, while perhaps not unexpected, caused great consternation among many Israelis, not only because of its substance, but primarily because of its style, reminding them of an episode that took place more than two generations ago. In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights, territory captured from Syria in the Six Day War. The move was met by American suspension of a strategic cooperation agreement between the two countries that had recently been signed. The following day, Prime Minister Menachem Begin met with the U.S. Ambassador, Samuel Lewis. Begin addressed him with words that are known by every Israel schoolchild: “A week ago, on the recommendation of the government, the Knesset adopted the Golan Law, and again you declare you are punishing us. What kind of language is this – “punishing” Israel? Are we a vassal state? Are we a banana republic? Are we 14-year-old boys that have to have knuckles slapped if they misbehave?" Eventually, the U.S. recanted and implemented the strategic cooperation, and Israel kept the Golan. In 2020, the U.S. recognized Israeli annexation of the Golan and a circle was closed. In 2023, Israel is doing its utmost to adhere to agreements, even agreements that impinge upon its sovereignty and upon its religious beliefs.