A growing number of secular Israeli university students are embracing Jewish rights to the Temple Mount, following months of violence against Jewish visitors and tourists at the holy site and a growing Hamas presence.
During the Jewish holiday of Passover, the Temple Mount remained closed to both Jewish visitors and tourists as Arab rioters threw stones and flares at security officers from within the Al-Aqsa mosque on April 20. The violent rioting also forced an American rabbi to flee the mount with his family within two minutes of ascending when the site had briefly opened.
In another later episode, Arab protesters accosted a group of 25 ultra-Orthodox Jews and their children visiting the mount, pushing and shouting “Allahu Akbar” one day after the Passover incident. Caught on video, an Arab woman is heard screaming in Hebrew, “Get out of here!”
For Tom Nisani, 25, who studies political science at Hebrew University, securing Jewish rights to the Temple Mount has become a major issue.
“It feels like we are losing this holy place,” Nisani told Tazpit News Agency. “This is not so much a religious issue, as it is a national issue,” he says.
Nisani, who grew up in the Jezreel Valley in Afula and describes himself as secular with a penchant for tradition, has visited the Temple Mount at least a dozen times since last year. “At first, I was curious, I wanted to see what this site was like. Then I began to realize its true national value – there is no other place with as much meaning, where our history began and many of our Biblical stories originated.”
The Temple Mount is regarded as the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam. Two Jewish Holy Temples stood there for nearly a millennium and served as the center of Jewish life two thousand years ago.
But Nisani’s first visit to the site was a shocking experience according to him. “My first visit was humiliating – I was cursed at in Arabic, rocks were thrown at me, just because I am Jewish,” he said. “I have every right to be at the Temple Mount and not feel threatened.”
Nisani is leading a social media campaign to raise awareness about Jewish rights to the Temple Mount. He has over 200 student supporters on Facebook and encourages students from all over the country to visit the mount.
“It is ridiculous that in the middle of our country’s capital, we have no control or authority over what goes on at a Jewish holy site. This has to change,” he says.
The Islamic Waqf, which was given administrative control of the mount following the Six Day War in 1967, bans Jewish prayer and worship. From the 11 different entry points to the Temple Mount, only one is permissible to Jews and non-Muslims. It is known as the Mugrabi Gate and it is open at inconvenient early morning hours. Visitors often have to wait for long hours until they are allowed to enter and sometimes it is too late. Any Jewish holy books and artifacts are forbidden and confiscated during security checks, while Waqf officials closely monitor Jewish groups during visits to the site.
Rachel Touitou, 22, who is a second-year student in International Relations at Hebrew University, agrees with Nisani. “This is not a religious or messianic issue. The left-wing media always tries to stereotype us as fanatics. We don’t want to remove the mosque and I’m not going to pick up a stone and start building the next Temple.”
“We just want our full democratic rights to be implemented. The Israeli government needs to be involved here – I want to feel safe when I visit the Temple Mount.”
Touitou made aliyah with her family from France fourteen years ago. “We left Paris right before the anti-Semitism started to get worse. My dad didn’t want us to grow up feeling afraid and under threat because we are Jewish.”
“It’s absurd and disturbing to see that this kind of threatening reality exists in the heart of Jerusalem, in the center of our historic capital. I feel like we escaped this scary reality in Paris only to find it here instead.”
But this hasn’t discouraged Touitou in any way. “I encourage my friends to visit the Temple Mount any chance they get and whenever there are visiting hours. During one visit, I brought a friend from Tel Aviv to the mount, who is completely secular and tattooed. Next to us, there was an ultra-Orthodox man. All three of us stood there on the mount and despite our different backgrounds, we connected to this holy place together” she recalls. “It was a very special moment.”
“I don’t care how many rocks and curses are thrown at us – that just makes me believe even more that every person should have safe and equal access to this site. The Temple Mount has the potential to unite and that’s what I hope will eventually happen.”