In the course of an interview last week in Ukraine, Ze’ev Kam, a reporter for Kan News, asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the “elementary rights of the Jews to pray at the Temple Mount, their holiest site.” Netanyahu’s answer, which was published in “Sheva”, was, “Don’t worry, it will happen, and before the arrival of the Messiah.”
On the website for Temple Mount advocacy, Har-Habait, they noted that Netanyahu had already made this promise. Yehuda Etzion, founder of the Chai V’Kayam temple mount advocacy group, sent a letter to then-Likud candidate Netanyahu asking about his views on Jewish rights at the site.
“The right of the Jewish people to their holy place, the Temple Mount, is unquestionable,” Netanyahu wrote, “I believe that the right of prayer for Jews in this place should be arranged, and even more so that we should provide for the freedom of worship for all religions in Jerusalem.”
“It is clear that we should do this with the proper sensitivity,” Netanyahu wrote. “I believe we can do this properly after we return to the leadership of the state.”
As per Israeli law which legislates freedom and equality of religion, Jewish prayer is legally mandated but the Israeli police, tasked with maintaining order, are permitted to use their judgment in how to implement this law. As Minister of Internal Security, Gilad Erdan is tasked with overseeing this task. He was put to the test two weeks ago when the Jewish holy day of Tisha B’Av coincided with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. The Muslim religious authorities closed all of the mosques in Jerusalem except for the silver-domed Al Aqsa on the Temple Mount, calling for the Palestinians to prevent the Jews from visiting the site. The police delayed Jewish entrance to the site until after the Muslim times of prayer but the Palestinians stayed at the site en masse and rioted. Rather than back down and bar the Jews from entering, the Israeli police valiantly protected the Jews and the Jewish right to visit the site. Thanks to their efforts, a record 1,729 Jews commemorated the destruction of the Jewish Temples precisely where they once stood.
In response to the Arab threat of violence, Erdan responded by asserting that religious freedom is necessary on the Temple Mount.
“I think there is in an injustice in the status quo that has existed since ’67,” he told Israel’s Radio 90. According to an agreement between Jordan and Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War, the status quo mandate established by the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century governing the holy sites in Jerusalem would remain in place. This restricted non-Muslims prayer at Muslim sites.
“We need to work to change it so in the future Jews, with the help of God, can pray at the Temple Mount,” Erdan said. “This needs to be achieved by diplomatic agreements and not by force.”
It is important to note that when Israel conquered the Temple Mount in 1967, there was one mosque. There are currently five locations on the Temple Mount that the Waqf designates as mosques and off-limits to non-Muslims.
The Jews are certainly reawakening to the Temple Mount. In 2009, 5,658 Jews ascended to the Temple Mount and had doubled by 2015. Just two years later, a total of 25,000 Jews visited the site.
“We completely condemn Israel’s violations of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi wrote on Twitter. “The occupation [Israeli] authorities’ absurd actions and attempts to change the status quo in occupied Jerusalem will only lead to the conflict being exacerbated and the situation blowing up, threatening international peace and security. We call on the international community to assume its responsibilities and pressure Israel to stop its violations.”
It should be noted that no Jews approached the Al-Aqsa Mosque but Arab rhetoric has changed the term in recent years to include all of the Temple Mount.