Shai Nitzan, the State Attorney of Israel since 2013, visited the Temple Mount along with several other members of the Israeli justice department last Monday, ostensibly as part of their duties in administering the site. But their visit was exceptional, marking the first time a Jewish official had entered the Dome of the Rock since Ariel Sharon’s visit in 2000. Though Sharon’s visit was seen as provocative and was credited with instigating the Intifada, Nitzan’s visit may have been precisely the opposite; an act of submission acknowledging Islamic rule over Judaism’s holiest site.
Nitzan’s routine visit became unusually tense when the group entered the Dome of the Rock. The last time an Israeli official, perhaps even any non-Muslim, entered the Muslim structure built on top of the Jewish Temples was September 28, 2000, when Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount.
Yaakov Hayman, chairman of the United Temple Movements, noted a disturbing element of Nitzan’s visit.
“When Nitzan entered the Dome of the Rock, he took off his shoes acknowledging the Muslim claim that it is a mosque and a holy site,” Hayman told Breaking Israel News. Hayman noted that Jews may only visit the Temple Mount after bathing in a mikveh (a ritual bath). And Jews may not wear leather shoes on the Temple Mount.
“I don’t know if he went to a mikveh before visiting the Temple Mount but he did not remove his shoes,” Hayman pointed out. “He only removed them when entering the Dome of the Rock. That is him, an Israeli official, symbolically saying that the Muslim tradition matters to him but the Jewish tradition is not important.”
Hayman also noted that Jews are forbidden from entering the Dome of the Rock since it is believed to be the location of the Holy of Holies. It is especially disturbing to note that several of the policemen accompanying the Israeli officials also removed their shoes.
“I am sure it was subconscious,” Hayman said. “The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference. By not taking off his shoes at the entrance to the Temple Mount, Nitzan was showing indifference to the Jewish sanctity of the Temple Mount.”
According to Muslim law, any person entering a mosque must take off his shoes, Nitzan was acknowledging that The Dome of the Rock is a mosque. Before 1967, the only mosque on the Temple Mount was the silver domed al-Aqsa in the southern edge of the Temple Mount compound. It is, in fact, forbidden for Muslims to pray towards the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the Rock (Qubbat as Sakhrah in Arabic) is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a mosque but it was built in 685 CE by the caliph ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, not as a mosque for public worship but rather as a shrine for pilgrims marking the site of the Jewish Temples.
When the Temple stood, the only person permitted to enter the Holy of Holies was the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) as part of the Yom Kippur service. But as a major figure in the Israeli justice system, Nitzan may have been motivated by a subconscious yearning to connect with the site. During the Second Temple Period, the Great Sanhedrin met in the Lishkat HaGazit (the hall of hewn stones) that was built into the north wall of the Temple.
Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Dome of the Rock was accompanied by massive Arab rioting at the site. Though his visit has been credited with sparking the Intifada, plans for the violent outbreak were well underway at the time. Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti would later admit that the Intifada was planned and Sharon merely “provided a good excuse” for the violence.
Until Sharon’s visit in 2000, non-Muslim visitors were permitted to enter the Dome of the Rock, al-Aqsa Mosque and the Islamic Museum by purchasing a ticket from the Waqf. That situation ended when the Second Intifada erupted. For the next three years, Israel barred Jews and tourists from the mount entirely. In August 2003, the Israeli government reopened the Temple Mount to Jews and tourists despite opposition from both the Waqf and Jordan. In 2015, there were reports of negotiations between Israel and Jordan that would reopen the buildings to non-Muslim visitation but this never materialized.
It is interesting to note that Jews were historically prohibited from praying at the Western Wall or visiting the Temple Mount during the Christian and Muslim rule in the region. Though permitted limited access during the British Mandate after WWI, Jews were again restricted after the site came under Jordanian rule in 1947. The Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day War opened the site up to Jews and The Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces, Rabbi Shlomo Goren led regular prayers on the Temple Mount. These prayers continued for over two months until the Ninth Day of Av, when he brought 50 followers and introduced both a shofar and a portable ark to for the prayer service. The Israeli government decided to restrict Jewish prayer in response to complaints by the Waqf.