Jewish Israelis flock to Temple Mount in greater numbers
Hundreds of Israeli Jews are expected to climb the Temple Mount compound today and throughout the week through September 27, to celebrate the feast of Sukkot. Security is being tightened for the week across Israel and in particular around the Temple Mount compound, but the site will remain open with normal visiting hours for Jews.
The Temple Mount is the most sacred site in Jewish tradition. It is also one of the holiest sites for Muslims, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, Haram al-Sharif. It is Israel’s most sensitive and volatile point and the site of many conflicts in its history.
In September 2000, Opposition Leader (and later Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon visited the site during a crisis between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, contributing to a violent uprising that followed. In 2017, two Israeli policemen were shot and killed outside the site. Israel then set up metal detectors at the entrance to the compound, scandalizing the Muslim world and triggering riots among Palestinians. This year has also been marked by violent clashes within the compound between Muslim worshipers and activists and the Israeli security forces. The May clashes were sparked by efforts by the Israeli authorities to demolish Palestinian homes in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
But even outside of interfaith, political, diplomatic and security sensibilities, the ascension of the site is a complex issue within Jewish tradition. Many rabbis oppose the act on religious grounds, and Jewish Israelis find conflicting signs at the site.
A warning sign reminds visitors that ultra-Orthodox and other Orthodox rabbis say it is forbidden to enter until the coming of the Messiah. A few meters further, another sign warmly welcomes visitors with “Welcome to the Temple Mount” and details the religious laws governing the site, according to the rabbis who allow entry. They include restrictions on the areas that one can visit so as not to step on the places which, according to Jewish tradition, are above the ruins of the Jewish temple. More restrictions include not to visit with leather shoes and that women must undergo a ritual bath before visiting.
In recent years, relative calm has returned to the site, and with it the visits of Jewish Israelis on pilgrimage to the site. Various organizations encourage the visits, including the Temple Mount administration headed by Rabbi Shimshon Elbaum, who told Al-Monitor that the visits are governed by state-dictated policy. “When Gilad Erdan was appointed Minister of Public Safety, he lifted some of the toughest restrictions and the police, for which he was responsible, became more tolerant and less restrictive. In recent years, the number of visitors has increased. From less than 2,000 a year ten years ago, we have reached 40,000 a year now. ”
Major dates for Jewish visits include Jerusalem Day, which commemorates the Six Day War and the liberation of East Jerusalem; the 9th of Av, the day when the two temples were destroyed; and the festivals of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot, all the traditional festivals when the temple was standing. Since visiting hours are limited for Jews – between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday through Thursday – a busy day can accommodate up to 1,500 Jewish visitors. About 4,000 Jews typically visit during the eight-day feast of Sukkot. Over the two days of the Jewish New Year this year, more than 300 Israeli Jews visited.
All Jewish visitors, religious and lay, enter in groups and walk on a path marked out from the gate dedicated to non-Muslims in the western part of the square to the Mercy Gate in the old city wall, a sealed door which, according to tradition, is supposed to open at the coming of the messiah. From there, they bypass the golden Dome of the Rock mosque and the outer wall.
Elbaum and his colleagues provide visitors with cloth shoes to replace their banned leather shoes, coordinate with the police, and make sure no weapons are brought into the square.
Before leaving the site, some visitors stop for a brief silent prayer. If someone prays out loud or genuflects, the police tell them to stop. In the past, this could lead to the person’s detention and expulsion from the site, as Jews are not allowed to pray there. But more recently a warning would be more common. Last July, the Israeli channel Channel 12 filmed Jews praying silently on the site while the police watched.
Jewish visitors are diverse. Some see the visit as exercising Israeli control over the site so that it is not abandoned to Muslims. Others see it as a mandatory stop while visiting Jerusalem. One of them, Stewart Coppens, an American Jew from Vermont, told this author during a visit a few years ago: You must visit. “
Ophir Dayan is a student and the daughter of the leader of the settlers, former Israel Consul in New York and current President of Yad Vashem Danny Dayan. She is active in the political organization In Our Hands: Students for the Temple Mount, which brings together young religious and secular Israelis. According to Dayan, the opposition she encountered on her first visit to the site “stirred something more secular in me; the feeling that my rights were being violated. Discrimination. I decided to visit the Temple Mount more frequently and began to read more and understand the historical connection. This is the place where we have become a people from individuals. I am not a very spiritual person but this may be the only place where I feel spiritual.