Temple Mount Controversy

A Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (Photo: Noam Chen via Twitter)

When I was a high school principal, I used to take the seniors on what we called “The Poland-Israel Experience,” a trip familiar to many other schools. After a harrowing few days in Poland, the students would brighten up when we arrived in Jerusalem. When the bus would near the Old City and the shimmering golden dome would be visible to everyone, invariably one student would shout out, “Look, the Al-Aqsa Mosque.” In full teacher mode, I would pause and respond, “Are you sure that is the “Al-Aqsa Mosque”? The student would look at me, hesitate for a moment, and say, “Oh yeah, oh yeah, that’s not Al-Aqsa Mosque, that’s the Dome of the Rock.” Sound familiar? I would venture to say that most Jewish people confuse the terms, struggle with understanding the history of the area and are most inspired by the moment of “Har Habayit Biyadeinu” (“The Temple Mount is in our hands”), but are curious about the implications of that moment.

When a record 1,729 Jews ascended Har Habayit on Tisha B’Av, this reminded me of the need to UNPACK the significance of this all. 

But, wait, before you read our breakdown, make sure to watch this video on Moshe Dayan. It’s nine minutes and totally worth your time.

What Happened?

Last Sunday, on the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av, a record number of Jews – 1,729 – visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The day was also the start of Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday, so tens of thousands of Muslims also visited the site in the morning. They threw chairs and other objects at the first round of Jewish visitors, who were forced to leave the area. The rest of the Jewish visitors came later in the afternoon, when there were fewer Muslim worhsippers. Typically, the site is closed to non-Muslims on Muslim holidays, to avoid clashes, but there are exceptions, such as when a Jewish holiday coincides.

Currently, the Temple Mount is under Israeli sovereignty and security, while the day-to-day authority of the site is under Jordan’s Jerusalem Islamic Waqf (a waqf is an Islamic religious trust). Israel handed this authority back to the Jordanians after capturing the Temple Mount in the Six Day War in 1967.  

Why Does This Matter?

Getting the facts straight – There are many names associated with this area: Temple Mount, Har Habayit, Noble Sanctuary, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Haram al-Sharif, Dome of the Rock, and more. What does each refer to? Who calls it what? It’s important to know the terms in order to understand what’s going on. Here’s a quick break-down:

  • Temple Mount/Har Habayit/Haram al-Sharif/Noble Sanctuary – This is the entire elevated platform surrounded by stone walls. In this area sit:
  • Dome of the Rock/Golden Dome – This is the iconic golden shrine that is Jerusalem’s most recognizable landmark. (It actually was only covered in gold in 1962.)
  • Al-Aqsa (“The Farthest”) Mosque – This is the smaller, lead-covered dome located south of the Dome of the Rock.
  • Western Wall/Kotel (surrounding the Temple Mount)- This is the relatively small portion of stone wall on the western side of the Temple Mount. 

Religiously significant to Judaism and Islam 

This landmark is of deep religious significance to both Judaism and Islam, which is why it has been the focal point of conflict for decades (and centuries before modern Israel). For Jews, it is the holiest site, the location of the two holy Temples that were destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans in 70 CE, and the anticipated site of the third Temple in the Messianic era. Jewish tradition holds that the very world originated here, with a Foundation Rock located beneath the Temple (hence the Dome of the Rock). The Western Wall is often mistaken as the holiest site in Judaism, but the wall is merely a remnant of the outer walls of the Second Temple, a reminder of the great edifice that once stood, and the closest Jews were able to come to the Temple Mount for centuries. For Muslims, this is the third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina. It is where they believe Muhammed was miraculously transported from Mecca on his “Night Journey,” and from where he ascended to heaven. Both the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque were built in the 7th century. According to both Judaism and Islam, the Temple Mount is where Abraham performed the binding of his son: Isaac, according to the Torah, and Ishmael, according to Islam.

Is the Temple Mount really in “Our Hands”? 

This is where things get complicated, so we’ll turn to Yossi Klein Halevi to help clarify the matter. In 1967, after Prime Minister Levi Eshkol essentially begged Jordan’s leader, King Hussein, not to invade, Hussein ignored this plea, which led to the iconic Israeli paratroopers to fight in the Old City. As Col. Motta Gur snaked his way through the alleyways, he declared on the radio, “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” The place where Jews, regardless of denomination, orientation or ethnicity faced in prayer was finally under Jewish control. A few moments later, the Israeli flag was fastened to the top of the Dome of the Rock. This excitement was immediately toned down, when Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Defense Minister at the time, essentially said, “Are you crazy? You are going to bring the entire Middle East into a war!” So, the Israeli flag was removed, and something wilder happened next. At the height of the Jewish people’s connection to their holiest site, Dayan struck a deal with the leaders of the Muslim Waqf and relinquished governance of the site to them, allowing them to make decisions about who can pray there and who cannot. Halevi drily reminds us that, “The Temple Mount was no longer in Gur’s hands.” Since this moment, more than 50 years ago, Jews have not been allowed to pray at the Temple Mount. Did Dayan make the right decision? See our discussion questions below. 

Diversity of Perspectives

Interestingly, most religious Jews are comfortable with maintaining the status quo; they do not even wish to enter or pray at the Temple Mount. Why? Because according to traditional Jewish law, the site of the Holy of Holies, the holiest point within the Temple, is forbidden to the average person (and reserved for the High Priest on Yom Kippur). The exact location of this point is unknown, and therefore one may not walk around in the vicinity for fear of accidental trespass. This is the position of the Chief Rabbinate, most Haredi rabbis, and many religious Zionist rabbis. Last year on Tisha B’Av, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef stated, “it is imperative to recall that the pilgrimage to the Temple Mount is forbidden by Jewish law.”

There is, however, a strong contingent within the religious Zionist camp that does allow people to visit the Temple Mount (after immersing in a mikvah, ritual bath, and walking along a precise route). This group pushes for increased Jewish access to the Temple Mount, arguing that Jews should certainly be allowed to pray at their holiest site. Former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren permitted ascension to the Temple Mount according to Jewish Law; he himself was present and blew the shofar when Israel captured the Old City in 1967, and he wrote a book called Har Habayit explaining the matter in depth. The most well-known proponent is former MK Yehuda Glick, who survived an assassination attempt in 2014 after speaking on this topic. He has stated, “I will do all that is in my power to end the injustice that takes place every day at the holiest place in the world, where police officers are under orders to check whether a 90-year-old Jew is, God forbid, moving his lips or not.”

For many Jews who don’t identify as religious, the Temple Mount remains symbolically significant nevertheless. As the secular Moshe Dayan announced to Israeli newspapers on July 8, 1967, “We have returned to our holiest site never to part with it again.”