Why is the Temple Mount a flashpoint?

"Ultimately, we want Jews to respect Muslim history, and we want Muslims to respect Jewish history... Erasing history is no way to cultivate a peaceful future."
A Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (Photo: Noam Chen via Twitter)

We’re curious…

In the last few weeks, two stories related to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem — the holiest place in Judaism — caught our attention. First, there was this unusual report by Israel’s Channel 13 that members of a Jewish group known as “Returning to the Mount” are disguising themselves as Muslims in order to pray there.

(If you’re not familiar with this issue, under an agreement Israel reached with Jordan in 1967 following the Six-Day War, Jews are allowed to enter the Temple Mount during limited hours of the day, but are not permitted to pray there. We unpack the story of how and why this happened below.)

Second, earlier this month, the U.N. overwhelmingly passed a resolution that called for “upholding unchanged the historic status quo at the Haram al-Sharif” holy site. The text — which was approved 129-11 with 31 countries abstaining — referred to the site solely by its Muslim name.

“A resolution about Jerusalem that does not refer to its ancient Jewish roots is not an ignorant mistake, but an attempt to distort and rewrite history!” Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan exclaimed in a speech to the U.N. prior to the vote. 

Although the overwhelming number of countries supported the resolution, 19 countries dropped their support for it since the last time the U.N. voted on this in 2018.

With this recent news about the Temple Mount, we wanted to unpack this holiest Jewish site, and a site holy to Christians and Muslims, and the decades-long controversy over whether Jews should be allowed to pray there — or even simply visit.

What is the story behind the current rules at the Temple Mount, and why is this site such a hotbed of controversy? And, what is the controversy over Jewish ties to the site really about? We spoke with Jerusalem tour guide Eli Duker, who leads groups up to the Temple Mount, to get his perspective on these questions.

The Temple Mount: Terms to know

First, let’s unpack some key terms you need to know. There are many names associated with this area. What does each refer to and who calls it what?

Jews refer to the site as the Temple Mount (or Har Habayit, “Mount of the House,” or Beit Hamikdash, “Holy House,” referring to the ancient Temple, in Hebrew). Muslims call it Haram al-Sharif, which is Arabic for “the Noble Sanctuary.” These terms refer to the entire, 35-acre compound (which contains the Western Wall) which is surrounded by stone walls. 

Within this area are a few important structures:

Dome of the Rock. (Courtesy: Getty Images)
  • The Dome of the Rock / Golden Dome — This is the iconic, Islamic shrine that is Jerusalem’s most recognizable landmark. Built in the seventh century, 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, believed to have been completed in the eighth century.
Al-Aqsa. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
  • The Western Wall / Kotel — This is the relatively small portion of stone wall on the western side of the Temple Mount.

People pray at the Western Wall. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

What is the Temple Mount and why is it important?

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, the Temple Mount is the holiest place, as the site of the two holy Temples that were destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and by the Romans in 70 C.E. It is also 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” which is believed to have been built on top of the Foundation Rock).

The Western Wall is often mistaken as the holiest site in Judaism, but it 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 site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is considered the third-holiest shrine (after Mecca and Medina). They believe Muhammed was miraculously transported from Mecca to the mosque in one night, before ascending to heaven. 

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.

“The Temple Mount is in our hands”

When it comes to the history of this area, one of the most inspiring moments for the Jewish people was when Israel captured the Temple Mount from Jordan in the Six-Day War. This is where things got complicated. 

As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in this article in The Atlantic on this topic, in 1967, after Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol essentially begged Jordan’s leader, King Hussein, not to invade, Hussein ignored this plea, and the Israeli government ordered the iconic Israeli paratroopers to enter the Old City.

As Colonel Motta Gur snaked his way through the alleyways, he declared on the radio, “Har Habayit biyadeinu,” “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” The place where all Jews, regardless of denomination, orientation or ethnicity, faced in prayer was now 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 (who had been in control of the site) and relinquished governance of the site to them, allowing them to decide who can pray there and who cannot.

Halevi drily reminds us that, “The Temple Mount was no longer in Gur’s hands. An unplanned victory ended in a spontaneous concession…In ceding the right of Jews to pray on the Mount, Dayan’s intention was to minimize bloodshed and prevent the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from becoming a holy war.”

Since this moment more than 50 years ago, Jews have not been allowed to pray at the Temple Mount. (However, this status quo appears to be changing, as Israel has started quietly allowing Jewish prayer at the site in recent months, according to reporting by Israel’s Channel 12 News.)

Under the terms of that agreement negotiated by Dayan, the Temple Mount continues to be 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).

Did Dayan make the right decision? “Israelis still vehemently argue over whether Dayan acted with wisdom or weakness,” Halevi explained. See our discussion questions below to engage your students in this debate.

Diversity of perspectives

What do Israelis today think about the issue of Jewish prayer at the site? Should the status quo be maintained, or should Jews have greater access and be able to pray there?

Interestingly, many Orthodox Jews are comfortable with maintaining the status quo: they do not even wish to enter or pray at the Temple Mount. 

In an interview, Eli Duker, who leads tour groups on the Temple Mount, explained that in Jewish law, in order to tread the sacred ground where the ancient Temple stood, one must reach a state of ritual purity that can only be attained through the ashes of a red heifer. A red heifer has not been found in Israel in almost 2,000 years, so it is impossible to reach the necessary level of purity.

Therefore, Duker explained, everyone in the Orthodox community agrees that the area where the Temple once stood is off-limits for Jews.

Seems simple enough, but the problem is that the precise location of where the Temple stood is unknown. According to Duker, it is generally understood that the Holy of Holies, the innermost and most sacred area of the Temple, is where the Dome of the Rock is. “If we work with that assumption, then we can figure out which places are permissible and which places are not,” and can visit the Temple Mount, he said.

However, others are simply not willing to rely on the assumption that the Dome of the Rock is the site of the Holy of Holies and believe that 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. Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef stated, “it is imperative to recall that the pilgrimage to the Temple Mount is forbidden by Jewish law.”

But for Duker and other Orthodox Jews, with the exception of those areas that everyone agrees are “off limits,” Jews ought to be allowed to visit the Temple Mount and pray at their holiest site (after immersing in a mikvah, ritual bath, and walking along a precise route).

Former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren permitted ascension to the Temple Mount according to Jewish law. He himself blew the shofar when Israel captured the Old City in 1967, and he later wrote a halakhic analysis called “Har Habayit” explaining the matter in depth.

The most well-known proponent is former Knesset member Yehuda Glick, who survived an assassination attempt in 2014 after speaking on this topic. Glick 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 do not identify as religious, the Temple Mount remains 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.”

What do Palestinians think about the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount? Ali Awar, a researcher at the Hebrew University who has advised the Palestinian Authority on issues related to Jerusalem, recently told the Religion News Service, “Palestinian people will never accept a foreign presence on the Al-Aqsa compound. It is not only a religious site — it is the sum of all of our national and religious aspirations.”

Awar added that the Palestinians “have already compromised,” noting that Jews pray at the Western Wall.

The Jewish connection to the Temple Mount

In addition to this legal debate on whether Jews should be allowed to visit the Temple Mount, another ongoing issue relates to the Jewish people’s ancient connection to the site and efforts to deny that history.

This issue was raised last year, when Shaina Be Hirsch was visiting the Temple Mount and recounting the history of the Temple in a Facebook Live video. As she was still recording, a Waqf security guard informed Hirsch that it is illegal to say that a temple stood on the Temple Mount. He told her to stop spreading “disrespectful Zionist lies” that there was ever anything there other than a mosque.

Hirsch, who studied archeology of the period at Hebrew University, continued insisting to the guard that there were in fact temples there. She was ultimately detained by the Waqf. 

Reflecting on this experience in a Times of Israel blog post, Hirsch underscored the need for Israelis and Palestinians to recognize one another’s pasts. “How can we talk about a shared future with partners who can’t acknowledge we have a history? And these revisions to history are being accepted more and more,” she wrote, citing U.N. resolutions that ignored Jewish ties to the Temple Mount.

“I am frustrated by how repeating archaeologically proven history can become politically charged — and how easy it is to rewrite. So: learn the history, have the facts, know the truth,” she concluded.

Hirsch’s experience is more than just a random anecdote: There have been alleged attempts to literally erase evidence of historical Jewish ties to the Temple Mount. 

In 2018, an Israeli archeologist charged that hundreds of Muslim volunteers “illegally disturbed and removed archeologically rich earth and ancient stones during a communal cleanup project in the final days of Ramadan” while the site was closed to non-Muslims, according to The Times of Israel.

Video footage of the project “shows volunteers with shovels and rakes…shifting and removing portions of two mounds on the eastern side of the compound made up of earth dumped by the Muslim Waqf custodians during unauthorized excavations since the early 2000s,” The Times of Israel reported.

“Taking advantage of the limited police [presence], and [the] ban of all non-Muslims from the Temple Mount because of Ramadan, these archaeologically rich mounds of earth have been irreconcilably damaged,” the Israeli archeologist, Zachi Dvira, wrote in a blog post at the time. 

“This is a clear violation of the law, a violation of basic morality and respect, and an absolute destruction of the heritage of Jews as well as Christians and Muslims,” he said, adding that this was “a literal attempt to change the facts on the ground.”

The bottom line

As Shaina Be Hirsch wrote, we must all learn this history and better understand why this site is of such great religious and historical significance to the Jewish people. The Beit Hamikdash is one of the most central aspects of Jewish history and liturgy — we pray toward this very place each and every day, three times a day.

Ultimately, we want Jews to respect Muslim history, and we want Muslims to respect Jewish history. We believe that the world is making a massive mistake by passing the recent U.N. resolution and ignoring the intrinsic and fundamental connection of the Jewish people and Judaism to this area. Erasing history is no way to cultivate a peaceful future.