Why is support for ‘freedom of worship for Jews’ on the Temple Mount so controversial?

Bennett’s statement deserves support, but it will have diplomatic and political repercussions. If he backs down, the consequences will involve more than the right to prayer at a holy site.

Israeli security forces guard as a group of Jewish visitors on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, during Tisha B'Av, July 18, 2021. Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90
Israeli security forces guard as a group of Jewish visitors on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, during Tisha B'Av, July 18, 2021. Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Maybe it was just the product of the ongoing civil war between the different political parties on the Israeli right. Or maybe it was just time that an Israeli prime minister said something that, in a saner world, wouldn’t be considered controversial. But whatever motivated Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to speak of Israeli security forces and police acting to maintain order on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount after Arab disturbances while also “maintaining freedom of worship for Jews” at the sacred site, it was a first and, in the eyes of many in his own country’s foreign policy and security establishment, something that could be a dangerous mistake that will lead to violence.

Bennett’s statement, made on Tisha B’Av—the day on the Jewish calendar that commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples that existed on the Mount—was an eye-opener for a number of reasons. But it came in the context of what appears to be a shift in policy by the new government in that, for the first time since the city was unified in 1967, it is acknowledging that Jews are being allowed to pray at the holiest place in Judaism.

After an illegal Jordanian occupation that lasted from 1948 to 1967, Israel took control of the Temple Mount when it unified Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. Israeli rule meant that for the first time in its modern history, there was complete freedom of worship at all the holy places in Jerusalem. Prior to 1948, the British—and before them, the Turks—had maintained a status quo that established Jews as second-class citizens with respect to prayer at many holy places. During the Jordanian occupation, Jews were forbidden to pray at the Western Wall, let alone the Temple Mount.

But the one exception to that rule after June 1967 was on the Temple Mount where Jews were, in theory, allowed to visit, but forbidden to pray. Then Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan decided, in a gesture intended to help keep the peace, to allow the Muslim Waqf to maintain control over the Temple Mount. Those Jews who did visit were often harassed by Arabs, including police, who were vigilant against any behavior that might be construed as prayer.

That was a policy that was not challenged by any Israeli government, including those led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even though the coalition that has succeeded him is still to some extent claiming, as Netanyahu’s governments always did, that there has been no change in the status quo.

Dayan’s surrender of the Temple Mount has been criticized bitterly over the years, not least because it allowed the Muslim religious authorities to engage in vandalism on the site when they undertook construction projects that essentially trashed the treasure trove of historical artifacts that existed underneath mosques built on the site of the two temples.

The ban on prayer was maintained because Israeli governments feared that Palestinian Arab leaders would use any gesture towards acknowledging the Mount’s holiness to Jews, as well as to the Muslims who worshipped at the mosques there, to justify violence. Since the beginning of the conflict a century ago, leaders such as Haj Amin el-Husseini, the pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, PLO leader Yasser Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas have attempted to gin up violence and hate by claiming that the Jews are planning to blow up the mosques.

Palestinians have consistently treated any acknowledgment of Jewish rights to the Mount as an intolerable insult to all of Islam—an unreasonable stand that has nevertheless been supported by the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. Even the supposedly “moderate” Abbas hasn’t hesitated to play that card, vowing that the “filthy feet” of Jews would not be allowed to defile Jerusalem’s holy places during the so-called “stabbing intifada” in 2015 and 2016.

This appalling incitement was largely accepted by Netanyahu as a reason to maintain the status quo. He not unreasonably believed that the alternative was a bloody religious conflict that would undermine Israel’s efforts to normalize relations with the rest of the Arab world and provide fodder for the Jewish state’s critics in the West.

That decision was easy to stand by as long as the Israeli public was largely indifferent to Jewish rights on the Mount. That was backed up by the opinion of some in the Orthodox world that held that Jews should stay off the Mount since the exact location of the Temple’s Holy of Holies was unknown and thereby avoid profaning a place that only the High Priest was allowed to enter while it still existed. But in recent years, more support for the rights of Jews to pray on the Mount has been building, especially among the right-wing and religious parties.

It appears that some Jewish prayer has been going on in the last two years. In 2019, there was a report that some Jews were praying aloud there regularly in a minyan conducted openly without police interference. But the abridged informal services being held did not involve participants wearing prayer shawls or tefillin, so it somehow escaped much notice. But once Israel’s Channel 12 news reported the policy shift on Saturday night, it was enough to prompt violence from Arabs.

At this point, it remains to be seen what the implications of that shift and Bennet’s public expression of support for “freedom of worship for Jews” on the Mount—words that never passed the lips of Netanyahu during his 12 years in power, despite his being labeled as a hardline right-winger in the international press—will be.

It’s possible that Abbas and his Hamas rivals, whose firing of 4,000-plus rockets and missiles into Israel in May was rationalized as an expression of opposition to Israeli policies in Jerusalem, will use it to escalate the conflict again. Arab states, including those with relations with Israel, such as Jordan, whose King Abdullah is visiting Washington this week, will also feel obliged to make an issue of it as well, possibly endangering the normalization of relations with the Gulf States.

Nor is anyone expecting the United States—let alone, Europe—to express support for the right of Jewish worship on the Temple Mount.

That will create problems for Bennett and the incongruous coalition he leads. He will likely be pressured to walk back his statement from both Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and the Ra’am Arab party that provides the government with its slim majority.

Whatever the cost he must pay for having said those words, Bennett cannot take them back without doing incalculable damage to himself and Israel.

This dispute is dismissed by some as an unnecessary conflict that is harming Israel’s security merely to satisfy the wishes of extremists. But the Palestinian claim that Jews have no rights on the Temple Mount is inextricably linked to their unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish presence and sovereignty anywhere in the country.

That Abbas and his “moderates” claim there were no Temples on the Mount or the historical nature of the Jewish claims to this land isn’t merely rhetoric that enables them to compete with Hamas. It goes to the heart of their long war against Zionism that they still refuse to renounce. A Jewish state that would officially renounce Jewish rights on the Mount would be sending a message to the Palestinian street that the extremist belief that Israel will disappear isn’t a pipe dream that they must abandon if they want a peaceful future.

Those who are still trying to pressure Israel to accept a two-state solution that the Palestinian Authority has repeatedly made clear it has no interest in pursuing need to understand that peace can’t be built on the denial of Jewish rights, especially in Jerusalem.

Israel has no desire to interfere with the mosques on the Temple Mount or stop Muslim (or any) worship there. Those who circulate this lie, whether among the Palestinians or their American cheerleaders, like Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), are opponents of peace, not people working for co-existence. That even some of those who claim to be Israel’s friends think it is reasonable to deny “freedom of worship” for Jews at their most sacred site are giving unwitting aid and comfort to the very extremist forces that make peace impossible.

The world’s tolerance for Palestinian intolerance and anti-Semitism that finds expression in a denial of Jewish rights to the Temple Mount has helped enable the conflict over Israel’s existence to linger on long after it should have been abandoned by its foes. By taking a position on the Temple Mount, Bennett has done something that should have been done by his predecessors decades ago. Having chosen to take a stand on the issue, he dare not retreat from it lest he justify his opponents’ belief that he hasn’t the right stuff to maintain his principles or his government.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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