Jerusalem’s Temple Mount Reopens to Jews Post-Ramadan, But Freedom of Worship Remains Elusive at Holy Site
by Joshua Levitt
Jews were free to ascend the Temple Mount on Sunday, in Jerusalem, after a month-long ban expired overnight as Eid al-Fitr parties across the Muslim world celebrated the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The Mount’s Mugrabi Gate was opened between 7:30 AM and 11 AM, and about 500 foreign tourists and 60, or so, local Jews entered the complex, while the Muslim Waqf and Israeli security forces exercised unusual restraint policing visitors, witnesses said, but any outward sign of prayer was still forbidden.
“They actually gave us a little bit of space today,” said Rabbi Richman, director of the Temple Institute, who says he is routinely interrogated whenever he visits. “Sometimes, the intimidation is so aggressive, obtrusive, demeaning, so overbearing, they are literally hanging onto us, looking at our lips, seeing if we’re praying.”
“Of course, we’re able to surreptitiously utter them without them noticing,” the rabbi admitted, “pretending to be on the telephone, or pointing my arms like I’m a tour guide, though I’m saying Tehilim [the Psalms of David] from memory — a Jew can get used to anything.”
Under normal circumstances, Rabbi Richman visits, or attempts to visit, the Temple Mount twice a week. Since 1924, it has officially been open to non-Muslims for four or five hours per day, though it is often closed, as it was for the entire month of Ramadan, with the exception of an hour or so, the day after Tisha B’Av, last month, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the destruction of the ancient Jewish temple. On Tisha B’Av, Jews, including Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, were turned away at the gate. While access has been granted in previous years, for the past two, Jews have been shut out for all of Ramadan.
“The place was covered with garbage today,” Rabbi Richman said. “You have to understand, Ramadan is like Woodstock for them; there’s bottles, plastic, garbage everywhere.”
The rabbi pointed out that while many Muslims may deny Jewish temples ever stood there, the stone column ruins of the actual temple lie in the gutter, collecting Ramadan trash as photographs from the visit showed. “Wood beams that archaeologists and scientists believe would be from the Temple, the original cedar from Lebanon, is also just lying out, covered in trash, like debris from a construction side,” Rabbi Richman said.
During the month-long festivities, one Muslim actually died while posing for a photograph; he fell 90 feet to his death while waving from atop of a Temple Mount wall. Hassan Suliman Abu Madam was among tens of thousands of worshipers who came last Sunday for the Muslim holiday of Laylat al-Qadr, which commemorates the night Muslims believe the Koran was revealed to Mohammed, celebrated annually during Ramadan.
This year being the second Ramadan in which Jews were denied access to the Temple Mount, the issue was probed at a Knesset meeting chaired by MK Miri Regev on Sunday. MK Regev was elected head of the Interior Committee in mid-April and announced that she would lead a field trip to the Temple Mount and examine the possibility of allowing the resumption of Jewish prayer at the holy site. By early-May, she had cancelled the visit.
“The issue of prayer arrangements on the Temple Mount and the holy places is of the utmost sensitivity and it requires a thorough examination,” Regev said, according to the Times of Israel. “That said, if the planned visit has the potential to increase tension, I’m not going to go ahead with it.”
At Sunday’s meeting, a police official testified that their orders are to close the sacred site to Jews at any moment deemed likely to anger Muslim protesters active at the site. The opportunity for further political clarity was lost because the issue depends entirely on the Office of the Prime Minister, but Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu declined to send a representative to the meeting.
While some Jews believe in the power of the ancient temple and see the issue at the core of Jewish identity in the land, part of the purpose of the State of Israel’s establishment, but from the government administration point of view, the existential threat they are preoccupied by is physical — Iran’s nuclear weapons program, lawlessness in the Sinai from the chaos in Egypt, returning 104 convicts to jumpstart negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, now entering round two, in Jerusalem on Wednesday, among them.
What the rabbi is asking is if the root cause of the problem could be the existential threat to Jewish identity created by the dissonance at the Temple Mount, even more reasons to address it now.
It’s still unclear if diplomats will eventually broach the subject in, what Secretary of State John Kerry predicts to be, the nine-months of peace talks, but, day-to-day operations of the religious site actually remain formally out of Israel or PA control.
When Israel won control over the Temple Mount in 1967, victorious soldiers raised the Jewish state’s flag for a few hours, until General Moshe Dayan ordered control be ceded back to the Islamic Waqf Council. The Waqf is under control of Jordan, and recognized as such in the country’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
Under, Article 9, Places of Historical and Religious Significance, it was agreed, most importantly, that: “Each party will provide freedom of access to places of religious and historical significance.”
“In this regard, in accordance with the Washington Declaration, Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem. When negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines. The Parties will act together to promote interfaith relations among the three monotheistic religions, with the aim of working towards religious understanding, moral commitment, freedom of religious worship, and tolerance and peace,” the treaty reads.
In April, King Abdullah II of Jordan also reaffirmed his official understanding with the PA, in an agreement that links today’s authority to a contract signed by the King’s grandfather in 1924.
The current agreement, between “His Majesty King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein, the Custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, and His Excellency Dr Mahmoud Abbas, President of the State of Palestine, Head of Palestinian Liberation Organisation, and President of the Palestinian National Authority,” recognizes Jordanian authority and offers a Koranic claim to the site:
“Glory to Him Who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to Al Masjid Al Aqsa, the environs of which We have blessed, that We might show him of our signs! Indeed He is the Hearing, the Seeing. (The Holy Koran, Al Isra’, 17:1)”
Two weeks ago, in Jordan, the King, while hosting members of allthe interested parties of the Temple Mount, with the exception of the Israeli government, any Israeli MK or any rabbinic authority, pledged “that he will continue his efforts to ‘safeguard’ Islamic and Christian sites in the holy city of Jerusalem from what he termed ‘Judaization,'” Israel National News reported.
According to the report, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal expressed similar sentiments. “Despite challenges facing Jerusalem, the people of the holy city prove every day their persistence to cling to the city’s heritage and preserve its identity from Judaization,” he said.
Sheikh Abdul Atheem Salhab, head of the Islamic Waqf Council in Jerusalem, called Jerusalem and the Al Aqsa Mosque a “red line” for the Jordanian monarch. The head of the Waqf classified “attempts by right-wing ministers in the Israeli government to legitimize Jewish prayers inside Al Aqsa,” as “attacks” on Al Aqsa, Israel National News reported.
At home, in Jordan, the press coverage was even more explicit. The Jordan Times wrote, “The agreement confirmed both Jordan’s role as custodian of the holy sites of Jerusalem and Palestinian sovereignty over all of Palestine, including East Jerusalem,” referencing a statement released by the King’s palace.
To their credit, the Jordanian royal family has historically financed much of the repairs required to maintain the site. In 1955, with funds from Arab governments and Turkey, Jordan led a round of renovations, including replacing tiles dating back to the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. In 1964, Jordan covered the dome with a durable aluminum bronze alloy made in Italy to replaced the lead exterior. Famously, in 1993, around the time of a previous generation of peace talks, King Hussein of Jordan, the current monarch’s father, sold one of his houses in London to raise $8.2 million needed to buy 80 kilograms of gold required to refurbish its dome.
After the July meeting in Jordan, Minister of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs Mohammad Qudah told The Jordan Times that the king would also personally finance a plan to furnish the Dome of the Rock and Masjid Al Marwan, an underground praying area on the southeast side of the mosque.
The Minister said his office was “committed to implementing His Majesty’s vision and directives in preserving Jerusalem and its holy sites and supporting its people’s steadfastness in the face of all Israeli violations and attempts to Judaise the old city and change its identity,” in a statement, cited by Jordan’s English-language newspaper.
Rather than “Judaise” Jerusalem, or crossing what the Waqf would considera “red line” for the Jordanian monarch. Or, in the words of MK Regev, to do anything with even the “potential to increase tension,” the rabbi said he comes in peace.
When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, in 2001, a week later, via the inconvenient mystery death of Mohammed Al-Durah, Palestinians launch a bloody Intifada.
Rabbi Richman said he wants no such thing. His contention is that the Israeli government’s policies are hypocritical by not defending Jewish rights to freely utter a prayer atop the Temple Mount.
He argues that if Jewish people make up most of the inhabitants of Israel, and Jewish people pray three times a day for the restoration of the Temple, the government should, at a minimum, formally insist that Jordan uphold its end of the 1994 bilateral treaty which states that “Each party will provide freedom of access to places of religious and historical significance.”
Ahead of Sunday’s Interior Committee meeting, editorials across the Arab world expressed outrage over the possibility of equal use of the Mount for Jews. In an article headlined, “‘Knesset Today to Discuss Legitimizing the Desecration of Al Aqsa,” Emirates newspaper Khaleej Times reflected on “opening the doors of Al Aqsa Mosque” with disgust. How dare the Jews ask for this “in the face of break-ins and the desecration by Jewish extremists throughout all the days of the month of Ramadan, to come to perform Talmudic rituals and rites in it, returning especially on all the Jewish holidays?” the newspaper argued.
In spite of the distance between the two versions, Rabbi Richman praised MK Regev’s committee for “allocating some time to try to understand the issue, to clarify the current position and pressure the government for a commitment to press for equal rights of Jews to pray at the holy spot, too.”
“How could it be closed to Jews for a month-long Muslim holiday, but then not be closed to Muslims, or even just open to Jews, in honor of Jewish holidays?” Rabbi Richman asks.
“Thousands of Jews will be in Jerusalem next month in Tishrei, for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which is when the Cohen Godel, the ancient priest would actually go into the Holy of Holies, the great rock under the Dome of the Rock, the very same rock where Abraham offered to sacrifice Isaac,” the rabbi said. “Many people would love to visit the Temple Mount on Shabbat Teshuva [Sabbath of Atonement, the Saturday between the two holidays], so I am asking the government to help make it so.”
“There is something wrong for the Jewish people without the Temple; it is the essence of a Jew, and every moment could be so much more real and alive and vibrant and connected if we could just pray there, humbly, as our forefathers did,” the rabbi said.
“Being a Jew is not about the details of Halakah,” the religious rules governing all aspects of life, he said. “It is what we do in this world that is important – are we running towards what we want, or away from it? If Jews say we want to pray at the Temple Mount, then we must demand it.”
“The Temple is our essence. Being the ‘chosen people’ refers to what were chosen for, to be a holy people, a priestly nation. We have to reconnect to what we’re supposed to do in this world,” the rabbi said.
When peace talks begin in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Rabbi Richman will be standing by the Temple Mount, outside the Mugrabi Gate, at 7.30 AM.