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Judenrein or Judaized? A false choice for the Temple Mount

The conflict over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount has been a sticking point in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for nearly 15 years. But as time goes on, it becomes clearer that the zero-sum game between Muslims and Jews is but a grim reflection of the reality of the occupation.

By Nicholas Saidel

Palestinian visitors from the West Bank break their fasting at Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem, July 15, 2013. (Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

Imagine religious Jewish and Muslim pilgrims praying together at a shrine venerated by both communities. Imagine Jewish and Muslim custodians of the shrine working cooperatively to preserve the site and its religious artifacts, and to ensure that all who come for worship can do so freely and without fear for their safety. This may all sound surreal to those following the Temple Mount controversy which is once again simmering, yet this example of harmonious co-existence was the reality for many centuries during medieval times in places such as the Prophet Ezekiel’s shrine in Kifl, Iraq.

The Temple Mount, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 War yet is administered by the Jordanian Islamic Waqf, is arguably the holiest site in all of Judaism. It is the ground upon which the First and Second Temples – for over 1,000 years the epicenter of all Jewish life – once stood. For Muslims, the courtyard is called the Noble Sanctuary, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, both of which are interwoven into the tale of Muhammad’s night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem on his winged steed al-Buraq, and ultimately, his ascension to heaven. While Jews are allowed to tour the grounds of the Temple Mount, the Waqf has imposed a ban on Jewish prayer.

The crux of the current Temple Mount debate is two-fold: should Jews be given the right to pray on the Temple Mount; and what can be done to better protect and preserve Jewish artifacts on the Temple Mount? At first blush, it seems only fair to allow Jews to pray there and to allow Israeli archeologists to care for relics of religious significance. It is, after all, under Israeli control (for now) and Muslims are free to pray there – so why not Jews? Such bizarre circumstances leave one wondering why such ostensibly reasonable requests for equal access and religious rights have gone unmet? What is preventing a solution comparable to Kifl?

In short, these seemingly benign requests are being sullied, fairly or unfairly, by the identity and questionable motives of the activists who seek change – members of the religious-Zionist settler community. The recent spike in Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, and the push in the Knesset for new laws regarding the status of the Temple Mount, is a two-pronged strategy spearheaded by settler rabbis and their representatives and sympathizers in Israel’s right-wing coalition government, (especially in the Jewish Home party and Likud MK Moshe Feiglin). Many of the provocative calls to prayer are made by a messianic organization called the Temple Institute, whose mission is to rebuild the ancient Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount grounds – thereby destroying both the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.

It is in this context that we must view the Waqf’s rejectionist stance regarding Jewish prayer on the Mount, a stance echoed in sentiment by the Palestinian Authority. From their perspective, Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount is a precursor to another land grab by Israel – a precedent ingrained into Palestinian collective consciousness by the continuation of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and the renewed calls for West Bank annexation by the very same voices demanding “fair” treatment for Jews on the Temple Mount. This is in addition to the Palestinian narrative of historical victimization on the Temple Mount and the symbol and imagery of Al-Aqsa as a rallying cry for the Palestinian national movement. This narrative accuses Jews of desecrating the mosque (to be fair, similar accusations are being made by some in Israel regarding the desecration and destruction of Temple artifacts by the Waqf – in effect, a de-Judaization), accuses Israeli archeologists of digging under the Al-Aqsa so that it will collapse, and accuses the IDF of arbitrary age, gender, and geography-based restrictions placed on Muslims attempting to worship on the Temple Mount during Friday prayers.

With this legacy of physical and spiritual encroachment in mind, it is not surprising that there has been an almost-reflexive refusal by Waqf officials to accommodate such dubious requests for “access” to the Temple Mount, especially from those who overtly seek to Judaize most, if not all, of historic Palestine. Given the political climate of distrust and bad faith where any concession in remark or deed is seen as a sign of weakness, it is also no wonder that the Waqf and PA President Mahmoud Abbas venture so far as to publically question whether a Jewish Temple even existed on the Temple Mount. For them, a Temple Mount that is basically Judenrein is better than one that is Judaized – a false choice borne out of the political realities of the Israeli occupation.

It is worth noting that in challenging the status quo of the Temple Mount, these religious-Zionist rabbis and their congregants are also challenging traditional Jewish law concerning worship on the Temple Mount. For a good portion of history, Jews were banned from visiting the Temple Mount, not only because of the anti-Semitic policies of various Christian and Muslim conquerors, but also because of rabbinic decree on the issue, which since the pre-Israel time of Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), who served as Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, proscribes Jewish visitation due to the possibility of the ritually impure walking upon, and thus desecrating, the Holy of Holies – a room housing the Ark of the Covenant where only the high priest may enter on Yom Kippur. This law was confirmed by Israel’s chief rabbinate in 1967 and again in 2013 after incidents involving Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount began to increase. It is illuminating that these settler rabbis will contravene halacha in order to fulfill their expansionist aspirations. Such prioritization of territorial acquisition at the expense of well-established religious law casts these rabbis’ character as apolitical religious figures merely seeking worshipping rights further into doubt.

The current stalemate regarding the Temple Mount is a vivid reminder that peaceful co-existence and the prospect of joint custodianship will remain elusive absent a final and comprehensive peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. A portentous infusion of Jewish ultra-nationalism and religious extremism now looms over the Temple Mount, rendering the chance for a solution comparable to Kifl bleak indeed. That the issue of Temple Mount worship has become a zero-sum game between Muslims and Jews is a grim reflection of the reality of the occupation. Unilateral Israeli moves, led by national-religious extremists, will only result in unnecessary bloodshed and violence on the Temple Mount.

Nicholas Saidel, JD, MA, is the Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania.

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    1. Rehmat

      American archaeologist and author, Professor Dr. Ernest L. Martin (1932-2002) had conducted archaeology work in East jerusalem. In his controversial book ‘The Temples that Jerusalem Forgot’, published in 1999 – Dr. Martin claimed that Muslim sacred places, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of Rock are not built on top of the Temple Mount ruins.


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    2. I am no fan of the Greater Israel settler movement; nor do I think, however, that Judaism is bound by State appointed rabbis. I have no doubt that an upsurge in Jewish prayer on the mount has intentional political aims which in extreme would, as you say, zero sum access in the other direction, against Muslims. Even so, expanding prayer as such does not do this, and I would not force those wanting to pray into an expanded political role they may not (but probably mostly do) want. To force this identity in itself makes worship zero sum.

      I find these Gods very unpleasant. Under some Muslim views religious Jews worship nothing, as they have a malformed notion of God. Under the faith which I believe motivates the settlers who are religious and striving for Greater Israel, YHWH is unique to their people and so Muslims pray to nothing. Generally, if I detail the nature of faith through dogma, I force those deviant into the stance of praying or worshiping nothing. Then let everyone pray to their nothing together.

      Actually, the Qur’an has a way out of this mess. “Vie among yourselves in good deeds, and leave your differences to Me.” (in Suras 3 and 5). The context is Christians, Muslims, and Jews. I read this to say that even Muslims, who protect and venerate the Qur’an, may be wrong, as all differences are left to Him to decide. Our differences are not for us to finalize in punishment or exclusion. It is very sad that this verse seems so little used in todays discourse.

      But none of this alters the probable bloodshed that an exclusive footprint of God will evoke.

      “Man is the Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion– several of them.”

      Mark Twain, 1897

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      • Rehmat


        The “G-d” of Moses, Soloman; “Father” of Jesus – and “Allah” of Muhammad (pbuh) – are all the same.

        Talmud rejects Jesus and Christians; NT curses Jews – but Holy Qur’an pays great respect to Moses, David, Solomon, John the Baptist and Jesus – and mothers of Moses and Jesus (as).

        Holy Qur’an calls the true followers of “Moses Law” and Jesus – Book of People.

        In 2012, Israeli Rabbi Baruch Efrati told a questioner that Jews are permitted to pray in mosque but not in a church as the later houses idols.


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        • Rehmat,

          One of the Three Pillars of Islam is “God is not begotten nor begets,” which facially erases Christianity as worship of God. Coupled with the Sura verse I mentioned before, this means that Muslims must allow this difference with Christians while “vying in good deeds.” I’m all for it, and think this twice present verse one of the great contributions of Islam. But, again, I have yet to see the verse advocated primary for Islam.

          This where you can worship doesn’t interest me as an outsider to these faiths. Fine, ban churches for Muslims (by Muslims), allow synagogues for Muslims (same), ban churches for Jews (by Jews) and anything any faith wants to ban for its own. But do not ban outsider faiths who hold a claim; there is room on the platform which is the Temple Mount.

          As I said, many so praying on the Mount will have other agendas, but I can’t stop them for that. Their present praying is not that agenda actualized. That’s what rights can do: jeopardize those acknowledging the right in another.

          Everyone knows that the Qur’an has unpleasant thing in it. So does Torah. So does the Christian book of Revelations. I’m tired of seeing all three faiths waiving their hands saying these passages are divine and either beyond our understanding or something we must accept for bliss. The words are there. Deal with them. I don’t care about the price you are willing to pay for future utopia.

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    3. Fair and helpful analysis. Why are all the passionately deluded believers unable to understand? Maybe someday, when the Occupation is history….

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    4. ben

      This article would be relevant and make sense if Jews had been able to pray or freely visit the site before the occupation. However, from the building of the mosques and the Islamic shrine on the Mount, the site has been exclusively Islamic. It has nothing to do with the occupation. Religious muslims and every Islamic authority in the world will never agree to sharing custody of the site with Jews or allowing Jewish prayer on the site. This is a religious issue that has nothing to do with the occupation. Even if we reached a situation in which there was a truly democratic and just society in Israel/Palestine without any occupation of any sort, Jews will never be allowed to practice Judaism on the Mount.

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    5. Piotr Berman

      I would be a libertarian here. Wakf owns the land and decides what is permissible there. This is what owning property means.

      A liberal state imposes certain restriction on property owners, like that if you make a site that you own accessible to all white people then it should be accessible to all. But having a spa catering for women (or men) only is presumably OK because it would cater to specific needs of women (or men). I am not a lawyer and it is definitely a complex issue. Religious restrictions in a property dedicated to worship are allowed in all cases where the religion in question is not prohibited. And Sunni Islam is allowed in Israel.

      Mind you, the rights of an owner depend only on the fact of ownership, and have nothing to do with documented or legendary ownership by someone else.

      The framework of property rights and a neutral state does not apply to Israel which is a Jewish State, like Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania and Pakistan are Islamic Republic. In those states Islam is supreme. In some states “Marxist atheism” is supreme. So perhaps in China it is OK for Maoists to go to, say, Taoist temple and conduct some Maoist chants while Taoist prayers could be prohibited from the tomb complex of Mao Zedong. Or perhaps China exhibits some degree of fairness toward religions even though they have inferior status in respect to the official doctrine of the People’s Republic.

      Few people question the right of China to be a People’s Republic, but many more would question the right of China to be Unfair Republic of China. More precisely, the right to be Ridiculously Unfair Republic of China.

      I think that the treatment of Islam and other religions in Israel has many similarities to the way religions are treated in China, e.g. state regulating who can be a priest of a non-state religion. During Cultural Revolution it was quite a bit harsher, but now People’s Republic assert a more benign aspect. Should the Jewish State of Israel position itself as more, less or about as fair as the People’s Republic today? We can ask the same about China.

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      • Piotr Berman

        Sorry, I forgot to type “prior [ownership]” in the sentence “the rights of an owner depend only on the fact of ownership, and have nothing to do with documented or legendary ownership by someone else”

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    6. jjj

      Interesting article, though it forces the occupation into the discussion, whereas the issue is far beyond it.
      The Wakf would have the entire land between the Jordan river and the sea Judenreihn, for all it cares. The fact it has limited jurisdiction enables it to apply this policy on its own area.
      The reason the Wakf denies it is more profound that what you’ve suggested. The reason is that recognizing any Jewish history here gives some merit to the Zionist state.

      And indeed, I hope Remhat is correct, and the actual temple mount is some place else, but until then, the Wakf should let archeologists, of any nationality, conduct their work for peaceful investigation of the past, be it Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or other. This benefits all mankind, and not just the Jews.
      As for prayers, I am sure that with good will, there can be a way.
      Perhaps this would also come up in the negotiations between PA and IL.

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    7. been there

      Muslims are not “free to pray” at Temple Mount..they are not even free to enter Jerusalem from the West Bank or Gaza, and those who reside in Jerusalem are subjected to restrictions by age. Nor are Palestinian Christians in the West Bank or Gaza free to reach their holy sites in Jerusalem. All movement is tightly and cruelly controlled by the Israeli military.

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    8. Jarkow even admitted to a certain fondness for the charlatan.

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    9. Richard Witty

      The dilemma is that these are new times. The past of Jewish law is interesting preamble, but not the determinant of the present.

      It is a significant discussion, too often censored by very convoluted prerequisites.

      It comes down to whether the essence of Judaism is privilege, or of purpose, of service.

      This article speaks of the Solomonic logic wonderfully. Solomon was not a universalist though in the sense of magically applying universalistic values.

      He did regard his mission seriously, with a profoundly different vision than David’s warring and conquering.

      I spoke at a chasidic gathering in Israel (my son’s wedding, little did they know who they were honoring).

      I stated that there is no need to develop any political ideology based on fear of annihilation. That those times are past.

      That NOW is the time of Solomon, not the time of David, not the time of Joshua.

      Reply to Comment