The meeting at the Kahane beit midrash in Jerusalem last week.
The meeting at the Kahane beit midrash in Jerusalem last week. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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For quite some time, Temple Mount activists have been barred, one after the other, from the mount in Jerusalem's Old City, uncertain whether they will be permitted to return. The reason for their stay-away order is the same: conducting Jewish prayer services at the site - from mumbling verses while appearing to have a conversation to actual prostration when officials from the Waqf, the custodians of the mount, are not looking. In most cases the activists accept the judgment, but a police decision last Wednesday to permanently bar the man considered their spiritual leader - the head of the Temple Institute, Rabbi Yisrael Ariel - was for them the last straw.

Last week, in a small beit midrash (study hall) named after Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem's Shmuel Hanavi neighborhood, an emergency meeting was convened to discuss instigating freedom of religion and worship on the Temple Mount. It was a closed meeting attended by representatives of the Temple Institute, HaTenu'ah LeChinun HaMikdash (the Movement to Rebuild the Holy Temple) and the Temple Mount Faithful, as well as two representatives of Women for the Mikdash, and others. The activists met to try to understand how they could overcome the authorities, who they believe are plotting against them, and return to the Temple Mount. At this meeting, Haaretz was offered a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of the most ardent activists in the battle to Judaize the Temple Mount.

At the session, a signal was given and the activists burst into fervent song in honor of Rabbi Ariel, who sat among them and clapped. He told of the ban on his entering the mount, which he said was a result of a prayer he uttered there on Jerusalem Day, and his recent summons for police questioning. "The summons is signed by one Sa'ad. You call them up and some Mustafa answers, you show up there and Ahmed's waiting for you," he told the activists, smiling. "I'm just relating the facts. There's something here that intensifies the pain. We're under Arab rule. This is a serious matter that people should be aware of." Everyone present looked at him admiringly. Most of them also had been barred from the Temple Mount.

'Evil decree'

In 1987, Rabbi Ariel established the Temple Institute out of a desire to prepare for the day when he believes the Messiah will come and the Temple will be rebuilt. Consequently, for more than 20 years he has been working diligently on building vessels for the Temple and sewing garments for the high priest. There is no real difference between the Temple Institute, HaTenu'ah LeChinun HaMikdash and the Temple Mount Faithful, and the other two organizations are also working tirelessly toward the hoped-for day. As part of their activities these organizations sought to dismiss yeshiva heads and rabbis who oppose prayer service on the Temple Mount, contacted the Italian government with a request for the return of the Temple vessels Titus took from the Jews, and announced that they had found a kosher red heifer (for use in purification ceremonies ). The rejoicing, incidentally, turned out to be premature.

"There is a worrying phenomenon that is steadily gaining ground," said Yehuda Glick, chairman of The Temple Mount Heritage Foundation, referring to the banning of the activists from the Temple Mount. He believes those responsible are Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch (Yisrael Beiteinu), the leader of that party - Avigdor Lieberman, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "who is aware of this policy and is allowing it to continue ... they didn't let [right-wing activist Yosef] Elboim and [activist Eliezer] Breuer enter the Temple Mount. If those Knesset members would have fought the way they did for [social-justice protest leader] Daphni Leef perhaps we might not have reached this point."

Elboim, the secretary of HaTenu'ah LeChinun HaMikdash and the most senior figure barred from the Temple Mount, sat opposite him and was quiet most of the time. Occasionally he tried to refine a point raised by someone else, all with the aim of preventing the "evil decree" from taking effect, and bringing the activists back to the Temple Mount. "Is it possible to get the chief rabbi to issue a halakhic ruling?" he asked the person who suggested a din torah (rabbinic legal decision ) against the Chief Rabbinate for speaking out against visiting the Temple Mount. "We had many other High Court of Justice motions that were better and we lost, so will we win this one?" he questioned in response to a suggestion of suing people in senior positions connected to the barring of activists from the Temple Mount.

Elboim himself was barred from the mount around a year ago, after he called on the right-wing pirate radio station Arutz Sheva for the establishment of a kollel (yeshiva for married men ) on the mount. He left the meeting feeling encouraged.

Winning card

In 1990, after Muslims became concerned that the Temple Mount Faithful would come to lay the cornerstone for the Third Temple - as they had several times in the past - the muezzin of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the mount called on the thousands of worshippers there to defend the site against such a move. This led to what became known as the Temple Mount riots, in which 17 Palestinians were killed and several Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall were injured. The riots led to a serious toughening of the police stance regarding the Temple Mount, but it did not stop attempts by the various right-wing organizations to restore a full Jewish presence there.

After about an hour-and-a-half of discussions in the Rabbi Kahane study hall the potential winning card was laid: a documented December 2011 statement by the Temple Mount officer, Chief Superintendent Avi Biton, during a court hearing. "There are no procedures regarding the entry of visitors to the Temple Mount," Biton said. "There are procedures and rules that are unwritten." These procedures, he explained, are determined based on the situation at a given time and are passed on ad-hoc to the security staff on the mount.

Temple Mount activists hope this will work in their favor. Attorney Aviad Visoly, who has been working with the activists, explained at the meeting, a moment after he instructed the activists on what to do if arrested and summoned for questioning, "it is inconceivable that there be a situation where it is dangerous to pray all the time. All of their claims of violations of procedures are a lot of nonsense after all; there are no procedures!" He believes this allows for the possibility of suing the police force and its leaders. "We must wear out the system," he said. Visoly suggested setting up a fund for personal lawsuits that would enable activists to file endless suits, individual and class actions, against organizations and people responsible for what happens on the Temple Mount. "It's clear to me that if we file a wave of lawsuits it will wear them down," he said. "This is what wipes them out the most - the summons to give testimony and the questionings. They hate it." The activists nodded in agreement.

National Union MK Michael Ben Ari, the parliamentary hope in the matter, suddenly appeared in the doorway. Unfortunately, he said despairingly after he sat down, he was not the bearer of good news that day. "Don't look at me here as a Knesset member; I have less power than you. I can only shout, curse, but nothing will change. We are treading water. I don't see any kind of stir surrounding the issue of the Temple Mount. This issue is dead and it's not even a death that will spur others to action. It's a forgotten issue." A change in attitude, he said, would only come after a critical mass had formed - a large number of activists who will visit the Temple Mount every day to wear down the system.

"What about the State Control Committee?" someone asked. There was a momentary spark in the eyes of the people at the meeting. One said: "Let's get [the committee chairman and National Union Knesset member] Uri Ariel to make the police provide some answers at last." But Ben Ari was quick to dampen the enthusiasm. "It won't help. Life goes on as usual," he said. In the end it was decided that he would work in the coming weeks to convene a special Knesset session on Jewish prayers on the Temple Mount.

"Maybe we will arrange some kind of protest vigil," said Elboim's son, who had stood quietly at the back until then. But this suggestion was also rejected outright. "We organized an international conference across from the Old City walls and a handful of people came," Glick said. "If only a few people come again we will have made a joke of ourselves. It's probably better not to do anything." But Prof. Hillel Weiss wasn't so sure: "It depends on the extent of the provocation."