The number of religious Jews who visited the Temple Mount in 2017 rose by 75 percent compared to 2016. The Yeraeh organization, which encourages ascent to the Temple Mount, reported that 25,628 Jews went up to the compound last year, compared to 14,626 the year before. In 2014 and 2015, about 11,000 Jews ascended to the Temple Mount each year. In 2009, the figure was only 5,658 Jews.
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The Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem, is the holiest site in Judaism. A fierce debate has raged for generations over whether according to Jewish law Jews are even allowed to set foot on the Temple Mount itself.
Estimates are that about half of these visits recorded are of people who visited more than once last year, so the actual number of Jews who made such visits is probably about half size of the numbers Yeraeh has reported.
The explanation for the steep increase in numbers is partly attributed to the calmer security situation in Jerusalem in general, and on the Temple Mount in particular – especially over the past two years. In addition, the police have changed their policy concerning visits to the compound.
“Three years ago, when you came to the Temple Mount you knew you were coming to a battlefield. You knew you would be shouted at when you arrived. Today a Jew who ascends to the [Temple] Mount feels he is welcome,” said Assaf Fried, spokesman for an association of organizations for Jewish rights on the Temple Mount.
The increase has come as a result of the relative calm but also because senior police officials, including Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich and the commander of the Jerusalem District, Maj. Gen. Yoram Halevy, along with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, have introduced new policies easing the restrictions on religious Jews visiting the Temple Mount.
For example, in 2017 police cancelled almost all the restrictions on the size of groups allowed up on the Temple Mount. In the past, such groups were limited to only 15 people. Today groups of dozens of people visit. During Hanukkah a group of 93 Jews went up to the Mount. it seems this is the largest group that has visited the site. But police still prevent religious Jews from going up to the Temple Mount individually or outside an organized group accompanied by police officers.
In addition, the number of organized groups from schools, yeshivas, pre-military academies and other institutions has grown. The time taken up by the security checks by police before being allowed on the Temple Mount has also shrunk significantly over the past year, with fewer conflicts with police officers over the ban on Jews praying or prostrating themselves on the Mount.
But despite the relaxed relations between the police and religious Jewish visitors, 86 Jews were detained or arrested on the Temple Mount on suspicion of violating the rules of behavior last year – for example, for praying.
Ongoing changes in religious Jewish society, including in the Haredi community, are reflected in the rising numbers of visitors, says Fried. “The dam burst in the religious, and even Haredi community this year,” he said.