How the Far-right Changed the Debate Over the Temple Mount

Plus, some talking points for the left.

Olivier Fitoussi

The success of right-wing activist Yehuda Glick and the Temple Mount movement in recent years stems in part from the change Glick led in the discourse about the Mount. Instead of fiery threats to blow up the mosques and build the Temple, Glick argued the right to worship as a human right. His main point: It is inconceivable for a Jew not to be able to pray at the site most sacred of all to Jews, and that Jews who visit the Temple Mount are considered unwanted guests and are closely scrutinized, prohibited from conduct considered provocative, and first and foremost prohibited from praying.

Glick was wise enough to uncover the absurdity created at the Temple Mount, where people are arrested because they mumbled a prayer, moved to the rhythm of prayer or, perish the thought, knelt at the holy place. Raised awareness of the status quo and Glick’s argument placed no small challenge on the doorstep of spokespeople of the left, who were forced to defend a policy on the Mount that discriminates against people because of their religion – in this case, Jews.

But a number of counter-arguments can be made. The first and most common is the danger of changing the status quo. History has repeatedly shown, from 1929 through 1996 and 2000, that the Temple Mount is an incendiary focal point and that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is a unifier of the secular and the religious, the right and the left, in Palestinian, Arab and Muslim politics. While there is demagoguery and incitement in some Palestinian discourse surrounding the Mount, which Muslims worship as the Noble Sanctuary, it does not change the fact that any attempt to alter the status quo will almost certainly lead to bloodshed and a diplomatic debacle with the Muslim countries and the rest of the world.

Zionism and the Mount

The second argument has to do with Zionism. In response to Knesset coalition chairman MK Yariv Levin, Tomer Persico wrote in Haaretz that “as long as Jews lived in the Diaspora and prayed for Zion and Jerusalem, they continued to live in the Diaspora and pray. Only when they began to dream of Tel Aviv and of building the Knesset did they arise and build a state.”

Indeed, one can claim that framing the Temple Mount as the object of Zionism’s desire is a distortion of Zionism’s values. From Herzl, who preferred Haifa over Jerusalem, to Moshe Dayan, who gave the keys to the Temple Mount to the Waqf, the leaders of Zionism preferred to keep the Temple Mount outside national aspirations.

At most, it was the Western Wall that played a role in the national vision, and despite the change in attitude toward the Western Wall, as opposed to the Temple Mount. A survey conducted by the umbrella organization of Temple Mount activist groups found that 66 percent of Israeli Jews still regard the Western Wall as the most sacred place for Jews, as opposed to 29 percent who regard the Temple Mount as such.

The third argument involves Judaism. Contemporary Judaism is a religion that developed over the past 2,000 years, and is based on the absence of a Temple. This is not an edict of fate that Judaism learned to live with; the absence of a Temple is in many ways the backbone of rabbinic Judaism, which is an entirely different religion than priestly Judaism, from Second Temple times. In his book “The End of Sacrifice,” Guy G. Stroumsa shows how around the first century C.E., the custom of offering animal sacrifices at the altar ended, not only among the Jews but also in the Roman creed and in the new religion, Christianity. A return to this custom would be a cultural and religious step backward 2,000 years – before halakha (Jewish religious law), the rabbis, the Mishna and the Talmud.

The Mount in earthly Jerusalem

The fourth argument, and in my opinion the strongest, is that the Temple Mount must once again be connected to its surroundings. To hear the Israeli debate, one might think the Temple Mount is located in outer space, or at the very least in West Jerusalem, over which no one challenges Israel’s sovereignty. But the Temple Mount is a real place, located between the village of Silwan and the Old City’s Muslim and Jewish quarters. Annexing the Temple Mount and East Jerusalem to the State of Israel is not a fait accompli, as one might suppose listening to the Israeli media. And although there are many who recognize the Jewish relationship to the Temple Mount, there is not one country that recognizes Israel’s right to sovereignty over it.

That is also the case with regard to the vast majority of those who go to visit the Mount and those who live in the neighborhoods nearby. Thus any step to change the status quo on the Temple Mount must, in terms of international law and morality, be part of a dialogue with the Palestinians, that very dialogue that the prime minister has been avoiding for many years.