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To Pray or Not to Pray on the Temple Mount?

 
Filed under: Jerusalem
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

To Pray or Not to Pray on the Temple Mount?
A small minyan of Jews praying on the Temple Mount on Tisha B’Av with police presence, July 18, 2021 (Im Tirtzu)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 21, No. 11

  • Religious practices on the Temple Mount have relied upon the long-standing status quo established by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1967, as well as the “Kerry Understandings” with Israel, reached with the Israeli government and Jordan in 2015. The status quo forbids prayer by Jews on the Mount.
  • On July 18, 2021, Tisha B’Av in the Hebrew calendar, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a statement on “freedom of worship” pertaining to Jews on the Temple Mount that was seen as changing the status quo. The Prime Minister’s Office then clarified on July 19 that Jews would only be permitted to visit the area. Thus, the question is now whether limited and informal prayers by Jews there will continue as in recent years.
  • The past four years have seen a series of blatant and significant violations of the status quo by the Muslims: the building and use of three new mosques on the Mount; the curtailment of the places and times of visitation for Jews; the failure to enforce laws on planning, building, and antiquities on the Mount; the closure of the Cotton Merchants’ Gate and the Chain Gate to Jews, and more.
  • Recent years have seen a dramatic rise in Jewish visits to the Temple Mount, from 5,000 to 35,000 per year. By comparison, there are ten million Muslim visits to the site each year. During the same period, the police have allowed Jewish individuals, groups, and minyans (a quorum of ten) to pray in the eastern part of the Mount, but without prayer books, Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, or phylacteries (tefillin).
  • As part of President Trump’s proposed peace plan, an item was included intending to ensure future freedom of worship on the Temple Mount for both Jews and Muslims. It stated that: “Jerusalem’s holy sites should remain open and available for peaceful worshippers and tourists of all faiths. People of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion, taking into account the times of each religion’s prayers and holidays, as well as other religious factors.”

The July 18 announcement by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on “freedom of worship” on the Temple Mount for members of all faiths—meaning also Jews—and his rapid retreat from that declaration are an outcome of a 54-year-old practice that all Israeli governments have upheld over the years concerning Jewish rights on the Mount.

This practice rests on a clear distinction between the right to visit, which can be exercised, and the right to pray, which is significantly more restrictive. The past four years have seen a series of blatant and significant violations of the status quo by the Muslims: the building and use of three new mosques on the Mount; the curtailment of the places and times of visitation for Jews; the failure to enforce laws on planning, building, and antiquities on the Mount; the closure of the Cotton Merchants’ Gate and the Chain Gate to Jews, and more.1  Simultaneously, the prohibition on Jewish prayer on the Mount was relaxed slightly.

The change occurred during the tenure of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (2015-2020) and Jerusalem District Police Commissioner Yoram Halevi. Those years saw a dramatic rise in Jewish visits to the Temple Mount, from about 5,000 to about 35,000 per year. Although this was indeed a considerable increase of approximately 800%, the gap between the number of Jews and Muslims visiting the Mount was still immense, with about ten million Muslim visits compared to a few tens of thousands of Jews annually.

Eid al-Adha prayers on the Temple Mount
An estimated 100,000 Muslims attended Eid al-Adha prayers on the Temple Mount/al Aqsa Mosque Plaza on July 20, 2021. (Arab press)

In recent years, for the first time, Jews have been allowed to pray in the eastern part of the Mount—primarily as individuals. Sometimes they were also allowed to pray in groups. In the last two years, small minyans have been organized on the Mount for the morning and afternoon prayers, though without prayer books, Torah scrolls, phylacteries (tefillin), and prayer shawls. These prayers have been conducted with the knowledge of the police, who did not prevent them and have even provided security for the worshippers.

Jews on the Temple Mount
Screenshot of a small minyan of Jews on the Temple Mount with police presence in February 2021. (Srugim)

Meanwhile, officially, Israel continues to uphold the status quo, which forbids Jews to pray on the Mount. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated that point several times. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan likewise adhered to the status quo, although more than once, he expressed dissatisfaction with it and the hope that it would change in the future.

The regulations, which for years barred Jews from praying on the Temple Mount, were formulated by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan soon after the Six-Day War.2 They were never made official, and the government decision was vaguely worded and circumspect. The decision, as initially approved by the Ministerial Committee for Holy Places, stated that when Jews came to the Temple Mount wanting to pray there, they would be directed to the Western Wall.

The vagueness of the wording afforded considerable flexibility to the police in enforcing the prohibition on Jewish prayer and with regard to the exercise of the Jewish right to visit the site. There were years when the ban on prayer was rigorously enforced, and visitors were prohibited from moving their lips (unlike today), and years in which visits by Jews to the Mount were sharply restricted, with the police sometimes allowing no more than nine Jews (less than a minyan) to be on the Mount at the same time. Only when one such group left was another group allowed to enter the site.

Over the years, the status quo has seen fluctuations—particularly, as noted, on the Muslim side—and now it is doubtful that it can still be called a “status quo.” The banning of prayer by Jews, however, was upheld punctiliously—until about four years ago.

Riots Shook the Royal Throne

In October 2015, for the first time, the issue of the status quo on the exercise of Jewish rights on the Mount was dealt with in an official context. Against the backdrop of a series of clashes between security forces and Muslim rioters on the Temple Mount, senior Jordanian and Israeli officials expressed concern that the riots would destabilize the Jordanian royal family’s rule. The riots occurred at the height of a wave of stabbings and other terror attacks in Israel. Many of the terrorists were provoked by the widespread libel among Palestinian radicals that the “Al-Aqsa Mosque was in danger”.3   Senior Israeli police officials went to Jordan to confer with their counterparts, and then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry came to the region to mediate. The results were the “Kerry Understandings,” which were reached after talks between the U.S., Israel, and Jordan.

These understandings are key to understanding Bennett’s modification of his initial announcement after Jordan and the United States intervened. The Kerry understandings included four items:

  • Then-Prime Minister Netanyahu affirmed to Kerry that Israel respected Jordan’s special role in Jerusalem as defined in the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, including King Abdullah’s historic role as “Guardian of the Islamic holy places” in Jerusalem.
  • Netanyahu assured Kerry that Israel would continue to enforce its long-standing policy on prayer on the Temple Mount, allowing Muslims to pray there and non-Muslims only to visit the site.
  • Netanyahu then declared that Israel had no intention to divide the Mount and totally rejected any claim that it sought to do so.
  • Netanyahu welcomed the increased cooperation between Israel and Jordan on the Mount, aimed at ensuring that the visitors and worshippers there acted with restraint and respect for the holy places.

Essentially, there was nothing new in the understandings worked out by Kerry, which reflected an existing state of affairs. Nevertheless, they were of great significance, marking the first time that the State of Israel announced that Jews would visit the Mount and Muslims will pray on it. On the other hand, this was the only time both the United States and Israel publicly announced, with silent Jordanian consent, that Jews could visit the Temple Mount but not pray there.

The Kerry understandings made what had been informal a bit more formal. Israel indirectly anchored the prohibition on Jewish prayer, which was portrayed for many years as a police injunction aimed at maintaining public order, into understandings with Jordan and Secretary of State Kerry. At the same time, although the Jewish state did not formally relinquish Jewish rights to pray on the Temple Mount in a binding, bilateral treaty, it appeared to forgo the exercise of that right for the foreseeable future.

The Trump Peace Plan Proposed Freedom of Worship for Both Jews and Muslims

Toward the end of Donald Trump’s tenure as president, as part of the “Deal of the Century,” an item was included intending to ensure future freedom of worship on the Temple Mount for both Jews and Muslims.4 This item states, among other things, that:

Jerusalem’s holy sites should remain open and available for peaceful worshippers and tourists of all faiths. People of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion, taking into account the times of each religion’s prayers and holidays, as well as other religious factors.

In any case, both in the Trump period and the Biden period, the reality of more Jewish visitors on the Mount and the pressure they exert has had its effect. Albeit under many restrictions, prayers have been held on the Mount with the consent of the police for the first time.

It may be that Prime Minister Bennett’s initial announcement on preserving freedom of worship (i.e., prayer) for members of all faiths on the Mount reflected a desire to anchor an existing reality in an official statement. If that indeed was the case, then it was a mistake. It could lead to a situation where what was informally allowed on the Mount is no longer allowed—particularly in the coming months.

Immediately after Bennett issued his announcement, Jordan harshly protested to Israel and asked the United States to address Israel on the matter. The conversation between the sides included mention of the Kerry Understandings. A statement was then issued making clear that the new announcement had been a misunderstanding and that there was no change in the status quo on the Temple Mount concerning Jews, who were only permitted to visit and not to pray there.

Against the backdrop of Bennett’s rapid correction, the Ra’am Party, part of Israel’s governing coalition, together with the Southern Branch of the Israeli Islamic Movement, which Ra’am represents politically, issued a joint statement. It warned of repercussions if a change in the status quo allowed Jews to pray on the Mount, and  warned of a “break-in to the Al-Aqsa Mosque by settlers and members of Knesset.” Through unofficial channels, Ra’am admonished Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, warning that it could not remain as a partner in the coalition if Bennett adhered to his statement on freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount. Ra’am underlined “the importance of Al-Aqsa, as an exclusively Muslim place,” comprising all 144 dunams of the Temple Mount compound, including the walls.

Ra’am and the Southern Branch adopted the terminology of radical Islamic elements on this issue, notwithstanding the fact that in the past, including during the period of Jordanian rule on the Mount, a clear separation was made between the area occupied by the Al-Aqsa Mosque itself, as well as the Dome of the Rock shrine, and the additional parts of the compound—the Temple Mount plaza and the walls (including the Western Wall, the main site of Jewish prayer).

Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev of the Labor Party expressed chagrin over Prime Minister Bennett’s declaration. It was modified primarily because of the intervention by Jordan and the United States, which obtained assurances from Israel that the familiar, existing situation on the Temple Mount would not be altered.

* * *

Notes

1 Regarding violations of the status quo by Muslims, see Nadav Shragai, Al-Aqsa Terror: From Blood Libel to Bloodshed (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Sela Meir, 2020), 96-97 (Hebrew).

2 See Nadav Shragai, The Temple Mount Conflict (Jerusalem: Keter, 1995), 15─27 (Hebrew).

3 See Shragai, Al-Aqsa Terror, 35─63.

4 See https://jcpa.org.il/article/%D7%94%D7%90%D7%9D-%D7%AA%D7%90%D7%95%D7%A9%D7%A8-%D7%AA%D7%A4%D7%99%D7%9C%D7%AA-%D7%99%D7%94%D7%95%D7%93%D7%99%D7%9D-%D7%A2%D7%9C-%D7%94%D7%A8-%D7%94%D7%91%D7%99%D7%AA (Hebrew).