Itamar Ben Gvir and the Temple Mount: Conflagration or Empty Commotion?
I. Meet Itamar Ben Gvir
Itamar Ben Gvir, Minister of National Security and leader of the Otzma Yehudit party in the governing coalition, went for a walk at 6 am on Tuesday, January 3.
Accompanied by a small security escort, he strolled for thirteen minutes on what may be the most hotly contested patch of land anywhere. And the world went berserk.
Known as the al Aqsa compound or Haram al Sharif by Muslims, and called the Temple Mount by Jews, the site is the third holiest for Islam and the most sacred to Judaism. The 35-acre complex houses several schools, some residences, prayer houses and, of course, the magnificent gold-topped mosque, known as the Dome of the Rock. The rock upon which the mosque is built, in fact, is believed by all Abrahamic faiths to have been the foundation of Creation.
I am not among those who are taken with Itamar Ben Gvir’s political style or ideology, but I do recognize him to be a very effective leader and communicator. And his political ascension in the past year has been super-nova like.
In the months leading up to the November 1 election, Ben Gvir managed his constituency and messaging brilliantly. Clearly concerned with his strong popularity, then Opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu made a point of distancing himself from Ben Gvir publicly, going so far as refusing to be photographed with the upstart political star at an event they both attended in the final weeks before Israelis went to the polls.
Almost two months after the famous snub and the interminable coalition negotiations, Netanyahu sat beside Ben Gvir in a public area of the Knesset building. As they signed the Likud-Otzma Yehudit coalition agreement, the PM quite theatrically affected discomfort. None of the backslapping and big smiles he lavished on others.
No. With Ben Gvir, Netanyahu was stiff and stone-faced. This performative thing, after all, is his plausible deniability; he had no choice but to include Ben Gvir in his coalition – who is controversial within Israel and abroad – but that doesn’t mean he likes the guy.
II. Itamar Ben Gvir, the Temple Mount and the Middle East
Among Ben Gvir’s controversial views is his belief that all Jews should be free to visit the Temple Mount and to pray there. His decision to take his morning constitutional where he did was, clearly, intended to convey a message to his supporters, nemeses and coalition partners. No one and no thing will cause Itamar Ben Gvir to compromise his principles.
And when it comes to the matter of access to the Temple Mount for Jews, Minister Ben Gvir and I are in total agreement.
From 1948 to ’67, when the Kingdom of Trans-Jordan controlled what has come to be known as the West Bank (Judea and Samaria to many), Jews were prohibited from accessing the Western Wall, a foundational wall that is all that remains of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.. Where the Temple stood is now the site of Al Aqsa and Haram al-Sharif mosques which, from 685-91 C.E., were built atop the ruins of the Jewish house of worship and center of life. This place has remained a fixture of Jewish life – in fact and metaphor – ever since, representing the eternal hope nurtured by Jews to return to their ancient homeland.
When Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967 (after having been attacked by Jordan on its eastern flank) it also assumed oversight of the Temple Mount/al Aqsa compound.
The Western Wall today is enhanced by a grand plaza, befitting its importance for Judaism. Under Jordanian rule it was a fetid alley in a slum neighborhood. The al Aqsa compound is also a magnificent and beautifully kept site, appropriate to its significance. But since 1967, the access and presence of Jews there has been hugely controversial, to many, Non-Muslims, including Jews, are allowed to walk in certain areas of al Aqsa at specific hours, but their access is very limited.
In fairness, even among Jews the issue as to whether or not it is acceptable to visit the al Aqsa compound is hotly contested. Many ultra-orthodox sects consider that after more than 2,000 years of exile we must assume that every single Jewish person is “impure”, according to Jewish law or “halacha”. In light of this uncertainty, some take the view that since we do not know the precise location of the holiest areas of the Second Temple, we dare not risk sullying the sanctity of the site by inadvertently standing atop such spots.
Religious Zionists – like Ben Gvir, and many modern orthodox Jews take a different view; that if they are halachically Jewish in the eyes of the Rabbinate then their presence on the Temple Mount is an act of profound devotion, bringing them as close as is possible to God.
Those who seek this proximity to God believe they should have the right to freely access the Temple Mount and have a designated area in which to pray. Among them is Itamar Ben Gvir.
III. The Temple Mount “Status Quo”: No Jewish Prayer Permitted
It is offensive in the extreme that Jews should be banned from prayer on the Temple Mount/al Aqsa site. Even the Israeli Supreme Court – openly reviled by Ben Gvir and his political allies for being exceedingly activist and liberal in a way that undermines the Jewish character of the state – supports this interpretation. Former Chief Justice, Aharon Barak, stated in a seminal decision in 1993:
“The fundamental point from which we begin here, is that every Jew possesses the right to ascend the Temple Mount, pray there, and commune with his Creator. This is an inherent part of religious freedom.”
Barak, writing for the Court, continues to state that, however, that no rights are absolute and even religious freedom must be managed in light of the prevailing context and, in this particular situation, safeguarding public order; what jurists would refer to as the balancing of rights.
And this, of course, is where things to get sticky.
For many Muslim faith and state leaders, the possibility of allowing Jewish prayer in any part of al Aqsa is unthinkable. Some have said that the mere presence of a Jewish person desecrates the Muslim holy place. There is an entrenched perception that “the Jews” plan to overtake and control al Aqsa and prayer is a pretext and precursor to their ultimate goals. “The Jews are storming al Aqsa” has been a rallying cry for almost one hundred years. In fact, when Ben Gvir walked around the compound recently, many middle eastern leaders repeated this hysterical claim.
There was, of course, no “storming”.
There was, however, an Israeli politician known to have strong views regarding the prohibition on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount whose mere presence is a catalyst for extreme reactions. When Itamar Ben Gvir strolls about he sends an unequivocal message that he, and Israelis who support him, are neither disappearing nor backing down or “modifying” their principles.
It is difficult to imagine the global community supporting the ban of a religious group from worshipping at a site they consider to be central to their faith. Imagine telling Christians that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is meaningless in their faith; telling Muslims the same about Mecca and Medina; telling Catholics the same regarding the Vatican. Unthinkable.
And yet, this is precisely the Jewish conundrum vis a vis the Temple Mount.
For many decades, we have often heard leaders, diplomats and “pundits” bray about Israeli provocations and their breach of the “status quo,” one of those terms that is intoned with gravitas but actually has no clear meaning, historically or presently.
When Muslim youth stockpile Molotov cocktails, rocks and lead pipes on the site and even within the mosques, there is no international outrage expressed regarding their breach of this “status quo” or desecration of the holy site. Same when rioters on the Temple Mount pelt Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, below, with rocks. In fact, there is usually no reaction at all. If there is it tends to be blather about “all parties” exercising “restraint.”
Yet, when Itamar Ben Gvir ascends to the Temple Mount at 6 am we are told that he is “storming” the mosque in preparation to occupy the site. The United Nations Security Council gets lathered up to convene an emergency session in which all manner of incendiary rhetoric regarding the Jewish state is hollered but at the end the attendees leave without even agreeing on a two-line communique. Lots of yelling about “storming”.
Storming. For goodness’ sake.
In the last century, the term “status quo”, when applied to the Temple Mount/al Aqsa “issue” has been used to refer to many different circumstances and “rules”, which are idiosyncratic and shifting. The only consistent aspect of “status quo” is that people of the Jewish faith are not allowed to engage in prayer at the site. Anywhere. At any time. Ever.
In the chaotic period following the Six Day War in 1967, Israel and Jordan agreed that the Jordanian Religious Authority – the Waqf – would continue to oversee all matters regarding religious worship in the al Aqsa compound. This included the continued prohibition of any Jewish person from praying at the site. Israeli military and civilian leadership were somewhat overwhelmed by the scope of their military victory and had no appetite for stoking concerns among neighboring Muslim states that they had nefarious intentions for the site. Furthermore, rabbinic authorities at the time held that praying at the site was forbidden, as mentioned above.
It was understood that the Muslim world viewed Haram al-Sharif as a place for Islamic prayer only, in part, likely arising from the fact that this had been the reality for the previous 1,400 years.
Whatever religious or other significance Jews may claim, this matter is resolved in the eyes of the world. Any exercise of Jewish faith on the Temple Mount is treated as an extreme provocation, which has been invoked frequently to justify rocket attacks on millions of Israeli civilians, riots and other acts of violence.
And here’s where it becomes particularly ugly.
IV. Jewish Resistance and UN/UNESCO Belligerence
In 2016, the United Nations’ cultural arm –the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization @UNESCO adopted a resolution in which it referred to the sanctity of the al Aqsa compound using only terms affirming its connection to Islam. In fact, earlier drafts of the resolution had classified even the Western Wall as a Muslim holy site, but that language did not appear in the final version. The resolution’s scorching language – in which it “firmly deplores the continuous storming” of the al Aqsa compound is absurdly biased and factually untrue. Reinforcing this viciousness in statements made at the time, UNESCO persisted in lambasting Israel for violations of the sacred “status quo”, the precise terms of which were in constant dispute.
This overt hostility to Israel and Judaism was slammed by Israeli political leaders across the spectrum, secular and religious.
What baffles me is why a peaceable compromise cannot be sorted out in Jerusalem as has been managed at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron – or Khalil in Arabic – where all faiths are respected and accommodated in worship and prayer. Tension is constant but the well-managed entente between faiths is administered and adhered to respecfully.
Earlier this week, on a magnificent, sun-drenched day, I met with Yishai Fleisher, the International Spokesperson for the Jewish Community of Hebron and Adviser to Minister Ben Gvir on International Affairs.
Fleisher had suggested that we first quickly tour the interior of the magnificently preserved Herodian structure, where the remains of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah are interred. Today, it serves as a communal prayer and study house.
Sitting outside after, we discussed Ben Gvir’s recent walkabout at the Temple Mount. I asked Fleisher how he advised the Minister ahead of his recent visit to the Temple Mount. For a moment, his unceasingly ebullient energy gave way to an almost harsh intensity. The Minister, he stated, has been going to the Temple Mount for many years and is not about to stop doing so. But, he continued to explain, being mindful of his senior position and responsibility to the nation, Ben Gvir’s office did make public, in advance, his plans to go. And that resulted in Hamas threatening violence in response.
“The minute Hamas broadcast – ‘You can’t go to the Temple’”, said Fleisher, “he had to go. What are we – a banana republic? We’re going to be tourists and told where to walk and not to walk? He had to go.”
In the leadup to “the walk”, Israeli media reported that PM Netanyahu had told Ben Gvir not to go, likely a bubble of misinformation floated to buy some calm. Fleisher confirmed this possibility, saying that Ben Gvir did not consult with him as to whether or not to go but he did check with the PM. And Netanyahu, Fleisher says, told Ben Gvir to go ahead. Furthermore, Fleisher said, the chief of police and head of Shin Bet all agreed that Ben Gvir may proceed.
“He went to the Temple Mount. It was all good. He did his thing for 15 minutes. So let’s just chill.” And for good measure, Fleisher added: “One thing I can tell you is that when it comes to the Temple Mount, with Minister Ben Gvir, it ain’t a show. It’s not for the media. It’s real.”
The next time diplomats and pundits talk about “storming”, they may choose to exercise some of the much-lauded “restraint” they constantly urge upon Israel, and pause to consider what exactly they are saying when they so piously intone the “status quo.”
There is plenty on which I disagree with Ben Gvir. I am not religiously observant. As I was last Saturday evening, I will be among the tens of thousands of “leftists” (a term applied liberally to anyone – including right wingers - who does not support the extreme right government coalition now led by Netanyahu) who will be demonstrating against the judicial “reform” measures of this government in Tel Aviv for the foreseeable future.
But, this “pile-on” decreeing that people of the Jewish faith may not worship at the Temple Mount?
For shame. I’m with Ben Gvir on that.
Is prayer access for Jews worth igniting a holy war, as so many assert would be the outcome?
I’d put the conundrum differently. Why should it? Why can’t a compromise like the one implemented in Hebron/Khalil prevail at Temple Mount/al Aqsa?