The Israeli government has for years prohibited Jews from praying on the Temple Mount, a place considered sacred by Jews and Muslims. But Rabbi Yehuda Glick made no effort to hide the fact that he prayed there. In fact, he was broadcasting everything live.
“Oh Lord! He said, filming himself on his phone one morning recently. “Save my soul from false lips and treacherous tongues!” “
Since Israel took the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, its government has maintained a fragile religious balance on the Temple Mount, Jerusalem’s most controversial site: only Muslims are allowed to pray there, while Jews can say their prayers at the Western Wall below.
Recently, however, the government quietly began to allow increasing numbers of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. The change in stance could exacerbate instability in East Jerusalem and potentially lead to religious conflict.
“It is a sensitive place,” explained former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “Sensitive places like this, with enormous explosive potential, must be handled with care.”
Rabbi Glick, a former U.S.-born right-wing MP, has led efforts to change the status quo on the Temple Mount for decades. He characterizes his effort as a matter of religious freedom: if Muslims can pray there, why not Jews?
“God is the Lord of all mankind,” he said. “And he wants each of us to come here to say our prayers, each in our own way.”
But the measure prohibiting Jews from praying on the 150,000 square meter plateau that housed two ancient Jewish temples was part of an agreement, respected for years, to avoid conflict in a place that is often the scene of explosive disputes between Israelis and Palestinians.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Jordanian government retained administrative oversight of the Temple Mount, known among Arabs as the Noble Sanctuary or Al Aqsa Complex.
The Al Aqsa Mosque and the Golden Dome of the Rock, a shrine considered by Muslim tradition as the point from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, are located in its limestone plaza.
Israel is responsible for the overall security of the Temple Mount and maintains a small police station there. The government officially allows non-Muslims to visit the site for several hours each morning, provided they do not pray there.
Although no Israeli law explicitly prohibits Jews from praying there, Jewish visitors who attempt to say their prayers on the hill are traditionally kicked out or reprimanded by police.
When this balance of power changes, it often leads to violence.
When former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in 2000, surrounded by hundreds of police, the provocation led to the Second Palestinian Intifada (insurgency).
When Israel installed metal detectors at the gates of the mound in 2017, a measure that was only in effect for a short time, it sparked unrest that left many dead and threatened to spark another major uprising. .
And last spring, when Israeli police raided the compound several times, it contributed to tensions that led to an 11-day war with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, and several days riots in Israel. .
Politics began to change under the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister who spent the most time in power and who led coalitions of right-wing and religious parties. Glick said that five years ago, police started letting him and his allies pray more openly on Mt.
The number of Jews doing so has quietly increased, but to avoid backlash, the policy allowing them to do so has not been widely publicized. That changed last month after Netanyahu was replaced by Naftali Bennet.
Israeli media suddenly published images of dozens of Jews openly praying on Monte, including a member of Bennett’s party, forcing the prime minister to speak out on the matter.
Bennett initially appeared to have confirmed a formal policy change, saying, to the delight of some members of his own stubborn right-wing party, that people of all faiths would be free to pray on the Temple Mount.
A day later, after criticism from Jordan and left-wing and Arab members of his ruling coalition, Bennett backed down, issuing a statement claiming the previous status quo was still in effect. His office reiterated this claim after a recent New York Times investigation, making a five-word comment: “No change in the status quo.”
In reality, however, dozens of Jews now pray openly and daily in a secluded part of the eastern flank of the plaza, and the Israeli police who escort them have stopped preventing them from praying.
For the past two mornings, New York Times reporters have seen Israeli police stationed among believing Jews and agents from the Waqf, the Jordanian agency that manages the mound, preventing agents from intervening.
Many Palestinians see the policy change as unfair and a provocation. For them, Muslims have already made a big concession on the Western Wall, which is now used mainly by Jewish believers, although it is also important for Muslims. In 1967, Israel even demolished an Arab quarter next to the wall to create more space for Jews to say their prayers.
Sheikh Omar al Kiswani, director of the mosque, said Al Aqsa should be reserved for the prayers of Muslims, in recognition of its importance to them. Many Palestinians see Al Aqsa as the embodiment of Palestinian identity, the lifeblood behind the aspiration for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.
“She has been called Al Aqsa since the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven there,” Al Kiswani said.
For him, the policy change is only part of a larger pattern of derision of Palestinian dignity seen across all of the occupied territories.
The policy change is also seen as problematic by many Orthodox Jews.
The Temple Mount once housed two Jewish temples where, according to tradition, the presence of God was revealed. For the Orthodox, the Jews who climb the mount run the risk of walking on a site too sacred to be trampled on by humans, as the exact location of the ancient temples is unknown.
For this reason, many rabbis prohibit Jews from entering the site. But for some, like Glick, praying as close as possible to ruined temple sites is a great virtue.
He says he’s not here to tease. But when he crossed the hill, escorted by six armed policemen, mosque officials and passers-by filmed him. Soon after, the videos were circulating on Twitter, captioned with angry comments.
Part of the resistance comes from the fact that some activists, like Glick, want to do more than just pray on the spot. What they ultimately want is to erect a third Jewish temple on the site of the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam. Glick said that this temple would be open to believers of all religions and would be made possible through dialogue with Muslims.
For Muslims, however, this is an utterly impractical and offensive proposition.
“It would lead to a religious war,” Khatib said. “If everyone stays in their place of prayer, we will have peace.”