Miriam Shaviv
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In whose hands?
Byline: Miriam Shaviv
Date: Friday, June 7, 2002
Publication: The Jerusalem Post

Thirty-five years ago today, Israel captured the Temple Mount during the Six Day War. But after nearly two years in which Israelis have been unable to even visit the site, Miriam Shaviv asks how much they really care about it

June 7, 1967, 10 a.m. Israeli troops are trying to force their way through Jerusalem's Lion Gate, in order to liberate the Old City.

The first attempt fails, as the half-tracks are driven back by fire from the parapets.

The second attempt is led by paratroops commander Lt.- Gen. Mordechai 'Motta' Gur himself.

In order to provide smoke cover, an Israeli tank sets fire to an empty bus halfway up the road. With a well-aimed shell, a tank gunner partially unhinges one of the two doors in the closed gateway.

Gur's driver knocks the doors aside, and turns left towards Temple Mount.

The men jump out at the bottom of the Dome of the Rock.

'We go up the magnificent stairs,' Gur recounted in his battle log. 'We're in the court. Opposite - right before our eyes - within reach - is the Dome of the Rock. No shooting here. This is a holy place.'

As some of Gur's soldiers move to the other side of the building to make sure all the Jordanian soldiers have left, Gur himself heads for the center of the compound.

There, standing right next to the Dome, he asks for the walkie-talkie.

'Stop - stop - all forces, stop!' 'The Temple Mount is in our hands, repeat, the Temple Mount is in our hands. Over!'

The message may have been simple, but for many it became one of the most enduring and powerful moments of the Six Day War. For the first time in 1,897 years, Jews had control of Judaism's holiest site. It was, it seemed, the fulfillment of all the Jews' national aspirations.

And yet, just 35 years after that dramatic moment, reality has changed.

'It has been a long time since the Temple Mount was 'in our hands,'' says former Jerusalem police chief Arye Amit. 'That expression has long ago lost its meaning.'

Since the start of the current uprising in September 2000, all non-Muslims have been barred from entering Temple Mount. Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000 as head of the opposition, formed the pretext for the start of the intifada, has not returned.

In the meanwhile, Israeli archeologists have charged the Wakf, the Muslim religious trust which administers the Mount, with carrying out extensive building work on the site without archeological supervision. In the process, they say, important antiquities which prove Jewish ties to the Temple Mount as far back as the second Temple era have been destroyed, although the accusations remain impossible to verify due to lack of access, and are rejected by the Israel Police.

Either way, Israelis have shown surprising indifference. There have been no mass demonstrations demanding that Jews and Christians be allowed again to visit the Temple Mount, as they had been since the Six Day War. Repeated recommendations by the Shin Bet, Israel's security agency, to reopen the Mount to non-Muslims have been ignored by the government.

Dozens of dignitaries including Justice Meir Shamgar, authors A.B. Yehoshua, Haim Guri and Amos Oz, and former IDF chief of staff Dan Shomron, established a Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, and sent four separate letters to Sharon asking him to investigate Wakf work on the Temple Mount. The issue, however, never caught the imagination of regular Israelis, who did not take any similar action or launch protests of their own.

Does the lack of action suggest that Israelis do not care about the Temple Mount as much as they are reputed to?

'If the issue really hit home, we would have seen some more action,' says Yehuda Etzion, former leader of the Jewish underground that in the early 1980s planned to blow up the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount. But the facts also suggest something about the subtle way in which Israelis care about the Temple Mount.

According to head of the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University and Israel Prize laureate Professor Avi Ravitzky, the nation is deeply bound to the Temple Mount as a symbol, although what exactly it symbolizes varies from group to group. The public is not, however, interested in the physical place itself.

'They are even slightly wary of it,' says Ravitzky.

He says this is consistent with a deeply ingrained Jewish tradition, whereby the Temple Mount is regarded as out of bounds until the coming of the Messiah.

'It is a deep and spiritual idea, that there is a place which we do not approach or control, but leave beyond history,' says Ravitzky.

There is an alternative explanation. For many Israelis, both secular and religious, the dream of returning to the Temple Mount may be attractive, but the reality of controlling the Temple Mount is simply too complicated. It poses too many awesome problems religiously, politically and ideologically.

If Israelis are in danger of losing or have already lost the Temple Mount, then it may be because they have no real desire to be there under current conditions.

ALTHOUGH most secular Israelis say the Temple Mount is important to them in principle, it is actually fairly difficult to get a coherent view of why.

For example Shlomo Lahat, the former mayor of Tel Aviv and the military governor of Jerusalem immediately after the Six Day War, says that the Temple Mount 'speaks to us,' but cannot articulate the exact reason. 'It's not because it's holy,' he adds.

MK Yael Dayan (Labor), daughter of Moshe Dayan, the defense minister during the Six Day War, can only say vaguely that the Temple Mount is important 'historically and archeologically.' Her initial instinct, however, is to deny any religious connection to the place.

'As an unbelieving person, if there is no God, there is no God on Temple Mount either,' she says. 'I respect the fact that others regard it as holy, including the Muslims, but I cannot participate in that feeling.'

They represent many secular Israelis who appreciate the historical importance of the Temple Mount, but are not interested in or cannot relate to its religious nature. More than that, to varying degrees they are at pains to reject any religious nature. This can partially be interpreted as realpolitik in a country where the boundaries between secular and religious are very firmly drawn, and where there is an active political power struggle between the two groups.

It is also a classic Zionist dilemma. As early as the Second Aliya at the beginning of the 20th century, the secular Zionists avoided settling Jerusalem, partially for practical reasons, but partially also in order to avoid bestowing too much religious meaning on their return to the land. Some of today's secular Zionists, as well, do not want to confuse religious objectives with Zionist objectives.

As author A.B. Yehoshua says, 'Zionism does not mean returning to Temple Mount, but building a sovereign state in Israel. It was not religious yearnings which returned us to Israel, but only anti-Semitism.'

In retrospect, this ambivalence was apparent even in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War. Despite sharing in the initial euphoria, within hours of Temple Mount's capture, defense minister Dayan ordered a flag placed on top of the Dome of the Rock by an Israeli paratrooper to be removed. The troops themselves were removed within a few days.

On June 17, just 10 days after it was conquered, Israel formally handed over control of the Temple Mount to Muslim authorities. The Wakf was allowed to retain the keys to all the gates of the Temple Mount except for the Mograbi gate, which is next to the Western Wall. The parties agreed that Jews would be allowed to visit the Temple Mount as tourists when Muslims were not conducting prayer services, but could not pray there.

The immediate and most striking motive for relinquishing control was the fear that keeping it would provoke an irresolvable, religious feud with the entire Muslim world. Even as he entered the Old City for the first time on June 7, Dayan reassured Muslims that 'We did not come to Jerusalem for the sake of other peoples' holy places, and not to interfere with the adherents of other faiths, but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others, in unity.'

THE SECURITY argument is still of utmost importance today, and is perhaps even more relevant, as peace seems ever more precarious.

In private, however, many secular Israelis are now willing to admit that it was easier to give up physical control of the Temple Mount in 1967, because they felt alienated from it as a Jewish site.

Yehoshua, who has visited the site several times, describes Temple Mount as 'a theoretical concept [for Jews]. It is full of mosques, a Muslim area attended by thousands of Muslim worshippers? It is unclear where our temple began and ended. I think that people who went up there came out feeling it was a mosque.'

Both Yehoshua and Lahat contrast their lukewarm reaction to Temple Mount to the great feeling the Western Wall immediately generated, even among the secular troops.

'That is where the real tears were - because you could touch it,' says Lahat. 'I remember the excitement when the paratroopers arrived there.'

Without physical remains to connect to at the Temple Mount, Lahat says he found it hard to visualize any Jewish past or future on the site.

'Religious people 'remember' the Mount with priests, Levites, sacrifices where they killed animals. We can't do that,' says Lahat.

More than that, many Israelis would not want to.

'The physical surroundings of Temple Mount, which make some people yearn for the temple and its rebuilding, scares quite a number of Israelis,' says Hebrew University professor of Jewish philosophy Moshe Halbertal. 'Many people don't want to see a priesthood and sacrifices again, and so are not interested in the Temple Mount as a reality.'

Furthermore, many secular people are scared by the religious fervor with which some religious people approach the site, suspecting it could ultimately result in an unwanted religious war.

Such fears were given immediate reinforcement in 1967, when stories were circulated that then-chief rabbi Shlomo Goren urged Dayan to dynamite the Muslim shrines to allow for the construction of the third Jewish temple on the site. Dayan rejected the suggestion out of hand, but extremist Jewish groups such as Ateret Cohanim and Temple Mount Faithful, which insisted on trying to pray at the Temple Mount, kept such fears alive.

It is not surprising, therefore, that many secular Jews feel uncomfortable asserting, or are afraid to acknowledge, too much connection to or ownership over the site of Temple Mount.

'You cannot be connected to Temple Mount, which is the religious site of another religion,' says Yehoshua flatly.

Over the years, any feelings many secular Israelis did have towards the Temple Mount have only faded. The euphoria of 1967 wore off, and members of Temple Mount Faithful became even more active. In the early 1980s, several were convicted of plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock.

Most adult Israelis have been to Temple Mount, but not usually more than once or twice, and then strictly as tourists, with no religious agenda.

So today, the fact that Jews are not allowed up to the Temple Mount has stirred very few secular Israelis. The religious issues are the same, and the security concerns even more acute.

ORTHODOX Israelis are able to articulate their connection to the Temple Mount much more precisely than their secular counterparts.

'It is the site of the symbol of Jewish sovereignty, the first and second temples,' says National Religious Party MK Shaul Yahalom. 'It is the holiest place, which we faced in our prayers for generations. It is also the place where we pray every day that the third temple will be built.'

Orthodox Jews are prohibited from visiting Temple Mount because it is forbidden to enter certain parts of it while ritually impure, and it is currently unclear exactly where the temple stood. However, leaders such as prominent Jerusalem Rabbi Motti Elon, who is linked to the NRP, say their feelings are no less intense because they have never visited the place.

'You can miss something even without ever having touched it,' he says. 'It is like a mother missing a child she has not seen for years. Or my feelings for Abraham the Patriarch, who I never met, which are much stronger than my feelings for the nice man I met on the bus today.'

United Torah Judaism MK Avraham Ravitz is one of just a handful of haredi Jews who entered the Temple Mount as a soldier, just hours after it was liberated.

'I knew I was committing a sin by being there, but did not have any choice - I did not know that is where I would be sent,' he says. 'It was out of this world. I felt elated, something I cannot even explain. Anyone who says they only see mosques there perhaps does not understand the deep significance of Temple Mount. I thought of everything together, the history, present and future, and the fact that I was experiencing something that was not experienced by Jews for generations.'

And yet, the Orthodox have no fewer practical difficulties with possession of the Temple Mount than their secular peers - although much is left unsaid.

At the end of August 1967, the Chief Rabbinate put up signs outside the Temple Mount compound noting the halachic ban on visiting the area, effectively reiterating the prohibition.

Elon sees the general shaking off of the Temple Mount in the immediate aftermath of the war as colossal missed opportunities, but explains they had no choice.

'It was just 19 years after a young group established a state, and suddenly God leads them to the peak of their dreams,' he says. 'They didn't know how to handle it.'

Indeed, there was much for the Orthodox to fear about daily contact with the Temple Mount.

If Jews controlled the site, a Third Temple would move from the realm of dream to possibility. Pressure from groups on the fringe to build the temple would increase dramatically, and not building it would raise uncomfortable theological questions. Yet, if the Temple Mount was rebuilt, it would force a reevaluation of close to 2000 years of developments in Judaism, which evolved in the absence of the temple. What would happen to rabbis when priests were restored? The laws of purity and impurity, most of which cannot be observed without the temple, would have to be reinstated. Could sacrifices take place again? Some of the very foundations of modern Judaism would be thrown into doubt.

The caution with which the Orthodox approached the Temple Mount can be seen in their attitude to the Temple Mount Faithful in the 1980s. Their activities were denounced by such luminaries as Rabbi Eliezer Schach, leader of the Lithuanian Torah world, and former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and the activists relegated to the very fringes of Orthodox society.

'Anyone who goes up to Temple Mount today is considered part of a small irreligious group to which we object,' says Yahalom.

Not only were their actions seen as undesirable, but seen as wake-up calls to exercise better control over those elements in Orthodox society animated over the Temple Mount.

Today, when the question of allowing Jews back up to the Temple Mount arises, most Orthodox Israelis have a clear-cut answer: Temple Mount is out of bounds.

'The religious are not allowed to go up there,' Yahalom says. Pushed, he says he would prefer the police and the army to have proper access, or at least be stationed around the Temple Mount. 'But it's not as if I had a habit of going up there each day and then I was forbidden,' Yahalom adds. 'The subject is not relevant right now.'

In the event of a final settlement, many religious people are willing to make surprising concessions regarding the Temple Mount, despite its symbolic centrality.

Many modern Orthodox leaders, for example, recognize the political and religious complexities involved and are either willing to give up sovereignty of the site entirely or come to a creative solution. Ravitzky, for example, who is one of the founders of the dovish Meimad party, says the site should not be controlled by a political entity. This, he says, would preserve and even enhance the Temple Mount's symbolic importance as being above history, and therefore be acceptable to a majority of the public.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Ravitz does not seem prepared to give up Israeli sovereignty, claiming Israelis would be surprised at how willing the Palestinians would be to give up Temple Mount, especially if they receive a state in return. At the same time, however, he does not insist on an exclusively Jewish presence on the Temple Mount.

'According to Jewish law, I am not commanded to throw the Muslims off the Temple Mount,' he volunteers - although he would not give any part of it to a third religion, such as Christianity. 'The fact is that the Palestinians are there, there are two mosques, and we cannot change that under current circumstances,' says Ravitz.

IN THE middle ground stand the national religious, who so far seem determined not to give up sovereignty of the site, but also cannot allow Jews up there.

In recent years, however, Etzion says he has detected an increased interest in Orthodox circles in the Temple Mount as a place rather than as a symbol.

'Fifteen years ago, any time the topic would come up, people immediately closed the subject by saying you're not allowed to go up there, and rabbis did not really dare to say any different,' he says. 'Today, many more people say you're allowed to go up there, especially in national religious circles, and in the religious papers in the synagogues, there is also a much more positive attitude,' he claims.

Elon, who emphasizes that he defers to the rabbinic prohibition on entering the Temple Mount, says he too detects a change. He attributes it to an increased focus on spiritual matters since a disillusionment with Oslo set in.

'We are beginning to understand that the nations of the world have great expectations from us,' he says, 'beyond creating a new Middle East where everyone eats humous together. That's not what they want from us, and not what we want to be.'

Indeed, Halbertal also warns that the focus on the site of the Temple Mount is likely to increase in the coming months and years, particularly in extreme right-wing circles. This is both because the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is becoming more religious-oriented, he says, and because the Temple Mount is likely to be one of the last supposedly 'indivisible' sites to remain wholly in Israeli hands.

And yet, while the majority of the Israeli public clearly wants to maintain some kind of sovereignty over the Temple Mount, it seems uninterested in entering the battle for physical control over the Temple Mount.

Two years ago, in June 2000, when former prime minister Ehud Barak proposed ceding sovereignty of the site to the Palestinians, the public outcry was so great that he was forced to promise the cabinet that neither he, nor any prime minister after him, would transfer control of the Temple Mount. It became conventional wisdom that for a majority of Israelis, giving away the Temple Mount was a 'red line' that could not be crossed.

Most of the emotion, however, was not for the actual Temple Mount, but for the Temple Mount as a symbol.

'People feel that under the layer of the Temple Mount made by the Muslims and the Palestinians, there is a deeper Jewish experience which shows we are more ancient, longer in the land,' says Halbertal. 'By giving up the Temple Mount, there was a feeling we would be giving up a symbol of our connection to our past' - a concession of the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to the entire land.

These feelings have surely only increased in the past two years, as several Palestinian leaders including Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat have denied that there was ever a Jewish temple on Temple Mount, and the Wakf has, perhaps, in the course of their renovation work at the site, deliberately destroyed evidence to that effect.

It seems imperative, therefore, that well before the next set of negotiations, Israelis reach a formula that will preserve the Temple Mount as a Jewish symbol to everyone's satisfaction - but avoid the huge, almost insoluble, complications of dealing with it as a place, that have plagued us since June 7, 1967.

© 2010 Miriam Shaviv | Design by Danny Bermant