Spotlight on Jewish Access to the Temple Mount

In recent months there has been a campaign by a number of Israeli right-wing groups and individuals, including Knesset members, to force the issue of Jewish access to the Temple Mount. 

The ostensible reason for this campaign is the controversy over the reconstruction/rehabilitation of the Mughrabi Gate, which a short time ago Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat summarily shut down (and then almost immediately opened again).  Shutting down the Mughrabi Gate was a transparent effort to force the Netanyahu government to acquiesce to Barkat’s plans to rebuild the Mughrabi Gate based on a plan that, while no longer radical in terms of altering the current status quo (earlier plans were indeed radical) is still the focus of tremendous controversy.  If implemented unilaterally by Israel, this project would likely lead to a rupture in relations with Jordan, which under the Israel-Jordan peace agreement has direct responsibility for issues related to Muslim equities in Jerusalem.

By shutting down the Mughrabi Gate, Barkat and his allies hopes to force the issue – in effect making the case that at this time there is NO access for Jews to the Temple Mount, which is patently discriminatory.  This narrative quickly gave rise to an additional demand: not only should Israel rebuild and re-open the Mughrabi Gate, but at least one additional gate to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif should be taken out of the hands of Muslim authorities (the Waqf) and taken over by Israel for Jewish use.

To date, PM Netanyahu has laudably resisted these pressures, and the Mughrabi Gate is back in business (it was only closed for a few days).  However, the battle for increased Jewish access to the Temple Mount has sparked a new round of Jewish religious debate on a more fundamental question: does Jewish law forbid Jews, in any case, from ascending the Temple Mount?  This cannot be what right-wing Israeli nationalists envisioned when they started their latest campaign over the Mughrabi Gate, but this is what they have gotten:

In early March, Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar published a halakhic ruling (the equivalent of a Jewish fatwa), calling on believers to not ascend the Temple Mount or even touch its edge, consistent with the biblical ruling contained in the Book of Exodus.  Amar’s ruling was backed by former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron; Rabbi Shalom Cohen, Head of Porat Yosef Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem, Old City Rabbi Avigdor Neventzal, and the Rabbi of the Kotel (the Wailing Wall) Shmuel Rabinovich.  Amar’s ruling is consistent with the positions of all ultra-orthodox (haredi) rabbis as well as those of a plethora of prominent non-haredi rabbis, including Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yonah Metzger former chief Rabbis of Israel Zvi Yehudah Kook and Avraham Shapira.  Rabbi Zalman Melamed, Dean of Beit El Yeshiva (in the West Bank), also supports this position.

Amar’s declaration specifically notes that this reiteration of the longstanding prohibition on Jews ascending the Temple Mount is necessary because of the ongoing calls by some groups for the Jews to visit the Temple Mount.

In response, Israeli MK Arye Eldad (National Union) made clear that as far as he is concerned, if there is a conflict between Jewish religious law and right-wing Jewish religious-nationalist priorities, the latter is more important.   He accused Israeli rabbis of forming an “unholy alliance [also translated as “covenant”]” with the “extreme Left and the Wakf” and suggested that this ruling by the Rabbis could destroy Israel entirely.  Others ostensibly religious Israelis openly mocked the Rabbis’ ruling, suggesting that their ruling had been made in “fear” (due to plans of a large number of Jews to try to ascend the Temple Mount for Purim) or that it had been issued “in the spirit of Purim” (i.e., that it was so absurd that it must be the equivalent of an April Fools joke).  Perhaps the most outrageous response was that of Rabbi Yehuda Glick, Chairman of the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation (an organization closely aligned with East Jerusalem settlers), who stated that the ruling was “reminiscent of, if not worse than the rabbis who instructed Jews before the Holocaust not to immigrate to Israel.”