JERUSALEM — While liberal American Jews may be invested in their years-long campaign to establish egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, another group has been gained traction by setting their sights a bit higher — on the plaza above the Kotel, where the ancient Temple once stood.
Often led by Orthodox American olim, the movement to gain greater access for Jews to the Temple Mount, site of the Dome of the Rock Muslim shrine and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, has moved from the margins nearly to the mainstream. “Our movement is growing for sure,” said Yehuda Glick, a Brooklyn-born Israeli lawmaker and longtime Temple Mount activist. “The number of people ascending to the mount has doubled, and you see there’s a lot more activity, a lot more public support.”
Yaacov Hayman, a white-bearded Orthodox native of Southern California, recently took the helm of a new government body called the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation, which is charged with preserving the holy site and educating about its Jewish history. He cited the American civil rights movement as an inspiration for his activism, which ultimately aims to rebuild the Temple and usher in the messianic era.
“When I first went to the mount, I was shocked. This is a Jewish and democratic state, and I can’t pray here? What’s going on?” Hyman said. “I thought back to being a kid, 6 years old, watching on TV when that little black girl walked into an all-white school. It made me proud of my country.”
“In a society that believes in human rights and liberal rights, the fact that you’re not allowing a person to pray just because he doesn’t belong to your religion, that’s something that’s unacceptable,” Glick said. “If you support freedom of speech, how can you support prayer for just one people?”
Since Israel captured the Temple Mount from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, the site has occasionally been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although Israel insists it has no plans to change the status quo, Palestinian suspicions to the contrary helped fuel the first and second intifadas and the wave of stabbings and car-ramming attacks that started in October 2015.
In 2014, a Palestinian terrorist shot and seriously wounded Glick for his Temple Mount activism.
In recent years, the Temple Mount movement has surged as “many Jews have looked to revive the messianic dream on the Temple Mount,” said Yedidia Stern, who researches religion, state and Orthodoxy at the Israel Democracy Institute.
Right-wing rabbis have also issued rulings that permit Jews to visit and pray on the Temple Mount, despite a tradition that says Jews should not walk on the mount out of fears that they might step on the site of the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple. By one count, just a few years ago only a few thousand Jews visited the Temple Mount every year; by contrast, more than 14,000 Jews and their supporters have come since October.
Temple Mount activists have not just grown in number, but also moved closer to power in Jerusalem. Glick in May 2016 entered the Knesset as a member of the ruling Likud party. He claimed credit for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent decision on lifting the ban on Israeli lawmakers visiting the mount, albeit on a trial basis. Glick had petitioned the High Court of Justice against the ban, which Netanyahu implemented in 2015 amid Palestinian violence.
In November, Dorshei Zion, an annual event that brings together Temple Mount activist groups, was held for the first time at the Knesset and attracted hundreds of attendees, more than ever before. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Glick used the forum to announce a new Temple Mount Knesset lobby.
Months later, in March, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Jerusalem Minister Zeev Elkin spearheaded the creation of the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation. Modeled on the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which oversees that site, the Temple Mount foundation was allocated an annual budget of more than $500,000.
Tom Nisani, a secular student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the chair of Students for the Temple Mount, and his fiancee, Sara Lu, made headlines on June 29 by covertly marrying on the mount in violation of the ban on Jewish rituals. His group of Jewish students from across the religious spectrum has promoted awareness of Jewish claims to the mount, and ultimately the rebuilding of the Temple.
“We certainly do not need to receive permits from the world regarding our right to the Temple Mount,” he said. “Every Israeli and Jew has a place on the Temple Mount, and accordingly, the support we receive is extensive and varied.”
Stern doubts the Israeli mainstream would embrace the Temple Mount movement’s radical long-term aims and the likely costs of pursuing them.
“From a symbolic point of view, everyone says the Temple Mount is ours. It should be ours. You can hear that from almost everyone here,” he said. “But does it really mean we have to do anything about it? I’m not sure the majority wants to push forward this agenda.”
Hayman acknowledged that force would likely be required to establish Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, just as the U.S. National Guard had to be sent in to enforce school desegregation.
“They sent National Guardsmen to line the streets. That’s what it took to end segregation,” he said. “The same thing needs to happen here. Let the Arabs riot over the Temple Mount, and let them get shot. If you ignore the monster, it just gets bigger.”
However, he predicted, when it came time to build the Temple, even the Arab world would welcome it.
“We have to realize we’re not alone in this whole thing. G-d is our senior partner,” Hayman said. “When G-d wants the temple to be rebuilt, he’ll get involved. We’ll get to a point in time when the entire world will come say to us, ‘build your temple’.