The Hollow Importance of the Temple Mount

by Gedalyah Reback

In an oped in Yediot Ahronot earlier this month, former Mossad director Efraim HaLevy steered discourse in an unlikely direction vis a vis the peace process: the Temple Mount. It was not so much his reference to the spot that was significant, but the way he characterized it for Israelis – and Jews in general. He pointed to the underestimation of the connection to this location for Jews as having been a point of failure at the Camp David negotiations in 2000. What is most remarkable is HaLevy is not from a traditional religious background.

His point should be carried forward. This Tisha b’Av, in trying to cite articles on my Facebook page that addressed the contemporary Jewish community’s connection to the Temple, I was disparaged to see any article of relevance also included political opinions about other issues – particularly with opinions deviating from my own. In trying to vicariously express my opinion about the matter, I had to surrender my own views on Israeli politics and the Middle East in general.

I’m writing from the perspective that any true peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians will have to show equal weight to the value of the Temple Mount to Jews and Muslims respectively. This puts me in a quandary, since it has been out of fashion for Israeli politicians to not only play down the importance of the site, but because of the vast gulf between different circles of Jews. Reform Jews treat a Temple as irrelevant. It is on neither the Conservative or Ultra-Orthodox radar screens. Only Religious Zionist and some Modern Orthodox Jews have made it an issue, but it is still a far cry from becoming an issue of arbitration with religious and ritual significance on the line.

Artist’s rendering of one of the known entrances to the Second Temple

Advocating for this position has gotten me into several interesting discussions. For me, whether or not I support actively resuming Temple rituals (sans a messiah or prophet) making the issue one of public discourse is important from the perspective of security. The main reason the Temple Mount remains a quieted topic is the fierce rioting its invocation has provoked in Palestinian Muslims. A mere visit to the site in 2000 by Ariel Sharon sparked the Second Intifada. The mere rumor that Jews planned its destruction sparked the 1929 Arab riots in cities across the then-British-controlled territory.

But precisely because it has remained outside of discourse has its mere mentioning become an overly sensitized issue for anyone willing to riot. If it were a matter of regular discussion, the assertion of Jewish rights to the Temple Mount would not be a fire starter in negotiations. At the same time it allows the Jewish community to be more forthcoming with its position, from the perspective of Efraim HaLevy and others, it also quells the main reason the issue has been prevented from becoming that open from the outset.

Outside the Orthodox Box

It is effectively a non-issue to Jews outside certain Orthodox circles, when it does not have to be. From the perspective of an impartial peace broker, it is best to air the issues out and let them become things to consider on the negotiating table. It is the issue that makes Jerusalem so significant. For it not to be a matter of public discussion, let alone internal Jewish discussion, lets another issue simmer beneath the surface.

Common Ground Trying to be Found?

This same Tisha b’Av, I found myself in a discussion with a young Rabbi and a Rabbinical student about whether bringing up the Temple more often would stir more of a drive in the Jewish world to make it a reality, via some near-miraculous peace deal or by some other event. The common counter to the idea gaining traction is, as is suggested by many religious authorities in the modern Jewish world, the lack of significance for the institution to most Jews worldwide. The Temple is not a central focus to many individual Reform and Conservative Jews (never mind their movements’ official outlooks), let alone other matters of dispute such as kosher dieting, how to keep the Sabbath and the observance of many Jewish festivals.

Just the same as the issue of conversion, no traction can be gained at all without the issue being something that is simply talked about – regardless of an individual’s opinion on the matter. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are on a completely different page than non-Orthodox Jews in the United States, yet the two sides are deriding each other over the issue of conversion. Truthfully, neither side understands the other position. They’ve never spoken with each other about it. Hence, neither party can respond to the other’s demands or relate to its concerns.

Clashes Erupted As Israeli Police Prevent Extremist Jewish Rally On Temple Mount in 2005

Truthfully, the topic of the Temple is a glaring example of that gulf in the global Jewish community today, where one Jew cannot even relate to another Jew’s religious vocabulary. Communities are concerned with different issues, and often only part of the bigger picture the greater Jewish world is attempting to address.

Jewish discourse – religious, social and political – should be aiming to make this a common issue. It shouldn’t be isolated in the corners of certain Orthodox groups with a certain right-wing political outlook. It is an issue for more than one kind of Jew. As so long as Jews of all colors remain silent on their connection to the Temple Mount, the world will not care enough to consider the issue important. All the more so for Palestinians.

Palestinian Recognition

For there to be any footing in the negotiations, Israelis and Jews ought to make a priority discrediting the trend among Palestinian leaders to deny Jewish connections to the site. Clerics and politicians have made a mockery of the idea of the Temple, often prefacing it with the Arabic equivalent to “so-called” when describing the concept. Only bringing this issue to light like any other will drive that view into oblivion. It is in the interest of the global Jewish community to bring forth an assertive, authoritative position to the world. The process for achieving that starts internally, via extended discourse about religion among the most different of subgroups in the Jewish world, will reap benefits for the stability and standing of the community beyond today’s politics.

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