This edited article originally appears on Times of Israel
The night before she visited Temple Mount for the first time last year, Aviya Fraenkel was so excited she couldn’t sleep a wink.
“I remember climbing the Mughrabi Bridge [leading to the Temple Mount] and seeing the Western Wall beneath me, so small, and and all these different Jews way down there,” Fraenkel told The Times of Israel recently, standing at the bottom of the same bridge and waiting to enter. “You ask yourself: ‘Hold on, what was I doing down there all these years? It just isn’t interesting. I’m up here now!’ That’s a feeling you can never take back.”
“We still go to the Western Wall and love it, but you suddenly realize the difference. Why settle for so little? Why settle for imitations when we have the real thing?”
Fraenkel, a 29-year-old doctoral student in Assyriology and Bible studies at Bar-Ilan University, is part of a new revival movement sweeping Israel’s national religious community. Defying a centuries-old rabbinical ban on entering the 35-acre compound — considered the holiest site in Judaism where the first and second temples stood — Fraenkel, who created a special tour guides’ course last summer tailored for Temple Mount visitors, now tries to go up every week.
“It was brewing in me for many years,” Fraenkel recalled. “So I took the ritual bath and went up. I can’t completely explain it. Part of it has to do with the belief that there’s a next stage, that our ideals aren’t limited to a state — which is a lot — but that the state must manifest our religious yearnings of the past 2,000 years.”
“I’ve made a decision that my Judaism isn’t just about the past, it’s an expectation for the future,” she said. “I’m tired of apologizing about this. If others want to apologize, they’re free to do so.”
Fraenkel is not alone. According to data provided to Israeli daily Makor Rishon, the number of Jewish Israelis visiting Temple Mount annually has steadily but significantly climbed in recent years: from 6,568 visits in 2009 to 8,528 in 2013 to 10,906 in 2014…
In the wake of the Six Day War triumph, Israel’s leadership was wary of extending full sovereignty over the holy mountain. Hours after Israeli paratroopers captured Temple Mount along with the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan on the morning of June 7, 1967, defense minister Moshe Dayan ordered the removal of the Israeli flag from atop the Dome of the Rock. “If there’s something we should not do in Jerusalem, it’s to wave Israeli flags on the Mosque of Omar (the Dome of the Rock) and Jesus’ grave,” Dayan was quoted as saying.
Ten days later, a new status quo was fixed. Jews would be allowed to enter Temple Mount as tourists, but not as worshipers. The Islamic Waqf, which managed the compound under the Jordanian ministry of religious affairs, would continue to maintain effective control over ritual throughout the sacred space.
But while the ban on Jewish prayer is still in force on Temple Mount, the attitude of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government seems to have changed dramatically. Yehudah Glick, a Temple Mount activist and member of the Likud party, recovering from a Palestinian assassination attempt last October, said he now meets with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan on a monthly basis to discuss the situation on Temple Mount…
The willingness of mainstream Orthodox rabbis such as Riskin to endorse the Temple Mount ascension movement against the rulings of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is a new development, said Arnon Segal, a 35-year-old full-time activist.
When Segal first visited the Mount 16 years ago with a friend from the Otniel Yeshiva in the South Hebron Hills, none of his rabbis would endorse the visit. “They themselves wouldn’t go up, but I know that today the same rabbis support it,” Segal said. “Today, most national religious rabbis don’t oppose ascension. Some are very active in supporting it.”
Segal decided to visit the site of the Jewish temple during the festival of Sukkot, 1999. At yeshiva, the young student had read a book by Shlomo Goren, Israel’s chief rabbi during the 1967 conquest of East Jerusalem and one of the few Orthodox voices willing to publicly support visits despite the Jews’ collective state of ritual impurity since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE.
The visit was a disappointment. “It was like tearing apart the Red Sea” — extremely difficult, he said. “They did everything possible to prevent us from reaching that moment.”
Unaware of the exact visiting hours, Segal and his friend were forced by police to wait outside for two hours. Then, singled out as Orthodox Jews, they were only allowed to enter in pairs and spend seven minutes on the Mount.
“Up until four or five years ago, the issue was in no one’s consciousness,” he recalled. “Ascension was considered very odd, incomprehensible, extreme, a religious transgression. Today it’s not a big deal. Even the ultra-Orthodox know about the option of visiting Temple Mount.”
The change came about, he said, thanks to “lots of people willing to seem crazy.”
“At the end of the day, how many crazy people can there be? If everyone is talking about it, maybe there’s some truth to it. People just spoke about it endlessly until a realization emerged that what is going on up there makes no sense.”
During the summer, visitation hours for Jewish tourists are 7:30-11 a.m, and 1:30-2:30 p.m. Israelis identified by police as religious (and hence as potential troublemakers) are allowed into the Temple Mount in small groups of 10-15 individuals, accompanied by armed Israeli policemen and Islamic Waqf attendants, who make sure they do not whisper prayers or bow down in reverence.
Visitors circle the periphery of the plaza counterclockwise starting from the Mughrabi Gate on the Western Wall, and exit from a nearby gate approximately 20 minutes later. Only when one Jewish group leaves the plaza is another permitted to enter…
Visiting the site is not just a political taboo, though, but also a religious one. Since its destruction nearly 2000 years ago, the Temple has gone from the physical center of Jewish worship to an abstract place of prayers and dreams. Practical, individual ritual has replaced the historic slaughter and sacrifice of animals linked with the Temple, a change many spiritual leaders are wary to challenge. “Instead of devoting themselves to Torah and religious commandments, they [the Temple Mount activists] are busy with something that is not a commandment,” prominent national religious rabbi Shlomo Aviner of Bet El said in a recent interview.
Meanwhile, some activists are busy documenting infringements of visitation rights granted to religious Jews on Temple Mount. Last Passover, Elishama Sandman founded “Yera’eh,” a group of volunteers who issue daily reports on obstruction to Jewish ascension and share them on social media.
On Monday last week, Yera’eh reported in its daily roundup, a bride and a groom came for a visit, as did a Bat Mitzvah girl and a three-year-old boy celebrating a traditional first haircut with his family. A Christian tourist was asked by police to remove his yarmulka, regarded as an impermissible religious symbol. Otherwise, things were quiet.
“My goal is to show the public what’s happening there day by day,” Sandman, a 19-year-old yeshiva student from Safed, said in a telephone interview. “To give statistics, data, to highlight good and bad occurrences. Sometimes it’s hard to show the good because the situation is very complex.”
Sandman first visited the Temple Mount on Jerusalem Day just over a year ago. It was that experience — when he and a group of 30 Jews were allowed to enter the Mount for a mere three minutes and had to leave immediately from the next gate over — that spurred him to action.
“We were surrounded by policemen and crowds of angry Muslims throwing things at us,” he recalled. “I remember thinking I have to do something about this, to join the just struggle.” Sandman was inspired by the Facebook pages of Arnon Segal and Yehuda Glick, who regularly document and share their activity.
Today, he said, his goal is to improve the treatment of Jewish visitors by the police. “If the police had to deal with 600 Jews wishing to enter Temple Mount at 7:30 a.m., they’d have to let in bigger groups.”
Unlike his older mentor Segal, Sandman is unabashed about the final aim of his activity.
“Our ultimate goal on Temple Mount is to build the Third Temple and renew sacrifices,” he said. “It’s not a distant goal but an aspiration. First we need to accompany the people and help them understand the significance of the place.”
But what about the Dome of the Rock, a monumental structure build by the Umayyad Caliph Abdul Malik in the year 691 over the Foundation Stone, where Jews and Muslims believe the earth was created?
Sandman replied with a metaphor.
“If a burglar entered your home and told you that you don’t own it, you wouldn’t think about getting along with him,” he said. “You’d remove him and take the place. It’s the same here: The people of Israel own this place and it’s not our duty to consider those who stole it from us.”