by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update
The Temple Mount—where Solomon first built a “house” for worshiping the God of the Bible, where Jesus (Yeshua) walked, where the biblical book of Isaiah says there will be a house of prayer for all nations—is the holiest site in all of Judaism. Yet access to the Temple Mount today is restricted for Jews, and it’s not the Arabs who enforce those limits contained within the so-called “status quo.” It’s Israel—and it is Israel who agreed to the terms shortly after retaking the holy site in 1967. Nonetheless, Palestinians have slandered Jewish intentions toward the mount as a pretext for terrorism. This raises key questions: Why would the Jewish state restrict access to their own holy site, and what does it have to do with Palestinian violence? What is the “status quo”?
Status Quo Restrictions
The “status quo” is used to refer to a series of arrangements Israel, Jordan and the Jordanian-controlled Waqf religious authority reached in the aftermath of Israel retaking the Temple Mount in the defensive 1967 Six-Day War. The core, as summarized by senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), Nadav Shragai, in “The ‘Status Quo’ on the Temple Mount” is that while Israel maintains governmental and security sovereignty over the site, the Waqf maintains religious authority. As a result, the rights of non-Muslims are restricted.
A key example is that non-Muslims can visit but not pray at the site. In 2014 the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website made that restriction explicit and also forbade non-Muslim entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Shragai, in a separate article “To Pray or Not to Pray on the Temple Mount?” writes that the original language formulated by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1967 implied this restriction on prayer, which was effectively codified in a non-binding understanding between Israel and Jordan in 2014.
However, Rabbi Mike Feuer, faculty member at Israel’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, pointed out to the Mideast Update that there isn’t an Israeli legal restriction against prayer there. With nothing legally binding, Shragai in his article notes in recent years there has been an unofficial shift to permit limited Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount.
Furthermore, in January 2020, then-US President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” Middle East peace plan implicitly endorsed Jewish worship on the holy site, stating: “People of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion.” That sounds simple enough—so why is the status quo so complicated?
Status Quo History
To understand the complex present, look to the past. Feuer, also a spiritual counselor and educational entrepreneur who hosts the Jewish Story podcast, highlighted to the Mideast Update the critical nature of the Temple Mount historically. It is Judaism’s holiest site and Islam’s third-holiest site, and both groups believe that prayer is important. To Feuer, the prayerful religion of Islam understands Jewish prayer at the site is “a real threat to their hegemony.” He notes Muslims “appreciate the power of prayer.”
Second, it’s a powerful symbol. Feuer said that the site is a “national center for the Palestinian identity,” with false calls to defend the Temple Mount a key part of Palestinian rhetoric and incitement. For Jews, the Temple’s rebuilding is prophetically linked and symbolic of the Messianic final redemption. Feuer calls the Temple “the centerpiece of Jewish memory, of Jewish vision.” Yet despite its status as an ideal, it wasn’t everyone’s ideal in 1967.
Israel’s decision to relinquish partial control of their holiest site was not just driven by fear of a religious war, according to Feuer: “I don’t think that was such a compelling argument at the moment since they had just beaten the entire Arab world.” Instead, Feuer highlights the internal conflict between the secular leaders of Israel who saw the modern Jewish state as its own “third temple” and those who had a biblical “visionary” model of Israel.
“You can have a secular state where Israel imagines that it will be a nation like any other…or you can have the visionary state with the Temple at its core,” said Feuer. “It’s very hard to conceive of having both.” The secular position was also effectively backed by Jewish religious authorities concerned about the sanctity of the Temple Mount and who therefore severely restricted access.
However, since then, the religious view on visiting the site has become more permissive, physical acts such as pilgrimages have become a bigger part of the Jewish faith, and religious Zionism with its affinity for the Temple Mount has grown in influence. And that’s not the only change to the situation. The site is now a powder keg for Palestinian violence.
Status Quo Importance
While fear of conflict was a factor in forming the status quo in 1967, it has certainly become a central factor today. Feuer said that the Israeli police use their “discretion in regard to their responsibility for public safety to suppress” Jews’ right to prayer on the Mount due to the threat of Muslim rioting. In 2000, a visit to the Temple Mount by then-Israeli legislator Ariel Sharon—who didn’t even pray there—was used by the Palestinians as a pretext to launch the Second Intifada terror war
More recently, incitement around libels that Jews were threatening the Al-Aqsa Mosque has sparked more Palestinian terror. The Palestinian approach to the “status quo” isn’t keeping things static, and giving into threats hasn’t been the solution. With this in mind, Feuer warns that “appeasement does have logic…but if it’s based on a misunderstanding of the absolutism of the other party as well, then it’s just an invitation to violence.”
So what’s the answer? According to Feuer, it’s actually the holy site itself. “I believe very deeply that ultimately the Temple is the solution and not the problem,” said Feuer, “and that in particular the Messianic vision of Isaiah that ‘My house will be a house of prayer for all people’ opens for us a horizon that it’s specifically prayer, and our ability to call out to one higher power that stands above us all, that in the end will unite us.”
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