On Sunday, for the first time in two months, Jews were allowed on the Har HaBayit (it had been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic). Israel, however, forbids Jews from praying on Har HaBayit, and most Orthodox Jews avoid ascending the Mount believing it to be forbidden.
To learn more about the politics surrounding the Mount, The Jewish Press recently spoke with Yehuda Etzion, who has led the battle for Jewish prayer on Har HaBayit for the last 25 years. A leading player in the Gush Emunim Settlement Movement, and one of the founders of Ofra, where he still lives today, he was imprisoned in 1984 with other members of the “Jewish Underground” for planning to blow up the Dome of the Rock Shrine.
A gentle and studious person, with a great love for Jewish literature and Zionist philosophy, he has edited many books and published numerous articles about the history of the Temple Mount.
The Jewish Press: When did you first attempt to go up to Har HaBayit and what happened?
Etzion: In my youth, I went up to Har HaBayit alone on several occasions without repercussions. The campaign to allow Jewish prayer on the Mount began in 1995. We formed an organization called Chai V’Kayam and went up to the Mount in groups, attired in tallitot, and began to pray.
Both the Israeli police and the guards of the Muslim Wakf violently attacked us. The police expelled us from the Mount and arrested us.
During subsequent years, how many times were you arrested for attempting to pray on Har HaBayit?
To tell you the truth, I stopped counting. During the early years of the struggle, I was arrested dozens of times. On each occasion, the police opened a new file and I was brought to court. Each time the charge was the same – disrupting a police officer from carrying out his duty.
Since there wasn’t any law forbidding prayer on Har HaBayit, this substitute charge was the only thing they could pin on me. Usually we were found in violation of the law. The court would gather several guilty verdicts together, and I was sentenced to half a year of public service in Hadassah Hospital.
Why did you pray if you knew you were going to get arrested?
With every arrest and court case, public attention was brought to the absurdity that Jews were not allowed to pray on the holiest site in the world for the Jewish people. At first, the struggle was limited to idealists from the Religious Zionist community, but then some brave-hearted charedim joined us.
Then the Temple Mount was closed to Jews for three years, from 2000-2003. I kept on with my campaign, including a day-and-night protest vigil by the entrance to the farm of Ariel Sharon in the south of the country.
Eventually, the Temple Mount was once again opened to Jews, through the order of the Minister of Internal Affairs, Tzachi HaNegbi. I immediately seized the opportunity to return to the Mount. Wakf guards surrounded me and kept screaming at me until Israeli police dragged me away.
In response, the government once again forbade Jews to enter the Mount. The prohibition was only lifted several years later. Since then, I visit the holy site freely, while Jewish prayer is still forbidden.
According to Israel’s chief rabbis ascending the Har HaBayit is forbidden by Jewish law. Why then do you go there?
Many esteemed rabbis have written that a Jew is allowed to ascend [certain outer portions of] Har HaBayit. In recent times, the list includes Rabbis Shlomo Goren, Dov Lior, Yisrael Ariel, Nachum Rabinowitz, Zefania Drori, Yaacov Medan, and Eliezer Melamed.
Many write that it is not only permitted, but a mitzvah. It also helps maintain Jewish sovereignty over the Mount. Unfortunately, the chief rabbis are afraid of Har HaBayit, for the Temple Mount symbolizes the geulah, which is the exact opposite of the galut, and the rabbis are still living in galut in many different ways.
They are accustomed to the worship of Hashem in the synagogue. They are familiar with the fast days that commemorate the Temple’s destruction. They are familiar with the truncated Judaism of the Exile – without the Beit HaMikdash and without the Sanhedrin – where the Shechinah is neither felt nor seen.
What is it like to ascend Har HaBayit?
Ever since I was a teenager, I was filled with a sense of awe from the Temple Mount and possessed by an unexplainable attraction to be there. I experienced the overwhelming feeling that this was the place where all of Jewish history began, and the place where Am Yisrael and mankind would reach its crescendo.
Standing on the Mount, I had – and still have each time I ascend – the overwhelming feeling, and almost dizzying awareness, that this is the place where the Holy One Blessed Be He chose to place His Shechinah, and behold we are here with Him, like a chatan and kallah in a cheder yichud.
There is no greater joy than this. It’s even embarrassing: How did we merit to set foot on this incredible site, we who are so small compared to His greatness?
Yet, at the very same time, I feel a terrible anger. In this Divine place, the zenith of the world and existence, how can it be that our enemies stole it from us? How did we allow them to rob it from our hands?
I can understand how this disgraceful situation came to pass while we were in exile, when we were lowly and impotent. But how do we allow it to continue when the Master of the World, in His great kindness, allowed the soldiers of Israel to return here anew, to His Holy House, which is our House as well? How can this be?
Doesn’t Israel technically control the Temple Mount?
The government of Israel always claims, at every opportunity, that it rules on the Mount. This is factually true, but in this capacity as legitimate conqueror, it relinquished the Temple Mount to an enemy, to the Muslims, in the disguise of the Kingdom of Jordan, or Saudi Arabia, or whatever fake appellation you like, to rule there in its place.
For this transgression, there is no atonement. I always feared that there would come a heavy punishment for this national sin, and the time, no doubt, will come when the State of Israel, and all of us, will have to pay, everyone according to his level.
Why does Israel relate to Har HaBayit with such political weakness?
It’s hard for me to be a defense attorney for the State of Israel and explain the reasons for its policies. The matter is incomprehensible to me. I can only suggest that the governments of Israel, one after the other, have been afraid of Har HaBayit.
They themselves can’t express why, but it appears that the state is afraid of the exalted religious significance of the ancient, holy site. After all, that’s what Har HaBayit is all about – the Jewish religion, the center of our Torah nation and its foundation stone.
The State of Israel is afraid to become the spokesman of Judaism and the Torah’s ideals. After all, at the moment, it is a secular and democratic state that derives its strength from the people who live in the country, and many of its citizens are Arabs.
Unfortunately, the G-d of Israel is not included at all in its policies, laws, or governmental configuration. At the same time, it does not know how to stand up to the religious claims and false doctrines of Islam concerning Har HaBayit.
Therefore, it attempts to be a fair “stepmother” to the two religions, when in actuality it awards “the baby” in conflict – Har HaBayit – to the Arabs because they outnumber us and threaten us with war and because they have had a presence on the Mount for more than 1,300 years.
The state sanctifies the status quo. If the State of Israel has a G-d, its name is “Sheket” – keep quiet. Just leave things the way they are. The view opposing this meek and secular worldview is based on emunah, which establishes Har HaBayit as a foundation of the Torah, which was given to us by Hashem.
But the State of Israel doesn’t live according to the Torah, and doesn’t feel beholden to its teachings and laws.
Jews are allowed to visit Har HaBayit but not pray there. Why?
In all fairness, we should declare our heartfelt thanks to Medinat Yisrael for letting us visit Har HaBayit along with the tourists from Japan, Tahiti, and Zimbabwe. The state allows visits, which are in the area of tourism, and this is something which a democracy cannot deny.
Ideally, what would you want the situation to be today on Har HaBayit?
Ideally, and even practically, we want to see the Third Temple built on Har HaBayit – whatever the consequences may be. However, I understand that not all of the Jewish People want that scenario to be actualized at this point in time, and that is our greatest problem. We have to ignite the yearning for the Temple’s rebuilding.
When the majority of the nation wants the Temple rebuilt, then the leaders of the country will follow along, and then all of the impediments will vanish, including our conflict with the Arabs. For there is nothing that can stand before our united will, especially when this is both our will and the will of Hashem together.
But in order to reach this stage of redemption, we need to exchange the present political establishment of Medinat Yisrael – and all of its administrative trappings, along with the mindset of the nation’s leaders – from the secular to the holy. This is a mighty transformation that has to come about through education and deed, a national project upon which we have not begun to embark. This is our number 1 challenge!
In the meantime?
Given the character of our beloved country at the moment and the international political situation, we can at least strive to obtain “equal rights” with the Arabs on Har HaBayit. What is permitted to them must also be permitted to us. The sons of Yitzhak should at least be considered equal to the sons of Yishmael.
We have every right to demand that the State of Israel be faithful to its love affair with the democratic principles it purports to cherish.
What can you say to Jews in the Diaspora for whom Har HaBayit may seem far away?
Firstly, they should know, and be made to feel, that we want and need them here with us in the Jewish homeland, and we even need to help them understand that they are obligated to be here to advance the geulah, for Eretz Yisrael is like a stepping stone upon which we ascend to reach Har HaBayit.
There is a wonderful version of the prayer Modim D’Rabbanan, which we recite in the repetition of the Amidah: “And gather our exiled communities to Your holy courtyards.” This is like skipping over a stage! It doesn’t say, “Gather our exiled communities to Your Holy Land,” but rather straight to Har HaBayit!
This resembles the phenomenon in chemistry whereby a solid is transformed into gas without first becoming a liquid. Equally wondrous are the ways of the Holy One Blessed Be He. If we would only do His will as we follow our own, He would immediately send the blessing of His Shechinah to grace our deeds with success and bring us straight to His holy mountain.