25 August 2021

The Israeli government has long claimed it is forbidden for Jews to pray at Masjid al-Aqsa, yet Rabbi Yehudah Glick made little effort to hide his prayers. In fact, he was livestreaming them.

“Oh Lord!” prayed Rabbi Glick, as he filmed himself on his phone on a recent morning. “Save my soul from false lips and deceitful tongues!”

The long-standing status quo at Masjid al-Aqsa understood by the international community has been: Only Muslims can worship there, while persons of other faith can visit.

But recently the Israeli government has quietly allowed increasing numbers of Jews to pray there, a shift that could aggravate the instability in East Jerusalem and potentially lead to religious conflict.

“It’s a sensitive place,” said Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli prime minister. “And sensitive places such as this, which have an enormous potential for explosion, need to be treated with care.”

Rabbi Glick, an American-born, right-wing former lawmaker, has been leading provocations to render void the status quo for decades. He claims his efforts are a matter of religious freedom: If Muslims can pray there, why not Jews?

“God is the master of all humanity,” he said. “And he wants every one of us to be here to worship, every one in his own style.”

Under a long held arrangement , the Jordanian government has retained administrative oversight of Masjid al-Aqsa.

Since its illegal occupation, Israel has imposed security authority and maintains a police station and high levels of surveillance there.

The government officially allows non-Muslims to visit the site for several hours each morning on the condition that they not pray there. Though no Israeli law explicitly bars Jewish prayer there, Jewish visitors who attempt to pray there have historically been removed or reprimanded by the police.

When this balance of power has appeared to teeter, it has often led to tensions boiling over.

When Ariel Sharon, a former Israeli prime minister, made an incursion into Masjid al-Aqsa in 2000, surrounded by hundreds of police officers, the provocation led to the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

When Israel installed metal detectors at the Al-Aqsa’s gates in 2017, it led to an uprising that left several people dead and briefly threatened to unleash yet more resistance.

And when the Israeli police trespassed the compound several times last spring, it contributed to tensions that led to an 11-day assault on Gaza, as well as days of unrest within historic Palestine.

The policy began to change during the tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who led coalitions of right-wing and religious parties. Rabbi Glick said that the police began to allow him and his allies to pray at Al-Aqsa more openly five years ago.

The numbers have quietly increased, but to avoid a backlash, the policy was not widely publicized. That changed last month, after Mr. Netanyahu was replaced by Naftali Bennett. Suddenly, Israeli news outlets published images and footage of dozens of Jews praying openly at al-Aqsa, including a lawmaker from Mr. Bennett’s party, forcing Mr. Bennett to address the issue publicly.

Mr. Bennett initially appeared to confirm a formal change in policy, saying that all religions would have “freedom of worship” at Masjid al-Aqsa, to the delight of some members of his own hard-right party.

A day later, after criticism from Jordan and leftist and Palestinian members of his governing coalition, he backtracked, issuing a statement that the status quo ante remained in place. His office repeated that claim after a recent inquiry from The New York Times, providing a six-word comment: “No change in the status quo.”

But in reality, dozens of Jews now openly pray every day in a secluded part of the eastern flank of the site, and their Israeli police escorts no longer attempt to stop them.

On two recent mornings, Times reporters witnessed Israeli officers standing between Jewish worshipers and officials from the Waqf, the Jordanian-led body that manages the mount, preventing the latter from intervening.

To many Palestinians and Muslims the world over, the shift is provocative and a desecration. They feel that Muslims have already been shortchanged by the theft of the Buraq Wall and the Magharibah Gate. In 1967, Israel even razed an entire Muslim neighborhood beside the wall to create more space for Jewish prayer.

Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, the director of Al-Aqsa, said that the Masjid is to be reserved for Muslim prayer, in recognition of its critical importance to Muslims. Many Palestinians consider the Aqsa compound the embodiment of Palestinian identity, the animating force behind the aspiration for a Palestinian capital in Al-Quds.

“It has been named Al Aqsa since the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) rose to heaven there,” Sheikh Omar said.

The de facto change in policy is just part of a larger pattern of slights against Palestinian dignity across the occupied territories, he said.

“This is the prevalent reality, not only at the Aqsa Mosque, but also at checkpoints and other places in Palestine,” he said. “We face constant racist discrimination and infringement on our human rights.”

To many Orthodox Jews, the shift is also problematic.

The Masjid they claim was once the site of two Jewish temples where they holds that God’s presence was revealed. Jews ‘ascending the mount’ risk treading, they say, on a site too sacred for human footfall, they argue, since the temples’ exact locations are unknown. For this reason many rabbis, including the senior rabbinical authorities of the Israeli state, prohibit Jews from entry.

But to some Jews, like Rabbi Glick, there is great virtue to praying as close as possible to what he claims is the location of the ruined temples.

Rabbi Glick says he is not there to provoke. But as he trespassed Al-Aqsa, guarded by six armed police officers, waqf officials and passers-by filmed him. The videos were soon circulated on Twitter, captioned with commentary.

“The [Zionist] extremists never used to come this far inside,” said Azzam Khatib, the deputy chairman of the Waqf council. “Now they’re taking over the whole plaza, with the protection of the police.”

Part of the resistance to allowing Jewish prayer stems from the fact that some activists like Rabbi Glick want to do more than just pray there.

Ultimately, they seek to build a Jewish temple on the site of the Dome of the Rock. Rabbi Glick claims this temple would be open to all religions, and would be made possible through dialogue with Muslims.

But to Muslims, it is an offensive non-starter.

“It will lead to a religious war,” said Mr. Khatib. “But if everyone stays in their own places of worship, we’ll have peace.”

Some Jewish temple movements have even prepared a stone altar nearby, ready for installation at al-Aqsa as soon as it becomes politically feasible to move it there. Their group, the Temple Institute, has also worked with architects to design the floor plan of a Jewish temple there.

While many see the group as marginal, the organization claims its ideas are gradually growing in currency.

“Twenty or 30 years ago there was no public discourse about this,” said Rabbi Israel Ariel, the president of the institute’s board, who as a young paratrooper helped capture the mount in 1967. “Temple Mount was forgotten.”

But the controversy over the prime minister’s recent comments about “freedom to worship” brought the issue to wider consciousness, he said.

“This was a very beneficial debate,” said Rabbi Ariel. “It’s bringing a lot more people to the Temple Mount.”

ADAPTED FROM: The New York Times