The issue of the Temple Mount (Har Habayit in Hebrew and al-Haram al-Sharif in Arabic) is one of tension and clashes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and was also at the heart of the violence that swept Jerusalem last summer. This was the focus of a recent JIIS seminar
that was dedicated to the memory of Prof. Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov
, who headed the Institute for a decade until his sudden death in 2013 and was a leading expert on conflict management and resolution throughout his career.
The speakers looked at this complex and sensitive issue from various angles. They addressed the "status quo" at the Temple Mount and outlined how this concept has evolved over the years.
Dr. Amnon Ramon spoke of the processes that have been underway in Israel since 1967 regarding the matter of Jews visiting and praying at the Temple Mount: there has been an erosion of the prohibition under halacha (Jewish law) against visiting the Mount, and with that the number of visitors from the national-religious community has grown. In the past, he said, only a small number of Jews made a point of going to the Temple Mount with the intent to pray; gradually, the mainstream national-religious public has taken an interest in doing so.
Photographer Gali Tibbon added a visual assessment. She has years of experience documenting people of faith, particularly in Jerusalem. Among her subjects are those calling for the construction of the Third Temple, led by Machon Hamikdash (the Temple Institute). Observing them create ritual items and training high priests, over the years, she said, she has seen this group grow significantly.
Nadav Shragai addressed the "Myth of the Status Quo on the Temple Mount." An author, journalist (Israel Hayom) and researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Shragai argued that the status quo at the Temple Mount that was largely determined by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1967 no longer exists today, that it is to a large extent void. He added that Israel did not manage to "market" the major concession it made to the Muslims regarding their presence on the Temple Mount and that the insistence that Jews be allowed to hold prayers there will in fact only hinder freedom of access for Jews there.
Dr. Hillel Cohen discussed the differing attitude of Jews and Muslims to “outsiders” at the Temple Mount and other holy places. Under Muslim rule, he said, Jews had been allowed to visit the Mount (and sometimes to pray) up until the Mamluk period. Jews evidently also worked in maintenance and as cleaners there during certain periods under Muslim rule. In the late 19th century there was opposition to Christian and Jewish visitation at the Mount, but during the British Mandate era it was officially opened to all religions. The 1920s saw Muslim recognition that the place was also the site of the Jewish Temple, he said. Yet as the conflict between the two peoples and religions escalated, the Jewish connection to the place was denied by the Muslims. From the other side, approaches to Muslim presence and prayer at the Mount also differ among various Jewish groups, from acceptance of Muslim prayer there to the approach that holds “And the stranger who approaches will be killed.”
Prof. Yitzhak Reiter offered a comparative approach to the topic. The Temple Mount being the very symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "on both sides there are extremist groups that aspire to change the status quo," he said, and in fact any change violates the status quo. He expanded on the various approaches to conflict resolution that could possibly ease the problem at the Temple Mount: spatial division, temporal division, an attempt to expand the holy space and then divide it, and more.
Rabbi David Rosen spoke about the need to have political negotiations include religious aspects of the relations and conflicts between the religions. His presentation, "Shared Holiness and Interreligious Dialogue," included a historical survey of efforts to include clergymen and the issue of interreligious dialogue in negotiations. A milestone in this context, he noted, was the 2002 Alexandria Summit, where leaders of the three religions of the region participated, with the sponsorship of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Sayyid Tantawi. They signed a declaration supporting interreligious peace and opposing violence and bloodshed. The Alexandria Declaration was recognized by the pope, the UN secretary-general, prominent Muslim leaders, and the Middle East Quartet.
JIIS Director-General Meir Kraus concluded the event by expressing his hope that the Temple Mount/Al-Haram Al-Sharif would be not only a source of conflict but also a source of inspiration in the search for a solution – "a house of prayer for all peoples in accordance with the vision of Isaiah and the Prophet Micah."
These topics have long been part of the JIIS discourse. For over 20 years the Institute's experts have addressed the sensitive and complex character of Jerusalem from a host of perspectives. The research team, which Barsi led for many years, is skilled in understanding Jerusalem’s geography and demography, social and urban processes, and they continue to use their knowledge to formulate ideas that can assist decision makers in conflict management.