Among the Throngs: a Decade of Change
5,792 is the total number of Jewish visits in 2010, a year before my first visit. Of course ‘Jewish visits’ includes the multiple visits of those regular Jewish visitors putting the number of actual Jews visiting the holiest site in Judaism at a couple hundred that regularly visit. Needless to say, this is an incredibly small number for the holiest site for an entire people and the birthplace of their national autonomy. Without a doubt, the Temple Mount had been largely abandoned by Jews and Israelis since the ‘liberation of the Western Wall’ in 1967.
But something very odd has taken place in the past decade that has changed these numbers completely. The Hebrew month of Tishrei is a month filled with Jewish holidays. It always falls out between the Gregorian months of September-October. During this month of Tishrei 2019 the entire number of 2010 was passed in one month. This year, 5,940 Jews visited the Temple Mount in one month! Since the Temple's destruction in 70CE there has not been so many in a month. Indeed, a review of the past 5 years shows a fast-paced increase of Jewish visitors and
worshipers per year.
The numbers of Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount are provided every day by at least three organizations: the Israeli Police, the Jordanian Wakf and Temple Mount guides like myself. Oftentimes these three groups provide slightly different numbers and each group has various interests behind the inflation and deflation of the numbers. My above-quoted numbers are provided by Yeraeh, a Jewish non-profit that receives these three numbers and attempts to make sense of them as well as keeping track of the Temple Mount statistics. One thing that all these groups can agree upon is the massive growth of these numbers in recent years.
But what caused this massive growth?
There is no single event I can point my finger at to explain this drastic climb in numbers that is still continuing. Instead, I can point to a few social developments that allowed for this growth to occur:
a. Since Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel in British Mandate Palestine, Jewish ascent to the Temple Mount became a rather taboo topic in Jewish Law. He deliberated with himself about the possibility of ascending the mount and whether ‘upsetting the Muslim overlords’ against the poor Jewish residents of the Yishuv may be a risk worthy of taking. Eventually he wrote that the strict laws of purity required in Jewish Law for a Jewish worshipper visiting the site would not allow for contemporary visits to the site. Since 1967, when modern Israel would finally be given the opportunity to return to Judaism’s holiest site, the official stance of the Israeli Rabbinate would be more or less identical with that of its first Chief Rabbi. However, over the past decade Temple Mount activists have been collecting bigger and bigger lists of respectable rabbis allowing, and even advocating, ascending the mount. As the ‘old guard’ of the Israeli Rabbinate becomes less and less relevant with the introduction of organizations like Tzohar, an alternative rabbinic organization in Israel, who are taking important roles in Israeli society, the Rabbinate rulings lose their aura.
b. Since 2015 two organizations have sprung up providing guides to every group of Jewish visitors or to those who wish to join the Jewish groups for free every day of the year: the Open Gate and the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation. These organizations are on the ground making the Temple Mount accessible to all by bringing together a genuine concern for and knowledge of Jewish Law and traditions concerning the site as well as its history, archaeology, politics and developments. I am certain that making the Temple Mount go from a distant vision to an accessible reality and spreading that possibility to mainstream Israeli society contributed greatly to Jewish return to the holy site.
c. I don’t remember much from my first visit to the Temple Mount in 2011 except for two things. One was the desire to come back and see it again. The second was the horrible treatment we received from the Israeli police. The job of the police in general is to keep order. It would appear that due to the little numbers of Jewish visitors back then - and I must remind my readers here that visiting the site is completely legal and it is Israeli sovereign territory according to Israeli law - it became police policy to simply label the groups of Jews as ‘extremists’ and thus to easily control them through loosely legal and strict measures, sometimes even trespassing the law themselves. To put it lightly, the treatment we received from the police was very degrading. To make matters worse, the police did very little to prevent abuse from the Jordanian Wakf towards us. They would stand centimeters from our faces looking to see if we were moving our lips for if we were they would scream at us for praying on the Temple Mount - prayer is allowed by Israeli law for any person of any faith on the Temple Mount although it is prohibited illegally by the police and Wakf - and sometimes even physically abused us. The police just stood by and would themselves yell if we attempted to stop the abuse. Around 2016 - if my memory serves me correctly - the head police officer responsible for the Temple Mount was switched out of his job in lieu of the growing numbers of Jewish visitors. The upper brass appeared to have realized that a growing number of visitors demanded a change in relationship: no longer could they simply label the groups as extremists - they weren’t. This in turn changed the overall experience on the Temple Mount to become much more pleasant. And although the situation is not even close to ideal and discrimination based on religion or ethnicity is still undemocratic, this change in police relations has no doubt contributed to the growing numbers.
d. The exposure that the Temple Mount has received in the past few years has been unparalleled in recent memory. Such figures such as the Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Minister of Internal Security Gidon Saar, and other major political figures have given the Temple Mount direct address. Organizations such as Students for the Temple Mount, a Zionist student movement, have been pivotal in bringing the national and moral importance of the Temple Mount into Israeli psyche and providing a likeable face to a place that had always been associated erroneously with extremism or danger. In general, this upswing of Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount has not been amiss in Israeli news and every discussion of it leads to more exposure. It is this exposure that may lead to more and more Israelis visiting. In fact, I believe that this exposure has contributed so much that I created this blog for that purpose: to create interest in visiting the Temple Mount through sharing it.
What kind of changes this phenomenon would suggest into the future are hard to know. Many Jews ascending the mount today talk about the fateful ‘shortcut’ of the Paratroopers in 1967. The Israeli Paratroopers, having had stories of the Western Wall ingrained in them since youth, had forgotten that the wall is simply the outer wall of the Temple Mount - the holiest site in Judaism and the birthplace of Jewish autonomy. They simply walked through the Temple Mount to reach the Western Wall - essentially using the mount as a shortcut and making the historical move to religious freedom on the mount decades longer.
To Israeli society, and Jewish society at large, the return to the Temple Mount is a distant dream shrouded in Messianic barriers. These self-imposed fallacies seem to be breaking down faster and faster in the past few years. I’m not sure what this holds for the future. I can only hope that it brings peace and equality for all those wishing to visit and worship - a freedom that does not exist presently.
And as I stood among the throngs I experienced a glimmer of hope shimmering from off in the close future.