Not just Israel’s Ben-Gvir: A new Al-Aqsa provocation is rising

Itamar Ben-Gvir’s second visit to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound as Israel’s national security minister on May 21 represents a dangerous mix of religion and politics.

Ben-Gvir was seen standing and reading off his phone, apparently in prayer. Such an act would be forbidden under the current “status quo” governing Al-Aqsa, referred to as the Temple Mount or Har Habayit by Jews, even though a small group of Orthodox Jews is increasingly finding ways to pray on the holy site.Shortly after his morning visit, Ben-Gvir tweeted: “Hamas’ threats don’t intimidate us. I ascended to Har Habayit! Jerusalem is our soul, the Negev and Galil is our spirit and we have to act on behalf of [both]!”

Responding to Ben-Gvir’s visit, Hamas politician Basem Naim told Al Jazeera, “Israel and its government and people bear the full responsibility for the continued provocation to our people and desecration of [Al-Aqsa’s] holiness.” He said “preventing maniacs [from entering Al-Aqsa] even if they are ministers” was a part of Israel’s “responsibility”.

On the face of it, though Ben-Gvir’s visit was provocative, its timing could suggest a political compromise. He went to Al-Aqsa after the controversial “flag day” march that marks Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in 1967. On the day of the march itself, Ben-Gvir joined the parade in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, even though his wife Ayala Ben-Gvir and other members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government toured the Al-Aqsa grounds. Within the Al-Aqsa compound, several members of Netanyahu’s Likud party were recorded singing the Israeli national anthem Hatikva with the Dome of the Rock in the background.Yet Ben-Gvir’s actions on May 21, which were condemned by Jordan, the US State Department and others, are only the latest attempt at pushing the envelope in a centuries-old conflict over what Orthodox Jews discuss as “ascending to the Temple Mount”. And there are early signs that such controversial visits to Al-Aqsa are beginning to resonate with some sections of the Israeli population that previously opposed them.

Centuries of relative calm
In the medieval period, there was consensus among Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars about the ancient holiness of the Al-Aqsa site, including the presence of the Jewish temples. In Islam specifically, the special status of the city gave birth to an entire genre of writing known as Fada’il al-Quds or “literature in praise of Jerusalem”. According to Nimrod Luz, the author of the report, Al-Haram al-Sharif in the Arab-Palestinian Public Discourse in Israel, it was even a point of pride for early Muslims for Al-Aqsa to be associated with Israelite prophets and kings such as David, a revered figure in the Quran, and first conqueror of Jerusalem.

For Medieval Jews, who lived under Islamic rule, a debate arose regarding the religious permissibility of visiting the Al-Aqsa compound, given the special commandments in Judaism that safeguard the area’s unique holiness. Contemporary Temple Mount activists are proud to highlight a letter written by the great Egyptian-Jewish sage Maimonides, who describes in the 12th century visiting and praying on Al-Aqsa.

But these discussions were of a religious — not political — nature.The modern debate
In the modern period, Jewish nationalism “split Orthodox Jews into two main groups”, according to Motti Inbari, author of Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount and professor of Jewish Studies at the University of North Carolina in Pembroke.

The first group was led by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), considered the spiritual father of Religious Zionism. Kook saw the successes of the Zionist movement, such as the Balfour Declaration — under which Britain committed to the creation of a “national home” for Jews in Palestine — from a “messianic point of view”, said Inbari.

That view held that the journey of Jewish “redemption” would culminate with the “reconstruction of the Temple and the renewal of the Davidian Kingdom” per Inbari.

The second camp of Orthodox Jews, explains Inbari, referred to today as “Ultra-Orthodox”, opposed this vision of religious Zionism. They saw “no great [religious] value in the State of Israel” and no special theological meaning to the Zionist movement’s conquest of Palestine”.

Following the Israeli capture of Jerusalem in June 1967, in which an Israeli flag was temporarily flown above the Dome of the Rock, Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of the conquering Israeli forces and a leading religious Zionist, spoke to the Jewish soldiers: “Today you have fulfilled the oath of generations: ‘if I forget thee, o Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning!’ Indeed, we did not forget thee, Jerusalem city of our sanctity and home of our glory.”

The Ultra-Orthodox Jewish response to June 1967 was also rapid and unequivocal, first delivered across Israeli radio waves merely hours after the Old City was captured: Jewish law strictly prohibits entry to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound for all Jews owing to the sanctity of the site.

Over the years, this view has been repeated by leading Orthodox Jewish voices and has been the consistent view of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.The Oslo panic
Still, against the majority of his rabbinic peers in 1967, Goren began developing a novel approach in Orthodox Jewish law to permit entering the Temple Mount.

“[Goren] came up with this argument saying that if we would map the Temple Mount, we could figure out where the Holy of Holies was, and then figure out the permitted locations [for Jews to enter] on the Temple Mount which are not out of bounds,” Inbari said. The “Holy of Holies” refers to the innermost sanctum of each of the Jewish temples, and is the key for drawing a map of where the ancient temples may have stood — many Jewish scholars identify the location of the Holy of Holies with the Sakhra stone in the Dome of the Rock.

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