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The Case for Building a Synagogue on the Temple Mount

An argument for peace, security, and justice

Matthew Ackerman
October 02, 2019
Photo: Library of Congress
Temple Mount from the east, looking down on the Dome of the Rock, toward Jaffa Gate and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 1931Photo: Library of Congress
Photo: Library of Congress
Temple Mount from the east, looking down on the Dome of the Rock, toward Jaffa Gate and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 1931Photo: Library of Congress

This past Tisha B’Av, nearly 1,800 Jews ascended the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in observance of the annual Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of the Temples. While it is true that the observance this year fell on the same day as a Muslim holiday, and that Israeli officials decided to close the entrance to the mount to Jews for a few hours that morning out of fears of clashes, and that even when the Jews were finally allowed to ascend they were quickly shuffled off, and that Israeli police were still forced into confrontations with the Arab Muslim crowd, this nevertheless represented an extraordinary step in Jewish engagement with the Temple Mount. It may indeed have been the largest group of Jews to collectively ascend the Temple Mount with a specifically religious purpose on a single day since the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, a span of 1,949 years, and another sign of the remarkable change in Jewish fortunes that has occurred in the past century, during which time a people once herded to death has transformed itself into a people on the verge of reclaiming full possession of its most ancient and once seemingly irretrievable patrimony.

In light of this, it’s worth reconsidering Israeli policy regarding the Temple Mount. Even after gaining control of the site in 1967, Israel has maintained the preexisting “status quo” in which the area is administered by a foreign religious authority that maintains a blanket ban on all non-Muslim prayer. For peace, security, and justice, Israel should now take formal control of the Temple Mount, open the site to prayer for all, erect a large and beautiful synagogue so the point is made plainly, and do it quickly.

For justice the case is simple. The Temple Mount is the site of both the First and Second Jewish Temples and, since King David’s establishment of Jerusalem as the Jewish capital and King Solomon’s spiritual consolidation of Jerusalem through his construction of the First Temple there 3,000 years ago, has been the holiest site in the world to the Jewish people. The Temple Mount is where it has been believed for probably longer than any other thing in this world, that the Holy of Holies—the divine presence of God manifested—came to rest on earth after wandering along with the Jewish people in the Tabernacle through the desert from Egypt to Israel. That spot, believed also to be the place where Abraham withdrew his knife from Isaac’s throat, has been the focal point of Jewish hope and pleading with God ever since.

The special significance of the mount and the Temples to Jewish life and practice served as the justification for the massive retaining walls built around it by Herod 2,000 years ago. The Western Wall of the Temple Mount derives all of the spiritual importance it now holds for Jews to its proximity to that spot, in particular for being both symbolically and (for the past 500 years) literally the closest Jews have been officially permitted to approach the Holy of Holies to pray by rulers of Jerusalem, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

I want to underline that point, because it’s important to everything that follows. The Western Wall, which now retains its own place in popular imagination due largely to the plaza built from it that was constructed by Israel following the Six-Day War in 1967, only started to become an important place for Jewish prayer in the 16th century when the Ottoman ruler Sultan Suleiman I set the area aside for Jews as compensation for his renewal of a ban on non-Muslim access to the Temple Mount. Over the preceding 1,500 years, Jews had ascended the mount to pray as the fluctuating policies of the ruling authority allowed, several times beginning the process of constructing a Third Temple, and praying in a Temple Mount synagogue as recently as the 11th century. (A useful survey of Jewish approaches to the Temple Mount from the period of the Roman destruction through the 20th century can be found in this 2013 essay in the Middle East Quarterly.)

Only in the 19th century did a self-prohibition regarding Jewish ascent become normative in Orthodox circles, and even when that view was most widely held many individual Jews continued to ascend. And in the days following Israel’s conquest of the Temple Mount, a synagogue there was once again briefly established by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces.

In short, since the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews have been accustomed to praying facing and as close to the Holy of Holies as personal and legal circumstances allowed. If a Jew found himself in Berlin, that meant turning a bit to the southeast. If she found herself in Saigon, that would mean turning a bit to the northwest. And if in Jerusalem, that often meant standing on the Temple Mount itself, where a compass was not needed to direct oneself in the proper direction. Unless of course that Jew encountered a weapon wielding representative of a ruling government that had banned Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, in which case a particularly pious Jew might find herself wandering through Jerusalem’s many alleyways before finding a few rocks of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple Mount to hold on to while asking God to return his presence to the Holy of Holies above.

There is no suitable definition of justice that can rightly claim it is just for a Jew to be denied the right to pray at the spot his or her religion has for so long deemed to be the holiest spot in the world.

No doubt the objection will be raised that though it may be just for a Jew to pray at the Temple Mount, security considerations make permitting the actual act impossible—and in fact, this is the de facto legal position of the Israeli government, which continues to enforce a ban despite the Israeli Supreme Court’s decisions that such prohibition is illegal. The argument goes that Arab Muslim anger over a Jew praying on the Temple Mount would lead inevitably to violence. The target of this violence will almost certainly be Israeli Jews, most likely those who have never prayed (and never intend to pray) on the Temple Mount. And it has been said by many people in many ways for many years that exercising Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount would ignite a wider “holy war” in the Middle East that could have unknowable catastrophic consequences. Should some people die so that someone else can pray standing in that particular spot as opposed to another?

First, it has to be said: It is sad to allow a threat of violence to deny a person’s ability to exercise a right we otherwise agree is just. Sadder still is the hard fact that the ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount is not generally understood as a callow and shameful surrender to a violent “heckler’s veto” posed by Arab Muslims accustomed to imposing their unjust aims by threatening to unleash tens of thousands of violent fanatics.

Otherwise, the security argument is weak even on its own terms. For it succumbs to the false appeal of appeasement, believing that by granting full religious control of the Temple Mount to Muslim authorities, Arab Muslims will understand that Israel does not threaten their own religious practice or traditions, thereby creating the conditions under which a larger peace can be negotiated.

Since the dawn of modern Zionism, Arab Muslims have used the supposed threat Jews posed to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount to foster anti-Zionism and hatred of Jews and as a pretext for violence. In one notable example of the pattern, in 1928 shortly before Yom Kippur Jews placed a screen to separate men and women on the flagstones before the Western Wall. Arabs protested and, when Jews continued to petition for their rights to worship freely, declared the need to “protect al-Aqsa from Jewish attacks.” The resulting orgy of Arab killing found its apogee in the August 1929 destruction of the ancient Jewish community of Hebron, when an Arab mob went door to door slaughtering Jewish families. More recently, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000 famously served as the pretext for the unleashing of a Palestinian terror war that killed nearly as many Israelis from the year 2000 to 2010 as had been killed in the 50 previous years of modern Israel’s existence.

In that context, it is perhaps easy to understand the Israeli instinct following the capture of the Temple Mount in 1967 to return full religious control to Muslim authorities, and acquiescence when those authorities promptly reaffirmed their ban on non-Muslim prayer. Could there be a better manner for Israelis to disprove the decades of claims of plots to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque? Can we peer into the mind of Moshe Dayan when he returned control of the Temple Mount to Jordanian religious authorities in 1967 and see there the fears of a sabra child born in a poorly defended pre-state kibbutz hearing the reports of murderous anti-Jewish riots and the Arab leaders who fostered them by claiming a Jewish plan for the destruction of al-Aqsa?

Better not to. But we do have 50 years experience to show that the gesture has done nothing to assuage Arab calls to violence over this point. In 2019 as in 1929, minimal Jewish claims to justifiable rights that have long been shown to pose no threat to non-Jewish rights are seized on as a threat to al-Aqsa, and these claims lead directly to the brutal murder of Jews by Arabs.

While despicable and cynical, this behavior by Arab Muslims is far from irrational. For they see what most Jews today persist in not seeing: that politics flow downstream from culture, that there are no more powerful and longstanding cultural symbols than those that are tied up with religion, and that there are therefore few (if any) better ways of cementing a long-term political claim over a space than by putting a large building associated with your religion in it. The Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople was famously converted to a mosque in 1453 after the successful Ottoman conquest that changed the city’s name to Istanbul. The Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, was a pagan shrine before Muhammad converted it into an exclusive site for the worship of Allah in the seventh century. The Cathedral of Cordoba in Spain was before 1236 the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which itself had been built on the site of a Visigothic church. And there is also of course the example of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount itself, built in 690 to cover the rock where Abraham is believed to have bound Isaac, on the spot where the Temples were believed to have been built, to, in the words of the historian Albert Hourani, “establish Islam in the Abrahamic lineage while also disassociating it from Judaism and Christianity.” The crusader kingdom later turned both it and al-Aqsa into churches, from which the Knights Templar (the knights of the Temple) ruled Jerusalem until being defeated by a new Muslim empire, which promptly converted them back to mosques.

The increased secularity of Western societies in the 20th century seems to have convinced us that these symbols have lost or will soon lose their power over us and the remainder of the world. Hence we deem ourselves capable of devising and implementing “rational” political decisions like Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak’s impractical proposal in 2000 that the Palestinians take sovereignty over the surface of Temple Mount while Israel retain sovereignty over the area beneath it. (Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s now infamous response to this proposal was to question whether there in fact had ever been a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount). This is the hyper rationalist perspective that the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has termed WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic), one framed mostly by the belief that the world is “full of separate objects, rather than relationships.” He terms the irrational, immediate impulses that usually govern our moral and political views the Elephant, and calls the rationalizations we employ for those views the Rider in order to illustrate that the Rider is far less powerful than the Elephant, even if he has a role in directing the action. It’s akin to what another psychologist, the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, has termed System One and System Two, in this case System One being our immediate, easier and often wrong response to many questions, with System Two serving as the harder to access, more meditative and rational aspects of our thinking.

To date, Zionists have largely alternated in their attempts to generate Arab acceptance of their claims by appeals to the practical benefits of Jewish development of Israel (echoed today in arguments about the earnings and freedom enjoyed by Israeli Arabs or in recent diplomatic progress Israel has made in the larger Middle East on the back of the country’s economic success), offers to rationally negotiate a division of claims (the various forms of the west of the Jordan River two-state solution that have been proposed since the Peel Commission report in 1937), or the projection of impenetrable military strength (Vladimir Jabotinsky’s “iron wall” metaphor from the 1920s living on today in the separation barrier—at times a wall—that snakes along and around the 1967 lines). All of these approaches ask Arab Muslims to think about Zionism and Israel with their Rider or System Two, and all have failed as a result. As Kahneman, Haidt, and others have shown, even members of WEIRD societies do not often form their fundamental moral and political perspectives through dispassionate, rational analysis. To finally cement Jewish claims more than 70 years after the independence of modern Israel, we must search for another way to communicate clearly to the Elephant or System One that modern Jewish independence in the Land of Israel can not be reversed.

Conversely, not building a synagogue, not confirming our own rights ourselves, conveys the opposite point, fueling the long Arab Muslim dream of destroying Israel by forever putting into question the Jewish state’s legitimacy. As David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, wrotein 2017 on Muslim perceptions of the Temple Mount, “The Jews could not and would not have relinquished their authority over the site if it truly constituted the most sacred physical focal point of their faith. Israel’s restraint, its religious realpolitik, in other words, has come to be regarded as proof of our illegitimacy.”

A few years of the sight of a beautiful synagogue on the Temple Mount would rewrite humanity’s mental map of Jerusalem, and the Jewish state beyond it. The synagogue would in short order become an extremely powerful version of what Pierre Nora has termed a “memory site,” or a “symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community.” Sites like this are what frame all of our notions of what the world is, driven as we are to narratives and imagery, and away from text and abstractions. That is why al-Qaida targeted the Twin Towers in New York and not the Woodmen Tower in Omaha on 9/11, why the faces of past American presidents are carved into the side of a mountain in South Dakota, and why Hollywood makes movies showing the destruction of the White House or the Statue of Liberty. All were or are symbols of the nation and culture that produced them, and their monumental physical solidity gives us confidence in our national strength and continuation, just as their destruction diminishes that confidence, to dramatic effect.

There will of course be many security issues to manage during construction, and there is little doubt that Arab Muslims would use the building of a synagogue as pretext for violence.

These short-term security risks are however outweighed by the long-term security benefits of the synagogue. Murderous Arab riots over Israel’s opening of the Western Wall tunnels in 1996 came and went, and the tunnels are now in regular use with little controversy. So too might one consider the mosque dedicated that same year in Solomon’s Stables inside the Temple Mount, and how accepted its presence and transformation of the “status quo” has been. I imagine we all would be surprised by how quickly the particular violence generated by the synagogue’s construction would subside. No doubt Muslim leaders the world over would howl in protest, but such protests would also soon fade if Israeli leaders made clear that their words had no power to change anything.

Sooner than we realize, the presence of a synagogue on the Temple Mount would begin to seem ordinary, forcing Arab Muslims to reconcile themselves to its existence. Once built, it would so often be in front of us: hanging in the background while a reporter for CNN or Al-Jazeera gives the news from Jerusalem, appearing in pictures at Jerusalem hotel gift shops, seen from overhead while a digital font prints out “Jerusalem” during the next Jason Bourne movie. We should recall how firmly the visual of the current Western Wall plaza now symbolizes Jewish spiritual tradition, and that the plaza did not exist before 1967.

Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic and a longtime writer on Israel and the Temple Mount, wrote in 2015 that the Temple Mount status quo “is prudent and must remain in place” because it saves “lives fundamentalist Jewish radicals would risk.” This assumption, and the concern behind it over the supposedly extraordinary risks of transforming the national conflict with the Palestinians into a holy war with the entire Muslim world, reveals only an odd misreading of history by those who hold it. It is of course true that the Thirty Years’ War in 17th-century Europe was devastating, as were the many wars of conquest waged across the modern Middle East, North Africa, and Europe by expanding Muslim empires a thousand years earlier, and the many wars between Christians and Muslims that followed. But the many conflicts waged and the many lives taken by oppressive regimes in the many years since that have had little if any religious basis make it hard to understand why religious war should concern us more than secular war. Given the many millions killed by the explicitly secular regimes of the Soviet Union, Communist China, and North Korea, and the many lives lost in the secular World Wars, it seems that if offered the unpalatable choice between conflict on religious or secular grounds we should welcome the conflict driven by people who share an overarching faith in a supreme power that exists beyond human affairs to conflict conducted by those confident in the human mind as the final arbiter of justice, for it is they who have proven themselves capable of building the death camp and the gulag, not the religious believer.

Goldberg also wrote in that same 2015 article that Arab violence is “rooted not in Israeli settlement policy, but in a worldview that dismisses the national and religious rights of Jews.” In other words, Goldberg understands that Arab Muslim terrorism flows not as a response to any particular action of Jews or their state, but from the belief that attempts by Jews to assert any degree of autonomy are inherently illegitimate. The solution to Arab murderous attentions toward Jews therefore must aim to be one that firmly establishes their national and religious rights psychologically, something that only powerful cultural symbols have even the capacity to do. And since the Temple Mount is clearly the most powerful national and religious symbol in Israel, and the status quo arrangement has by now demonstratively failed to convince Arab Muslims that Jews have national and religious rights, it is better put that the status quo does not save lives, it takes them.

So, too, are we warned to be on guard against the messianism the return of Jewish prayer to the mount would engender. Again, though, here we hear an odd superstition against religious messianism when we rarely hear such concerns raised over secular messianism. In fact, extolling the many virtues of the Israel of the 1948-1967 period, before the conquest of Jerusalem and the territories, what Bernard Avishai has called the “Labor Zionist faith in the Hebrew republic that Israel was between 1948 and 1967,” is a bit of a thing. Yet that was the period of independent Israel’s greatest collectivism, when avowedly Stalinist kibbutizm welcomed the children of Jewish immigrants to Israel from the larger Middle East by forbidding their religious practice and indoctrinating them with Marxist ideology in service to the messianic goal of creating a perfect society. We may give thanks that Israel’s secular messianists did not follow the horrors committed by their comrades from the Caribbean to the Yellow seas, and maintained a basic respect for democratic norms. It remains strange though that their type of messianism, which has led to the death and despair of so many millions of people, should be extolled today by the same kinds of voices who would worry over the passions ignited by the construction of a synagogue.

It’d be better for us to caution ourselves against messianism applied to politics in all its forms, while not allowing our prejudices against or in favor of one form or the other to guide us. I am not promoting the construction of the Third Temple, the long prophesied event believed to herald the messianic age. I do promote the construction of a synagogue, which confirms the Jewish right to pray only.

In short, threats to Israel’s security rest on the belief that it is possible to destroy the country. Building a synagogue on the Temple Mount is the best available way to psychologically demonstrate otherwise. Concerns over the new security risks such a synagogue would create are overstated.

But we should demand not merely security. We should also demand peace.

It is a sign of how dispiriting the long Arab Muslim war has been to the Israeli psyche that the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai came to ask not for peace, but merely the “absence of war.” But following a decade in which the Jewish state has shown inspiring resilience and an ability to effectively manage the violent threats it faces—thanks in large part to the highly effective separation barrier built in the mid-2000s in the wake of the bloody Palestinian terror war—while growing its economy from 40% of U.S. GDP in 1960 to 65% in 2016, and fostering a purposeful society whose citizens consistently achieve high ranks in surveys of “life satisfaction,” it’s past time to ask again for peace. In the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel that was introduced in 1948 we ask, after all, for “peace in the land” that will be an “everlasting joy to its inhabitants.” And did not the Jews’ most admirable heretic, Baruch Spinoza, tell us that peace “is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.”

Asking for peace would mean imagining a world in which not only the question of Israel’s existence is not up for debate but the question of its purpose is also largely resolved. And that purpose is caught up intimately in the 2,000-year Jewish dream of spiritual return to Jerusalem.

We are often blinded to this simple truth by both the increased secularity of Western societies and the ideologies that drove the Zionist movement’s founders. The early movement was dominated by people like David Ben-Gurion who had been raised in religious Jewish communities in Europe and who as young women and men became atheists and true socialist believers. We are now years past the near total collapse of the kibbutzim and other cultural drivers produced by their ideology, years after the Labor Party that for so long dominated Israeli politics has been transformed into a rump faction in national affairs. Yet it is surprising how deeply a wholly secular view of the Jewish state continues to inform Israeli thinking. No doubt this is driven in no small part by the close integration the elites of Israel’s high-tech economy and cultural and academic institutions currently enjoy with their Western counterparts, and the degree to which Israelis wish to mimic the sensibilities of the largely secular people they interact with in Western countries. This also says nothing of the sociological fact of the great number of Israelis who have now been raised generations removed from any semblance of Jewish religious education or understanding.

Nevertheless, there is a reason why the long dream of Jewish political independence was realized in the Land of Israel, and not Uganda, Birobidzhan (the Yiddish homeland established in the far east of the Soviet Union in the 1920s), or Alaska. None of those places has the connection to Jewish history necessary to galvanize the masses needed to actually move to the place in pursuit of the Jewish homeland. And the place that did work, the Land of Israel, is a place whose Jewish history is intimately tied with the long Jewish struggle, from Abraham’s test to Joshua’s conquest to the Hasmonean dynasty, with God. There can simply be no Israel that does not aspire to the long Jewish dream of universal recognition of the oneness and supreme power of God, however defined and however worshiped.

As the final verses of the Aleinu prayer, taken from the book of the prophet Zechariah, put it, “Then the Lord will reign over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be One and His name One.” No wish here for all the world to become Jewish or to bow before Jewish power, but rather a dream that every human will be inspired by the Hebrew prophetic tradition to a recognition of the truth of a single and loving God, in whatever way they are best able to approach that truth. In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “No prayer more eloquently expresses the dual nature of the Jewish people: its singular history as the nation chosen to be God’s witnesses on earth, and its universal aspiration for the time when all inhabitants of earth will recognize the God in whose image we are formed.” It is in the present power of the Jews to create this single place of prayer for all peoples on the Temple Mount today, and to do so we need only to affirm our own right to pray in that place instead of allowing one single religion to selfishly and imperially reserve the space for its own purposes.

The establishment of the official rabbinate in Israel and the delegation of authority to it over the state’s functions over fields like marriage; the many Israeli official and unofficial taboos around things like work on Shabbat or leavened food during Passover; the establishment of the traditional religious Jewish holidays as official holidays of the state; the prominence of the Western Wall as a state political symbol of Israel—all of these have been the attempts made by a democratic society to give Jewish spirituality its place in a Jewish state. But in the many enduring controversies over marriage and conversion we see the utter failure of these policies. They fail because they are coercive. They fail because they view Jewish spirituality backwards in time, clinging to symbols of exile like the Western Wall and delegating the definition of religious practice to men who seem still to have yet to reconcile themselves to the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.

The spiritual dimension of Zionism, what the great Hebrew writer, Zionist, and pacifist Ahad Ha’Am called its “real and only basis,” is castrated by this present state of affairs.

A synagogue on the Temple Mount would upend this paradigm. Instead of encountering the Jewish spiritual tradition as a pile of rocks or a series of closed doors to the people they want to marry or the foods they want to eat, Israelis would instead encounter an open door to a beautiful building sitting at the very geographical spot that unites the physical and spiritual elements of our long Jewish story, the beating heart of the Jewish return to Zion itself.

To confirm the justice of Jewish rights, to secure Israel forever, to build toward peace among Jews and all peoples, the Jews should build a synagogue on the Temple Mount, and do it soon.


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Matthew Ackerman is the media relations manager for The David Project, a nonprofit that positively shapes campus opinion on Israel. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewAckerman.