During my recent trip to Israel, an Orthodox rabbi took me to see something that most outsiders do not usually see. It was Friday night (Shabbos, the Jewish Sabbath), and he wanted to go to pray at the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem. Before that, he took me to see Kotel Katan — an older, smaller, less well known section of the Western Wall located within the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City — and from there we went to one of the gates that serve as an entrance to the Temple Mount.
Walking through the Muslim Quarter, the air was thick with tension. Since I am a Christian, nobody bothered me. But there were people who went out of their way to bump into and shove my friend, who is easily identifiable as a Jewish rabbi. They were trying to start a fight. So I was surprised, upon arriving at the gate to the Temple Mount, to find a large gathering of Jewish students. There, deep within the Muslim Quarter, these Jewish students were protesting about how they are not allowed to pray at Judaism’s holiest site. Armed guards were there to keep Jews out. This is what he wanted me to see.
The Temple Mount, of course, was the site of the first and second Jewish Temples and where — according to the faithful — the third Temple will be built. I had some understanding about the rules governing the Temple Mount. According to the Times of Israel, “Under the current 52-year-old status quo at the site, Muslims can pray at the site while Jews are allowed to visit — under heavy restrictions, in a predetermined route and only for several hours on weekdays — but not pray there.”
I wanted to know more about these students, who are brave enough to fight for change. So I was told to contact Tom Nisani, the Israeli-born leader of “Students for the Temple Mount” and head of campus activity in the Im Tirtzu organization. I interviewed him briefly:
Mitsotakis (SM): What is happening on the Temple Mount and why?
Nisani (TN): The Temple Mount was liberated by the Israel Defense Forces in 1967. [There was] a total lack of interest among the Israeli public, and due to various historical realities that caused the national consciousness among the average Israeli, and even among the political leaders and military personnel of Israel, to be drawn simply to the Kotel (Western Wall) — despite it being only a retaining wall for the Temple Mount. The Mount itself was forgotten and the Jordanian Waqf that abandoned it during the battles was brought back to administer it by the State of Israel itself! Today, more than even 50 years later, basic freedoms such as prayer and freedom of movement are still ignored for all those ascending the Mount who are not Muslim. The Temple Mount is a place where these basic human rights and others are trampled on in the most outright and direct way. And this is happening in the holiest place for the Jewish people in the Jewish state! And just like in the other holy places for Jews in Israel, improvement is a process we are trying to hasten — but at this stage on the Temple Mount, there are clear human rights violations and infringements of the rights of all non-Muslims.
SM: What is your organization, why do you do what you do, and what do you hope to change?
TN: Our organization was established about five years ago and includes students and young Israeli adults — secular, religious, and so forth. We are from all over the nation of Israel. We want to return the Temple Mount to its fitting place in Israeli society. This means, practically, that we work towards normalizing the Temple Mount under full Israeli sovereignty and once it is, all other challenges, problems, and difficulties will cease. It would be beneficial to all involved parties for the Temple Mount to be under complete Israeli sovereignty. Today, as the Jordanians, Qataris, Hamas, and so many more, all attempt to influence what happens on the Temple Mount, we all lose. Peaceful tourists are routinely assaulted, Jewish worshippers are restricted and oppressed, and even the Muslims suffer from the corruption of their leaders — including the Jordanians and the senior Waqf members. We will not rest until we change this situation, and we have already begun seeing change.
SM: I am told that your group is secular. Yet this is an issue of enormous religious significance. Is the religious community supporting you?
TN: In our movement, we have members who are from all the types and stripes of Israel. And this is the beauty in our movement, “Students for the Temple Mount.” We reflect the Israeli public and understand the import of our mission. The Temple Mount is a place for all of the nation of Israel and so too will it be in the future. Even the most secular among us, or those who would be considered less religious, are connected to our faith and Jewish nationality and see those as important aspects of our identities. In fact, it is the Temple Mount that connects us the most.