On the eve of the fast of Tisha Be’av, statistics were published showing an increase of more than 15% in the number of Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism.
According to the Yeraeh organization, which promotes Jewish visitation and prayer rights at the Mount and desires to rebuild the Jewish Temple there, at least 17,000 Jews have visited the site since the beginning of the Hebrew year 5777 last October. In the Hebrew year 5776, 14,908 Jews visited the site, while 5777 still has another six weeks to run, with at least a thousand Jewish visitors expected on the Temple Mount on Tisha Be’av alone.
The visitor numbers are counted by tour guides of the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation and Kapot Hamanul who are present at the Mugrabi Bridge, the access point for non-Muslims, whenever the site is open for non-Muslims to take Jewish groups on a tour. They count the numbers of visitors in each group and forward it to Yeraeh via WhatsApp, which collates the data. Jews who do not visit through Yeraeh or the two groups providing tour guides do so as regular tourists and are not included in Yeraeh’s figures.
The police do not keep their own records and Yeraeh’s statistics could not be independently verified.
Elishamah Sandman, a spokesman for Yeraeh, said that until this year, the number of Jewish visitors had been increasing only gradually and that the jump this year reflected a new reality for visits to the holy place. He attributed the increase to several factors, including more welcoming conduct by the police, increased exposure of the possibility of Jewish visitation, and the removal of the Murabitat Muslim groups that would routinely and systematically harass Jewish visitors.
The removal of the Murabitat groups helped especially to calm the situation at the site when Jews visited in groups, and made the experience more relaxed, pleasant and less threatening, Sandman said.
Tour guides can now take their time and explain the historic and religious facets of the compound without dozens of men and women from the Murabitat screaming at them.
“We’re showing that this place doesn’t belong to Islam but to the Jews,” Sandman said. “Wanting to go up to the Temple Mount is part of preparing for building the Temple. We’re not embarrassed to say this.” He also said that from a national perspective, visiting the site was a strong statement proving that Israel controls the Mount and has sovereignty over it.
In the two weeks after two border policemen were murdered by Arab-Israeli terrorists near the Temple Mount, Palestinian religious and political leaders ordered Muslim worshipers to pray outside the Mount after police installed metal detectors and security cameras. The leaders claimed that such measures were designed to further Israeli control over the site, which is administered by the Wakf Muslim religious trust. Sandman said that Yeraeh believes “there is space for everyone on the Temple Mount, everyone can come and pray to God,” but that it was “not a place for a mosque.”
He said “a temporary solution” could be to share the site with Muslim worshipers, but that in the long term, the Dome of the Rock would have to be dismantled or moved since it occupies a critical piece of geography in the compound where the Temple’s Holy of Holies is believed to have been located.
Unlike al-Aksa, the Dome of the Rock is not a mosque.
The Chief Rabbinate and many rabbinic authorities prohibit Jews from visiting the Temple Mount due to an impure Jewish status that cannot be expunged in present times. But there is a significant number of national-religious rabbis who permit and encourage Jewish visitation to the holy place.
Rabbi Yaakov Medan, dean of the prestigious Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut, was among several rabbis to visit the Temple Mount during the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha Be’av, along with Rabbi Shaul David Botchko, dean of the Heichal Eliyahu Yeshiva in Kochav Ya’acov and Rabbi Re’em Hacohen, dean of the Otniel Yeshiva. “In order to be fitting for this we must seek out His holy place, which is currently in exile,” Medan said during his visit on Monday. “The more we seek this place, the more we will see that God wants with us there. Precisely because of the crisis around the Mount which happened, people are obligated to come and plead before him and he will see that we really desire his divine presence on the Temple Mount,” Medan said.
Last week, several dozen prominent national-religious rabbis, including Rabbi Dov Lior and Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, called on Jews to visit the Temple Mount “to strengthen our hold on this holy place.”