The Jewish Divide Over Jerusalem's Most Sensitive Holy Site
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Violent attacks between Israelis and Palestinians are on the rise. Much of the tension centers on one of the most sensitive issues in that long conflict - control of the hilltop in Jerusalem that is holy to both Jews and Muslims. As NPR's Emily Harris reports, many Israeli Jews are now debating whether they should set foot at all on the site they call the Temple Mount.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Tamir Mizrachi stands just outside a tall stone archway in Jerusalem's Old City. This is one entry to the hilltop courtyard holy to Jews because their ancient temple stood there and to Muslims as a place from where their prophet, Muhammad, briefly rose to heaven. Mizrachi just finished his weekly stroll inside the compound.
TAMIR MIZRACHI: This is the place that they can feel the most close to God. I like to feel close to God, so I like to come here.
HARRIS: Israeli policy forbids Jews from praying on the Temple Mount, but they are allowed to visit, including in large groups at the same time tourists are let in.
MIZRACHI: All the Jewish people want to be here. All the Jewish religious people want to be here.
HARRIS: Not all - at least, not right now.
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HARRIS: A few turns down the Old City's narrow alleys, Jewish families celebrating bar mitzvahs parade across an open plaza. Here, huge, ancient stones form the Western Wall - one retaining wall of the Temple Mount site above. Twenty-three-year-old Emanuel Benitzhak is rushing to the wall to pray. He comes here daily, but he never goes up to the Temple Mount.
EMANUEL BENITZHAK: The rabbis say that it's not good to go up there. It's not our time right now.
HARRIS: Time in terms of centuries or more. No one is pure enough, he says.
BENITZHAK: Nothing politically or anything - religious wise. And we shouldn't be there right now, until like - I guess until Messiah comes 'cause it's, like, nobody's land, basically. That part's, like, God's land. That's what it is, basically.
HARRIS: Israel captured the Temple Mount and Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Since then, the holy site has been administered by a Muslim organization. But Israeli police control access. In recent weeks, right-wing politicians have visited with the usual police escort for Jews to prevent confrontations with Muslims. Shuli Mualem-Rafaeli, a member of Parliament with the right-wing Jewish Home Party, says Palestinians have thrown rocks at her when she has visited.
SHULI MUALEM-RAFAELI: (Through translator) I want to see the status quo changed so Jews can pray there. There's a systematic attempt by the Arabs to try to break the tie between Israel and the Temple Mount.
HARRIS: But one of Israel's chief rabbis and the defense minister both recently warned that these high-profile visits by Jewish Israelis to the Temple Mount can provoke violence because Palestinians view the visits as a prelude to a takeover. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said he has no intention of changing the current rules limiting Jewish access.
RUEVEN HAZAN: Netanyahu is under tremendous pressure.
HARRIS: Rueven Hazan teaches political science at Hebrew University. He says the Jewish Home Party in particular is hoping pressure on Netanyahu will lead to early elections that could increase right-wing power.
HAZAN: Beating the drums of the Temple Mount is something that rallies the troops on the more hard right. And that means that they'll keep doing it because it serves their political interests.
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HARRIS: Meanwhile, back at the Western Wall Plaza, some Jewish visitors didn't know they were permitted to visit the Temple Mount at all. Others said they'd like to go but were too afraid of how Muslims might react to try. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.