A Soft “Status Quo”: The Gradual Collapse of the Jewish Religious Prohibition on Entering Jerusalem’s Noble Sanctuary

The “Status Quo” around Jerusalem’s Noble Sanctuary (al-Haram al-Sharif) has become part of the general discourse since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem began in 1967. As Arab, Muslim, and international communities call for the preservation of the Status Quo, Israel claims that it has preserved it and that it has no intention to change it. This paper will try to answer such very important questions as: What is the Status Quo in Jerusalem? Does Israel really preserve it? Is there really a status quo in the Noble Sanctuary? What is the role of colonialist and right-wing nationalist trends in changing conditions around the sanctuary?

“Status quo” is a Latin phrase that is extracted from a longer phrase, “status quo ante bellum,” meaning “the situation as it existed before the war,” and that typically points to current conditions that should be preserved. In the context of the Noble Sanctuary and its management following the start of the Israeli occupation, the Status Quo in Israeli discourse points to the government’s commitment—initially under then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol—to preserving the conditions that existed prior to Israel’s 1967 takeover of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as to keeping the management of the site in the hands of the Islamic endowment authorities, preventing the entry of Jewish worshippers to the sanctuary, and limiting visits to tourists. Israel’s commitment benefited from the existence of a general, strict, and absolute religious position that prohibits Jews from entering the sanctuary. That position originated in the belief that the long-destroyed temple that represents the holiest place in the Jewish faith and that was believed to have housed the Ark of the Covenant was located on the site where the Noble Sanctuary now sits. For that reason, no one can enter the area except the chief rabbi, who can enter only once a year—on Yom Kippur—to offer sacrifices. Religiously speaking, entering the sanctuary is subject to many degrees of prohibition, and it requires very strict purification rites that cannot be carried out at the present time. According to most Jewish religious interpretations, because there are no guarantees for strict purification and no possibility of determining the exact location of the temple, Jews are prevented from entering the sanctuary’s courtyards.

It is noteworthy that according to scripture, many things can cause impurity, such as touching the dead. And since most people have touched dead bodies at some point in their life, or have touched those who have touched them, they are therefore impure. To purify oneself from impurities, one must wash with the ashes of a red heifer mixed with spring water; and since no heifer has been found to date that is purely red, the prohibition stands. In other words, the prohibition has no relation to whether Jews have an absolute right to the sanctuary; entry is conditioned on proper purification that so far cannot be assured.

Historically speaking, no one knows when or how the prohibition began, but belief in it became an ironclad part of religious ideology. Exceptions to the prohibition in the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century were rare, and were met with condemnation and both popular and religious anger. For example, in 1855, during a visit to Jerusalem in which he was accompanied by his wife and then British Consul in Jerusalem James Finn, Moses (Moshe) Montefiore, a famous Jewish philanthropist, entered the sanctuary’s courtyard and toured it. This incited the anger of the Jewish community in Palestine, and many temples boycotted and sanctioned him. The sanction was not lifted until Montefiore was chastised and warned against repeating his act. Another violation came in the spring of 1887, when Baron Edmond de Rothschild visited the sanctuary and elicited anger and condemnation. Zvi Yehuda Kook, who is considered the godfather and founder of religious colonialist Zionism and the chief rabbi of Zionist settlements, expressed his sorrow and anger over this visit when he wrote in 1914: “My heart was broken over the desecration of God’s name in the temple, especially when no one warned [Rothschild] that this was prohibited. One flaw that besmirches the holiness of the temple is more important than millions of real settlements.” Kook had sent a letter in 1913 to the administration of the Gymnasia Herzliya school calling for adherence to limits while visiting Jerusalem, including “refraining from desecrating religion and everything holy such as the desecration of the sabbath, especially publicly, and prohibitions on entering the temple.”

Israel’s decision to preserve the Status Quo in the Noble Sanctuary resulted from fears of explosive conditions around it at the time, especially in light of the euphoria of victory that engulfed both secular and religious Israelis, as well as the launch of initial efforts to rebuild the temple in place of the sanctuary as the crowning of Jewish sovereignty. Adherents to that vision believe that the Temple Mount is a crown jewel without which that sovereignty remains unachieved. It is noteworthy that among those accompanying the paratroopers who occupied Jerusalem’s Old City in 1967 was military Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who was hesitant and confused, according to some witnesses, about how to behave toward the Noble Sanctuary, and indeed who had thoughts about how to control it and rebuild the long-destroyed temple. According to Israeli journalist Uzi Benziman, Rabbi Goren had thoughts upon entering the Old City’s walls about rebuilding the temple and allowing Jews to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyards in the Noble Sanctuary. In his book, The Mount of Conflict, Nadav Shragai reports that the rabbi seriously thought of the possibility of destroying the mosque as a step toward rebuilding the temple, and even shared his views about the matter with Israeli Army leaders. According to him, rebuilding the temple is the essence of achieving messianic salvation as it appears in Isaiah 2:3-4: “Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

When the Israeli Army entered the courtyards of the Noble Sanctuary in 1967, soldiers hoisted the Israeli flag over the Dome of the Rock, flying it there for hours before Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered that it be removed. Dayan later wrote that, “If there were something we shouldn’t do in Jerusalem it was to raise Israeli flags over Omar’s mosque and the tomb of Christ. We must consider the Temple Mount a historical site and must avoid hindering the Arabs from using it as it is now, a Muslim praying mosque.” Prime Minister Eshkol announced in June 1967 the continuation of the Status Quo, according to which the Jerusalem Waqf, an Islamic endowment, continues to manage the Noble Sanctuary. The following August, the government’s ministerial committee to preserve the holy places made a decision preventing Rabbi Goren from “any activity to organize prayers on the Temple Mount” and ordering the army to remove any Jews who entered the sanctuary for prayers. Dayan’s position and that of Eshkol’s government were based on considerations regarding international relations and on fears of an explosive situation with the Muslim world if the Status Quo were changed, since that would lead to pressures on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. In this context, Professor Avigdor Lafontaine, an expert in international law, wrote that, “There are fears that some extremist groups may claim that since the Temple Mount is in our hands it is time to do something extreme, from building the temple in a part of the sanctum to expanding or fortifying the Western Wall at the expense of its other non-Jewish parts.”

The first attempt to Judaize the sanctuary after the occupation and to rebuild the temple was undertaken by the Temple Mount Faithful, an organization that was founded by Gershon Salomon (1935–2022), who was a member of the Herut Party and later of the extremist, secular, and rightist Tehiya (Revival) Party. The movement was ardently supported by activists from Zionist paramilitary organizations Lehi and Etzel (Ergun Tzvai Leumi), but was condemned by the majority of religious institutions and rabbinates. In contrast to later organizations, the Temple Mount Faithful was distinguished by its nationalist, non-religious orientation. The organization persisted in its efforts to change the Status Quo and break into the sanctuary’s courtyards. In October 1990 it announced its intention to place the temple’s cornerstone inside the sanctuary, which led to serious confrontations and to Israeli soldiers’ invasion of the area and the killing of 17 Palestinians.

In the mid-1980s, the first religious movement that arose to rebuild the temple, the Temple Institute, was led by a rabbi from the country’s religious Zionism contingent. In the beginning, such movements were small and marginal, and had no popular following. In the meantime, official rabbinates and central religious trends continued to consider entering the Noble Sanctuary’s courtyards a great sin.

But the prohibition that was initially nearly comprehensive began to gradually fray because of the nationalist factor, and because of the continual transformation from religious Zionism to messianic, colonialist, and nationalist Zionism. In fact, it is possible to follow this fraying in the rise of a terrorist organization, the Jewish Underground, that included many members who previously belonged to religious Zionism in the late 1970s. This organization conducted a number of assassinations among elected mayors in the West Bank, in addition to attacks on Islamic College students in al-Khalil (Hebron). It also planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock in 1984 in order to speed up the realization of “holy salvation.” Among its religious Zionist activists were Hagai Segal, who currently is chief editor of the colonialist Makor Rishon journal, and Rabbi Yehuda Etzion, who is famous for his settlement activism and his attempt to Judaize the Noble Sanctuary. Despite all this, the prohibition on entering the sanctuary remained the official position of religious Haredi Zionism and in the religious establishment. But the position of religious Zionism began to seriously change following the 1993 Oslo Accords and these organizations’ refusal to withdraw from any occupied territories. This finally culminated in an unprecedented position on January 26, 1997, when the rabbinate of the Yesha Council (an organization that represents the various municipal councils of Israeli settlements in the West Bank) issued an official declaration that included an edict allowing Jews to enter the Noble Sanctuary and a call to “ascend to the temple.” It also published religious guidance on how to prepare and purify oneself before doing so. Among those who adopted this new position that allows for entrance to the sanctuary after ablutions was a group of influencers in religious Zionism, including Rabbis Haim Drukman, Dov Lior, Nahum Eliezer Rabinowicz, Eliezer Feldman, and Yisrael Ariel, founder and head of the Temple Institute.

Yehuda Glick summarized the impact of the settlement rabbis’ transformation from prohibition to acceptance of entry to the sanctuary in a television interview on May 7, 2012, saying, “When I first ascended to the Temple Mount in 1990, we used to enter single file; today, we enter in groups of fifty. Back then, we had difficulty gathering enough people required by scripture for prayer [at least 50], but today there are more and more…We have accomplished great work…The subject of the temple and of the Temple Mount has become a pivotal position in the nationalist trend today.”

Today, there are scores of groups rallying under the banner of the temple, among which are some that advocate for rebuilding it on top of the ruins of the Noble Sanctuary, like the Temple Institute, the Temple Faithful, the Endowment-Temple Treasures, Women of the Temple, the Guardians of the Temple—whose volunteers in 2012 numbered 957 and who spent at that time 250,000 shekels on various activities and projects—Har Hamor, and other groups that work on preparing ritual implements required for worship in the temple, like the Temple Institute, the Hebrew Artist House, and others.

Preparations in some associations to realize these messianic projects have reached high degrees of planning and follow-through on details related to building the desired temple, including models of the temple and its rooms, utensils, clothing, plants, colors, and gems. To address the purification issue and its requirement for ablutions using the ashes of a red heifer, the Temple Institute started a project in 2015 for the purpose of “lab-based insemination to birth a red heifer.” In a “happy news” bulletin, the organization announced on its pages that “the institute has worked quietly and diligently since the establishment of its endowment toward achieving the red heifer project. With the help of local ranchers, the institute has established many sites around the state to raise potential red heifers. Lately, the institute has been awaiting the birth of cows of the angus variety in a secure environment, in the hope of finding red heifers suitable for the temple.” Additionally, clerical clothing has already been prepared and made available for sale on the institute’s website. A complete set of garments costs 50,000 shekels.

In addition to the fraying of the religious prohibition on entering the sanctuary, the increase in those who invade it among Israel’s religious, secular, and nationalist Zionist contingents, and the frantic attempts to Judaize it in order to rebuild the temple, rightist leaders who agree with religious Zionism on the idea of Eretz Yisrael (the notion of a broader “Land of Israel”) and sovereignty in the area have pushed to change the Status Quo. The Eshkol government’s verbal commitment to abide by the Status Quo in fact buckled in 1996 with current and then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government, which dug a tunnel under the Al-Aqsa Mosque; and it finally collapsed with then Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon’s 2000 incursion into the Noble Sanctuary and the subsequent eruption of the Second Intifada. After that, the sanctuary courtyards were closed to Jews for three years, until 2003 when the Status Quo was revived under new rules, according to which Israeli police determine the number and the constitution of the Jewish visitors who are allowed to enter. With this change, large ideologically messianic groups were allowed to enter the courtyards, initially in groups of 50, but later in larger numbers. For example, in August 2003, 150 settlers invaded the Al-Aqsa Mosque and attempted to perform religious rites in it. That same year the number of Israeli police officers who patrol the area increased, and the police were given the right to interfere in closing the courtyards to worshippers, in addition to preventing the endowment authorities from undertaking repairs inside the mosque and keeping Muslim worshippers from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip from entering.

Since 2009, additional incursions have been taking place, often with the accompaniment of ministers and politicians, including some from Likud such as Moshe Feiglin and Yehudah Glick, and the incursions became the subject of competition between right-wingers. In October 2014, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Uri Ariel published a video of himself praying next to the Dome of the Rock and reading the priestly benediction. In September 2015, the sanctuary was opened to Jews for the first time on Yom Kippur, and 37 settlers entered it while 60 Jews prayed in an adjacent temple, the court building, which is considered by the rabbis to be sacred since, in their belief, half of it is built in the sanctuary courtyard. Indeed, statistics show the gradual but steady increase in the number of group incursions, which have become daily occurrences. In 2019, a total of 37,708 settlers entered the sanctuary. In 2020, largely because of COVID-19 closures, that number decreased to 19,814. In 2021 it increased again to 34,779, and in 2022, it shot up to 48,238, according to Jerusalem Waqf authorities.

This radical change by religious Zionism from absolute prohibition to wide acceptance is evident in a 2014 poll among religious Zionists that showed that 75.4 percent of them supported Jewish entry into the sanctuary and only 24 percent objected to it, while 19.6 percent had actually entered the compound and 35.7 percent had not gone in but intended to. Thus, the Status Quo has in fact become a soft concept in political action and in practice after it was changed according to the wishes of the Israeli police and the government then in office.

From a religious point of view, and despite the gradual shift toward nationalist Zionism and the widening circle of rabbis with nationalist backgrounds, it is important to note that Haredi rabbis, both Ashkenazi and Sephardic, in addition to Israel’s chief rabbis, still absolutely prohibit Jews from entering the Al-Aqsa courtyards. In 2004, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate issued a declaration reiterating this absolute prohibition, which Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual guide of the Shas Movement, as well as then Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger and then Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar all signed. In this context came the statement by Moshe Gafni, leader of Yehadut HaTorah (United Torah Judaism), who expressed his dissatisfaction with current Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir’s May 2023 incursion into the sanctuary, considering it contrary to Jewish scripture. Israel’s current Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef held the same position, and sent a letter to Ben-Gvir that repeated the religious position that prohibits entering the sanctuary. As for the Religious Zionism Party and its leader, Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich, they are still undecided; while some strongly oppose the move, Haim Drukman, who recently passed away, supported it.

In this environment, it is expected that the position toward the sanctuary and incursions will be a point of contention in Netanyahu’s current government between the Haredi contingent that opposes it and the rightist nationalist one that Ben-Gvir represents. It is also expected that support for Ben-Gvir’s position will gradually increase among religious nationalist Zionists.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors. This article was first published in Arabic by the Palestinian Center for Israeli Studies (Madar) on January 9, 2023.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Robert Hoetink