Politicians like to show voters that they’re living up to their campaign promises. But smart politicians know that governing requires more than pleasing the faithful. When Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, toured Jerusalem’s Temple Mount last week, he fulfilled a long-standing promise to his far-right supporters. But in doing so, he prompted both expected and less-expected reactions.
To his credit, Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount without an advance announcement and did so early in the morning when the holy site was not crowded with the Muslim faithful. He visited with only a small entourage and left after 15 minutes. In the circumstances, the visit was surprisingly restrained for someone regularly described as a “right-wing provocateur.” Thus far, the visit has not prompted a mass backlash from Arab worshippers, similar to the one following the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s more theatrical visit in 2000. Still, there have been predictable international diplomatic reactions. Thus, it was not surprising that Israel’s regional peace partners, new Abraham Accords signees and potential peace or accord partners, along with the Palestinians, condemned the visit.
The United States — following the Biden administration’s promise to judge the new Israeli government not by the makeup of its members but by the actions it takes — issued guarded criticism, calling the move “unacceptable” and urging Israel not to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, which currently allows Jews to visit there but not to pray. In response, newly reinstalled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured critics that there will be no change in the status quo.
All of that was largely predictable. What was less predictable were the public, heated reactions of Ben-Gvir’s Haredi Orthodox coalition partners (who together hold 18 seats in the 64-member coalition), who in what appeared to be an orchestrated response criticized the Temple Mount visit in very direct terms. In Yated Ne’eman, the United Torah Judaism’s party newspaper, the visit was criticized as “unnecessary and dangerous provocation” that places the lives of Israel’s Jewish citizens at risk. The front-page article went on to accuse Ben-Gvir of “upsetting the Arab world, angering the world and drawing strong American condemnation.” Similar condemnations were issued by Haredi rabbis and politicians.
What drives such criticism is the belief that it is contrary to Jewish law for Jews to visit the Temple Mount. Thus, as stated in the Shas newspaper HaDerech, it “is a duty to protest actions that are prohibited and contrary to halachah, certainly when it comes to the Temple Mount, which has been prohibited by all the adjudicators in all generations.”
The proper approach to the undisputed religious sanctity of the Temple Mount is a matter of longstanding debate between the Haredi Orthodox and religious Zionist Jews — particularly regarding the propriety of Jewish prayer at the site. That dispute has now been brought out in the open. The next steps by Ben-Gvir and his supporters need to be watched very carefully.