For the last 46 years, Jews have not been allowed to pray on Temple Mount, and few Jews even visit • Currently, not very many people are complaining, but a recent seminar on the topic concluded unequivocally: More Jews need to frequent the holy site.

Mohammed Assaf from the city of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, the winner of the second season of Arab Idol, is currently driving the masses wild with his song about the "wounded al-Aqsa" in his soul -- a song he has dedicated to "martyrs." Last week in the Temple Mount plaza, "al-Aqsa summer camps" began drawing thousands of children. They memorize verses from the Quran while the Jerusalem police raises its alert level for the month of Ramadan -- the holy Muslim month of fasting that began last week with the arrival of thousands of worshippers to the area's mosques.

The Jewish presence at the Temple Mount, however, is minor. The Jews there are mainly police officers. Not only have the Jews been forbidden from praying at this holiest of sites for the last 46 years, very few Jews even visit the site (about 1,000 per month), and the ones who do are mainly members of small movements seeking to rebuild the Temple. The majority of the Jewish public never visit the Temple Mount, nor do they show any practical interest in the site. Therefore, it was a welcome change of pace when the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, a public institution well within the general consensus, recently "broke" the Third Temple movements' monopoly over the Temple Mount and held a seminar there on the necessary, but also rhetorical question: Is the Temple Mount ours? (a reference to the now immortal remark made in 1967 by then-paratrooper brigade commander Mordechai Gur, who said, "The Temple Mount is ours," after his troops conquered the site during the Six-Day War).

Four panels, two hosts and 14 speakers dedicated five hours to the various aspects of this emotionally charged question. The audience was extremely diverse (also a novelty) -- there were police commanders posted on the Mount, undercover Israel Security Agency operatives, Antiquities Authority archeologists and various rabbis, among others. In the unusual debate that developed during the course of the seminar, almost everyone sustained harsh criticism and accusations, but there were also surprises, innovations and interesting insights.

Take Dalia Dorner, for example. It is not every day that a former Supreme Court justice attends a seminar like this and shares the mysteries of judgment and the inner thoughts of High Court judges with the public. Dorner, who currently serves as the president of the Israeli Press Council, surprised everyone. She told the audience that she found the issue of Jews' right to pray on Temple Mount emotionally moving. She still believes, she explained, that despite the many years that the High Court of Justice dedicated to debating the issue, it is not an issue that lends itself to legal judgment. It so evades judgment that it is like the hypothetical scenario in which "someone were to ask us, the judges, to decide whether or not to bomb the nuclear reactor in Iran."

In preparation for the seminar, she recounted, she perused dozens of court rulings on the topic.

"Generations of judges dealt with this matter … the thousands of pages written by them are a waste of paper. A useless endeavor," she said. "The courtroom is not the place for this debate. [Former Prime Minister] Menachem Begin famously said 'there are judges in Jerusalem' but for heaven's sake -- there are legislators in Jerusalem. There is a Knesset in Jerusalem. There is a government. This is a purely political matter."

"If I were to adhere to our traditional rules as judges," she went on to say, "I would say to myself: 'We will not ban the Muslims from praying, but why should the Jews not be allowed to pray?'"

Dorner explained that "in legal deliberations, we have a technique by which we navigate between clashing rights: The right of the Jews to pray versus the security threat posed to the public. Each right ostensibly gives way a little so that the other can be upheld, but not in this case! This case cannot be ruled on, and if the judges were to send the first person who petitioned the court on the topic away, directing him to the government rather than writing thousands of pages of legal opinions, it would have been far more efficient and could have saved a lot of time. We don't have the ability to make a judgment here. Anyone who carefully reads the courts' rulings will see that this is the only conclusion they point to."

"The judges," Dorner continued, "always begin early and initially write 200 pages of beautiful texts, but in the end, they don't give any order."

"The only one who ever said it, straight and to the point," she praised one of her former colleagues, "was Justice Eliezer Goldberg. Though he did agree with an argument in one of the petitions that the Muslim expansion into yet another prayer site on the Temple Mount -- in the mosque they built in Solomon's Stables -- is offensive to the Jews' sensitivities regarding the site," he also clarified that "this is one of those cases where a legal ruling is not the logical way to settle the dispute … the resolution must be between the feelings of the opposing parties … therefore, this politicizing of the court must be avoided. The political echelon, and not the court, should be assigning meaning to the historical remark 'the Temple Mount is ours.'"

"My position," Dorner said, "is even more extreme than his. The rules and the traditional tools at our disposal simply don't apply here, due to the sanctity as well as the sensitivity of the issue, and also because of a billion Muslims."

At that point, someone from the audience asked the honorable judge why, then, when it came to the Women of the Wall, the regular rules of judgment did apply, even though in their case the issue is also a holy site. Dorner replied that in the Women of the Wall dispute (between the ultra-Orthodox worshippers who are offended by the women's group singing, reading from the Torah and donning of prayer shawls at the Western Wall and the women's insistence on their right to do so), the disagreement is between Jews, while the Temple Mount issue is between Arabs and Jews, making it a "purely diplomatic issue."

A question of sanctity

As Dorner was trying to steer future petitioners toward the Knesset rather than the court, clarifying to them how pointless any further legal action would be, Professor Dan Bahat, one of Israel's most respected archeologists, pointed his arrows at the rabbis. Bahat, who once served as Antiquities Authority's Jerusalem District chief archeologist, was invited to speak about the complexity of performing archeological work on the Temple Mount. But his anger toward the rabbis, many of whom use Jewish law rulings to prohibit Jews from visiting Temple Mount to this day, caused him to veer off topic.

"It is all their [the rabbis'] fault," he said. "Ever since the Chief Rabbinate hung a sign warning Jews not to enter the Mount and threatened them with divine punishment, the Temple Mount is not ours anymore. We have lost it. Throughout the generations, Jews have recounted the lengths they went to, and how proud they were to climb to the Mount; what humiliation they endured, and how many bribes they had to pay to enter. And when the Muslims conquered the land, the Jews insisted that they be permitted to clean the Mount and fill the mosque lamps with oil… Even after the Jews were removed from the Mount, they continued to cling to it, and the famous Warren's Gate became Jerusalem's main synagogue, just because it was situated directly below the Temple Mount."

"Today we know where the original boundaries of the Temple Mount ran, and even those who were careful not to enter the grounds could still visit other sites," he continued. "I, myself, am not afraid. I climb all the way to the Dome of the Rock -- the holy of holies. I think it is every Jew's duty to go there."

Later in his remarks, Bahat suggested that the "archeologists unite and determine together exactly where the holy grounds lie on Temple Mount, so that we can convince the rabbis that there are areas that are less holy, and therefore permissible, and then more Jews would visit."

Bahat also voiced a lot of anger toward the police. He called them "the Temple Mount's biggest enemy … though I maintain good relations with them."

"Every time I climb up there, they ask me 'why are you climbing?' or 'where are you going?' They interrogate me, even though they have known me for 30 years. … It's that fear of the waqf," he said.

Bahat did not expound on his time as the district archeologist on Temple Mount. But still, "it is possible," he surmised, "to get a lot more out of one-on-one dialogue with the waqf. They know you; they respect you; and they often fulfill your wishes. Nothing goes well by force over there. Only through dialogue."

"When you are the chief archeologist of the Jerusalem district, you don't have any room to operate on Temple Mount. When I resigned from the position," he revealed, "it was because the late Amir Drori, who was the director of the Antiquities Authority, demanded that everything on the Mount be authorized in writing. I knew that this wouldn't work on Temple Mount, and a dispute erupted, culminating in my departure."

To be worthy of the Mount

Bahat also recounted that one of the things that bothered him most about the work on Temple Mount was the meetings with the waqf.

"When its people would argue with me about it being the actual location of the Temple," he said. "They would say to me: 'if this is really where the Temple was, where are all the 'shiknuzim' -- the ultra-Orthodox Jews? They should have been the first in line to climb the Mount. They don't come, which means that they know it wasn't really here.'"

"Then," Bahat said, "various rabbis came out with conflicting accounts of where the Temple was actually located, even though it was perfectly clear that the Foundation Stone -- the highest spot on the Mount -- is where the Temple really was."

"Ultimately," Bahat remarked, "the disagreements among us [the Jews] serve the Muslims who claim that if we, the Jews, don't know exactly where the Temple stood, it is a clear indication that it wasn't there at all."

Bahat also insisted on clarifying some things regarding the Western Wall.

"It was only since 1625 that we have any record of mass prayers at the Western Wall," he said. "Before then, worshippers would circle the four walls of the Temple Mount, which were equally holy."

And he had more relevant information to share, on the eve of Tisha B'Av: "Ten column capitals with traces of gold remained on Temple Mount, just as they were described in Josephus' writings. These were the last Herodian remains that can be seen on the Mount today."

On the other hand, Bahat's colleague Dr. Gabi Barkai focused mainly on a string of blows dealt to the archeological endeavor on Temple Mount since 1967, the latest of which, as he described, involved "the deliberate hammering of the remnants of the royal colonnade at Solomon's Stables -- a decoration of carved vines."

Legal expert and attorney Dr. Shmuel Berkovich, a highly respected authority on holy sites, also described vandalism of antiquities and wondered "how can it be that the director of the Antiquities Authority described what happened on the Mount in the late 1990s as an archeological crime; and Elyakim Rubinstein, then the attorney-general, talked about a 'kick to the history of the Jewish people' and still no one has ever been put on trial?"

Adjoining Tel Aviv to the capital

Bahat directed his arrows at the rabbis, and so did the members of the movements seeking to build a third temple, who held a separate panel. It was the members of these movements who closed the seminar.

A little bit of background: After the Six-Day War, the support for the Jewish prohibition against setting foot on the Temple Mount was almost absolute -- both among ultra-Orthodox rabbis and Zionist rabbis. The Chief Rabbinate has been very consistent, and still is to this day, with its insistence on forbidding entry to the Mount, but the Zionist rabbis have since changed their position, and hundreds of them currently allow entry into the Temple Mount. However, this has not significantly increased the number of Jewish visitors to the site. The Jews, it turns out, have grown accustomed to frequenting the Western Wall. They are in no hurry to replace it with an even holier site.

Rabbi David Stav, one of the more prominent candidates to become the next Ashkenazi chief rabbi, represented the conservative viewpoint in regard to the Temple Mount. It turned out that, surprisingly, his position is actually ultra-conservative. Stav quoted his teacher, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who once remarked that when it comes to the Temple Mount, "we are like the [extremist haredi sect] Neturei Karta -- we don't touch." He stood behind his teacher's words.

One of the veteran Jewish frequenters of Temple Mount -- 87-year-old Dr. Menachem Ben Yashar -- then reminded him "what a shock of electricity energized the people on that day of liberation."

"If our religious leadership had taken the initiative, the people would have changed and become worthy of the Mount. … What were we to do? How were we to react to this gift that we had received? Were we supposed to reject it?" Ben Yashar asked.

Stav didn't think twice and replied that "the electricity and excitement during the Six-Day War were because of the Western Wall, not the Temple Mount. No one even knew what the Temple Mount was." The Temple, he explained, is not a technical issue. According to him, despite the countless prayers and the longing for its resurrection, the Temple is currently irrelevant, and will only rise again as a result of a deep moral process that our society needs to undergo.

"I have a feeling that someone here is disconnected from reality," he lashed out at the audience, which voiced displeasure with his views. "The problem for the majority of the people of Israel is not [the Jews'] absence from Temple Mount. First we need to adjoin the 'state of Tel Aviv' to the 'state of Jerusalem.' When the Temple Mount is viewed by most of Israeli society as a dividing, rather than unifying, issue, there is no point in talking to that society about it."

"We refuse to destroy the State of Israel and create bad blood with the Arab residents who live here. Anyone who claims to have a different answer is a false prophet," Stav said.

A democrat's duty

Stav didn't dispute the facts regarding the current situation on Temple Mount. But he thinks that the issue should be decided by the government, not the rabbis. Stav's opponents on the issue were Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, the head of the hesder yeshiva in Petach Tikva, and Rabbi Yaakov Medan, co-head of the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in Alon Shvut. They both believe that Jews should be encouraged to visit Temple Mount.

Medan explained: "Every time there is a vacuum, others come in and fill it. The director of the Shin Bet security agency has already reprimanded me and warned me that if so few Jews continue visit the Mount, we will not be able to hold on to the site for very much longer. Two months ago, the former head of the Shin Bet's Jewish division told me the same thing. This place could slip right out of our hands if there is no Jewish presence there, and, may Rabbi Stav forgive me, on this we consult the experts first, not the rabbis. If you ask me whether a new Temple should be built tomorrow, I will answer you 'No!' But to give up our right to the Mount? We are a generation that needs to prepare. Only to prepare."

Yehuda Glick, one of the main activists in the movements seeking to rebuild the temple, thanked the Israel Police "for teaching me how to pray without moving my lips."

"I am not giving up," he declared. "If you were to ask a Jew in Lodz in 1940 whether the Zionist movement succeeded or failed, I believe that you would be hard pressed to find a single person who would predict that within eight years a Jewish state would be established. I arrived at this Mount 20 years ago and I was told that only two or three Jews could enter at a time. Today they let in 50 Jews at once. Processes take time, and we are making progress."

At that point, Cherlow stepped in and complained that "Rabbi Stav closes himself off to all the visions of the Temple and the end of days and relegates the thoughts of the Temple Mount to those who can be described as 'extremists' or 'delusional.' Anyone preaching to sit and do nothing is basically supporting a kind of passivity. That also comes with a price. We have placed the Mount at the bottom of the ladder. Where is the passion?"

In conclusion, Stav declared, despite everything, that "any man who has a conscience and believes in democracy cannot remain quiet when Jews are being arrested for praying on the Mount. That is an injustice on the most basic moral level. Every democrat and every rabbi must come out and say that it is unfathomable that in a country that has made freedom of religion its goal, Jews will be banned from expressing their religious beliefs."