Tom Nisani, founder of Beyadenu – Returning to the Temple Mount, an Israeli non-governmental organization (NGO) advocating for Jewish rights on the Temple Mount and preservation of its antiquities, spoke to a July 18th Middle East Forum Webinar (video), about reclaiming sovereignty over Israel's most "sacred" site.
Nisani said that since 1967, when Israel raised its flag over the Temple Mount after liberating Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, the Jewish people's birthright has been usurped by the Islamic Waqf [an Islamic endowment of property held in trust for a charitable or religious purpose]. Following Israel's 1967 victory, Moshe Dayan, then Israel's Minister of Defense, appointed the Waqf to be the civil administrators of the mount, with the proviso that they maintain a status quo of unlimited Jewish access to the site. For the last half century, the Waqf, together with Jordan, its patron and overseer, have limited Jewish access and rights on the mount, while also violating the status quo by illegally building three more mosques there. Nisani, a secular Jew, has made it his mission to gain greater interest in the Temple Mount issue amongst wider communities in Israel and halt further Arab encroachment on the site of Jerusalem's ancient Jewish temple.
Since 1967, the Israeli government has forbidden Jews to pray on the Temple Mount, fearing it will further inflame Palestinian Arab hostilities toward the Jews. Any Jew who silently mouths a prayer when visiting the mount is immediately stopped by the police and threatened with being barred further entry. Nisani said that prior to 1967, the Temple Mount was "ignored" by the Waqf, which became involved only after Israel's victory by "hiding" architectural evidence of Israel's ancient presence on the Temple Mount in support of the Muslim narrative claiming the Temple Mount is Islamic.
Nisani said because the Temple Mount is "under the sovereignty ... of Jordan and the Palestinians," Muslim countries such as Turkey and Qatar inject themselves into the issue, parroting the claims by Jerusalem's mufti [an Islamic jurist who issues opinions on Islamic law] who repeatedly affirms that the entire Temple Mount is "Islamic and only for Muslims." The Waqf limits Jews "in many ways" from accessing the mount and its compound and "even ascending" to the site, granting access only four hours a day, excluding Friday and Saturday. Yet, the Arabs regard the site as their "safe zone" with little oversight. Nisani has observed that the police generally do not exact consequences for Palestinian harassment of Jews, fearing law enforcement intervention will provide a pretext for Arab violence. Police restraint has not tempered the fact that many of the terrorist attacks in the past few years in Israel have emanated from "inside the Temple Mount," said Nisani.
Beyadenu is taking a bottom-up approach to overcome the Knesset's hesitation by educating his countrymen and connecting them to the historical significance of their ancient Temple on Mount Moriah. Nisani said that more Israeli Jews are visiting the Temple Mount, and the government will have to respond to growing public sentiment in support of Jewish sovereignty of the Temple Mount. Outside of Orthodox institutions, he said the Temple Mount was "not studied at all" in Israel's schools, a problem he hopes to remedy by introducing educational curricula for Israel's youth and pre-military academies. He also intends to work with the Knesset education committee to prioritize the importance of the Temple Mount as a point of pride to rally the Jewish people. Nisani has been in contact with "almost every party" in the Israeli government who, absent the extreme left, have become allies in his cause. He said an increasing number of Israelis see the "primary" issue of the Temple Mount as "my right as a Jew to ascend, my right to pray, my right to live in a democracy in a modern state."
Nisani's detractors have accused him "in the media and even [from] the Supreme Court" of exacerbating tensions with the Arabs by making an issue of the Temple Mount. However, he dismisses their criticism by exposing the Palestinians' desecration of the sacred site with graffiti defacement of ancient columns, their destruction of centuries-old artifacts to deny Israel's ancient history, and their trashing of areas on the mount with debris to hamper Jewish access. He said that on every Muslim holiday, the Palestinians gin up incitement against the Jews. Most recently, following the hanging of the Palestinian flag on the dome, which was "finally removed after we made enough media noise," or the burning of the Israeli flag. Palestinians also regularly throw rocks down onto the Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below. Riots frequently erupted in the wake of these actions. Nisani warned that the more Israel loses ground on the Temple Mount issue, "the more Israel's days are seen as numbered by our enemies."
Nisani insists that even though the Palestinians and Jordan are united against his group's efforts, the Abraham Accords "may change the situation." Beyadenu is amenable to meeting with Arabs to solve the debate and make the point that Jews praying on the mount are not a threat, and that the site should be accessible to all faiths. He said that there have been recent positive "changes." Thus, Jerusalem Day and Independence Day this year saw Jews praying on the mount "quietly," raising the Israeli flag, and "even sing[ing] the Israeli national anthem." He anticipates that, by expanding the hours of access, more Jews will come to the mount. Nisani is "optimistic" that Israel will be victorious, if not in his lifetime, then in the next generation. Nonetheless, he has concerns about "the price" that will have to be paid, because every day the Palestinians see the Temple Mount as theirs, they exploit the situation to promote terror and incitement, exacting a cost "in blood."
Citing a source in the Yemina party, Nisani said the Jewish community's burgeoning support for the Temple Mount issue was responsible for the Arab Ra'am party's withdrawal from the coalition and the resulting collapse of the government
Nisani is seeking to revive the 1967 fighting spirit of Jerusalem's liberators, despite "extremist" Muslims' threats to launch terror attacks if the Jews continue to focus their attention on the Temple Mount. Nisani referred to last year's riots by Israeli Arabs in cities across Israel as evidence to support his view that "what begins on the Temple Mount will eventually happen throughout Israel."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.