For Palestinians, the conflict with Zionism has always been first and foremost a religious struggle with the Temple Mount constituting the epitome of their unwavering rejection of Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel. Al-Haram ash-Sharif (as Muslims call the Temple Mount) has been the foremost Palestinian rallying cry for anti-Jewish violence for nearly a century. Thus, in 1929, did Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, leader of the Palestinians between the world wars, and Hitler's close collaborator, exploit a religious Jewish event near the Western Wall to unleash Palestine-wide massacres that left 133 Jews dead. And in 2000, Yasser Arafat exploited Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount to wage a war of terror, pointedly called the "Aqsa Intifada," which lasted for four years.
In contrast, the Temple Mount may be Judaism's holiest site, but most Israelis hardly care about it or its future. Yes, when Israeli paratroopers liberated the Temple Mount on June 7, 1967, with Col. Mordechai (Motta) Gur famously announcing, "The Temple Mount is in our hands," the Israeli flag was swiftly hoisted on top of the Dome of the Rock. This act of national assertion, totally inconceivable today, is what victorious armies do upon liberating their ancestral homeland. The hoisted flag is a rallying cry, a sign of victory, and equally a sign of defeat.
But that Israeli flag was quickly removed because Defense Minister Moshe Dayan feared inflaming the Muslim world. Despite misgivings, he handed management of the holy site to the Jordanian Waqf, an organization that administers it in accordance with the mid-19th century "status quo" established by the Ottoman Empire. At that time, Jews were but members of a tolerated religious community and as dhimmis lived as inferior subjects. Accordingly, the Temple Mount's "status quo" is a constant reminder for Muslims of Jewish subjugation as well as a powerful symbol of Islam's victory over them.
To be sure, the status quo improves on the Jordanian occupation of 1948-67 when Jews were barred from the Temple Mount; they are now allowed to enter the Temple Mount. But they could only do so on the condition that they not pray. Worse, this extraordinary restriction eroded over the decades as Waqf officials, backed by Muslim rioters, harassed the few Jewish visitors who braved the trip. Israeli police further restricted their movements by taking such steps as arresting Jews from drinking from water taps and fountains, for bringing religious or national paraphernalia, or even for loitering "too long." In addition, the Waqf systematically destroyed Jewish antiquities under the Temple Mount and built several large mosques on top of them.
In brief, the status quo makes a mockery of Palestinian complaints about Israeli restrictions of the freedom of their worship. If anyone cannot freely exercise his faith on the Temple Mount, it is a Jew. The Temple Mount is the only facet of a century-long conflict where Palestinians have scored a notable victory over Zionists.
The time has come to throw off this archaic and humiliating status quo. Jews should be allowed to the Temple Mount no less freely than Muslims. Preventing Jews from freely accessing their holiest site conveys a message of defeat that emboldens Palestinian rejectionism.
Israeli Jews ignore the Temple Mount at their peril. The more and longer that they lose there, the greater the Palestinians' confidence in the inevitability of their victory and the elimination of the Jewish state, no matter Israel's military and material superiority.
Tom Nisani is executive director of "Beyadenu—Returning to the Temple Mount."