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What just happened on Jerusalem's Aqsa Mosque?
Animal sacrifices, prayer vigils, and ancient history are tools in a modern nationalist fight over sovereignty.
Some ugly scenes emerged from the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Tuesday night, as Israeli police attempted to evict Palestinians there for overnight prayers. Palestinian fighters in Gaza responded by shelling Israeli territory. This explosion has followed almost the exact same pattern as the April and May 2021 violence that led to a major Palestinian uprising. Someone has also begun shelling Israel from southern Lebanon, raising the specter of a frightening new pattern of escalation.
These incidents get intense but shallow news coverage in English-language media. Partisan outlets use them to show off either the brutality or forbearance of Israeli authorities, and the fanaticism of either Israeli or Palestinian religious nationalists. Non-partisan media tends to juxtapose those perspectives, without getting into the specific chain of events behind each outbreak of violence.
American audiences are often left with the impression that the violence in Jerusalem is an irrational religious war, the sort of thing that just happens when people with strong feelings and strong beliefs live together. But the violence doesn’t just happen, and it isn’t entirely irrational. The latest violence at al-Aqsa, like previous outbreaks, is a fight over sovereignty involving specific factions and modern institutions.
Al-Aqsa, also known as the Temple Mount, is under different layers of control. Access to the site is controlled by the Israeli Border Police, who also serve as an all-purpose gendarmerie across Jerusalem. The Aqsa Mosque itself is managed by a waqf, or endowment, attached to the Jordanian government. Some of the clergy are appointed by the Palestinian Authority, although their real authority comes from popular Palestinian sentiment.
Tuesday’s police raid was an attempt to stop the e’tikaf,1 a multi-day overnight prayer vigil that is traditionally held during Ramadan. Under political arrangements between Jordan and Israel, the e’tikaf has been limited to the first two Fridays and last ten days of Ramadan. However, some Palestinians have been attempting a whole-month e’tikaf, largely in order to protect the mosque from Passover animal sacrifices.
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Ok, so here’s where the ancient history does come in. The Temple Mount, as the name suggests, used to be a temple. Specifically, the Temple. Before Judaism took its modern form in the diaspora, Jewish religious practice was centered on a single temple and a centralized priesthood known as Cohens who would perform blessings and sacrifices. Qodesh ha-Qodashim,2 the Holy of Holies inside the Temple, was the place where Heaven and Earth met.
Qorban Pesah,3 the Passover lamb sacrifice, was one of the most important events of the year. Jews made an annual pilgrimage to the Temple to participate. Christians may recognize these rites because the Passion of Jesus Christ took place during the Passover festival. Many languages use the same word for Passover and Easter.
The Passover sacrifice and other Temple rites came to an end in 70 AD, when a Roman army destroyed the Temple and scattered the Jewish people. The next two millennia of Jewish religious and cultural practice developed around the lack of a temple. Orthodox Jews traditionally believe that the Temple will not be rebuilt until the Messiah comes, and some scholars even prohibit climbing up the Temple Mount, to avoid stepping on the Holy of Holies.
Enter the Muslims. A few decades before the Arab conquest of Jerusalem, the Sassanid Persian Empire had seized the holy city from the Roman Empire and tried to restore a Jewish presence there. The Christian Romans reconquered the city, and triumphantly turned the Temple Mount into a garbage dump. Fifteen years later, the new Muslim rulers were horrified to see the state of the Temple Mount; they cleaned up the site and built a house of worship there: al-Masjid al-Aqsa, the Farthest Mosque.4
Islam understands itself to be the fulfillment of the religion of Abraham, Moses, and Solomon. Muslims prayed towards Jerusalem before they prayed towards Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have visited the Temple Mount, where he was shown Heaven. The famous golden dome of al-Aqsa sits where the Holy of Holies was supposed to be. Islamically, the Aqsa Mosque is the rebuilt Temple.
Jews obviously did not accept these claims. (At least not if they were interested in remaining Jews rather than Muslims.) It was not a political problem, however, because Orthodox Jews did not want to retake the Temple before the Messiah's arrival. Jewish pilgrims traditionally prayed at the nearby Mercy Gate instead. In the 16th century, the Ottoman emperor had them move just outside the western wall of Al-Aqsa, closer to the Holy of Holies.5
The creation of Israel, and particularly the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem, changed things. Israel agreed to maintain the Ottoman-era status quo: the Jordanian endowment runs al-Aqsa, only Islamic rituals are allowed inside, and tourists can visit without praying. The official Chief Rabbinate also holds the position that Jews are prohibited from going on top of the Temple Mount, and should pray at the wall. But the Israeli public increasingly feels that Jewish prayer should resume inside al-Aqsa.
A small faction of religious nationalists believes the Messianic Age is here, and the Temple should be rebuilt, which means al-Aqsa will be “flattened.” (Some Christian supporters of Israel believe the same thing, except with a much less happy ending for Jews.) A larger portion of Israelis wants their country to assert its sovereignty over an important holy site, and feels that allowing Muslims to impose restrictions on prayer is unfair.
Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who oversees the Border Police, loudly supports changing the status quo. But even before Ben Gvir took office, Jewish prayer groups on the Temple Mount had been getting more frequent, with the Border Police tacitly protecting them. The Temple Institute, which seeks to reconstruct ancient ceremonies and train a new Cohen class in preparation for rebuilding the Temple, has received direct government support.
Needless to say, tearing down al-Aqsa or resuming animal sacrifices in its courtyard would be a massive sacrilege for Muslims.
It’s worth emphasizing that not everyone who supports religious-nationalist claims does so out of deep personal faith. Polls show that 38% of Israelis support Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount as “proof of Israel’s sovereignty,” while only 12% want to do so “because it is a religious commandment.” In fact, more Israelis support Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount than Israelis who actually pray regularly.
Palestinians also have very earthly reasons to fear even limited changes to the status quo. Al-Aqsa is one of the few Arab-run public spaces in the Old City of Jerusalem, an island of Palestinian sovereignty in a sea of Israeli-annexed territory. Jewish group visits have brought a big, disruptive police presence into that space. So secular Palestinian factions and even Christian Palestinian nationalists have jealously guarded the mosque.
Media often framed the April 2021 tensions as a result of overlapping Jewish and Muslim holidays. But the police made their first incursion into al-Aqsa because its loudspeakers were interfering with a secular ceremony: Israeli president Reuben Rivlin’s speech. The first street unrest broke out later that night when Israeli police tried to clear out the Damascus Gate, an important public square for Palestinians in Jerusalem with no particular religious significance.
This year, a right-wing Israeli activist group offered money to anyone who attempted to sacrifice a lamb for Passover on the Temple Mount. Although Ben Gvir said he opposed such an act — and the Israeli police stopped people attempting to do so — Ben Gvir also encouraged Jews to visit al-Aqsa for Passover “without a sacrifice.”
Arab media raised the alarm about the potential sacrifice. (Some of the coverage included ugly rhetoric about “Talmudic rituals.”6) Palestinian activists called for using the e’tikaf as an opportunity to guard al-Aqsa from intruders. Although the Aqsa endowment did not officially change the times allotted to the e’tikaf, its clerics and even Jordan’s King Abdullah II got louder about the need to defend the holy site.
Israeli police launched several raids to break up the unauthorized e’tikaf, claiming that Palestinian “agitators” were barricading themselves inside. Tuesday’s incursion was especially brutal. The next morning, Israeli police forcibly removed Muslims in the middle of prayer to make way for non-Muslim visitors. The footage from those two incidents sparked an immediate response from Palestinians and other countries.
The intensity of religious feelings makes Jerusalem a valuable prize. That’s what it is, a prize. For Israelis, the Temple Mount is back within reach after it was lost for two thousand years. For Palestinians, al-Aqsa is one of the last places they own in the heart of their own homeland. The question is not whose doctrine is true, but who gets to make the sovereign decisions.
As news of the violence spread, a Palestinian faction in Gaza to launched rockets in protest. That faction wasn’t Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or another Islamist group. It was the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine — an avowedly secular, Communist party.
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The Semitic root q-d-s means “holiness,” and it is also the root of al-Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
The term qorban, “sacrifice,” also entered Arabic and Persian via Aramaic.
Karen Armstrong, “Bayt Al-Maqdis,” in Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, Paperback (Ballantine Books, 2005).
Matthew Teller, “The Fig Tree of Maslohi,” in Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City (New York: Other Press, 2022).
The irony is that the Talmud is the central text of post-temple Judaism, which does away with things like animal sacrifice.