The Maccabees, The Mount and Modern Israel

Just a few days before the start of Hanukkah, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan delivered remarks that would have made the Maccabees proud.

Speaking at the Conference on the National Interest arranged by the My Israel organization at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Erdan addressed the topic of the Temple Mount and the right of Jews to worship there, which of course is a central theme of the holiday we are celebrating this week.

While much of the media seems not to have taken notice, Erdan’s comments may signal the beginning of a much-needed and long-awaited change in Israeli policy, one that would herald a full restoration of Jewish rights at our nation’s holiest site.

“I have instructed the police to act in every way to restore our sovereignty on the area of the Temple Mount, which has been badly damaged,” Erdan said, “and to allow as many Jews as possible to visit the Jewish people’s most sacred place.”

After noting that the number of Jewish visitors to the Mount is the highest it has been in recent years, he went on to announce, “I believe the time has come to reexamine the restrictions that are imposed on Jews who ascend the Temple Mount, to assess what is really necessary from a security viewpoint and what is practiced as a result of a discriminatory status quo that became entrenched over the years and that has no real justification”.

For anyone who has followed the issue of the Temple Mount, Erdan’s statement was refreshing for both its honesty as well as its veracity.

After too many years in which Jewish visitors and worshipers on the Mount were subjected to harassment, humiliation and hassle, all out of fear of offending Islamist extremists, a change in approach is long overdue.

Two incidents that took place three months ago underline just how absurd the situation has become. On September 20, Jerusalem Police District Commander Yoram Halevy signed an administrative order barring an Israeli named Shlomo Puah from the Temple Mount for a period of six months. His crime? Puah had gone up to the Temple Mount and blown a shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

Halevy justified the order, which is clearly a violation of Puah’s basic civil rights, by asserting that “it is necessary to prevent serious harm to personal security or property.” No further explanation was given, and with the stroke of a pen, an Israeli citizen’s freedom of expression, freedom of worship and freedom of assembly were unceremoniously trampled upon.

Barely a week later, on September 26, during the holiday of Sukkot, four young Israelis were detained by police on the Mount for kneeling and reciting aloud, “Shema Yisrael.” A video on YouTube shows police literally dragging them away for questioning, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount is entirely legal.

The restrictions imposed on Jews on the Temple Mount are as intolerable as they are inexcusable, and given the key role the site played in the Hanukkah miracle, now is the perfect time to change them. Indeed, isn’t it painfully ironic that while the Maccabees fought to free the Temple Mount from foreign control, Israel allows the Palestinian Muslim Wakf and Jordan to dictate what happens there?

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According to the First Book of Maccabees 2:6-8, at the very start of the Hasmonean revolt, Matityahu bemoaned the fate of our people’s holiest site: “Why was I born to see these terrible things, the ruin of my people and of the holy city? Must I sit here helpless while the city is surrendered to enemies and the Temple falls into the hands of foreigners? The Temple is like someone without honor.”

Sadly, the same could be said now, when Jews ascending the Mount are barred from bringing a prayer book or a Bible, or even uttering a few words of prayer, all in the name of “security.”

The Temple and the liberation of the Mount on which it stood are fundamental elements of the Hanukkah story. After all, it was there, on the Temple Mount, that the little flask of pure oil miraculously continued to burn.

So when you light the Hanukkah candles each night with your family, and watch the flames atop them reach heavenward, consider the following: we owe it to ourselves and to our Maccabean forbears to once again set the Temple Mount free and make it accessible to Jews.

While the events we commemorate on Hanukkah took place more than 21 centuries ago, the themes of the holiday continue to resonate powerfully. Through heroism and determination, the Maccabees laid down a clear path. Blessed with Divine favor, they blazed a trail of light that pierced through the darkness of their day. Each year on Hanukkah, if you listen carefully, you can hear them calling down to us from across the generations, urging us to follow in their footsteps, stand firm and refuse to yield.

May Israel’s government at last have the courage to heed their call and set the Temple Mount free once and for all.

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post