Tuesday night saw an historic Knesset debate on the issue of freedom of religion and Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site.
The debate was the initiative of Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, a long-time campaigner for Jewish rights on the Temple Mount, where non-Muslim prayers are currently forbidden.
"If you will go up with me to the Mount, I'll show you how the remnants of Solomon's Temple and the Temple of the Jews who returned from Babylon are wallowing in ashes," said Feiglin from the podium. He sarcastically added "maybe, Mr. Chairman, we'll invite the maintenance crew to dismantle the symbol of the nation," a reference to the destruction of artifacts on the site by the Jordanian Waqf (Islamic trust).
Feiglin attacked the discriminatory management of the holy site, which is under the de facto rule of the Waqf. Jews are often forbidden from entering and arrested for having religious or national symbols.
"Behind the back of the people we have given up on any Israeli sovereignty on the Mount," remarked Feiglin. "Any terror organization can wave its flag there -- the flag of Israel? Don't mention it even. And a verse of Psalms is pretext for an arrest. The police even recommend taking the kippah off your head."
"When we run from the Mount we lose the legitimacy to our presence in Tel Aviv," argued Feiglin. "The Temple Mount is like the heart in the organs," said the MK, quoting poet Uri Tzvi Greenberg's famous line "whoever rules the Mount rules the country."
Feiglin called on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to immediately apply Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, and to halt the destruction of antiquities at the site by the Waqf.
"I call on the government of Israel to stop the discrimination and embarrassment of Jews in entering the Mount and on the site," declared Feiglin. He further called on the government "to allow free access to all Jews to the Temple Mount from every gate, and prayer on the Mount, as required by it being part of the state of Israel, the Jewish state," which stipulates freedom of worship.
Netanyahu supported Jewish rights to the Temple Mount in 1994
MK Shuli Muallem (Jewish Home) stepped in by reading a letter written by Netanyahu in 1994, before his first term as prime minister.
In the letter Netanyahu wrote "the right of the Jewish people over its holy site - the Temple Mount - can not be questioned; I think that Jewish prayer rights at the site must be arranged, all the more so because we give freedom of religion to all religions in Jerusalem."
Muallem added "when Jews can't go pray freely at the Temple Mount it is clear that the Temple Mount is not in our hands. From the debate today must come a declaration calling to allow every Jew to pray on the Temple Mount at any hour."
MK Miri Regev (Likud Beytenu) joined in, saying "everyone in the state of Israel will be able to go up and pray at their holy place." She called for the Temple Mount to be managed like the Cave of Machpelah in Hevron, where Jews and Muslims have rotating days to pray.
Arab and leftist opposition to the debate
Leading up to the debate, riots broke out on the Temple Mount Tuesday morning, as Arabs threw rocks and firecrackers at police when they opened the Rambam Gate, the only entrance through which Jews are permitted to enter. As a result police reportedly closed the site to Jews.
Rabbi Chaim Richman, International Director of the Temple Institute, argued that the riots were directly related to the Knesset debate, commenting "on the very day upon which the Israeli Knesset will be considering this very issue, we see before us today a stark reality check, and a lesson on who is really sovereign on the Temple Mount."
Response to the Knesset debate was also heard from Jordan's parliament, where Islamists in the opposition called on the government to freeze the 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
Not all MKs agreed with Feiglin on Tuesday night that Jews should have equal rights to the Temple Mount, and that the holiest site in Judaism should be part of the Jewish state.
MK Zehava Galon (Meretz) spoke in the debate, saying Jews have rights to the site, but that she "distinguishes between the right and exercising the right."
The far-left MK accused Feiglin of having an agenda "to make provocation and derail the national process" of peace talks. She added that "sovereignty over the Temple Mount won't be attained by your provocations."
Hareidi MK Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) added his voice to the opposition against Jewish prayer rights at the site, saying "you're trampling on the holiest place to the Jewish people." Hareidi Jews largely believe that Jews should not visit the Temple Mount at the present time due to the holiness of the site and the fact that most people are ritually impure (tamei) according to Jewish law (halakhah).
Cohen sidetracked the debate into the law being worked out on hareidi IDF enlistment, saying "you're severely pursuing the holy yeshivas, defining one who studies Torah as a criminal, the yeshivas are the holiest place for the Jewish people. Jewish Home is instigating a fight, creating a commotion, creating the burden."