The Bnai Torah pamphlet (Photo credit: Temple
The Bnai Torah pamphlet (Photo credit: TempleThe Bnai Torah pamphlet (Photo credit: Temple Institute)

A hareidi mayoral candidate in Jerusalem is launching a controversial campaign, appealing to Muslim voters by promising to prevent Jews from praying on the Temple Mount, saying he will work against the “the aggressive attacks of settlers” against the current status quo, which prevents Jews from praying at the holiest site in Judaism.

As current Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and his challenger Moshe Leon have in recent days raised the tone of their campaign to convince voters that they - and not their rival - is the worthier candidate to lead the city for the next five years; Haim Epstein, representative of the Bnai Torah party and not well-known outside hareidi circles, has been seeking support among some very non-hareidi voters – the Arabs living in neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem.

In return for their votes, Epstein is promising Arabs that he and his Bnai Torah party will oppose any Israeli efforts to seek rights for Jews pray on the Temple Mount.

In recent days, pamphlets with Bnai Torah's imprimatur have appeared in Arab neighborhoods, laying out the party's case for Arab votes.

"Jerusalem is a city of peace, the city in which everyone lives in peace and security, and everyone's rights are equal. Our party aspires to a culture of religious tolerance, justice and freedom, in deed and morality.

“The party is strongly against the use of violence on the background of divisiveness, and attacks against places that are holy to Islam, Christianity and Judaism,” the pamphlet said. “We will strongly oppose the aggressive attacks of settlers on the rule of the Mosque, and together we aim to change the status of the Mugrabi Gate.

“The party approves and supports freedom of faiths and access to the holy places and places of worship. We will fight against prejudice, and create real opportunities to deal with unemployment,” it added.

Bnei Torah is a breakaway faction from the Degel Hatorah party, which generally represents Israel's mainstream "Lithuanian-stream" hareidi yeshiva community. In recent years, Degel has run in most elections with Agudath Israel, which generally represents the hassidic community. The parties are split in the current mayoral election, with some Agudah leaders supporting Barkat, and others supporting Leon, while Degel supports Leon. Bnai Torah's main rabbinical support comes from Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, dean of Jerusalem's Ma'alot Hatorah yeshiva and considered a leader in the yeshiva community, who is contesting Rabbi Shteinman of Bnai Brak for the Lithuanian hareidi leadership and would not support Lion .

Commenting on Epstein's appeal to Arabs, Rabbi Chaim Richman, international director of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, said that “Israeli politics, long known for cynical manipulation, has reached an all time low, when a 'religious' party is prepared to participate in the wholesale sellout of the Jewish people's one and only holy place, where all of Israel are commanded to be seen by G-d, the place regarding which the G-d of Israel Himself commands 'the place which I shall choose' and 'the place which I shall show you,' whose sanctity is eternal,” said Richman, quoting Biblical sources discussing the holiness of the Temple site for Jews.

The Temple Mount is Judaism's holiest site and the location of the two Holy Temples of Jerusalem, the latter of which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

Despite that fact, pressure from Muslim religious authorities - including threats of violence - mean Jewish visitors face severe restrictions upon ascending the Mount, including a blanket ban on praying or on performing any other form of worship, as well as restrictions on the size of groups which can ascend. Those who violate the restrictions face arrest and a prolonged ban from ascending altogether.

Numerous court rulings have stipulated that Jews must be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount as a basic human right to freedom of worship. Nevertheless, the Israeli police force has repeatedly ignored the rulings, citing unspecified "security concerns" as a pretext to continue enforcing the ban.

Police sometimes close the Mount to Jews altogether in response to Muslim riots – for days or weeks at a time – despite evidence that such violence is usually planned in advance for the specific purpose of forcing Jews out. Prominent Israeli MKs, such as Moshe Feiglin and Zeev Elkin, have been forced to leave the Temple Mount due to anti-Semitic violence on the Temple Mount.

The idea of a Jewish party opposing Jewish visitation rights to the holiest site in Judaism may seem odd, but it stems from a dispute among religious scholars concerning the proper way to show reverence to the site.

In addition to Islamist opposition to the Jewish presence there, there is a debate within Jewish legal (halakhic) circles concerning how best to fulfill the Torah command to "revere" the site.

Certain rabbinical schools of thought - particularly, though not exclusively, within the hareidi world - oppose Jewish visits to the Mount, out of a fear that visitors could accidentally violate the strict rules of spiritual purity which apply to the site according to Jewish law.

Other rabbis disagree, and rule that proper reverence at Judaism's holiest site can only be shown via ascending in purity to worship. However, none of the Jewish opinions are for Arab control of the site.

Additionally, many Jewish leaders warn that handing control over the Mount to the Waqf Islamic trust has led to the wholesale destruction of Jewish antiquities, in a familiar attempt by Islamists to destroy the non-Muslim heritage of the site, upon which there is presently an Islamic complex.

This campaign by Bnei Torah appears to be an attempt by the party to find "common ground" with Islamists in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone - win votes and enforce their own interpretation of Jewish law on the site. The party's head, Rabbi Auerbach  is of the camp which opposes Jewish ascents to the Temple Mount.

But joining forces with Muslim extremists will be seen as a step to far, even by those who believe that halakha precludes ascending to the site.