By Daniel Sokatch, NIF International CEO

It’s been a harrowing four months. As the death toll continues to rise, Israel is on the brink of another offensive in Gaza, this one in Rafah, where 1.4 million people are sheltering, hungry and scared. Scores of hostages remain in captivity, and the Israeli public remains traumatized and distrustful of its government. It is a trying, painful time for all of us.

And, in the midst of all of this, there is a piece of news that isn’t getting much coverage in the American press. Last Sunday, Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir made headlines in Israel (and the Arab world) when he announced that, during Ramadan, which begins in early March, the police will impose major new restrictions on Muslim prayer at the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount (known in Arabic as Haram al Sharif). He wants to limit visitation rights to the mount to Muslim citizens of Israel over the age of 70–and ban Palestinians from the West Bank altogether. No children, no young families. During the holiest month of the year. One doesn’t have to be Muslim to find that outrageous.

According to Israeli media sources, this decision “diverged from the recommendations of parts of the security establishment.” The Times of Israel reported that the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, opposes Ben-Gvir’s position, and has argued that Arab citizens of Israel should be allowed to enter the compound with no restrictions. The Shin Bet noted that it was not by chance that Hamas named its October 7 massacre “The Al-Aqsa Flood”; these restrictions, they suggested, would be unnecessary and intentionally antagonistic towards the Muslim population. In other words, Ben-Gvir is knowingly, and not for the first time, opposing the recommendations of  the professional security establishment—the people whose job it is to keep Israelis safe.

Let’s be perfectly clear: Ben Gvir knows exactly what he’s doing–he is deliberately laying the groundwork for a confrontation at the Temple Mount that could produce an explosion heard around the world. 

If we needed proof of his intentions, last May Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount under heavy security, and while there declared that Israel was “in charge.” But that reflects his wishful thinking, not reality. Since 1967, the Jordanian Waqf (or religious authority) have been the caretakers of the site. But Ben-Gvir knew what he was doing, and as if on cue, a Hamas spokesman at the time said Israel would bear the consequences for Ben-Gvir’s statements and called on Palestinians to “stand as a rampart in the face of all attempts to defile it and make it Jewish.” Ben-Gvir responded brilliantly—for someone trying to light a fire on the most contested spot in the world: “All the threats from Hamas will not help, we are in charge here in Jerusalem and all of the Land of Israel,” he said.

Unfortunately, this time it’s not just Ben-Gvir. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially fully backed Ben-Gvir’s restrictions. Now he says he’s “considering” them. And a mealy-mouthed statement from his office invoked the weighty notion of “freedom of religion,”–a concept that so many radical Jewish Temple Mount activists have made over the years: that Jews deserve ‘freedom of religion’ on the Temple Mount.

This claim–that Jews, too, should be allowed their freedom of religion on the holiest site in Judaism–sounds innocuous, or just plain correct, to American ears. But it belies the reality that this place, holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, is the single most combustible place on the planet.

Liberal values dictate limits to even the most precious freedoms when they endanger people. Everyone knows that you can’t scream fire in a crowded theater; you endanger people with speech like that. And right now Ben-Gvir is doing just that: threatening to light a fire in a powder keg. He and his fellow arsonists are invoking liberal values to justify what they really want: a massive conflagration that will let them do whatever they want. They’re not in it for freedom of religion; they’re in it for Jewish hegemony and supremacy.

If Itamar Ben-Gvir’s own record weren’t enough, it might help to look at his spiritual predecessors and where they are now. Thirty years ago, a group called the Temple Mount Underground tried to blow up the Temple Mount Compound. Their plan, according to one member of the movement named Yehuda Etzion, was to spark a holy war that would result in a Jewish victory. Back then, Etzion was convicted and imprisoned for his participation in terror activities. Today, he is a leader of a group promoting–you guessed it–Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount (they also seek to rebuild the Temple and to revive animal sacrifice). In a recent documentary about the Underground, he told the interviewer that his work today is “aiming at the same target. We are just using different means.”

Not long ago, in May of 2021, tensions around Al-Aqsa and restrictions set there helped set off another war between Hamas and Israel. That one lasted ten days, and spilled over into unprecedented scenes of mob violence between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. During that war Hamas played its role as Ben-Gvir’s fellow arsonist well, warning repeatedly that it would react to what it saw as Jewish incursions on the site.

NIF and our grantees have long known just how volatile the Temple Mount is—Ir Amim has documentedexplainedwritten reports, and helped us understand how and why the Temple Mount movements have gained traction over the last decades.

Beyond this important work, in the last few years a counterbalance to these religious pyromaniacs has emerged, with the help of NIF. We are supporting an initiative called the  “Faithful Left,” or Smol HaEmuni. These are people who identify as both progressives and people of faith. In fact, in just a few days, they are holding their second major conference.

A few weeks ago, three of their leaders appeared on Jewish Currents “On the Nose” podcast, and I want to quote for you something that one of them said. Mikhael Manekin, a former winner of NIF’s Gallanter Prize, and heads another organization that we support, called the Alliance for Israel’s Future. I’ve edited his comments for brevity and clarity but you can find the whole conversation here:

There is a famous Israeli philosopher who was part of the Brit Shalom movement who also had strong religious sentimentality named Samuel Hugo Bergman. And he has a statement, probably in the 40s, so before the State of Israel, saying that “God did a great grace with the Jewish people that in their homeland, there are also another people.” Usually the pragmatic position is: “We wish we were here on our own, but what are you going to do, there’s another people, so we need to compromise.” The problem with that position is the minute something negative happens (and a lot of negative things sadly happen), you revert to your previous position, which is: “I want to be here on my own.” Bergman’s statement is not about compromising.

There’s a Jewish people and a Palestinian people. And not only is nobody going anywhere, we can look at it as something which is hopeful. In Hebron, it’s really powerful there because you’re praying in a synagogue, which is also a mosque, and all of our patriarchs and most of the matriarchs are buried under, and we really are praying to the same God and through our shared histories, and recognizing that it’s something beautiful and not something which we’re stuck with. And that sounds perhaps a bit naive to say in the middle of this ongoing, incredibly violent, and tragic, and depressing, (and, in my opinion, avoidable) war, but something which we can strive towards during these times.

Amen, Mikhael.