Tyranny on the Temple Mount

Religious Discrimination in Jerusalem

By Yoni Wilkenfeld

This summer, I visited the most contested plot of land in human history. Known to Muslims as al-Haram ash-Sharif and to Jews as Har Habayit, the Temple Mount has been considered for nearly 3,000 years to be among the holiest places in the world, by at least three religions. It was there, according to Biblical and Talmudic tradition, that God created the Garden of Eden and all of humanity. King Solomon constructed a temple there in 970 BC as a literal house of God; over the next millennium, it was destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt by the Persians, and destroyed again by the Romans in 70 AD.

Since that time, pious Jews have prayed facing Jerusalem, waiting for a third temple to be rebuilt. Upon Roman conquest of Jerusalem, the Emperor Hadrian placed a pagan altar of his own likeness on the site; in the fourth century, the Byzantine emperor Constantine commissioned a Christian church. The Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 691 brought the construction of the Dome of the Rock, a magnificent shrine to the location where Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. In 1967, Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem, and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan decided to keep the Temple Mount in the hands of an Islamic custodial trust known as the waqf, as a measure of conciliation to the defeated Jordanian army.

Despite this turbulent history, I was surprised and troubled by what I found when trying to visit Temple Mount last July. Accompanied by my father, our first attempt to enter was denied by an Israeli security guard who informed us that the entrance we had chosen was “for Muslims only—go away.” We hurried to the proper tourist entrance, the single gate out of eleven that is accessible to Jews or Christians. This particular gate leads to the Mugrahbi Bridge, which overlooks the Wailing Wall on the left and the ruins of a Roman colony on the right. By the Wall, hundreds of Jews were gathered to worship, beg and literally weep at the closest place to the site of Solomon’s temple that is open to Jewish prayer. At the entrance to the bridge, a large sign advised visitors that non-Muslim ritual objects are prohibited; an American nearby had her Christian bible confiscated before entering.

We emerged from the bridge onto an immaculately landscaped plaza and began to walk along the perimeter of the plateau. Five minutes passed before a bystander demanded we move away from a nearby mosque. We deliberated whether to wear our ritual skullcaps in plain sight of the waqf or of Israeli police, since a month before our visit, a tourist from London was told to remove his skullcap or leave the area (he left). Open prayer was out of the question—Jews are routinely arrested or escorted off the Temple Mount for worshipping out loud. The previous Israeli administration made this bizarre prohibition explicit in January 2008 when Public Security Minister Avi Dichter announced the official government policy: “Jews may pray on their holiest site—but only in their heart; no lip-moving allowed.”

To my surprise, lying on the eastern plaza was a massive pile of waste, construction debris and torn clothing. It was puzzling that the waqf could tolerate the presence of a garbage dump mere steps from the sacred Dome of the Rock, but not that of Jewish prayer. In Jerusalem: A Biography, Simon Montefiore tells us that upon the Byzantine conquest of Jerusalem, the Empress Helena “ordered filth thrown [on the Temple Mount] to ‘show the failure of the Jewish God.’” Perhaps Helena’s policy has made an ugly reappearance.

The Dome itself was barred to access by non-Muslims, but regardless we had move quickly towards the exit; non-Muslim access to the Mount is limited to four hours a day, Sunday through Thursday, to allow for the five daily prayers of Islam. As we neared a full circle around the site, a bystander barked that we were not allowed out of that particular gate. He directed us away from an incoming stream of worshippers and toward the exit designated for tourists and heretics.

Ordinarily, this kind of discrimination would require no further comment. Unabashed, de jure persecution of targeted religious groups routinely draws condemnation from human rights groups and news media when it takes place throughout the world. Unfortunately, Jerusalem remains an exception. The ostensible reason given for the toleration of anti-Jewish policies on the Temple Mount is “security.” In the interest of not upsetting the local community with the presence of non-Muslim worship on Islam’s third holiest site, Israeli police and the waqf enforce laws prohibiting potentially inflammatory behavior—like moving ones lips in Jewish prayer.

Sadly, fears of triggering violence on the Temple Mount are well-founded. Last February, Muslim worshippers threw stones and Molotov cocktails at security guards on the Mount, wounding twenty six people in the ensuing riots. On the evening of Yom Kippur 2009, dozens of Muslims gathered around a group of tourists and police escorts and threw stones at them; the clashes that followed wounded thirty five people. After a week of further riots, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Palestinian Authority “publicly decried ‘Israel’s attempts to conduct Jewish prayer services in the Aksa [sic] compound’ and urged the world ‘to force Israel to halt is efforts to Judaize the city.’” Occurrences such as these are often too commonplace to make the news. More infamously, the Second Intifada was sparked when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a group of government and police escorts visited the Temple Mount. The Second Intifada, after five years, claimed the lives of over 5,000 Palestinians and over 1,000 Israelis.

The sensitivity of Palestinian Muslims to a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount is, according to PA President Mahmoud Abbas last August, a reasonable response to the “black goals” of the Israeli government: “destroying the Al-Aqsa Mosque, building the ‘alleged Temple,’ taking over the Muslim and Christian holy sites…and [continuing Jerusalem’s] occupation and Judaization.” All politics aside, an honest reading of history cannot deny the importance of Jerusalem or the Temple Mount to the Jewish tradition. Rabbi David Golinkin, a member of the Rabbinical Assembly for Conservative Judaism, estimates that “Jerusalem” or “Zion” is mentioned in the Bible over eight hundred times and on nearly every page of the centuries-old Jewish prayer book. This reverence alone does not itself justify Israeli control of Jerusalem. At a minimum, however, it justifies the basic right of peaceful tourists and worshippers to visit and pray at Judaism’s holiest site.

Under any other circumstances, this situation would be considered a hostage crisis: a captor threatens violence against innocent civilians and demands, in exchange for their safety, an unreasonable reward. Yet when those captors are throwing stones and their hostages are Jewish pilgrims, the world is silent. It is time for the international community to call anti-Jewish policies on the Temple Mount exactly what they are.

Given the propensity of violent riots to erupt after even small showings of non-Muslim prayer, it is unlikely that the Israeli government, the waqf, or the international community will push for freedom of expression on the Temple Mount. Still, the political leaders of the world should take notice at the quiet, daily injustices against civil rights in the lone section of Jerusalem that has been under Muslim control since Israeli independence. Politicians frequently declare the end-goal of the peace process to be the establishment of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. If the Temple Mount is any model, we already have some idea of how such a capital might treat its Jewish neighbors.

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