As I waited in line at Mugrabi Gate with dozens of non-Jewish international tourists to ascend the Temple Mount Monday morning, my mind involuntarily, and vividly, played out a number of macabre scenarios.
As a Jew, would I be beset by flying rocks hurled by seething, indignant Muslims as soon as I set foot on al-Aksa Compound? Would I find myself in the middle of another one of the countless notorious riots that occur there, resulting in police swarming with bulletproof vests, shields and stun grenades? Or perhaps I would be forcibly removed from the site and detained by security guards for simply moving my lips on charges of “incitement,” for appearing to pray? I knew that all these outcomes were possible, as I have written about all of them with great regularity as a reporter for The Jerusalem Post.
Moreover, I was about to tour the hotly contested holy site with Rabbi Chaim Richman, the international director of the Temple Institute – an organization dedicated to educating Jews about the unequivocal centrality of the Temple Mount to Jewish life; an organization whose ultimate goal is building a Third Temple in the very spot where Muslims continue to have control, pray day and night and are utterly intolerant of Jewish visitors.
Adding more color to my imagination, Richman, who has ascended the Mount three times a week for nearly 30 years, noted – shortly before a guard let us enter – that he was attacked there less than two weeks ago, the day after Jerusalem Day.
Diminutive, soft-spoken and gentle, Richman hardly could be deemed a provocateur. Indeed, the middle-aged, graying and bearded scholar, who has written 10 books about the Temple Mount, imbued an undeniable calm and earnestness.
Asked why he puts himself in danger several times each week, Richman smiled.
“I love the Temple Mount because it is the only holy place in the world; because God expects to see us there; because we were commanded to be there; because every prophet in Israel, without exception, tells us that peace and harmony around the world are dependent on the Temple Mount,” he said.
Richman went on to lament the pronounced inequity Jews face at the site, which is overseen by the Jordanian Wakf Muslim religious trust, despite Israel’s heralded victory over Jordan during the Six Day War.
Although the Supreme Court has upheld Jewish prayer rights there, it severely restricts such visits and allows police to prevent any form of Jewish worship if they believe such activity will incite a “disturbance to the public order.”
This caveat has led to a plethora of Jewish arrests and detentions, as Jews can be detained for even appearing to be praying.
“The situation here is extremely convoluted and complex,” said Richman wearily. “The reality of the Temple Mount today is that essentially – although we repeat the mantra ‘The Temple Mount is in our hands!’ – sovereignty of it really belongs to Jordan.”
Noting Israel’s renowned adherence to religious freedom, Richman went on to express incredulity at the profound irony of legalized intolerance against Jewish prayer at Judaism’s holiest site.
“If Jews were treated this way in another country in the world, Israel would file a complaint because it’s anti-Semitic,” he said. “Why is a Jew moving his lips incitement? I am not looking for a confrontation.
My goal as a Jew is to be seen by God.”
Richman then motioned to the dozens of non-Jewish tourists visiting the site.
“They are free to go wherever they want, but we will be watched by the Israel Police and the Muslim Wakf to make sure we don’t pray,” he said.
He was right.
The second we set foot on the mammoth man-made plateau, which is larger than 37 football fields, we were assigned a security detail of Israeli Police and Wakf guards, while our non-Jewish counterparts were permitted to roam without supervision of any kind.
As we slowly walked past al-Aksa Mosque, a group of children sitting nearby repeatedly shouted “Allah Akbar!” in our direction as loudly as they could.
“Hamas actually pays people up to NIS 5,000 a month to stay up here and intimidate Jewish visitors,” Richman said. “It can get much worse than this.”
Indeed, when numerous high-profile Jewish officials have entered the compound, rioting has been known to break out, during which young Palestinian youths throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at them and then hide in al-Aksa, where Israeli police are forbidden to enter.
Thankfully, no rocks were thrown at us. Yet there was no question in my mind that the slightest perceived “provocation” on our part would have resulted in instant violence against us, rendering us surrounded by hundreds of violent and angry young men.
“Today things are pretty quiet, thank God,” said Richman as we walked toward the Dome of the Rock, where the First and Second Temples stood.
However, as we stopped by what was once the main entrance to the Second Temple, a group of Muslim men began loudly praying in Arabic a few meters from us. Meanwhile, three security guards watched Richman like a laser as he explained the historic significance of the site.
“They want to make sure I’m not praying,” he explained.
Nearby, dozens of remnants from the Second Temple sat in a pile of debris. “They put it there to show us who is in charge,” Richman said.
Less than 200 meters away, wooden beams dated from the Second Temple sat in another pile of debris.
“My son’s an archeologist with The Ir David Foundation [Elad], and it has been proven these wooden beams once held up the Second Temple,” said Richman, as he sorrowfully pointed to the discarded antiquities. “In the past, Muslims have burned some of them. It’s a tragedy.”
Then, despite feeling utterly marginalized and discriminated against by the hundreds of suspicious, prying Palestinian eyes and shouts of prayer that attempted to drown out our conversation, something spectacular happened.
Unsolicited, a lone, burly and imposing Muslim man approached the rabbi and I. Expecting a possible fight, I instinctively planted my feet in a boxing stance and began clenching my fists as our security guards prepared to intervene.
To our mutual astonishment, the man outstretched his arm, offered a genuine smile, said “Boker tov [good morning]” and shook both our hands, before peacefully walking away.
“That hasn’t happened to me in 27 years,” said Richman. “I need to wrap my head around this.”
And although I felt dehumanized and endangered by our brief and tense visit to the Temple Mount, as we approached the exit I experienced a fleeting moment of hope.