One of the greatest infringements on civil rights in the Western democratic world has yet to gain the much deserved attention of human rights groups. It is time to let Jews pray on the Temple Mount.
Two years ago, in a lecture at the Hebrew University’s law school, a professor brought up the question of the Women of the Wall praying at the Western Wall. The professor analyzed the famous decision by the Supreme Court allowing the restrictions on prayers of women at the main Western Wall Plaza, as long as a proper alternative was provided in a similar location close to the Temple Mount.
The professor was incredibly critical: “How can we allow the fear of violence from a few ultra-Orthodox extremists dictate where one can pray or not? How can the fear of violence outweigh the most basic civil rights such as freedom of religion? This is outrageous! A democracy cannot function if it is being managed by fear of violence!”
With such a strong argument being made for freedom of religion, I thought someone in Israeli academia might finally understand the plight of the many Jews who are stopped from praying at the Jewish people’s holiest of sites, the Temple Mount. I politely raised my hand and asked: “Your dedication to freedom of religion is inspiring. Would you not say the same thing about the current rules forbidding Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount?”
The professor was quick to disappoint me by dismissing my comparison: “No, the situation there is different,” he said.
I asked: “How exactly is it different? On the one hand there is fear of violence. On the other hand there is the same basic right of freedom of religion. Where do you see a difference?”
I never got a response, as the professor ignored my follow-up question and continued with his lecture.
The current situation on the Temple Mount
Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish nation has striven to return to pray on the Temple Mount.
In 1948, after the establishment of the State of Israel, there was great joy at the return of Jewish sovereignty after 2,000 years of being subservient to other nations. Yet this joy was incomplete since most of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish nation, was still under foreign rule.
Teddy Kollek, who became mayor of Jerusalem in 1965 and was secular, was asked to move the City Hall deeper into western Jerusalem. However, he refused since he believed that the Jewish nation could never relinquish the dream of reuniting the city.
In 1967, the city was finally liberated. Motta Gur, the commander of the division which entered the Old City, famously said with a voice full of excitement: “The Temple Mount is in our hands! The Temple Mount is in our hands!”
However, ever since these few seconds of excitement, the Temple Mount has been far from being in the Jewish nation’s hands.
For all practical purposes, the Temple Mount is being controlled by the Wakf Muslim religious trust, which forbids Jewish prayer on the site. At the same time, the Wakf actively destroys any archeological evidence of historical Jewish presence on the mount, in order to hurt the Jewish nation’s claim to its holiest of sites.
Today, Jews are often barred from even entering the Temple Mount at all. Those who can enter are followed closely by guards who ensure they do not engage in prayers. If someone dares to pray, he is immediately arrested and barred from reentering the mount.
MK Moshe Feiglin has been barred from entering the Temple Mount. Yehuda Glick, director of the Liba Project for Jewish Freedom at the Temple Mount, a man who has dedicated his whole life to the Jewish nation’s connection to this special place, has also been barred and is currently on a long hunger strike to regain access to the holy site.
In most places in the world, such blatant discrimination would be condemned as anti-Semitic. However, in Israel it is justified. Jews are forbidden from praying in their holiest of sites, and people find this acceptable.
Where is Human Rights Watch?
One need not agree or identify with Feiglin or Glick in order to accept that they have a basic right to freedom of religion. In fact, the infringement on human rights here is so clear that one must wonder why human rights organizations are not lining up to condemn the Wakf for stopping Jewish prayers on the Temple Mount.
Imagine a small synagogue in Europe that was taken over by the government and where, with no wrongdoing by the Jewish community, the government forbade Jewish prayers. Can you imagine the outrage this would cause? How can one justify not applying the same standard to the Jewish people’s holiest of sites?
The fact is that the only possible justification is fear. The world is afraid of the Muslim world’s reaction to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, and is therefore opposing it.
It is precisely the same dilemma which civil rights activist have on many issues: Should their commitment to civil rights dictate their position, or should their fear for violence do so?
In general, human rights activists will reject the idea of letting fear of violence dictate what policy should be. However, when it comes to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, for some reason their position is different.
The current situation has now become one of the most serious breaches of civil rights in the Western world, yet it stays incredibly under-reported. When it is in fact reported, those fighting for their civil rights are portrayed as religious fanatics with messianic fervor.
Those who care about civil and human rights should courageously unite around this important cause.
Between Independence Day and Jerusalem Day
We are currently in the days between Independence Day and Jerusalem Day, when we celebrate Jerusalem’s liberation in 1967.
On Independence Day in 1967, before the war started, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook gave what has now become a famous speech: “Where is our Hebron? Are we forgetting it? And where is our Shechem [Nablus]? Are we forgetting it? And where is our Jericho? Are we forgetting it?” Those present describe Rabbi Kook speaking with great passion: “He spoke with a rage and fury that I had never heard before.”
A few weeks later, these very cities were liberated by the Israeli army, together with the Temple Mount.
It is now time for us to unite and scream: Where is our freedom to pray on the Temple Mount? Where are our basic civil rights as human beings? When will we, as Jews, be treated equally to other nations and allowed to pray on our holiest of sites? When will the State of Israel finally ensure that the Jewish nation can really be “a free nation on its land”?
Hopefully, our cries will also be heard, for the sake of justice and for the sake of freedom.
Human rights organizations should join us in this important fight for freedom of religion.
The writer is an attorney who graduated from McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s honors graduate program in public policy.