Reporter's Notebook: By the Temple Mount, we sat and wept

I wanted to see what all the fuss was about at the holy site and was subjected to humiliations from start to finish, included being told I’m forbidden from crying.

Lahav Harkov visits the Temple Mount  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lahav Harkov visits the Temple Mount
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I didn’t intend to write about my trip to the Temple Mount on Tuesday morning. Having written about politicians visiting the site and arguing about it in the Knesset so many times, I felt that I was remiss in never having been there myself, and simply wanted to get a sense of what it’s like.
However, since I wasn’t there to cover news, I decided not to wield my press pass and to visit like any other Jew on a tour of our religion’s holiest site. I mentioned the idea to my parents, who had met Temple Mount Heritage Foundation chairman Yehuda Glick earlier this year. They called him, and he helped organize our tour with guide Eyal Sapir.
As I said, my plan was to get some background information, but I’ll be honest, I’m a religious Zionist, so I was also very excited to visit the Temple Mount from that aspect, though I knew that I couldn’t pray there.
The moment my group arrived at the security check at the bottom of the Mughrabi Bridge, it became clear to me that this was going to be a humiliating ride – although I didn’t know how degrading it would get. The strange thing is that both Sapir and the police said it was a relatively uneventful, quiet visit, leaving me to think: Really? The norm is for Israeli Jews to be treated like dangerous criminals just for wanting to walk around? In the State of Israel? I suppose I knew from what people like Glick and other activists have said, but to experience it was jarring, and that was what changed my mind about writing about my visit.
From the start, the sense was that the police work for the Isalmic Wakf, which manages the site, and not for the citizens of Israel. They treated us with disdain, and catered to and tried to anticipate every inane complaint by Wakf staff.
“Don’t make this a hard day for me,” the police officer sneered at us. “No praying.
No bowing. No lying on the ground. No singing. No dancing.”
At the top of the Mughrabi bridge, a police officer looked me up and down and murmured something about my clothes. I’m religious. I know how to dress at a holy site. I wore a head-covering, a longer skirt than usual, and a shawl covering my elbows.
“Your skirt,” the police officer said.
“It completely covers my knees,” I responded, invoking the rules of every religious school I attended.
I was frustrated. I’m not used to being treated like I’m guilty for existing. I took to the one outlet I had to express my outrage, twitter: “On the way to the Temple Mount, not sure who’s treating me with more suspicion and disdain – the police or the Arabs.”
Soon a Wakf employee showed up to express his outrage at the collective calves of myself, my mother and my sister, who is so tall that most maxi skirts are midis on her – that’s a lot of calf. Several more Wakf men closed in on us. Sapir calmly let us know that we don’t have to listen to them, but the police had other ideas, and made us wait at the entrance until they procured long shawls that my mother and sister wrapped around their waists.
I tugged my skirt down a couple more inches.
After that inauspicious beginning, we started the tour, with Sapir showing us remnants of Second Temple columns. He kept calm, despite the hubbub behind us. As Sapir talked, we heard shouts in our direction of “Allahu Akbar” by the infamous Morbitat, women in black paid by the Islamic Movement to harass Jews visiting the Temple Mount, who were a few meters away.
In the past, they would get right up in visitors’ faces, but recently, the police has required them to keep their distance. At the end of the trip, we saw more of them by the Chain Gate, where police were not letting them enter the compound, so once again, they yelled at us from a short distance, loud as ever.
Wakf guards followed us every step of the tour. Not only followed us; surrounded us in every direction. There were 12 of them, 16 of us and three police officers. Some of the guards were dressed just like Shin Bet guards; others wore polo shirts with Wakf insignia. I smiled at them; they stayed stony-faced at all times, except for when we committed some mysterious offense.
During the tour, we were constantly yelled at for doing things that tourists, or at least people who didn’t look like religious Jews, were doing, first by the Wakf officials in Arabic, and then by police translating into Hebrew. Things like stopping too long (whatever that means) to take a picture or sitting on a ledge.
I wasn’t stopped from taking pictures, probably because the Wakf was unaware of my running commentary on twitter, but they were not happy when I took a picture of the Wakf officer who was taking pictures of the group. (“Say cheese!” I tweeted.) Meanwhile, the Wakf men could smoke and throw their cigarette butts on the ground without a problem. The amount of garbage spread around the area was not only offensive to my religious sensibilities, but was mind-boggling considering that they must have a lot of staff with little to do if 12 of them were needed to stalk us.
At one point, my family took a photo together in front of the Dome of the Rock, and we were shouted at for touching.
It didn’t matter that I told them the man with his arm around my shoulders is my father. No touching. The cop at the beginning forgot to tell us that rule.
The most Kafkaesque moment of the trip was when Sapir stopped at a pathway that led to where the Holiest of Holies was and talked to us about the Temple. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it would have looked like then.
I was reminded of the prayers describing the State of Israel as the “first flowering of the redemption,” and that here, in this litter-strewn plaza full of unfriendly people, is where that redemption will, God willing, come to fruition.
Sapir’s guiding moved me to tears – though the distress the Wakf guards were causing me, along with the ongoing sandstorm probably helped – and I took my sunglasses off and wiped my eyes.
Suddenly, I heard shouting in Arabic and saw one of the Wakf stalkers pointing right at me.
A policeman turned to me: “You can’t close your eyes and cry. That’s like praying.”
For the rest of the tour – this was midway through – it seemed I had my own Wakf guard who stayed close to me and took pictures of me.
My sister managed to take a great picture of me with a big smile, next to my personal guard scowling.
Looking back at the trip it seemed fitting that crying was the offense I reprimanded for.
As the prayer says, our forefathers sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept while they remembered Zion, and there I was, weeping for the same reason at the Temple Mount.