Tourist on Temple Mount

A first-person account of ascension to the Mount demonstrates the sad reality that as a Jew, one is an outsider there.

Orthodox Jews look out Temple Mount (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Orthodox Jews look out Temple Mount
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It took forty years for my ancestors to cross the Sinai, so I suppose it’s about right that my journey treading up the ramp to the Temple Mount lasted twenty-three. I was caught off guard by how accessible it is—all that my two friends and I needed to do was to wait in a three minute line, and I was even able to continue onward with my cherry lollipop. I’m not exactly sure what I had in mind, but upon reaching the actual Temple Mount, the epicenter of seemingly everything, it appeared to me as strangely tranquil.
The peaceful mixture of a calm breeze, cheerful tourists and children in the backdrop kicking around a soccer ball made the scene more apt for a picnic than anything else.  Still, I was mesmerized—this is land perceived to be so holy that many Jews will not even step foot on its hallowed ground, and moreover, the mere aesthetic beauty of the Dome of the Rock is simply glorious. Yet, I was eerily aware that I was observing, not participating. 
I quickly became aware of how uncomfortable I felt—here I was standing on Judaism’s holiest site, a small strip of earth treasured by the Jewish people for millennia, and I was nothing more than another tourist, an outsider. I thought to myself, at the very least, doesn’t this place belong to me as much as anyone else?
I put on my kippah, so that I would be identified as Jewish, perhaps with a greater sense of connection to the site than others who come to take pictures of the Dome before continuing their vacations at the Dead Sea or Petra. Soon after, as I was walking past the entrance to the actual Dome, I saw the security guard (whose primary role is to ensure that only Muslims gain entrance) glare at me and speak into his walkie-talkie. Seconds later, a plainclothes security officer came over and asked me abrasively, “What are you doing here?” As if being Jewish makes one’s presence on the Temple Mount less comprehensible.
He wanted to know if I was religious or a tourist. I answered him in English to alleviate his fears of there being a religious fanatic on his hands. The officer responded into his radio that I was just a silly American tourist, no need to be concerned. Then he explained to me matter-of-factly  that I needed to take off my kippah or I would have to leave. After all, my very wearing of kippah—it’s not like I was wrapped in an Israeli flag or in any way trying to attract attention— is provocative and practically incitement, ostensibly far worse than the children playing soccer a few meters behind me. And so I did. I stayed for a few more minutes with a sour taste inside of me, took the obligatory pictures with my friends, and then we were on our way.
 Sure, I am from New York and have been in many places where due to my own personal discomfort, I preferred to not wear a kippah. But this was the first time I could ever recall being told directly that in order to be allowed access somewhere I had to remove my kippah, my identifier. And it was on the Temple Mount.
Worse than feeling out of place as a guest in someone else’s house is the sense of being an intruder in your own home. And here I was at the Temple Mount, acting as if my presence was as bizarre as someone who shows up at their childhood home decades after their family has moved out, only to find blank stares and awkward acknowledgements from the current inhabitants.
As a recent oleh, I may be overly sensitive about trying to feel at home at all times while in Israel. I imagine my discomfort with feeling like a foreigner in my homeland is not too dissimilar from sentiments often felt by Palestinians on either side of the Green Line. Take for example, a Palestinian-Israeli who drives to visit his family in the West Bank on the weekend, and on the way back must pass through a checkpoint evocative of a border control. Yes, the checkpoint may very well be absolutely necessary to protect the lives of Israel’s eight million citizens, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make the said Israeli citizen feel any better about passing through customs after a family weekend. 
Feeling at home, a sense of belonging to the land, would seem to be a common aspiration that unifies Israelis and Palestinians alike. Yet, the ever-elusive dream of creating a functional two-family home under a single piece of sky seems as distant as ever. For the time being, it’s impossible not to recognize the dissymmetry experienced by visitors to the Western Wall, where for every worshiper there’s also a tourist standing behind snapping a picture.
Granted, the Kotel deals with its own problems of discrimination, whether it be the effective disallowance of non-Orthodox services or unequal distribution between men and women. Be that as it may, and with full understanding that there is still much room for progress, anyone can approach the Western Wall, everyone can have their moment pressed against its worn bricks. Walking out of the Old City of Jerusalem, I was comforted by that realization.   
If nothing else, perhaps I’ll have internalized the lesson that the mark of true ownership is playing the role of a welcoming host.