Yesterday July 26, 2015, Jews worldwide marked Tisha B’Av, an annual fast and day of mourning that commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples.

The 37-acre Temple Mount compound (roughly about the size of 15 football stadiums) in Jerusalem’s walled Old City, where the Temples once stood, is Judaism’s most holiest site.

The Jewish Temple, replica Jerusalem

The Temple Mount (Har HaBayit) has been the focus of Jewish longing for millennia.

According to Jewish tradition, it’s the location in which God’s “shekhina” (presence) is thought to reside.

The area is also considered sacred to Muslims who call it the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, and see it as the third holiest site in Islam. It is commonly considered the “furthermost sanctuary”—the site from which the Prophet Muhammad made his Night Journey to the Throne of God. Today it houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock

Tisha B’Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

1. Palestinians Riot To Prevent Jews from Entering, Israel Blamed

Yesterday in Jerusalem Tisha B’Av was also marked by violent clashes between Arab rioters and Israeli police forces on the Temple Mount.

Jordan angrily called the altercation a “violation of the sacredness” of the “Muslim holy sanctuary”. In a statement issued by the Jordanian Information Minister, “Jewish settlers” were described as “storming” Al-Aqsa mosque.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri also called the “storming” of the compound a “dangerous escalation”, according to the terrorist group’s website.

But according to Israeli police, Arab protestors had stockpiled homemade explosives, firecrackers, and wooden boards inside Al-Aqsa Mosque on Saturday night.

They intended to cause a riot that would prevent Jews from ascending the Mount on Sunday.

According to Israeli police, they also meant to attack thousands of Jewish worshippers gathering for prayers yesterday at the Western Wall (the Kotel), a retaining wall which is the only remnant of the Jewish Temple.

The masked rioters were confronted by Israeli police and border patrol officers in the early hours of Sunday morning. The rioters threw stones and cement blocks and shot fireworks and unidentified liquids at the police from inside the Mosque.

According to reports, the police and border patrol officers used non-lethal means to subdue the rioters by trapping them inside the Mosque.

Six Palestinians were arrested.

The Temple Mount was then opened to worshippers.

No further disturbances at the site were reported.

According to The Times of Israel, some 800 Jews ascended the Temple Mount throughout the day under tight police supervision.

But unlike the tens of thousands of Jews congregated at the Kotel below, they weren’t able to openly pray there.

The Western/Wailing Wall (the Kotel)

The Western/Wailing Wall (the Kotel)

Under the terms of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, in an arrangement that’s been in place since 1967, the Temple Mount remains under Jordanian custodianship through the Islamic Waqf authorities.

The Waqf is in administrative charge. Basically, they get to decide how non-Muslims can pray at the site.

By law, Jewish Israeli citizens are allowed to visit the Temple Mount. Jewish worship there is technically legal. But in reality the right of Jews to pray on the site is severely restricted.

Israeli police, who maintain a small presence there, routinely impede Jews from praying openly on the grounds that it would cause Muslims on the site to riot, or could trigger widespread violence in East Jerusalem—and even ignite a larger regional conflagration.

Jordan’s furious reaction to this morning’s Temple Mount violence—condemning it, but blaming it on Israel and the devout Jews that Muslim rioters were planning to attack—indicates that such concerns aren’t misplaced.

Over the years, the police have been supported by Israel’s courts, which have typically recognized the abstract “theoretical right” to freedom of religious expression subject to the need to maintain “public order”.

The courts have usually deferred to the judgement of the police as to how to keep the shaky peace at the holy site.

It’s a bizarre situation in which the courts have condoned Jewish citizens being banned from the Temple Mount, often for lengthy periods, if the police think their presence there could “provoke violence” or “aggravate the Muslims”.

Other severe restrictions on Jewish prayer are also routine: no singing, no praying out loud. Those who’ve visited recently report that even moving lips in a prayer-like manner isn’t allowed now.

The rationale for these wacky rules is that Muslim Arab groups threaten violence should Jews or other non-Muslims be allowed to pray.

Basically, it’s a classic case where a civil right is being held hostage to a heckler’s veto.

2. Tisha B’Av: a Day of Mourning and Loss

Many tragedies and catastrophes befell the Jewish people on Tisha B’Av.

During Moses’ lifetime, on this day it was declared that the Jewish people would be forced to wander in the desert for forty years, instead of entering the Promised Land.

The generation was condemned to die—only their children could enter the Holy Land.

The first Temple was burned on Tisha B’Av by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Nearly one million people were slaughtered in Jerusalem and millions more massacred throughout the country. Thousands of Jews were taken into captivity.

Five centuries later, on Tisha B’Av in 70 CE the second Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Romans, following a failed rebellion and a crippling siege that left the Jewish people starving to death. Any Jew who tried to escape the brutal siege was crucified.

Then, on Tisha B’Av in 135 CE, the Jewish rebels of the Bar Kokhba Revolt were crushed by the Romans at the final battle of Betar—considered widely as the most tragic incident in Jewish history before the Holocaust.

Over half a million Jews were killed in various raids and battles, untold more perished from famine and disease. Thousands were sold into slavery and all of Jerusalem’s Jews were expelled.

Jerusalem was named Aelia Capitolina, and Judea renamed Syria Palestina.

So began the Jewish diaspora.

Other miseries that befell the Jews on Tisha B’Av include the Jewish expulsion from England in 1290. It was also the last day that Jews were permitted to remain in Spain during the 15th century.

World War One also began on Tisha B’Av, a catastrophic event for the Jewish people, setting the stage for the Holocaust. The deportation of the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Trebelinka concentration camp began on Tisha B’Av too.

Since 2005 the former 9000 Jewish residents uprooted from the southwestern edge of Gaza (Gush Katif) have been commemorating Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and the destruction and dismantlement of their communities (1900 homes, 400 farms, 88 educational facilities, and 38 synagogues) not on the secular date of the Gaza evacuation (August 15) but on Tisha B’Av.

This Tisha B’Av, which marks ten years since the Gaza withdrawal, it’s an especially sad day of loss and painful memories for this Jewish community.

3. Tisha B’Av 2015 in Jerusalem

On Saturday night, thousands marked the start of Tisha B’Av in Israel by “marching for sovereignty” in Jerusalem. It’s a commemoration that’s now in its 21st consecutive year.

Coming from all areas throughout Israel, the event began with the reading of the Scroll of Lamentations in Gan Ha’Atzma’ut (Independence Park) in the center of Israel’s capital city. Participants then walked around the Old City’s walls holding aloft Israeli flags.

At Lion’s Gate, the marchers gathered for concluding words by Deputy Minister of Defense Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan of the Jewish Home party, MK Bezalel Smotrich of Jewish Home and other scholars and rabbinic authorities.

Many of the speakers invoked the Biblical story of the “sin of the spies” which according to Jewish tradition is one of the causes of the destruction of the Temples, the Jewish people’s exile from the Holy Land, and many other tragedies and disasters over the generations.

The event is seen by those who participate in it as a “rectification” of this historical sin.

During last night’s speeches, Israel’s government was chastised for failing to “build in all areas of the Land of Israel” and for catering to Jordan by denying “organized Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount”.

The frustration of the crowd was palpable:

Anticipating thousands for Sunday’s Tisha B’Av prayers, police had increased their presence in and around the Temple Mount after a video of a Jewish woman insulting the Prophet Muhammad went viral on social media over the weekend.

As staffers at The Times of Israel note, the context was the harassment of a small group of Jews being escorted out of the site by Israeli Border Police officers last week. The police ended up having to put themselves between the Jewish visitors and the Murabitun (also spelled as Mourabitoun and Mourabitat).

They’re the self-identified “guardians of Al-Aqsa” who consider it an obligation to “protect the integrity” of the Noble Sanctuary from religious Jews who want to pray there.

In fact, they’re a group of Muslim hecklers who’re allowed to act with impunity.

Fed up, Aviya Morris, a Jewish woman from the group, responded. She looked into the camera of one of the Muslim hecklers and said in Hebrew “Muhammad is a pig”.

Yesterday, Morris defended her speech and refused to apologize.

Morris is a hothead who has had some run-ins with the law in the past. Her comment was ugly.

But she’s right about Jewish visitors on the Temple Mount being constantly harangued and subjected to verbal taunts.

The routine intimidation of religious Jews visiting the Temple Mount compound by throngs of Palestinians—primarily women, but sometimes joined by men and even children—who aim to make the Temple Mount a “Jew-free zone” is well documented.

This past April, a featured story about these attempts to keep Jews from the holy site ran in The New York Times.

There are dozens of videos on the internet that capture the continued harassment by these women “protectors” who’ve escalated from in-your-face screeching and screaming at visitors to chasing them.

The funding for these women has been “largely cloaked in mystery”.

But an article this month published in The Tower claims that Hamas and the Islamic Movement in Israel are both transferring money to these activists.

On Sunday though the 2,000 police and border patrol officers deployed in and around the area kept a fragile peace for the tens of thousands of fasting Jews who made their pilgrimage to the Jerusalem’s Old City on a hot summer day to mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

The early morning violent riot had long been contained.

Several police officers were injured, but are now reported to be recovering.

Welcome to the Temple Mount, where it’s just another day on the planet’s most contested holy site.

4. The Temple Mount: a No-Go Zone for Jewish Prayer

In the Six Day War, Israel liberated East Jerusalem from an illegal Jordanian occupation.

Under the 1949 armistice with Israel, Jordan pledged to allow free access to all Jewish holy places.

Instead, from 1949 until the Six Day War in 1967, Jewish religious sites were targeted for desecration and destruction.

In the historic Jewish community of the Old City, more than 50 synagogues were destroyed.

All Jews were forced out from homes that they had lived in for generations.

And for 19 years all Israelis (Christian and Muslims residing in Israel too!) were barred from their holy sites in the part of Jerusalem controlled by the Jordanians.

Israel could’ve exploited its 1967 military victory to dominate Jerusalem’s religious landscape, just like the Jordanians had done.

Instead, on June 27, 1967 it passed the Protection of Holy Places Law, which guaranteed freedom of access for Christians and Muslims “to the places sacred to them”.

Then, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan decreed that the Temple Mount area would be off limits for Jewish worship. Israel’s government handed “the keys” back to Jordanian custodianship through the Waqf clerical authorities, who to this day control day-to-day activity on the Mount.

It’s known as the “status quo”.

Despite heated Knesset debates over the issue, PM Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that he’s unwilling to alter the controversial arrangement.

In practice it means that the Jordanians and Jerusalem’s Islamic Waqf are in administrative charge on the Temple Mount.

It’s meant decades of prohibitions imposed on Jews at the site. According to Israeli law, Jews can visit to pray silently, but are forbidden to hold public prayers.

This isn’t an insignificant restriction.

Jewish prayer isn’t often a private act. Its central feature is Tefillah B’Tzibur, communal prayer, exemplified, for instance, by the daily minyan.

Succoth Holiday Minyan at the Kotel

Succoth Holiday Minyan at the Kotel

The restrictions are truly bizarre.

Because it’s difficult to determine if someone is praying in public, the practical result has been a ban on any outward sign of individual prayer, as well as group prayer.

The Israeli Supreme Court has consistently held that individual Jews seeking access to the Temple Mount can’t bring prayer books in with them, or wear religious apparel—including prayer shawls.

These days saying “Shema Yisrael” (Hear O Israel prayer) out loud can get you kicked out.

Reciting a prayer for peace for the success of the Israel Defense Forces is also reportedly unacceptable.

Last month, the “latest abuse” has seen Jewish visitors prevented from drinking water on the Temple Mount.

As reported in The Jewish Press, a Jewish man went to get a drink of water from the public water fountain. He was immediately accosted by a half dozen screaming Muslim women, cursing him and those accompanying him with cries of “Allahu Akbar!”.

The Israeli police determined that, in order to avoid an altercation, the man should relieve his thirst outside the compound and was told to leave. Another man tried to get a drink and was then arrested.

Arutz Sheva (Israel National News) reports that while Muslims continue to “host elaborate meals on the holy site”, the Waqf has begun to shut off the water fountains during times when Jews are allowed to visit.

As Arutz Sheva’s Gil Ronen quips,

Other than breathing, it appears all Jewish rights on Temple Mount have been taken away…”

In an important essay for the online journal Mosaic this past November, Meir Soloveichik, the Director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University in N.Y., writes that Israel’s 1967 “status quo” arrangement is one of the “most misguided in Israel’s history”.

Instead of setting aside a designated section on the Temple Mount for Jewish prayer—one that wouldn’t have interfered with Muslim worship and would’ve also been appropriate according to halakhah (Jewish religious law), which forbids Jews from visiting certain portions of the Har HaBayit—the government’s decision “set in place a policy that resulted in the worst of all possible worlds”:

First, many Jews who continued to visit the Mount did so without any rabbinic guidance, entering areas where according to halakhah they should not have set foot. Second, Israel’s self-imposed ban on Jewish prayer persuaded both the Waqf and the Palestinians and Arab world in general that Israel’s leaders lacked any attachment to or reverence for the site”.

According to Soloveichik the indifference has merely reinforced the “foul false narrative” that the Jews never worshipped God on the Mount, that the Temples never existed, and that the Jewish nation has no historical legitimacy.

It’s a sentiment echoed recently by the indefatigable Vic Rosenthal. Writing in Abu Yehuda, a “blog about the struggle to keep the Jewish state”, Rosenthal claims that Israel now either has to “exercise sovereignty” on the Temple Mount “or lose it”:

When Israel conquered the Old City in 1967, the Arabs expected that they would be kicked out. After all, that is what they did to the Jews in eastern Jerusalem in 1948. That is what a victorious people in a national conflict over possession of land have always done, if they didn’t kill or enslave the population. But that is not what Israel did. When Israeli law was extended to eastern Jerusalem in 1967, Arab residents were offered Israeli citizenship. Most refused and became permanent residents, with the right to vote in municipal elections, health and social security benefits, etc…When the IDF took control of the Temple Mount, IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren wanted to build a synagogue there…But Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had other ideas: he prohibited Jews from praying on the Mount, and placed its administration in the hands of the Jordanian waqf…Thus were the seeds planted for the current situation, which includes absurdities like Israeli police officers arresting Jews who are seen to move their lips when visiting the Mount, and shrieking Arab women confronting Jews who want to just stand there”.

5. Conclusion

With the support of a diverse group of rabbinic authorities in Israel and abroad, more Jews today are “embracing the cause of Jewish prayer” on the Mount.

According to The Jerusalem Post, Jewish visits to the Temple Mount have increased by 92% since 2009.

Over 10,000 Jews ascended the Mount last year.

The increased Jewish visitation has led to vehement objections by the Jordanian government to any change in the “status quo”, according to which the site is administered by the Jordanian government and the Wakf Islamic Trust.

As seen by yesterday’s blustery reactions from Amman, devout Jews are said to be “agitators” who have “designs” to “ignite hostility”. They’re then held responsible for the Palestinian harassment that they routinely face at the site.

The reality is that the Jewish right to free religious expression is again being shamefully undermined by Jordan—just as it was before 1967.

And the right is being used by both Jordan and the Palestinians to incite against Israel.

Jordan, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority routinely spread crazy rumors that the Israeli government plans to “storm the Mount” and destroy the Muslim holy mosques.

In speaking out against discrimination and for religious equality, Jews are championing “not might but right”.

As Meir Soloveichik notes,

In a Jewish state that serves as the island of liberty in the Middle East, why should Jews be the only citizens deprived of the right to pray at what is their faith’s holiest site?”

It’s a question worth asking.

If a Jewish right to prayer legally exists but is routinely denied and can never be put into practice out of fear of public safety, it isn’t really a right at all.

Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is co-editor of the book, Jerusalem: Conflict and Collaboration in a Contested City, published last year by Syracuse University Press