This past week, during the intermediate days of Passover (Chol Hamoed), nearly 900 Israeli Jews, roughly 100 to 300 per day, ascended Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

Thousands of tourists also visited the sacred place over the course of the week.

The site is the place of the two Jewish Temples in antiquity. It’s considered Judaism’s “holiest of holies” and is treasured by Jews across the planet.

The Jewish Temple, replica

The Jewish Temple, replica

Muslims view the al-Aqsa Mosque which sits atop the Mount as their third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina.

The Temple Mount has particular significance during Passover, which ended last night for Jews celebrating the holiday worldwide. Jews visit the holy site as per God’s commandment in the book of Exodus, where the holiday is noted as one of three feasts of pilgrimage.

For the most part, the week-long visits took place without incident. But that was only because the place was packed with law enforcement.

And even the extra police units patrolling the sacred site couldn’t prevent an ugly riot from breaking out last Tuesday or put a stop to the daily haranguing of Jewish visitors by Muslim gangs who’re paid to accost the non-Muslims who go there.

According to Israeli media, Arabs on the Mount also hurled stones at Israeli police and border patrol units after Friday’s prayers. Eight rioters were reportedly arrested and 30 others detained for questioning.

Arab rioters hurl stones at police, Temple Mount

Israeli Security Forces on High Alert

As reported in the media, additional Israeli security reinforcements were put on patrol at the site. Jewish visitors there were accompanied by Jerusalem District Police and Israel’s Border Police, both on high alert for any signs that the pilgrims and vacationers would fall into harm’s way.

Israeli Police on Temple Mount, Passover

The security details were also keeping a close eye on the Jewish visitors to ensure that none of them attempted to pray, an offense that is explicitly banned on the site and even punishable by arrest.

So as not to “offend Islamic religious sensibilities” and provoke Muslim outrage and violence, last week some Jews who were allegedly attempting to pray were removed from the Temple Mount.

Anyone caught displaying “inappropriate behavior”, such as even whispering a prayer, was immediately forced to leave.

According to media reports, daily evictions and summary detentions resulted in nearly three dozen Jewish worshippers being thrown off the grounds of the Temple Mount by Israeli security forces because they simply chanced a furtive movement of their lips.

As we noted in several prior posts (see here and here), these absurd restrictions to Jewish prayer is the result of Israel’s fastidious adherence to a long-standing inequitable status quo arrangement between the Jewish state and Jordan.

This arrangement for the compound was set into place in June 1967, when Israel liberated the Old City and east Jerusalem from an illegal Jordanian occupation. Later, it was reinforced in the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.

The status quo entitles Jordan’s Muslim Waqf (Islamic Trust) to administer the site on a day-to-day basis. It ensures unlimited access and right to worship for Muslims, and some limited visitation but no right to prayer for non-Muslims.

Basically, it’s an “illiberal” and “profoundly unfair” bargain that favors Muslim rights while severely restricting religious freedom for Jews, Christians and other faith-based communities.

But energized by an Israeli public that’s increasingly sympathetic to their plight, some religious Jews are now pushing the envelope—fighting back to gain some basic respect for free religious expression on Judaism’s most sacred space.

This past Tuesday, on the fourth day of Passover, two Jews did something which is completely forbidden at the site. They dared to prostrate themselves before God on the stones of the Temple Mount, in a manner resembling ancient prayers and as Jews are commanded to do on Passover.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

Jews Attacked on Temple Mount | April 26, 2016 | Credit: Twitter

Jews Attacked on Temple Mount | April 26, 2016 | Credit: Twitter

Bowing Before God Causes a Riot 

As described in a JTA news brief (see also media reports here and here):

Muslim worshippers attacked two Jewish men on the Temple Mount on Tuesday after the Jews bowed in prayer in violation of the visiting rules. The Jewish men were beaten as they prostrated themselves. The Muslims clashed with police attempting to protect the Jewish visitors, who were ejected from the site”.

Here’s the incident captured on a video. It was posted onto social media by a Palestinian news website, and subsequently widely shared:

The 90-second video shows a mob of angry, screaming rioters punching police who are trying to pull others off of the two young Jewish men in white-knitted yarmulkes, who were still on the ground when they were attacked. The police are pushing back.

Eight Jews, including the two men who “broke the peace” by attempting the worshipful prostrations, were escorted away from the area by police. None of the Muslim rioters were reportedly taken into custody.

David Israel of The Jewish Press writes:

The two Jewish offenders were arrested on the spot, and the Arabs, who, frankly, seemed way more offensive, were left to clash and scream and beat on the cops to their hearts’ content”.

So people who worked themselves up into a rage upon seeing “a Jew act like a Jew” weren’t the ones who got into trouble, but the prayerful Jews were treated like criminals.

Jordan’s Resistance to a Jewish Presence on the Temple Mount

According to media reports, several guards affiliated with the Jordanian Waqf were also arrested for participating in the attack.

It underscores Jordan’s undermining of the status quo.

As we highlighted in a prior post, rather than being part of the solution, Jordan has become part of the problem on the Mount.

Its protection and custodianship of the mosques there is essential to the Hashemite dynasty’s prestige. That’s something Israel has long respected. But given the number of extremist Islamist factions now competing for political power in east Jerusalem, Jordan increasingly needs to show that it’s “standing up to Israel”.

This doesn’t bode well for conflict resolution.

Recently, the Jordanians backed out of a U.S.-endorsed move to place cameras on the site as a way to deter violent disturbances and monitor compliance with the status quo. Israel and Jordan had initially agreed to the plan. But the Jordanians reneged on the project, apparently due to Palestinian objections.

Poster Calling to Break Security Cameras on Temple Mount | credit: YNet

Poster Calling to Break Security Cameras on Temple Mount | credit: YNet

Then, last Monday, in another unhelpful move, Jordan’s media affairs minister, Muhammad Al-Momani, released a statement condemning the increase in Jewish visitors to the site—including tourists who were visiting Israel for the Passover holiday.

Similar to other outrageous statements and official complaints filed in recent months, Al-Momani also accused “Israeli settlers” of “storming al-Aksa Mosque”, calling these actions a “flagrant violation of international laws and conventions”.

In reality, the only ones breaching the area’s status quo are the Jordanians by their constant objections to the peaceful visit of Jews.

There’ve long been expanded visiting hours at the site for Jews on holidays, so Jordan’s most recent protests are baseless. And here’s an image of the storming Jews al-Momani has in mind:

Jews "Storming al-Aqsa" | Credit: Elder of Zion

Jews “Storming al-Aqsa” | Credit: Elder of Zion

Harassment Just for Walking While Jewish

Other than Tuesday’s riot, I couldn’t find any other reports of physical assaults on Jews visiting the Temple Mount during the Passover holiday this past week.

But that doesn’t mean that Jewish visitors had a pleasant experience there.

As described in media reports, and documented in many videos (see samples below), Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount this Passover were constantly harangued and subject to verbal taunts by throngs of Muslims on the site.

We noted in a prior post that Israel had cracked down on these “Temple Mount screamers” last September by banning them from the site. It was a move that people hoped would improve the situation for Jewish visitors—and help increase tourism.

According to data compiled by the Israeli police, Temple Mount visits by non-Jewish tourists have dropped significantly in recent years due to the “unpleasant and threatening atmosphere” that’s created by the Muslim hecklers on the site.

Temple Mount Visits Going Down

But based on the events this past week, it appears that these belligerent gangs of murabitoun (steadfast defenders of Islam) are back as strong as ever.

East Jerusalemite Palestinians have simply replaced those non-profit organizations that had been banned. A financing network for this new group of Temple Mount troublemakers was recently reportedly uncovered in the eastern part of the city.

So last week the murabitoun were out in full force doing their usual obnoxious thing: trailing Jewish visitors as they made their way through the compound, shouting threatening slogans, and generally marring what should’ve been a serene and tranquil devotional experience.

Here’s several videos that highlight what Jewish worshippers to the site this Passover—people who just wanted the opportunity to walk around Judaism’s most sacred space on one of the holiest holidays of the year—had to put up with:

Fighting for the Right to Pray

Frustrated with the status quo, religious Jews are now undertaking some “real acts of utter defiance” on the Temple Mount.

These days they’re increasingly risking arrest to dramatically cover their eyes while reciting the “Sh’ma” prayer.

A couple of weeks ago two young people even surreptitiously exchanged wedding vows and rings on the sacred site.

Wedding on Temple Mount

In the past, religious Jews who did such things were considered extremists by their fellow Israeli co-religionists. In fact, the widespread perception was that these Temple Mount activists were at least partly to blame for the ongoing violence that happened there.

But as noted in an article on the history of Temple Mount activism written this week for The Times of Israel and in a report (“How to Preserve the Calm at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade”) published in early April by the International Crisis Group, these views are beginning to change.

Rabbi Chaim Richman, International Director, Temple Mount Institute | Credit: Twitter

Rabbi Chaim Richman, International Director, Temple Mount Institute | Credit: Twitter

The notion that there should be “expanded and undisturbed” Jewish access and freedom of worship on the Temple Mount is “gaining more traction” among the Jewish Israeli public.

Credit: Israelly Cool

Credit: Israelly Cool

Amanda Borschel-Dan writes in TOI:

Today, Israeli public perception of the ban on Jewish prayer has shifted…the previously fringe Temple Mount movement—while still intent on fighting the status quo that is preventing Jewish prayer there—is increasingly mainstreamed”.

To be sure, there are still plenty of Israelis who view the Temple Mount activists as “provocateurs”. They’d be more than happy for Israel to keep the status quo in place indefinitely, no matter how discriminatory and humiliating it is.

That’s typically the view of certain far left-of-center Israelis.

This past week, a City Councilman from Israel’s far-left Meretz party, Dr. Meir Margalit, reportedly called on PM Netanyahu to bolster the status quo.

So basically, leftist Israelis like Margalit and his Meretz friends, who’re quick to attack the Netanyahu government for allegedly infringing on their civil rights to free expression, have no problem insisting that state authorities deny these liberties and legal rights to others.

Conclusion

Last Monday, thousands of devout Jews attended the priestly blessing ceremony (Birkat Kohanim) at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The annual custom held during the intermediate days of Passover sees hundreds of Cohens (priests descended from the biblical figure Aaron and the tribe of Levi) raise their hands within prayer shawls to bless the masses.

Priestly blessing April 2016

Border Police, undercover units and special patrols were mobilized throughout the Old City to prevent any terror attacks during the huge outdoor event.

It’s certainly wonderful to see so many people engaged with God in heartfelt prayer.

But the Western Wall is actually the place where Jewish prayer has been relegated and consigned. It’s the spot where Jews have been educated to make do because for nearly five decades Israel has refused to assert its sovereignty and rights on the Temple Mount.

To be sure, most Jews seem perfectly content to conduct the traditional Aaronic Benediction, along with a host of other Jewish ceremonies, at the Western Wall—and not on the Mount.

But making concessions to intolerant bigots and haters is risky, as they often then expect you to make more of them.

New demands to curtail Jewish prayer may be coming: this week Palestinians reportedly complained that the loud noise from the Birkat Kohanim ceremony at the Western Wall was too disturbing to Muslim worshippers during their daily noontime prayers.

Featured Image: Aerial view of the Temple Mount. Credit: Israel Police

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Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University where she also serves as Research Director in the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration (PARCC). She is the co-editor of Jerusalem: Conflict and Cooperation in a Contested City published in 2014 by Syracuse University Press. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman