Over the last few weeks, hundreds of thousands of devout Muslims were guaranteed unfettered access to their holy spaces on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—the most sacred site in Judaism.

Throughout the holy month of Ramadan, which concludes on July 5, additional units of Israel’s National Police were mobilized to ensure that worshippers could safely pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site for Islam.

Protection of Muslim Worshippers

Police even came to the aid of those who needed extra assistance.

No-Go Zone for Jews

Last week though, the place became a no-go zone for Jews.

Israel’s National Police made the decision to close the Temple Mount to “all non-Muslim visitors” on Tuesday June 28. The closure was announced to be in place for at least three days, but was subsequently extended through the end of Ramadan.

The decision came after three days of rioting by Palestinian youth on the site. Both Israeli police and Jewish worshippers were attacked and injured (including one elderly woman who wasn’t even on the Mount, but was praying down below the plaza at the Kotel—Western/Wailing Wall).

By June 28, over a dozen Palestinian rioters had reportedly been arrested, at which point the police announced that the situation had been brought under control.

But only because the bigots were appeased.

The winners here were Palestinian hooligans who can’t seem to tolerate even the mere presence of Jews quietly enjoying a tour of their holiest of holies—let alone Jews whispering a furtive prayer or taking the risk to lift their voices in song.

I definitely lost out.

Muslim Rioters Assault Jews    

For three days—from Sunday June 26 through Tuesday June 28—masked and armed Palestinian youth assaulted groups of Israeli Jews and tourists with rocks and other objects.

According to media reports, there was never any question that the violence was the result of Muslims on the site objecting to Jewish visitors during the holy month of Ramadan.

So the violence wasn’t a reaction to any violence, or any prayerful action by a non-Muslim on the site. Nor were devout Muslims being restricted in any way from gaining access to the place.

It was merely the presence of Jews there that triggered rioting.

Here’s a short video that depicts how these hoodlums desecrated their own holiday and sacred spaces, depriving worshippers of all the world’s faithful the chance to visit the Temple Mount in peace:

A longer version of the violent disruptions was compiled by The Temple Institute, an organization which has been documenting harassment and discrimination against non-Muslims on the site, including assaults, for some years:

Last Monday, police forced the rioters into the Al Aqsa mosque. So on that day some 250 tourists and thirty or so Israeli Jews were able to continue their tour of the site unimpeded. It led some to conclude that Jews wouldn’t be shut out of the site on account of the violence. The Temple Mount Institute released the following statement to that effect (click to enlarge):

Statement of Temple Institute

But by the next day all such hopes were dashed.

Temple Mount Becomes No-Go Zone for ME!

During my trip, I had the opportunity to meet Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat. He shared with our group his future vision for a beloved city:

My high regard for his leadership rose another notch after I heard how outraged he was by the rioting on the Mount and his veiled criticism of the police decision to shut non-Muslims out.

By the time I heard Birkat’s message, my luck had run out.

After the Leadership Summit I was attentind, we all made our separate ways to visit family or friends. I headed up to Jerusalem’s Old City. I had been following the news of the rioting on the Mount, knew about the closures, but still thought I could maybe use my charm to finagle a way in.

In a number of prior posts (see here, here, here), I’ve written about the discriminatory “status quo arrangement” on the Temple Mount—an Israeli-Jordanian arrangement that’s been in place since 1967 and supported by successive Israeli governments and the courts. Basically, it allows non-Muslims—Jews, Christians, and people of other faiths—free access to the holy site, but forbids them from praying, singing, or making a religious display of any kind.

Theoretically, Jews have the right to worship there. But for years this right has been subject to the state’s determination that enforcing it wouldn’t infringe on public safety. So the reality is that the Israeli police, largely deferring to the Jordanian-run Islamic Trust (the Wakf), don’t permit any sort of prayer rights to non-Muslims.

Devout Jews are routinely thrown off the site, arrested, and barred from returning for even the slightest violation of the stringent and frankly bizarre visiting rules.

I knew all that, and was fully prepared to keep my mouth shut. I was ready to tell the police that I was aware of all the rules and would behave myself.

I had it all planned out. I was going to speak in English first, and if that didn’t work, I would switch to Hebrew. I would show my American passport first, and say I was tourist.

If that didn’t help, I was going to insist that I was a Jew—not just a visitor or some “foreigner in a sunhat laden with a camera”. I was going to argue that I had as much a right to belong there as did the thousands of Muslims who were enjoying the place.

If worst came to worst, I was planning to beg—tell them that I wouldn’t have another chance to visit as I was leaving the country the next day and didn’t know when I could return. I was going to speak sweetly, but was ready to get angry.

But in the end, when I got to the Western Wall plaza, I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t Muslim so I knew that I couldn’t go. No Jews could.

Al Aqsa closed to non Muslims

I don’t blame the young policemen on duty that day.

They had no other choice. They were simply acting on instructions from the government, which insists that they keep the peace.

As pro-Israel blogger and frequent LI contributor Anne in Petah Tikvah noted in her blog last week, preventing non-Muslims from visiting is an “easy way out”:

But it’s not a solution. It’s a temporary fix which will eventually rip at the seams as the Muslim extremists get an appetite for more gains”.

Turns out Anne and I are on the same wavelength. It’s more or less what I wrote Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa during a brief exchange we had online:

Ambassador Lenk tweets, 1

An Unexpected Consolation Prize: a Majestic View from the Mount of Olives

I flagged down a taxi and negotiated a good price back to my hotel.

I guess the driver could sense that I was in a bad mood.

Like many taxi drivers, he didn’t want to ride in silence. He wanted to find out who I was, and what was making me so unhappy. When I told him that it was because I couldn’t visit the Temple Mount, he insisted that he make it up to me.

Turns out he lives in an east Jerusalem neighborhood with magnificent views of the Old City. He took me there at no extra cost and seemed just as peeved as I was that I couldn’t go up on the Mount, telling me it offended him as a Jerusalemite and as a Muslim.

He didn’t think it was right and promised me the next best thing:

Afterwards, on the drive down the winding roads to Maale Hachamisha, he shared with me a bit more about his life: father to three, with a teenage son who is desperate for a new computer. He asked me how much college costs in the U.S. and how he could best prepare his son—apparently a wiz in science—for admission to an elite school.

I couldn’t imagine him encouraging his kid to go up on the Temple Mount to throw rocks at Jews.

Maybe it was a bit of wishful thinking on my part at the end of a long day, but I’d like to think that my experience underscores the diversity of the 350,000 Palestinians who live in east Jerusalem.

To be sure, many are prepared to live and die for Al-Aksa.

Fuad Abu Hamed | Businessman and Lecturer | Sur Baher, southeast Jerusalem | Credit: JPost

Fuad Abu Hamed | Businessman and Lecturer | Sur Baher, southeast Jerusalem | Credit: JPost

But a lot of others—like my cabbie—are far more focused on the city’s high cost of living, getting their kids into good schools, and improving the delivery of services to their neighborhoods.

According to an article in last week’s Jerusalem Post, in 2010 over 70% of east Jerusalemite Palestinians—who as city residents are entitled to an array of social services afforded to every Israeli citizen—said they had no desire to relocate to a new state of Palestine. And despite all their grievances, a record number are now applying for Israeli citizenship, something that was once seen as taboo.

Conclusion

The day that Judaism’s holiest of holies became a no-go zone to all non-Muslims, including me, The New York Times published an essay by Majd al Waheidi, a freelance reporter from Gaza and a frequent Times contributor.

In it, al Waheidi describes her first visit to Israel where she was particularly struck by her numerous interfaith encounters and the religious freedom that’s on offer to the country’s minority citizenry.

Unlike much NYT fare of late, it’s not a completely off-the-rails anti-Israel screed. But one passage in particular really annoyed me:

Majd al Wahedi in Jerusalem

Apparently, al Waheidi has no idea that Jews are routinely barred from praying on the Temple Mount—while she worshipped there freely. She also appears to be laboring under the misperception that the Western Wall (the Kotel) is Judaism’s sacred place.

In fact, there’s nothing holy about this ruin at all.

It’s not a wall of the ancient Temple, but merely a retaining wall that was created so as to provide a bigger platform for the Temple that Herod wanted to build. The Kotel became a site of pilgrimage and prayer only because Jews could no longer access the Temple Mount.

To be sure, as a remnant of the Temple complex, the Kotel has great historical significance. Because it was defiled from 1948 to 1967, when Jordan controlled the area and refused to let any Jews visit, it also has added value as a symbol of Jewish pride and Israel’s sovereignty over a united city.

But it’s the Temple Mount—Har HaBayit—that’s holy.

Having free access to it is the right of every Jew—one that’s enshrined in the 1967 status-quo arrangement and in subsequent Israeli court rulings.

Running roughshod over the policy of keeping the Temple Mount open to peaceful Jewish visitors also does little to deter violence.

In fact, the opposite is true.

I thought about that on the final day of my trip to Israel—the day that Israel was a in a collective state of mourning over the horrific murder of 13-year-old Hallel Yafa Ariel (see our post here).

Note that this brutal attack on a defenseless child as she lay sleeping in her bed happened two days after the Temple Mount was closed to non-Muslim visitors—a misguided attempt to cater to Muslim sensibilities, ostensibly as a way of quelling the very frenzied hostility that compelled a Palestinian jihadist fanatic, Muhammad Tarayrah, to take young Hallel’s life.

So in the end it didn’t matter that Israel’s police deprived me and its own Jewish citizens the right to visit Judaism’s most sacred site. That’s because young Tarayrah, and his mother too, were still offended.

So the violence happened anyway.

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Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the co-editor of Jerusalem: Conflict and Cooperation in a Contested City, published by Syracuse University Press. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman