United States lawmakers Scott R. Tipton (R-Colo) and David B. McKinley (R-W.Va) were stopped and questioned by Israeli police on the morning of February 22nd while they were visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

According to media reports of the incident (see, for example, here and here), Tipton and McKinley were detained by Israeli officers guarding the site after the Waqf—the Jordanian-funded Islamic Trust that administers day-to-day activities there—brought to their attention that one of the congressmen had apparently taken an olive branch that he had found lying on the ground while touring the place.

It’s pretty sad—and truly ironic—that picking up a fallen olive branch, the symbol of peace, is viewed by Waqf officials as such an abhorrent infraction that they would see it as appropriate and necessary to raise such a fuss about it.

But, as we’ve noted in many prior posts, this is the disgraceful and absurd reality on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, where only Muslims are allowed the freedom to worship and everyone else who goes is harassed, made to feel unwelcome, and denied the opportunity to visit the place in a dignified fashion.

Rep. McKinley Dares to Pick Up a Fallen Olive Branch While Touring the Temple Mount

Reps. Tipton and McKinley are visiting Israel as part of a week long fact-finding mission hosted by the not-for-profit Proclaiming Justice to the Nations and a pro-Israel organization Jaffe Strategies. The purpose of the trip is to facilitate a discussion of U.S.-Israeli relations involving security, energy and other issues, including the pros and cons of various locations for the new U.S Embassy in Jerusalem (for an overview of the itinerary, see here).

In addition to meetings with senior Israeli officials and politicians, the lawmakers have also been able to tour various historic and religious sites, such as Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Tipton and McKinley participated in the tour with a small group of Jewish pilgrims led by Rabbi Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute.

While walking through the holy place, Rep. McKinley at one point bent over to pick up a fallen olive branch on the path (McKinley later claimed in an interview that it was actually a leaf and not a branch).

It was a totally inoffensive move—something that anyone might do while walking along a path. You can judge for yourself in this video which shows the exact moment when McKinley spotted the olive branch/leaf and bent down to pick it up:

The guard from the Islamic Waqf, which accompanies every touring group and monitors it with an eagle eye, reportedly complained to the group’s Israeli police escort about what McKinley had done.

That’s when the two congressmen were required by the police to leave the site. Media reports maintain that they were “frisked and detained” for questioning for more than ten minutes at the Temple Mount police station.

You can’t see that in the above video, although it’s clear that Tipton and McKinley had their tour disrupted and that they were led away by the police.

How Did Reps. Tipton and McKinley Break the Waqf’s Bizarre Rules for Non-Muslims Who Visit the Temple Mount? 

It’s hard to know what exactly set off the Waqf guard and why he complained to the police escort.

Some media reports suggested that the guard misconstrued McKinley’s bending down as an “illegal form of prayer”.

This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems because Jews have been detained, arrested or thrown off the site in the past, and even attacked by Muslim worshipers, for bowing in prayer.

Other media reports, however, claim that the guard might have surmised that McKinley had picked up the leaf or branch in order to take it as a souvenir.

It’s ridiculous to think that any visitor would be aware that picking leaves or branches from the ground is prohibited. But the strict injunction against removing anything from the grounds of the compound is just one of the many wacky rules and regulations that the Islamic Trust has seen fit to enforce on non-Muslims.

The Temple Mount: No-Go Zone for Jewish & Christian Prayer

In a statement, the police claimed that Reps. Tipton and McKinley “were not detained and arrested” and that the matter was “quickly clarified”, enabling the congressmen to continue on their scheduled itinerary for the day which included a meeting with PM Netanyahu. A spokeswoman for Tipton also noted that following some brief questioning, “the situation was resolved quickly”.

Still, it’s obvious that both Tipton and McKinley felt that they were badly treated and that their visit to the Temple Mount was pretty much ruined.

That’s not just because their visit was cut short by a run-in with the police either. In fact, for them the whole tour left a lot to be desired.

In a short interview (see above video) conducted after they left the Temple Mount, McKinley remarked that he “felt pressured, pushed along in a very hurried fashion.” Tipton also wanted people to be aware that “on a holy site for the Jewish religion” visitors were “being run through like cattle” and that they were denied the “freedom to stop, to be able to pray, to contemplate.”

[Reps. Tipton and McKinley interviewed after exiting the Temple Mount | credit: vimeo]

Basically, both congressmen were disgusted that Christians and Jews weren’t able to “experience more of the Temple Mount” because of the Waqf’s need to “show dominance and control.”

It’s important to understand that what Reps. Tipton and McKinley describe isn’t a one-off, down to the misunderstanding or over-reach of a single Waqf guard. As we’ve highlighted in numerous posts, what the 2 congressmen experienced yesterday is routine and standard operating procedure on the site revered by Jews as the location of the biblical Jewish temples:

As we’ve discussed, non-Muslims are denied a fulfilling spiritual experience on the Temple Mount because of the inherently illiberal “status quo arrangement” that’s governed the place since 1967. Under this arrangement, Israel has sovereignty over the site, but in practice it’s under the control of Jordan’s religious custodians. So Jews and Christians can visit, but they’re barred from any kind of religious worship or prayer.

Over the years, Israel’s courts and successive governments have also worked to maintain this “status quo”. The courts have repeatedly upheld Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount. But they’ve also authorized the state and its agencies to forbid worship if they determine that such religious expression would disrupt public order (i.e., provoke Muslims to violence, or aggravate Muslim sensibilities).

The result has been a degrading and off-the-wall experience for non-Muslims who visits the place. Calling out the words of the “Shema”, the prayer declaring faith in God; drinking water; shedding a tear; or even saying the Hebrew name for the holy site out loud are all considered “violations of the rules” and horrible “provocations”.

Doing any of these things typically leads to immediate detainment by the Israeli police, who are basically following the dictates of the Waqf staff by catering to their every inane complaint.


Back in August 2015, members of a U.S. congressional delegation who were participating in a guided tour of the Temple Mount were stalked and hounded while there by a throng of Muslim men and women who followed the group for the entire time, doing a terrific job of making everyone feel uncomfortable.

Interviewed about their visit, the congressmen recounted how an “exhilarating and meaningful experience” was marred by this belligerent gang who harangued the group and subjected them to non-stop verbal taunts.

This week, Reps. Tipton and McKinley didn’t have to deal with these “Temple Mount Troublemakers”, abusive hecklers who have since been shut down. But they still had to cope with the Waqf’s disdain. It managed to treat them like dangerous criminals just for walking around a holy site and stooping down to pick up some foliage.

Bottom line: What two U.S. Congressmen experienced on the Temple Mount this week highlights a pernicious problem: the flagrant disregard for religious pluralism and tolerance exhibited by the site’s Muslim authorities. Peace will come when the extreme anti-Jewish and anti-Christian hostility at the Temple Mount ends, and when its “normal and accepted” for Jews and Christians to pray freely while there.

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Inaugural Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 65 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @MiriamElman