By: Michael Freund
A little more than a week ago, I ascended the Temple Mount together with a group of more than 50 Jews from Ra’anana’s Ohel Ari synagogue.
Needless to say, all of us immersed in a mikva (ritual bath) prior to the trip, refrained from wearing leather shoes, and walked only in areas that are permitted by halacha.
Guided by the indefatigable Rabbi Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute, and led by our congregation’s Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth, we got a firsthand look at the situation which prevails at Judaism’s holiest site.
Put simply, it is absolutely infuriating.
Brazen discrimination is practiced against religious Jews, who are singled out for special treatment by Israel’s police that is not accorded anyone professing a different faith.
After going through a security checkpoint, a gruff policeman told our group, “you must stay together at all times, you must move quickly through the site and do not pray. You are not allowed to pray.”
Not exactly the welcome that I expected to receive at a place of such profound significance to Jewish history and destiny.
Throughout our visit, we were accompanied by five to six Israeli Arab policemen and two or three officials from the Muslim Wakf which administers the site. In addition to hurrying us along and brusquely interrupting our guide, their primary task was to keep an eye on our lips, lest anyone dare to move them and utter a silent prayer to his Creator.
There were other groups on the Mount at the same time as ours, including Christian pilgrims from Romania, various non-religious tourists, and Israeli Arabs. None of them were subjected to the same watchful scrutiny.
In the week prior to our visit, the police had arrested 15 Jews for praying or being suspected of praying (whatever that means) on the Mount. Later, when I asked a border policeman why Jews were barred from praying, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “it would upset the Arabs.”
The state of affairs on the Temple Mount is intolerable and untenable. Basic freedoms, such as the right to worship and free speech, are being trampled, and Jews are subjected to discrimination unheard of anywhere else in the Western world.
A way must be found to enable Jews to exercise their right to commune with their Maker, without further stoking hatred and intolerance. In fact, there is a simple and very practical solution to this predicament: build a synagogue on the Temple Mount where Jews would be free to pray as they wish.
NOW BEFORE you start rolling your eyes at the idea, consider the following: for over four centuries after the Caliph Omar conquered the land of Israel in 633-4 CE, a synagogue and Jewish house of study operated on the Temple Mount and Jews were able to pray there freely.
Among others, this is attested to by Rabbi Abraham bar Chiya HaNassi, a leading Spanish rabbinical authority of the 12th century, who wrote in his book Megilat Megaleh that, “at the beginning, after the Romans destroyed the Temple, Israel was not prevented from coming and praying there, and similarly the kings of Ishmael enacted a beneficent custom and allowed Israel to come to the Temple Mount and build a house of prayer and study.”
Furthermore, he notes, “all the exiles of Israel who lived near the Temple Mount would ascend on festivals and holidays and pray there.”
In other words, there is a clear historical precedent that even during periods when the Mount was under Muslim control, the rights of Jews were respected. So now that it is under Israeli sovereignty, should we accept anything less? Even after the synagogue was closed in 1080, individual Jews continued to pray on the Mount, such as the great medieval Jewish authority Maimonides. In the 13th century, the Meiri, one of the greatest commentators on the Talmud, noted in his comments on Tractate Shevuot (16a) that there was a custom among Jews to enter the Temple Mount.
More recently, prominent rabbinical authorities such as former chief rabbis Shlomo Goren and Mordechai Eliyahu have supported the idea of Jews ascending the Temple Mount and constructing a synagogue there.
Indeed, after Israel liberated the Temple Mount in 1967, Jews prayed and studied there regularly.
Rabbi Goren, who served as chief rabbi of the IDF in the 1967 Six Day War, wrote in his monumental work Har HaBayit (p.14), that after the site’s liberation, “in the framework of the IDF Chief Rabbinate, we held symposiums and conducted organized public prayers on the Temple Mount – morning, afternoon and evening – and we read from the Torah on the Sabbath and on Mondays and Thursdays.”
Fearful of angering the Arabs, the Israeli government later put an end to Rabbi Goren’s initiative.
But the idea of building a synagogue on the Temple Mount did not die, and six years ago, in October 2006, National Union MK Uri Ariel proposed a similar measure, saying at the time, “a synagogue will not harm the status quo and it will not come in place of a mosque. The Arabs can do their thing in the mosque, and we will do ours in a synagogue” on the Mount.
Ariel has it exactly right.
Building a synagogue on the Temple Mount will not exacerbate tensions with the Arabs, it will alleviate them.
By preventing Jews from praying on the Mount, and mistreating those who do, the police are actually fanning the flames of outrage, rather than dousing them.
The best way to prevent friction on the Temple Mount is to accommodate the needs and wishes of both Jews and Arabs, rather than squelching one at the expense of the other.
The Temple Mount is our holiest site, one that has served as the focus of our people’s dreams and yearnings for the past 2,000 years. Visiting it was a powerful spiritual experience, one that touched me to the core of my very being.
But it was distressing to see the extent to which Israel’s government defers to threats of Arab unrest at the expense of its own citizens and their basic rights.
Building a synagogue on the Temple Mount will underline Israel’s sovereignty, while also guaranteeing the freedom of access to all religions that is at the heart of governmental policy. It would give the Muslims a chance to demonstrate just how tolerant they truly are. We don’t begrudge them the right to pray, so why should they begrudge us? Just before the leaving the Mount, I leaned over and pretended to whisper in my 12-year old son’s ear, reciting the section from the daily Amida prayer, “May You return in compassion to Jerusalem Your city, and dwell in it as You promised. May you rebuild it rapidly in our days, an everlasting structure….”
Just then, my son interrupted me, saying, “Daddy, there is a policeman running at us.” I looked up and saw the officer, his face contorted in anger, as if I had just stolen his donuts.
The cop barked at us, yelling that we should leave immediately, which my son and I proceeded to do, but not before I stubbornly completed the rest of the prayer: “May You install within it soon the throne of David. Blessed are You, O Lord, who builds Jerusalem.”
May the day soon come when that prayer, and others like it, can be recited freely by Jews in the place where the Temple once stood, and will yet stand again.