by Evelyn Gordon
Five men were arrested over the Succot holiday for the "crime" of trying to pray at Judaism's holiest site. Regardless of their guilt or innocence (some deny the charge), the fact that these arrests elicited so little outrage shows that something is terribly wrong in Israel. After all, one of the state's raisons d'etre was to provide Jews with the basic freedoms and protections other countries so often denied them. Yet here is the state itself depriving Jews of a fundamental freedom, and few even seem to care.
As Rabbi Yuval Cherlow pointed out recently, denying Jews the right to pray at their holiest site grossly violates their freedom of religion, making the silence of our "human rights" organizations unconscionable. "Anyone who doesn't fight for freedom of worship on Temple Mount," he correctly noted, "is not a true advocate of human rights."
No less hypocritical is the silence of our self-styled defenders of "the rule of law." In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that "Jewish prayer should not be prevented unless there is concrete information about actual danger to [human] life" or the worshipers' safety. Yet despite the security quiet of the past six years, police have consistently barred Jewish prayer on the Mount, in gross violation of this ruling.
Still, hypocrisy by human rights organizations and "rule of law" advocates is nothing new. What is truly disturbing is the inertia of our elected representatives – the people whose job it is to ensure that the Jewish state fulfills its purpose.
Two justifications are usually cited for the prayer ban. One is that halakha (Jewish law) itself bars Jews from worshiping on the Mount, so the ban doesn't actually infringe on Jewish freedom of worship. The other is that allowing Jewish worship would spark Arab riots, because Muslims consider the Mount their exclusive preserve. Neither holds water.
The first did have some validity when the ban was first imposed, immediately after Jerusalem's reunification in 1967: Back then, rabbinical authorities almost unanimously agreed that halakha forbids Jews even to set foot on the Mount. But while haredi rabbis still maintain this view, most religious Zionist rabbis now consider it possible to distinguish the halakhically forbidden parts of the Mount from those that aren't. Consequently, they not only permit ascending the Mount, but actively encourage it: In October 2009, for instance, leading religious Zionist rabbis publicly said Jews should go there frequently and in large numbers.
The religious public, incidentally, appears to be ahead of its leadership on this issue: A recent poll showed that fully 92 percent of religious Jews favor allowing Jewish worship on the Mount – as do 52 percent of Israeli Jews overall.
The security argument, in contrast, was always specious, as proven by the success with which Jews and Muslims share another holy site: the Cave of the Patriarchs (Machpela) in Hebron. On most days, part of the cave functions as a mosque and part as a synagogue, while on Jewish and Muslim holidays, the cave is open only to members of the celebrating religion. The arrangement hasn't been tension-free, but it has held for 45 years now – and far from sparking Arab unrest, Muslim riots actually occur far less frequently at Machpela than they do on the Mount.
Nor is this coincidental: It's precisely because of Israel's commitment to keeping Machpela open to Jews that Muslim riots are less common there. At Machpela, rioting would be counterproductive: Israel would more likely respond by closing the cave to Muslims than to Jews. But on the Mount, rioting pays off handsomely: Instead of closing the site to Muslims, Israel invariably responds by "temporarily" closing it to Jews. And "temporarily" is an elastic term: After the intifada erupted in September 2000, for instance, the Mount was "temporarily" closed to Jews for the next three years.
Thus while allowing Jewish worship on the Mount probably would spark Muslim outbursts at first, a consistent policy of penalizing Arabs rather than Jews for Arab rioting – instead of the current policy of penalizing Jews – would soon make such rioting as rare as it is at Machpela. Spontaneous riots might still occur occasionally, but many riots on the Mount are deliberately incited by political and religious leaders seeking to bolster Muslim control of the site. Once these leaders are convinced that rioting will undermine this goal rather than serving it, nonspontaneous riots will stop.
Indeed, sharing the Mount is actually easier than sharing Machpela, because Jews and Muslims aren't seeking to pray in the very same spot: Both Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located in areas that all halakhic authorities deem off-limits to Jews.
Permitting Jewish worship on the Mount would also serve Israel's diplomatic interests. By banning Jewish prayer, Israel has convinced the world that the Mount is far more religiously important to Muslims than to Jews, though in reality, it is Judaism's holiest site, and only Islam's third holiest. This misconception badly undermines Israel's ability to muster international support for keeping Jerusalem united.
Yet this consideration, weighty though it is, pales beside the basic fact that banning Jewish worship on the Mount is a betrayal of everything the Jewish State is supposed to be. Two weeks ago, discussing another shocking incident, Robert Horenstein wrote in these pages that "The nation-state of the Jewish people cannot be a place where one of its citizens can be taken into custody for carrying a Torah." I agree. But the nation-state of the Jewish people also can't be a place where Jews are arrested for praying at Judaism's holiest site.
In August, coalition chairman MK Zeev Elkin publicly declared that Israel should institute a shared-worship model on the Mount like the one at Machpela. That's encouraging, but so far, he hasn't translated his words into action. The only MK who has submitted legislation on the issue is opposition member Aryeh Eldad (National Union).
Even the US State Department now acknowledges that banning Jewish worship on the Mount violates religious freedom. It's long past time for the Knesset to do the same – and to finally end this disgrace by enacting appropriate legislation.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.