Enshrined in Israeli law are two cardinal principles of democracy: freedom of access to places of worship, and the freedom of worship to practitioners of all religions. Successive Israeli governments have proudly and rightly cited Israel's unflinching assurance of the freedom of worship for Muslims and Christians in the city of Jerusalem. This fact is presented in its case to maintain Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli sovereignty. Ironically, in the very heart of Jerusalem lies a parcel of real estate which has been granted de facto some sort of extra-legal, extraterritorial status, a veritable "wild West" where the rule of law does not exist and the most basic and inalienable democratic rights are not honored. This is the Temple Mount.
The facts on the ground are as such: The Muslim Waqf, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, has been granted absolute say over the administration of the Mount. Illegal destruction of archaeological remains of the first and second Holy Temples takes place on a daily basis, as does illegal construction. The Waqf's unambiguous and oft-stated aim of this policy is the destruction of evidence of the Holy Temple and the transformation of the entire Temple Mount plateau into one massive Mosque, thus achieving exclusivity to the site for Muslims.
But no less pernicious is the manner in which non-Muslims are treated both atop the Mount and upon approaching it. And this discriminatory policy is enforced by the Israeli police. Non-Muslims are simply not allowed to carry with them a Bible or prayer book and are not allowed to pray. Jews who ascend the Mount, in accordance with Jewish law (first immersing in a ritual bath, and only treading on areas that are permissible according to halacha), are singled out and discriminated against in an abusive, humiliating and derogatory fashion. They are detained at the security booth, their identification cards are inspected (not the case for non-Jews), they are given oral instructions on what they cannot do, (stop in any one spot for more than a few minutes, pray, silently move their lips or sway their bodies. Jews are even warned not to cry, sing or close their eyes).
Furthermore, unlike any other group of human beings ascending the Mount (and thousands of tourists from around the world do so every day), Jews are not allowed to be on the Mount in gatherings of more than 10 or 20 at a time, and they are accompanied during the entire duration of their visit by police officers and a Waqf official to ensure that they do not violate the prohibitions. Needless to say, prayer books, the Tanach, tefillin or a tallit are strictly forbidden. Non-Jews (by and large, non-Israelis), who accompany Jewish visitors to the Mount (and many do so out of a desire to experience the Temple Mount from a Jewish perspective), are accorded the same shabby treatment.
It is a positive commandment for Jews to visit the Temple Mount, the site of the Holy Temple. This commandment is known as "showing reverence to G-d in the place of the Holy Temple," its source is Leviticus 19:30. It is enumerated by Maimonides, (Mishneh Torah, Sefer HaAvoda, Hilchot Beit HaBechira, chapter 7). As Maimonides explains, this commandment remains in effect, despite the fact that the Temple is in ruins.
Democracy itself is threatened
In a number of recent rulings, the Supreme Court has emphatically upheld the right of Jews to pray on the Mount, and has reproved the police for not honoring the law. Yet the police adhere to a tried and true method to circumvent the upholding of the worshippers' rights. If the danger exists that Jewish prayer on the Mount could be met by a disturbance of the peace (read: Muslim violence), then freedom of worship is denied. As can be expected, the Muslim Waqf, famous for its incitement, never fails to provide the goods.
We all agree on the importance of preventing a conflagration, and unfortunately, the Temple Mount, which the prophet Haggai proclaimed, "And in this place I will grant peace," has become a flashpoint. But when the rule of law and the very human rights that a democratic society is entrusted to guarantee, become subordinate to violence or the threat of violence, democracy itself is threatened.
Yes, the Temple Mount is a flashpoint, but so was Oxford, Mississippi in the 1960s, as well as Selma Alabama, when the Civil Rights movement in America was struggling to achieve equality before the law for African Americans. Violence was threatened, and violence was delivered. But it was met by a government increasingly determined not to sacrifice its very reason for being before a violent mob. If justice could begin to flower in Oxford and Selma, how much greater is the promise of the Temple Mount, the place chosen by G-d, which Isaiah describes as "a house of prayer for all people." (Isaiah 56:7)
If the essence of American democracy can be summed up by the words guaranteeing "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," then the challenge of the Jewish democratic state of Israel should be no less than the guaranteeing of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of keeping G-d’s commandments." Jettisoning these basic tenets of human liberty, especially on the Temple Mount, will never lead to peace, but will ultimately undermine and destroy the freedoms that are meant to be protected for all of us to enjoy.
The Temple Institute has declared this coming Tuesday, March 16, the first of the month of Nisan, to be International Temple Mount Awareness Day. We call upon our supporters to petition the government of Israel for change, and are inviting all who feel a connection to the place of the Holy Temple to join us as we ascend the Mount. The gathering is intended to be one of religious expression and is not political in nature. Our intentions are only peaceful. In the likely case that we are denied our democratic right to be seen and to be heard on the Mount, we will disperse peacefully.
The author, Yitzchak Reuven, is the Director of Multimedia at the international department of The Temple Institute in Jerusalem