My wife and I, currently vacationing In Israel, almost earned a spot in the news today–or at least on a police blotter. And I was mostly innocent.
Since 1969 when my brother and I freely and unafraid explored all of the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, I have wanted to revisit it; and with recent excitement about who controls the area, my wife
and I decided that this visit would have to include it.
Non-Muslim visiting hours are limited to 2 1/2 hours in the morning, and one hour, from 12:30 to 1:30 in the afternoon. At12:30 we arrived at the end of a long queue of people anxious to climb the long ramp from the plaza level of the Kotel to the Temple Mount. We saw people from every nook and cranny of the world and enjoyed listening to all of their languages as we waited for the gate at the front to open. Naturally, security is very tight.
After the roughly 100 others had filed through we brought up the rear. My wife placed her purse on the table and walked through the metal detector to the other side without arousing as much as a blink from the police. I emptied my pockets, set my two cell phones, Bluetooth ear bud, and pens on the table and two of the guards motioned for me to remove my Stetson.
A gasp and hurried instructions to one another were immediate, and our passports were demanded. There, to the shock of every guard, perched on my head, was a kippah. The chief of the micro-police force receded into a small office, emerging about five minutes later, still holding the passports and glaring at me. Obviously I was a troublemaker.
“Calm down,” he rasped at me when I asked him if we should leave or if my wife could go up on her own. “Do you want to go to jail?”
(Over the past few months, several Jews have been arrested for making outward signs of praying while up on the Temple Mount, in violation of an agreement by Israel and the Palestinian authority that no Jew would ever be allowed to engage in religious activity or wear any religious paraphernalia, in order to avoid arousing riotous passions among the Muslim population. This notwithstanding the historical fact that the site has been a holy destination for Jews for thousands of years.)
About twenty minutes later, after a few more office retreats and whispered conversations with the other guards, he strode over to me.
“Where is your Kippah?” demanded the burly chief of these police. I showed him that I had removed it and placed it in a carry bag and would be content to wear only the Stetson to avoid looking Jewish; I shared with him my business card identifying me as a rabbi, to further assure him that I was aware of the delicate situation and would act responsibly.
That was a mistake: he was now convinced that I was intending to do “something religious” up on the mount and retreated once again into his office, ostensibly to check with “the office” to determine if I was previously known to the police as an agitator.
With only a few minutes left in the one hour allotment, he finally reemerged, handed back my business card, and told me to put on my kippah. “Come, go up,” he groused at me. My wife and I began the trek up the ramp, a bit surprised but glad nevertheless. A young Haredi guard – kippah, tzitzit , long peyyot and unarmed – joined us. Halfway up we were greeted and flanked by two heavily armed policemen.
At the top of the ramp, as we approached the holy ground, several more police surrounded us in a very tight circle. In this formation we begin a slow march onto the grounds.
Our circle was immediately approached and followed by several Palestinians who stared at me, my wife, and the Haredi man. One policeman told us that we could feel free to take pictures, and guided us to good vantage points to take great snapshots.
I asked, “how many of you are out here right now guarding those other tourists who came in ahead of us?” imagining that the number would have had to have been staggering, although I couldn’t see any. He answered,” None. They aren’t Jews; you are.”
In a sudden rush of anger I continued silently until the end of our time there.
We Jews, who have given the world the most peaceful and accessible holy sites to all the peoples of the region, are restricted in our own land and treated as criminals for the slightest offense caused by being ourselves.
I was aware of reports of the arrests of other men who had deliberately caused incidents on the Temple Mount by assuming prayerful poses, but discounted the stories as inaccurate, incomplete; surely an incompetent editor had omitted the details of some egregious action by those who were arrested. Now I had had this bitter experience.
I tried to imagine the furor that would rise if Muslims were prevented from freely visiting a mosque anywhere in Israel. Yet here, in this absurdly upside-down world of the Middle East, these behaviors are accepted as normal. Little, genuinely moral and desperate-for-peace Israel is forced to behave badly to its own people in deference to the sensitivities of its sworn enemies.
On this Shabbat, when we read in the Torah about the exuberance of our ancestors who were given the opportunity to build the Mishkan, let us pray for the peace of Jerusalem and all Israel; and resolve to do our part to dispel the influence of misinformation and the growing darkness that seems to be overtaking the Western world.