Friday, August 01, 2008

No place for a Jew to pray

I realized after I made a comment at Stage Left that few people actually realize two things outside of Israelis and Diaspora Jews. The holiest place in Judaism is not the Western Wall or HaKotel but the Temple Mount above the wall, and a Jew is forbidden by Israeli law to pray there in order to protect the religious sensitivities of the Arab Muslim minority. In fact, even moving one's Jewish lips and silently mouthing a prayer leaves one open to arrest by Israeli Police. Think I am joking? Read this January 2008 article from Ha'aretz:
A Jew is not allowed to pray in any overt manner whatsoever on the Temple Mount, even if he is just moving his lips in prayer, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter recently wrote MKs Uri Ariel and Aryeh Eldad (National Union-NRP).

In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that it accepted the government's position that it was not opposed to individual Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, providing that it was not of a demonstrative nature that could lead to public disorder. High Court rulings in recent years have also been seen to support individual, as opposed to group prayer on the Mount.

Ariel and Eldad recently decided to test the State's position on this issue. They informed the police that "they intended to manifest this right" [to non-demonstrative prayer] by first coordinating the best time and place to enter and exit the Temple Mount complex. The two MKs explained that all they intended to do was to pray, without informing the media of their plans, or wearing a talit or tefilin, or bringing a Torah scroll with them.

"It is not possible to arrest a person for 'conversing with his maker,'" Dichter replied, using the same terminology of the MKs' letter. "However it is possible to carry out an arrest for expressions of outward and demonstrative signs [of prayer]."

This interpretation, Dichter continued, "is in line with the rationale that bans Jews from praying at the site, in light of serious concerns that this will serve as a provocation, resulting in disorder, with a near certain likelihood of subsequent bloodshed."

It was further explained to the two MKs that from the police's point of view, there is no substantive difference between the prayer of an individual and group prayer, since the threat to public safety is the same. Such act would be considered "altering the status quo at the site."

Dichter stressed that the state's decision to ban Jewish prayer from the Temple Mount does not distinguish between an individual praying and that of a group, and that this has been the basis of the status quo since 1967.

As outrageous as it may seem, it is enough to qualify for sufficient cause to arrest a Jew for silently mouthing out a prayer under the current law. I suggest reading this Israeli Insider article detailing a visit to the Temple Mount (circa 2006) in the first person. Here is an excerpt:
So I arrive at the security gate leading to the Temple Mount early in the morning during hol hamoed sukkot. A long line of religious yeshiva boys are waiting, and Israeli policemen collect their ID cards to check their records, afraid some fanatic is going to blow up the Al Aqsa Mosque.

I meet up with a group of American Jews led by an expatriate American tour guide named Nahum. We are given an easier time than the yeshiva boys, but we have to wait at least an hour until the boys pass security.

Tensions are high and many of us are getting impatient, especially since people cut in line to go ahead of us. One antsy member of our group, a religious looking gentleman, complains loudly to a gruff Israeli policeman looking cool in sunglasses.

"Why are you making us wait so long?" he says to him.

The policeman answers with a scowl: "Did I do anything to you?"

They get into a verbal scuffle which ends with the policeman saying in Hebrew: "I don't give a $%#@ about you." What a spiritual way to begin entrance into one of the holiest sites in the world, I think. Nahum warns us to avoid confrontation with the Israeli police. He suspects they want to make it hard and undesirable for Israelis to enter.

"I remember after the Six Day War Jews would go to the Temple Mount and visit all the sites there freely and fearlessly," he explains with some nostalgia. Over the years, he continues, as Israel slowly gave up sovereignty over the Mount, the site became more restricted to Jews. The Muslim waqf which administers the Temple Mount cooperate with Israeli police to make sure the Jews "behave". Behavior includes modest dress, no trespassing to forbidden areas, and-- believe it or not-- no prayer.

Nahum relates a story of a religious woman who, upon touring the Mount, was tired and sat by a tree to rest. She closed her eyes and it looked like she was meditating. The police detained her for violating the ban on prayer.

Luckily for me, as a generally secular person, I don't pray the traditional Jewish way. My thoughts and dreams are my prayers. However, as Nahum warns me not to pray as we enter the site, I wonder what the police would do if silently mouth Madonna's "Like A Virgin" towards the Dome of the Rock, or if I silently recite a psalm and then tell them I'm an atheist. Would that be cause for arrest?

But as I crossed into the site via a bridge adjacent to the Western Wall, I was in no mood to make trouble. I was too awed by the vastness in front of me. The area where the former Hebrew Temple once stood looks like a peaceful park. Olive trees and stone pathways surround the Dome of the Rock and the Al Asqa Mosque. It occurs to me that this is the one spot in the world where at any moment I could face a different direction to pray towards "Jerusalem." But, alas, I'm not allowed to pray.

We circle the Dome and the Mosque, which are closed to non-Muslims, and Nahum shows us where the PA has converted the area known as Solomon's Stables into a mosque. As we tour around, the Waqf agents, who look like Arabs dressed in Western clothes, come up to us every so often to make sure Nahum isn't teaching anything blasphemous. Luckily, they don?t understand English. Nahum is disapproving of the recent Muslim constructions, which he says are designed to increase Muslim stakes in the site.

The Israeli police largely leave us alone. The religious members of the group have disguised themselves as secular by wearing hats over their kippahs. We manage to blend in with Christian and Asian groups, who actually visit the site more than Jews. As we walk at the edge of the eastern wall, a policeman tightly escorting a teenage boy passes us. The boy, whose long tendrils stick out from below his knitted kippah, must have made some trouble. His lips were moving in prayer as he was leaving the Mount.

No comments: