Despite 23 years on repeated failure, Martin Indyk remains convinced that he knows exactly how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Without a trace of embarrassment, he unveiled his latest plan in the New York Times last week, a “Jerusalem first” approach that calls for the Old City to be run by “a special regime that maintained the religious status quo and ensured that the three religious authorities continued to administer their respective holy sites.” But with characteristic disdain for reality, he ignored the elephant in the room: The status quo he seeks to preserve, especially on the Temple Mount, is actually unacceptable to both sides–and should be unacceptable to anyone who cares about the fundamental right of freedom of religion.
Unlike many veteran peace processers, Indyk doesn’t pretend that Jews have no connection to the Mount. He admits that it contains “the ruins of Judaism’s holiest of holies.” He simply seems to think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Jews to forgo any contact, even the most tenuous, with their holiest site in perpetuity. Not, of course, that he puts it that bluntly. But when you consider what’s happening on the Mount even today, when Islamic authorities don’t yet have absolute control, it’s hard to imagine his “solution” producing any other outcome. And it’s equally hard to see why anyone should consider the current situation acceptable.
Just last week, for instance, Palestinian guards employed by the Islamic Waqf (religious trust) that runs the Mount’s day-to-day affairs tried to eject an Israeli archeologist from the site merely for daring to use the term “Temple Mount” in a lecture to American students. They demanded that he use the Mount’s Islamic name instead, and when he refused, they demanded that Israeli policemen on the site eject him. Other tour guides subsequently told the Times of Israel that this isn’t an uncommon occurrence.
Disgracefully, the Israeli police–who have long since decided their job on the Mount isn’t protecting Israelis’ rights, but kowtowing to the Waqf’s every whim to prevent Arab rioting–seconded the request that Dr. Gabriel Barkay stop using the site’s Judeo-Christian name. But at least they also told the Waqf guards that they couldn’t evict him merely for using the term “Temple Mount.” Under full Islamic control, even uttering that name would evidently be a punishable offense.
Or consider what happened to Jerusalem Post reporter Lahav Harkov when she visited the Mount in September 2015. As usual, the Waqf guards harassed her nonstop, over everything from the length of her skirt (below the knees, but not ankle length) through taking pictures to standing still for longer than the guards deemed proper. But the climax came when, moved by thoughts of the Temple, she unexpectedly began to cry. A Waqf guard promptly started shouting at her in Arabic. And once again, an Israeli policeman disgracefully seconded the Waqf’s complaint: “You can’t close your eyes and cry. That’s like praying.”
Yet at least the Israeli police didn’t kick her off the Mount. Had the Waqf had its way, she would never even have been allowed to enter.
In a 2014 report for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, journalist Nadav Shragai, an expert on Jerusalem’s history, detailed all the ways the “status quo” on the Mount has eroded to the Jews’ detriment since 1967. Jewish visiting hours have been drastically curtailed; Jews can no longer enter the mosques, even as the portion of the Mount occupied by the mosques has expanded greatly; the Waqf has been allowed to destroy Jewish archaeological relics with impunity; and so forth. All this has happened even though Israel nominally controls the Mount.
But to Palestinians, even the one right Jews still retain on the Mount, the right of a strictly limited number to pay strictly controlled visits–as long as they don’t mind nonstop harassment and refrain from doing anything offensive to the Waqf, like praying, tearing up, or using the term “Temple Mount”–is unacceptable. The consensus Palestinian position today, as memorably articulated by their “moderate” leader Mahmoud Abbas, is that Jews who ascend the Mount are “defiling” it with their “filthy feet.” In short, the Palestinians aren’t interested in preserving the Mount’s status quo; what they want is to ban any Jew from ever setting foot on it again.
Yet the status quo is equally unacceptable to a growing number of Jews – and rightly so. There’s no reason why Jews shouldn’t be allowed to visit their holiest site whenever and in whatever numbers they please, aside from, say, during Muslim holidays or Friday prayers at the mosque. There’s no reason Jewish visitors to the site should be unable even to shed a tear or use its Hebrew name. And there’s especially no reason why Jews should be denied the right to pray at their holiest site, as long as they don’t do it in the mosque itself – which they wouldn’t want to do anyway, since Jewish law forbids entering the area where the Holy of Holies once stood, and its exact location isn’t known. Thus Jewish prayer would be possible only in peripheral areas, where there’s no risk of violating Jewish law.
Nor can one credibly argue that it’s impossible for Jews and Muslims to share a holy site; at Israel’s insistence, they’ve been doing it at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron for decades. The only thing that makes the Mount different is that there, Israel has shied away from enforcing a similar equal-access arrangement.
Thus, instead of sanctifying the “status quo,” it’s long past time to admit that this status quo grossly violates basic religious rights, that the violations are only getting worse, and that this deterioration will continue unless Israel takes steps to reverse it. In short, it’s time for Israel to scrap the status quo and finally start protecting Jewish as well as Muslim rights on the Mount. And it’s time for America, whose own constitution enshrines freedom of religion, to fully back Israel in doing so.
Originally published in Commentary on January 11, 2017