Under this policy, every government since 1967 has forbidden Jews to pray on the mount, even though it is Judaism’s holiest site; some have even forbidden Jews to set foot there. The reason for the ban on Jewish worship – which was reaffirmed by the Sharon government just last week, when it successfully persuaded the High Court of Justice to amend a “slip of the pen” in a recent ruling because it could be interpreted as authorizing Jewish prayer on the mount – is fear that it might spark Arab rioting.
That argument seems dubious in and of itself, since at other volatile sites, such as Machpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron, successive governments have enabled Jewish worship to take place despite Arab objections simply by stationing enough troops there. Far worse, however, are the ramifications of this policy for future diplomatic negotiations over Jerusalem.
Most Israelis – rightists, centrists and even moderate leftists – want Israel to retain the Temple Mount under any final-status agreement with the Palestinians. And a priori, Israel’s claim is strong: The mount is Judaism’s holiest site, compared to Islam’s third holiest; it is the site toward which Jews have prayed for over 2,000 years, whereas Mecca holds this honor for Muslims; it is referenced hundreds of times in the Bible, yet not at all in the Koran.
But the consistent refusal of all Israeli governments to permit Jewish prayer on the mount eviscerates Israel’s claim by making it look like pure dog-in-the-manger: The Jews do not actually want to use the mount for worship themselves; they merely want to prevent Palestinian Muslims – who do worship there regularly – from having it.
And why should the international community sympathize with such selfishness? Moreover, this policy is equally destructive for Israel’s claim to the rest of east Jerusalem. Israel, after all, has no conceivable interest in Arab neighborhoods such as Shuafat or Beit Safafa; its claim rests entirely on the fact that east Jerusalem contains the heart of the ancient Jewish kingdom – the Temple Mount and the City of David – and is therefore the historic heart of the modern Jewish state. But if Israel cares so little about these historic roots that no Israeli government has caviled at banning Jewish worship on the mount, and some have even barred Jews from ascending the mount entirely, it is hard to blame the international community for not treating Israel’s historic claim very seriously.
THUS WHILE most Israeli governments for the past 38 years have been either rightist or center-left, all, without exception, have in fact served the policy of the far Left – which wants east Jerusalem and the Temple Mount to be given to the Palestinians.
The ban on Jewish worship on the mount has many other deleterious consequences as well. First, it undercuts the fight against anti-Semitism: How can Jews credibly protest violations of Jewish rights overseas when the Jewish state has barred Jews from worshiping at their holiest site for 38 years without eliciting a peep from the international Jewish community? Second, it undermines respect for the rule of law in Israel by making a mockery of the law that guarantees freedom of access to the holy sites for all faiths. And third, it encourages Arab violence by showing that such violence (or the threat thereof) achieves results.
But what makes this short-sighted policy even more ridiculous is that it has not even achieved its stated goal of preventing Arab rioting: Muslims on the mount have repeatedly stoned Jews praying at the Western Wall below or attacked Israeli policemen guarding the area. This in turn has forced Israel to maintain a large and expensive security presence around the mount. Thus in practice, the security situation at the Muslim-only mount is no better than at Machpela, where Jews and Muslims worship side by side.
Indeed, Machpela is living proof that Jews and Muslims can share a holy site. On most days, Jews and Muslims pray in separate chambers of the cave; on certain religious holidays, it is open exclusively to either Jews or Muslims. And by and large, this arrangement works. There has, admittedly, been occasional violence, but no more so than at the Muslim-only mount; and while the arrangement requires a large security presence, this has proven equally necessary at the Muslim-only mount.
In fact, joint worship on the mount would be easier than at Machpela, because on the mount, unlike at Machpela, the two faiths do not seek to pray at the exact same spot. All rabbis agree that under Jewish law, the actual site of the Temple is currently off-limits to Jews, and since its precise location is unknown, the ban extends to any place where it might have stood – which includes the site of the two mosques. Thus the only sections of the mount that any rabbi has deemed appropriate for Jewish worship are peripheral areas such as Solomon’s Stables or a strip behind the Western Wall.
As opposition leader, Ariel Sharon seemed to understand the importance of a Jewish presence on the mount. Since becoming prime minister, however, he has preferred to mouth empty slogans about united Jerusalem being Israel’s eternal capital while continuing a policy toward the mount that virtually precludes such an outcome.
Unfortunately, neither he nor his successors are likely to alter this policy unless that majority of Israelis who do care about Jerusalem’s future make it clear that they will no longer accept a ban on Jewish worship on the mount.