Intolerance at Jerusalem’s holy places

Violence on the Temple Mount and at the Western Wall deserves condemnation no matter who is perpetuating it, be they Arab or Jew.

Members of the Women of the Wall movement hold Rosh Chodesh prayers as thousands of ultra-Orthodox women protest against them at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on March 8, 2019. Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Members of the Women of the Wall movement hold Rosh Chodesh prayers as thousands of ultra-Orthodox women protest against them at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on March 8, 2019. Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

How much violence should be tolerated at holy sites? If your answer is selective rather than a total condemnation, then we have a problem. And, unfortunately, that happens to be the case with some people concerning recent events in Jerusalem.

Israel ordered the closure of the Temple Mount compound this week after a Palestinian threw a firebomb at the police post guarding the historic and sacred site.

This sensible precaution is being denounced as an “aggression” against Islam. Over the course of the last century, Arab opponents of Zionism have used the mosques on the Temple Mount as part of an effort to incite violence against Jews. That was as true in the 1920s and 1930s as it is in our own day, as Palestinian leaders have claimed that Jews were conspiring to destroy the Temple Mount mosques.

This is, as it has always been, a big lie. It is only since Israel came into possession of the unified city in June 1967 that equal access for all faiths at Jerusalem’s holy sites has been protected. There is, however, one exception. Jews are routinely denied free access to the Temple Mount—the holiest site in Judaism. And even when they are allowed to visit it, they are forbidden to pray. Since the sight of a Jew praying there is certain to result in Muslim violence, the government of Israel has acquiesced in this prohibition.

Most Israelis may consider this injustice a small price to pay for peace. But some Jews consider it to be an insufferable insult, as well as a historic injustice. Muslims harass and threaten Jews who choose to enter the Temple Mount compound, even if they are denied the right to pray because they claim their presence is a monstrous ”provocation.”

The presence of Jews on the Temple Mount doesn’t interfere with the operation of the mosques or the rights of Muslims. But they are a vivid reminder of the return of Jews to their homeland, a bitter thought to those who are still stuck in the mindset of their century-old war on Zionism.

Yet some of those who support the right of Jews to be on the Temple Mount have remained silent or acquiesced to violence when it is directed at Jews seeking to pray at the Western Wall.

Last Friday, the Women of the Wall, a group of non-Orthodox Jewish women who seek to pray at the Kotel in egalitarian fashion, gathered as they always do on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month in the Hebrew calendar. The sight of Jewish women praying in talit and tefillin or reading from the Torah is shocking to some Jews who consider the Kotel to be an Orthodox synagogue, as opposed to a sacred space for all Jews.

Some argue that all Jews, regardless of their beliefs, should accept the customs of the place and not pray or act in a manner that offends the Orthodox. In response, the non-Orthodox say that the Wall belongs to them, too, in the same manner as Israel belongs to all of the Jewish people. And agree with that or not, they say that they should be allowed to pray in peace since they are not interfering with the services of other groups.

The creation of a separate egalitarian prayer space at the Robinson’s Arch site south of the main Kotel plaza is a reasonable solution, but opposition from the Orthodox to even that compromise has stymied efforts to create greater access to the area. But even if that were not also a source of contention, the fact remains that there is no excuse for the routine harassment and violence to which the Women of the Wall have been subjected when they hold their monthly prayer services, which Israel’s courts have ruled they have a right to do.

Yet last week, in an unprecedented escalation of the conflict, thousands, including busloads of children, arrived at the Plaza prior to the 7 a.m. service held by the women. They were shouted down and physically attacked by girls egged on by their elders. Outside the women’s prayer area, an even larger mob of Orthodox men attacked those men who were there to support the egalitarian service, as well as menace the women who came to pray. The women were physically driven from the area.

As scandalous as that was, the even greater disgrace was the refusal of the Israeli police to protect the women and their supporters against the mob that had assembled to attack them. Like the Jews on the Temple Mount, the police accused the women of staging a “provocation,” despite the fact that the courts have ordered law enforcement to protect them.

Since Israel is about to have an election, there will be no repercussions for these actions. Most Israelis who are secular don’t care much about the rights of the non-Orthodox; Reform and Conservative Judaism are seen as products of the Diaspora. Others see this dispute only through the lens of debates about the peace process or consider the non-Orthodox as doomed, and therefore unworthy of respect.

It’s easy for supporters of Israel to understand and condemn the intolerance of non-Jews who attack or seek to deny the rights of Jews. When Arab mobs hurl stones from the Temple Mount at Jewish worshippers below at the Kotel, as they have done, everyone agrees that it is a crime that should be prevented and punished. But it’s equally wrong for one group of Jews to treat their fellow Jews in a similar manner, as last week’s violence at the Kotel illustrated.

Even if you disagree with the Women of the Wall or find their actions obnoxious or offensive, the effort to silence them is both deeply wrong and a standing affront to the vast majority of American Jews, who identify more with them than with the screaming gang seeking to drive them from the sacred site. To fail to condemn last Friday’s violence or to ignore or wink at it as some have done is unacceptable. The conscience of the Jewish people should be outraged by the spectacle of Jews attacking fellow Jews simply because they don’t like the manner in which they pray.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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