(October 13, 2021 / JNS) A fundamental constitutional right in the United States, embodied in its first amendment, is the freedom of religion. Freedom of prayer is clearly part of freedom of religion. Part of freedom of prayer is the freedom to pray in public spaces. Anyone opposing the right of Jewish prayer, therefore, would be deemed anti-Semitic in America.
This brings us to Israel. Before the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, I helped organize the first Jewish afternoon prayer service there, with no concern that it would spark any kind of controversy. In a way, I was right; I found out later that a video of it had garnered more than 10,000 views.
Subsequently, thanks to the Abraham Accords, which recently passed their one-year anniversary, Jewish services and events were even celebrated publicly in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. It was a sign of those Muslim-majority countries’ acceptance of freedom of Jewish observance that is so fundamental to the groundbreaking peace deals.
Meanwhile, however, such open Jewish prayer is not permitted at Judaism’s holiest site—the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Indeed, Israel actually enforces a ban on organized Jewish prayer, and even audible individual Jewish prayer at the site, while permitting Muslims to pray freely there.
This policy, established by Moshe Dayan after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, who gave authority over the holy sites to the Islamic Waqf, continues to be enforced, due to pressure by the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt. Jordan also prohibits public Jewish prayer at the tomb of Moses’s brother, Aharon Hakohen, which is located near Petra. The Jordanian parliament even held a moment of silence for the terrorists who murdered two Israeli policemen guarding the Temple Mount. Amman has also given safe haven to Ahlam Tamimi, who participated in the 2001 Sbarro pizzeria bombing in Jerusalem, in which 15 Israeli and American citizens were killed and more than 100 others were wounded. It has refused U.S. requests for her extradition.
Together with Egypt, Jordan also endorsed a 2016 UNESCO resolution denying any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, referring to it as a solely Muslim site. The resolution also referred to the Western Wall as Al-Baraq Plaza, and did not acknowledge any connection to Judaism.
This is not surprising, because if you deny that two Jewish temples existed on the Temple Mount, then you deny any Jewish connection to the Western Wall, as well. Nor is it surprising, thus, that on more than one occasion, there have been incidents of Muslims on the Temple Mount throwing stones on Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall below—because they oppose Jewish prayer, too.
Acquiescence to opposition to Jewish prayer goes way back. It was also instituted by Britain in its 1928 White Paper, which prohibited the blowing of the shofar at the Western Wall. The reason that the British gave was that such a ritual would offend and incite the Muslim world.
The decree led to Britain’s attempt each year to arrest Jews blowing the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur, in violation of the law. Recently, many of those—who are still alive—had a reunion at the Western Wall to remember their act of religious freedom against the anti-Semitic British decree.
Last week, Jerusalem Magistrates Court Judge Bilha Yahalom ruled that the silent prayer of Jews on the Temple Mount is allowed, saying it cannot be deemed a “criminal act.”
Sadly, Israeli Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev announced that the government was appealing the ruling, on the grounds that it “endanger(s) the public peace and could cause a flare-up.”
He further elaborated that though “the state advocates freedom of worship and prayer for all … in view of the security implications, the status quo must be upheld that the prayer of Jews on the Temple Mount will take place next to the Western Wall and the prayer of Muslims will take place in al Haram Al Sharif.”
Bar Lev’s appeal was successful. The Jerusalem District Court overturned Yahalom’s ruling. According to some reports, Biden administration pressure was behind the appeal.
This runs counter to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, which—in a historic first—said that Jewish prayer should not be prevented on the Temple Mount.
In an article in the September issue of Commentary, Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik wrote: “The hard truth is that in the past 54 years since the miraculous moment when Jews returned to ancient Jerusalem, the sacred city has itself been rebuilt—but the destruction of the remnants of the Temple has gotten worse. The Waqf has destroyed much archeological evidence of the Temple that once was there, and many Palestinian leaders have denied that the Temple stood there in the first place.”
Many Orthodox rabbis oppose Jews ascending to the Temple Mount for religious reasons. But those rabbis should make clear to those who hold a different theological position that they should support the right of Jews to pray there freely.
It is a travesty that the State of Israel is not protecting this right.
Freedom of religion is only upheld when we stand up and protect it from outrageous threats, such as that of a Muslim uprising. It is time for the Israeli government to do its job and safeguard the right of Jews to pray at their holiest site.
Farley Weiss, former president of the National Council of Young Israel, is an intellectual property attorney for the law firm of Weiss & Moy. The views expressed are the author’s, and not necessarily representative of NCYI.
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