This British-born Israeli tour guide may have one of the hardest jobs on earth these days. On the guided tours he leads up to the Temple Mount several times a week, Emmanuel Kushner is under instructions to keep politics out of the conversation — and when it can’t be avoided, at least make sure that whatever he says is politically correct.
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With tensions over this Jewish and Muslim holy site boiling over in recent weeks, that can be a daunting task.
Kushner has developed some tricks for avoiding confrontation when entering the eye of the storm. “You guys all know Voldemort, the character from the Harry Potter books, as in ‘he-who-must-not-be-named,’” he begins his pep talk, as the group lines up outside the Temple Mount entrance gate designated for tourists. “Well, that’s gonna be our code. When we’re up there, and I say ‘Voldemort,’ I mean the Temple Mount. I just can’t use those words.”
Muslims refer to the site as the Noble Sanctuary, and language is critical in the current battle of conflicting narratives, all the more so when reference is made to its most salient symbols. These days, when many Palestinians have convinced themselves that Israel is determined to harm the historic mosques located on this site, the last thing a tour guide needs to do is rub in their faces the fact that this is also the site of the ancient Jewish temples.
Undeterred by the recent spate of stabbings in Jerusalem’s Old City, close to 30 travelers from around the world have signed up for this daily tour run by Abraham Tours, a popular Jerusalem-based operation that caters to independent travelers. In this particular group, which toured the site on Wednesday, there were visitors from around world, including the United States, Australia, Brazil and several European countries.
Despite recent tensions, the Temple Mount has remained open to tourists and Jewish Israelis, as it is during quieter periods, for several hours each day. Non-Muslims are not allowed to pray on the site. In addition, visitors are prohibited from bringing up Bibles or prayer books, and they must remove or cover up any jewelry that contains religious symbols.
Before explaining the religious significance of the various sites located on the Temple Mount, Kushner says he needs to get “one or two political things out of the way.”
Don’t be shocked, he tells the group, if while they are roaming about, a group of Muslim women stationed outside the Al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, begins shouting in unison “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”). “Some Jews like to go up there because it’s a Jewish holy site, and there are Muslims who don’t want them to, and that’s the way these women let them know,” he explains.
As for the other “political thing," Kushner makes a confession. “Look, I’m Jewish, and I try to do this talk as objectively as possible, but you guys need to know that for many of us, these stones here are considered the heart of the Jewish nation.”
Kushner takes out a map that shows how Jerusalem was divided in 1948, noting the decision by Moshe Dayan (“the guy with the eye patch”) to hand over control of the Temple Mount to Muslim authorities after Israel captured the Old City in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Several travelers are curious to know why the Jews relinquished control of the holy site. Another wonders whether the Jews have any intention of rebuilding their temple there. A young woman from Tulsa, Oklahoma, wants to know whether it’s true that Jews are forbidden from treading on certain areas in the vicinity — a reference to the rabbinical prohibition to visit the Mount because of the risk of inadvertently stepping on the Temple's Holy of Holies. Another woman challenges the guide’s explanation of the “God is great” catcalls. “Don’t you think you need to say why Muslims feel threatened now?” she asks him.
Kushner fields the questions, measuring his responses carefully. It is unclear whether it is the unseasonably warm weather or the pains he is taking to maintain political neutrality that account for the large beads of sweat on his forehead. “How am I doing?” he whispers to an Israeli colleague who has tagged along, seeking some reassurance. “I’m being balanced — right?”
At the security checkpoint leading up to the Temple Mount, police have their eyes on a potential troublemaker with a yarmulke on his head. “You’re going to let all these goyim go up,” says the man who has been pulled aside, as he points to the non-Jewish tour group. “But you’re not going to let me?”
No sooner has the group reached its destination that true to Kushner’s warning, the Muslim women stationed outside the Al-Aqsa mosque move into action mode. A man with a big white yarmulke on his head, surrounded by five security guards, is greeted by angry shouts of “Allahu Akbar” as he walks by.
“Ok, I’ll take a break from our discussion so you can take this all in,” says the tour guide, noticing that the scene unfolding several dozen meters away has everyone distracted.
A young traveler from London is a bit confused by what he has just witnessed. “Is it only Jews that bother those women,” he asks politely, “or would Christians and Hindus be shouted at as well?”
“Well,” responds Kushner, “I would say that as long as you’re not wearing a skullcap on your head, they’re not going to bother you.”
And then he lets the group in on a secret. “Even when my own religious friends want to come up here with me, I tell them only if they take their yarmulkes off. I’m on good terms with many Muslims who work up here, and I certainly don’t need to ruin my relationship with them."