Quietly, under the radar, Israel is breaching the status quo on the Temple Mount. For the past two years, under police protection, groups of Jews who ascend the Mount hold daily morning and afternoon prayers, together in a quorum. This goes against the existing agreement between the Israeli government and the Waqf (the Muslim religious authority), the Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian government, by which Jews have access to the Temple Mount but Jewish prayer is held only at the Western Wall.
The change in custom was accepted by quiet assent during the time that Gilad Erdan was public security minister. His successors have not reinstated the status quo ante, and they are playing with fire. So far, the infraction of the status quo has passed quietly, but it cannot be assumed that the quiet will continue. In light of the increasing number of Jews coming to the Temple Mount in recent months, friction at the most sensitive and volatile place in the Middle East, is inevitable.
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Jews who want to pray on the Temple Mount have one main argument, which liberal secular people are compelled to support: Freedom of worship is a basic principle of democracy. Supposedly, the party against which to lodge a grievance is the one that tries to prevent freedom of prayer in the most sacred place to Orthodox Judaism. But in the broader context of Jerusalem – one third of whose population does not have equal rights – the attempt to impose equality of all places on the only place where Muslims have some autonomy, a place that is both a religious and a national symbol for the Palestinians, constitutes needless provocation.
In principle, Jews should have the right to pray anywhere, including the Temple Mount. But the demand to redress the issue of freedom of worship to Jews on the Temple Mount is hypocritical in a city where, for example, Palestinians are removed from their homes because of inherent inequality in the law – which allows only Jews to seek that they be given back premises from which they were removed when the state was established and the city divided. It is a cynical and manipulative demand that values be upheld by those who themselves do not uphold them.
This hypocrisy also cries out to the high heavens in light of the fact that next to the Temple Mount, the Western Wall Plaza is controlled by extreme Orthodox Jewish elements, and there is no freedom of worship for Conservative or Reform Jews and groups of women who seek to hold their own prayer services.
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The right of Jews to also pray on the Temple Mount must come as part of a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Prayers held on the sly, by means of creeping annexation, endanger the fragile quiet not only in Jerusalem but in the entire region. A responsible Israeli government will know that the status quo must be quickly restored.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.