Freedom of Religion?

A ruling by a District Court Judge in Jerusalem has been hailed as a breakthrough by some Israelis this week. Bilha Yahalom was deciding an appeal by Rabbi Aryeh Lippo who had been banned from visiting the Temple Mount by Israeli police. He visits the holy site daily and prays there quietly with several other men.

On the important religious day of Yom Kippur, a police officer spotted the group and removed Rabbi Lippo by force before banning him from returning.

Judge Yahalom reviewed video footage of the incident and decided that Rabbi Lippo was not doing anything that should agitate the Muslim authorities that control Judaism’s holiest site – his praying quietly in a corner “does not violate police instructions.”

Despite a previous ruling by Israel’s High Court of Justice, that Jews have a legal right to pray on the Temple Mount, Israeli police maintain a prohibition on it due to security concerns. When Jews visit the Temple Mount, they are told that prayer and religious items such as prayer books or prayer shawls are forbidden.

The Temple MountThe Temple Mount (photo: Michael Beer)

And yet Jewish visitors have been able to pray quietly in some parts of the site, relatively undisturbed, since late in 2019. That was acknowledged by Shai Glick when he welcomed Wednesday’s ruling, describing it as the first time it was “explicitly stated” that Jews have the right to pray on the Temple Mount, and adding:

“I am sure that from now on Israeli Police will understand and internalise this
and the prayers will continue as normal.”

However, the ruling has angered Muslim authorities who have denounced it as a violation of the fragile status quo governing the hotly disputed site.

The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism because it is the site on which both Temples stood before being destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans. But it is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and they claim it as the third holiest shrine in Islam, despite there being no explicit mention of it in the Quran.

For years it has been the very centre of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Tensions and riots there were one factor in the build-up to 11 days of conflict with Hamas in Gaza in May 2021.

Understandings reached between Israelis and their Muslim neighbours, after its capture in the 1967 war, mean that Jews are allowed to visit the site but not to pray there.

Consequently, Jordan’s Council of Endowments (Awqaf) called the judgment:

“A flagrant violation of the Islamic sanctity of the mosque and a clear
provocation to the feelings of Muslims around the world.”

Terrorist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, went as far as to claim the judgment is:

“A clear declaration of a war that goes beyond political rights to an aggression against religion and sanctities.
The resistance is ready and prepared to repel aggression and defend rights.”

The Temple Mount is once again a focus of attention.