On September 26, 2021, during the Sukkot holiday, an individual associated with the Temple Mount movement was detained by the Israeli police for openly praying on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. The Police issued a restraining order forbidding him from entering the Mount for 15 days.
The Jewish worshipper appealed the decision to the Jerusalem Magistrates Court, and on October 5, the Court ruled in his favor:
“The daily arrival of the appellant at the Temple Mount discloses that this is a matter of substance and principle for him. The film [of the incident] shows that the appellant was standing on the side, with one or two colleagues next to him, and that his prayer was quite, in a whisper. And for the purposes of this decision, I found no external and visible manifestations of religious activity on the part of the appellant” [T.J’s translation]
Accordingly, the Court rescinded the police restraining order.
The press reports whereby the court had sanctioned Jewish prayer on the Mount began to receive wide attention in the local and international press, and in the international community.
On Friday, October 8, the Minister of Homeland Security, Omer Bar-Lev announced in response to that judgment that “any change in the status quo jeopardized public safety and could lead to an eruption of violence“. He also noted that the Police had appealed the ruling.
In its appeal, the Police claimed that the lower court had misrepresented what happened and what the police claimed happened, and that social media was awash with footage of Jewish groups demonstrably praying. They asserted that in this specific case, the evidence clearly showed that the prayer was demonstrable, took place adjacent to the mosque and in a group numbering more than 50 (See Lower court ruling and the Appeal in Hebrew here).
The court of appeal overturned the Magistrates Court ruling, stating that “the fact that someone noticed that the appellant was praying is sufficient proof that the prayer was visible. If it wasn’t visible – no one would have noticed” (see the District court ruling in Hebrew here). The Court also cited the rules of decorum as posted at the entrance to the site, regulations and that have been ratified by the Israeli Supreme Court:
“Any religious/ritual activity with visible, external manifestations is forbidden.
It is forbidden to bring any religious vessels or other objects that serve the purpose of religious ritual activity”.
As noted, the District Court reversed the judgment of the lower court and left the restraining order in place.
It is important to distinguish between the court ruling itself, the overall context in which it was handed down, and the interrelationship between the two.
The judgment is not entirely unprecedented. In the past, there have been judges on the bench who are sympathetic to the religious right, and have, at their own initiative, periodically tinkered with the status quo. Here is an example from 2015.
These judgments were invariably reversed.
However, it would be a grave mistake to see the current ruling as “same-old – same-old”. This is not taking place in isolation.
While there are numerous interpretations of the status quo, the common denominator to each is “Muslims pray on the Mount, non-Muslims visit” (Netanyahu’s own words). Those principles are the source of the rules of decorum at the entrance to the site, as cited above.
In recent years that status quo has been eroded, and in recent months has collapsed, as we recently reported. Jews indeed are praying on the Mount and in an increasingly open and provocative manner.
Initially the police accepted the increasing manifestations of Jewish prayer on the Mount with a “wink and a nod”. Of late, they are turning a blind eye to increasingly provocative behaviors. We have not been surprised that the recent events have received wide attention, and palpably increased tensions. We have been surprised it took so long.
The ruling of the Magistrates Court reveals that the permissive interpretation regarding Jewish prayer and the erosion of the status quo is not limited to Police policies. The judgment does not use the term “silent prayer”, but instead invokes “quiet prayer” and “whispering” – which according to the judge is allowed. If this were genuinely an issue of “silent prayer” it would not be an issue at all. One can pray in one’s heart, silently. But “silent” prayer has been the weapon of choice for those seeking to change the status quo. Moving your lips leads to mumbling, which leads to whispering which leads to open prayer. Open Jewish prayer on the Mount in this way became commonplace.
Claims that Israel is violating the status quo on the Temple Mt./Haram al Sharif is not paranoia. It’s a known fact.
The events of recent days made tensions flare dangerously. The judgment of the District Court overturning that decision has apparently defused the situation, at least for now. It seems we have once again dodged a bullet.
This is far from over. The situation remains volatile and the trends of religious radicalization remain. However, as volatile as the situation may be, this is far from a lost cause.