WIN EXCLUSIVE: Activist discusses Knesset victory for Jewish visitors to Temple Mount

Activist tells WIN that the time has come for police transparency, accountability regarding policies affecting Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

The Chairwoman of the Knesset’s Internal Security Committee, MK Merav Ben Ari, announced Tuesday that she would establish a subcommittee to monitor police treatment of Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount, a move spearheaded by NGO Beyadenu (Hebrew for In Our Hands).

The organization aims to streamline Jewish visits to the Temple Mount, persuading a Knesset education committee last month to recommend Jewish students visit the site during school field trips.

The new subcommittee tracking police activity is set to have a major impact on how Jewish visits to the Temple Mount are managed, Beyadenu CEO Tom Nisani told World Israel News.

But while Nisani welcomes the change, he said that there’s still much work to be done before Beyadenu’s vision is realized – that Jewish visitors can freely ascend and worship on the Temple Mount as they please.

A new era in accountability

For the first time, police stationed on the Temple Mount will have to report every six months to the Knesset subcommittee to explain the reasoning behind their choices, such as blanket restrictions on Jews from ascending on specific days and banning particular visitors to the site.

Besides holding the police accountable for their decisions, the subcommittee will also have the power to develop protocols and give recommendations to security forces.

Lawmakers present at the committee meeting backed Ben Ari’s decision to demand more transparency from the police regarding their Temple Mount policies.

“It is not clear to this day what is forbidden and what is allowed,” said MK Yom Tov Kalfon, who pointed out that as a serving lawmaker in the Israeli government, he’s subject to more restrictions than an Arab resident of the Old City for visiting the site, simply due to being Jewish.

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He mentioned that Muslims have no less than nine gates through which they can enter the site, where they are not screened for weapons, but Jews are limited to just one point of entry and undergo thorough searches before they can enter the compound.

“Freedom of religion shouldn’t have borders,” said MK Nir Orbach.

“The Temple Mount is in Israel and so freedom of religion applies to it. The same way the that discrimination in the freedom of religion is unacceptable, discrimination in security arrangements is also unacceptable. Either everyone is screened, or no one is screened. We need to reboot.”

Reimagining the status quo

Although Nisani did not grow up in a religious home, he told World Israel News that he was inspired to fight for Jewish freedom of worship on the Temple Mount after an experience he had as a university student.

After visiting the Western Wall with friends, they spontaneously decided to ascend to the Temple Mount. One of his friends put on a Kippah when they reached the site and was aggressively accosted by Israeli police who demanded he take it off.

“It was very humiliating and surprising, and it woke me up,” he recounted. Since then, he’s pushed for policies that make it easier for Jews to visit the compound and pray there.

He told WIN that the current policy of requiring Jewish visitors to tour the site in a group, and mandating that they be accompanied by armed guards, must be re-examined.

From a security perspective, Nisani asserts, a group of Jewish visitors escorted by police is a conspicuous sight, and one that may actually increase the potential for attacks.

Noting that he is not a security expert, he said that people with expertise in the field agree with his analysis that a very visible group attracts more attention than individual visitors and can invite trouble.

Assigning police escorts for Jewish visitors is “a waste of manpower,” he said, and distracts officers away from maintaining order and security at the site to more nebulous matters.

The close presence of police often creates a dynamic in which officers focus on whether or not a person is praying or attempting to touch the ground, Nisani said.

This sets a problematic legal precedent in which people are arrested for behavior that is perfectly legal elsewhere in the Jewish State.

“When the police have the power to decide if someone has the right to move their lips, it quickly escalates to a situation where the police can arrest someone for mumbling or because they sat on the ground in the wrong place,” Nisani said.

“There’s nowhere else in the Western world” where arrests are made for such dubious reasons, he added.

“The police need to focus on security. That’s why they’re there and that’s why we pay them,” he said. “Not monitoring whether people are praying – that shouldn’t be the police’s responsibility.”

A matter of principle

Beyond the Temple Mount itself, the optics of Jewish visitors needing armed escorts to visit the holiest site in Judaism does not set a positive tone for Jewish sovereignty in Israel.

Read  1,500 Jews visit Temple Mount on Jerusalem Day

“The minute you show up accompanied by police, you’re demonstrating that you’re scared, behaving as though you don’t have a right to be here,” Nisani said. “[Instead] it’s like ‘I’m just coming [for a minute] and leaving [quickly.]’ It’s hallucinatory.”

If Jews need armed guards in order to visit the Temple Mount, Nisani said, there’s no reason that the same shouldn’t be true for the Old City. In theory, every place in Israel with an Arab presence could be argued to be dangerous for Jews.

“Why not [require armed guards for Jews] on the Mount of Olives, or Lod, or Akko, or the Negev? It never ends. We didn’t come back to Israel to be fearful and accompanied by police everywhere.”

Nisani said Beyadenu’s ultimate vision for the site is one in which Jewish visitors can enter the compound from any of its nine gates, and pray freely.

When asked if such a change could pose a potential security risk, he pointed out that the actual size of the compound is huge.

Instead of tasking police with accompanying Jewish groups, they can monitor the situation on the ground and intervene when needed.

Security should be strengthened, but in a more general way that isn’t viewed through the narrow lens of closely monitoring Jews.

“If there’s an incident, the police will respond,” he said. “That’s what they’re trained to do.”