August 4, 2017
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
I know that some of you may be here to find out what it was like to meet the Dalai Lama, and hear him teach, as I did while I was in northern India in July. I can tell you tonight that it was inspirational and amazing, that he is an extraordinary human being, and that I will speak more about it next Shabbat. That is, this is a teaser, and you have to tune in next week for the story of that experience, the rabbinical version of “what I did on my summer vacation.”
What I do want to talk about tonight is Israel, from which I returned early this past week.
Now, there are many wonderful things about visiting Israel at any time for any purpose, but for the first time ever I actually spent ten days last week in Israel on vacation, without any agenda. I was not leading a Temple Emanu-El Pilgrimage to Israel, as I will be next June, or attending a rabbinical conference, or participating in a rabbi’s mission to the government or there on some Reform movement issue, or being briefed by the Israeli foreign ministry, or studying for the rabbinate, or being installed in the Cantors Assembly, or on an Ulpan program, or researching holy places, or even attending a family simcha. I was just relaxing in Eretz Yisrael for a week and a half or so. It was both strange and delightful, a chance to unwind in a country that is a second home. The food is good, the water safe to drink, the weather cooperative, the beaches excellent, the people familiar, and Jewish observance there is deep, diverse, enjoyable, and completely accessible. In short, this was a mechayeh.
Of course, this was Israel where I was vacationing, so naturally a major controversy arose while I was there, although I, personally, had nothing to do with it. As you may have heard, on July 14th three Israeli Arabs attacked and murdered two Druze Israeli policemen in the area of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The terrorists were subsequently killed in combat with Israeli police and military personnel. To protect worshippers, visitors, and the security services at the Temple Mount, the Israeli authorities installed metal detectors at the access points to the el-Aqsa Mosque and Har HaBayit itself so no one could bring in firearms to these sacred sites.
To those of us used to the ways most things work around the world today, this was a totally reasonable and even muted response to such a dramatic and evil provocation. Which, in spite of that, inspired an enormous backlash by Palestinians, and throughout the Muslim world. How dare Israel restrict access to Muslim holy places to only those people who were unarmed and could successfully pass through a metal detector!
It is not clear to me why in the year 2017 it is unacceptable to pass through metal detectors to access holy sites for prayer. To pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall, holiest place in the world for Jews, you must pass through a metal detector, man, woman or child. To enter St. Peter’s in Rome, among the holiest of places for Catholics, you must pass through a metal detector. To get into Akshardham Temple in New Delhi, largest and snazziest Hindu temple in the world, you not only have to go through metal detectors you have to leave your cellphone and camera in a locker. Heck, to go into the county courthouse in Tucson, Arizona you have to pass through a metal detector. Why is it then somehow so offensive to Palestinian Muslims to pass through metal detectors on their way to pray on the Temple Mount, or at al-Aqsa Mosque?
To put it another way, in what religious tradition is it essential that you bring your firearms with you when you go to pray? What vision of God is it that demands you to bring a gun with you in order to worship Him or Her?
But reason and rationality have little place where Palestinians are concerned, and so, because of this, we were treated last week to an extravaganza in the international media of villainizing Israel for closing the Temple Mount to worshippers, which it actually didn’t do.
Mind you, the Temple Mount is already restricted—restricted from Jews, and often Christians, but not Muslims. By an Israeli concession, the Muslim Waqf is allowed to have authority over the Muslim holy places including the so-called Sacred Precinct, al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. This is a gift Israel grants the Palestinian Muslims as a way of keeping the peace in Yerushalayim, the poorly named city of peace, because all the areas in question—the Temple Mount, al-Aqsa, the Lion’s Gate, the market areas of the shuks, the entire Muslim Quarter of the Old City—have been under Israeli sovereignty for the past 50 years. In practical terms, at any time the Israeli government and military have the power and authority to simply prevent Muslims from entering and praying at these places. 50 years ago, right after the 6-Day War, Israelis could have destroyed el-Aqsa or knocked down the Dome of the Rock or decreed the building of a Third Temple if they had so desired. They had the power. Today, Israel could stop the virulently anti-Zionist preaching that goes on regularly in al-Aqsa at any time it chooses to do so.
Instead, since 1967, it is Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount that is illegal under Israeli rules. Only Muslims may go up on this site of the First and Second Temples to pray; Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslim visitors are only permitted to go up onto Har HaBayit when the situation is deemed to be safe—that is, when Palestinian Muslims are not likely to riot or attack visitors, or thrown rocks down onto the worshippers in the Kotel plaza.
This has been the status quo since Israel chose to make it so in 1967, 50 years ago in June. Generally, Israel has responded with restraint, with self-limitation. It has acted with so much respect for the corrupt and virulent Muslim Waqf that it allows it to continue in authority over the holiest place for Jews in the world, the place of the original Temple.
Palestinians may well chafe under Israeli rule, and insist they should have a sovereign state of their own. I agree that in a better world, in which the Palestinians had responsible leadership and were more inclined to accept responsibility themselves for creating a modern state, they would have had such a nation already, would have been twenty years along in full independence and development. It is tragic that this is not so, and the continued occupation of the West Bank is bad for everyone. There are ways to seek resolution for this painful stalemate that would help the Palestinians move from their current sad state.
But that has very, very little to do with three murderers slaughtering two non-Jewish Druze policemen as an act of brutal, random terror. And it has nothing at all to do with reasonable protections being established to assure a peaceful prayer experience at what is perhaps the third holiest Muslim place of all.
All the Israeli authorities required was that worshippers pass through a metal detector and not carry weapons onto the Temple Mount. Mind you, only Muslims were being allowed into the “Sacred Precinct”; I can tell you that with certainty because I was personally refused entrance at several access points to the Temple Mount last week, since I did not have a Palestinian ID card and clearly wasn’t Muslim.
In any case, the installation of metal detectors was used as an excuse for widespread protests last Thursday during the midday Islamic prayers. Prayer services of protest were held away from the Temple Mount in front of TV cameras at the main gates to the city—including Jaffa Gate, which does not lead anywhere near the Temple Mount, but is the most public space facing the main city, good for media access—and alongside the outside walls of the Old City. And violent rioting was coordinated on the Temple Mount, and the throwing of stones at police and military, and down on worshippers at the Kotel. Inevitably, the people hurt were the Palestinian “protestors”, and more Arab victims were created when the authorities were forced to stop the rioting.
The three Arab murderers were buried as martyred heroes of the Palestinian people in front of large crowds chanting for vengeance. Abu Mazen—Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, mourned their valiant “sacrifice”, and there were protests around the world. The UN narrowly missed condemning Israel yet again.
And all because, in a tiny, carefully measured response to an act of wanton murder on non-Jewish policemen, Israel established a minimal level of security that we have had everywhere in civilized societies since 9/11.
All of this took place the week before Tisha B’Av, the fast commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples, which both stood on this same Temple Mount long before Islam existed. This is a historical fact Palestinian Muslim authorities have taken great pains to deny, while presenting a false version of history that denies the Jewish connection to our most sacred place.
This being the Middle East, and Israel, there was a further complicating factor.
You may have also noticed that there was a tragic incident in Amman, Jordan about the same time as all this happened about ten days after the murders at the Temple Mount. At a house in the Israeli embassy compound a workman suddenly attacked an experienced Israeli security guard, stabbing him. The guard fired his gun, killing the workman and accidentally also killing the landlord, who was not involved. Almost immediately there were riots in Amman—Jordan’s population is about 80% Palestinian, and only about 20% Hashemite Jordanians, although the Jordanians are in charge. The Israeli guard and the embassy staff were forced to take shelter in the embassy under diplomatic privilege.
The King of Jordan’s people and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s folks worked out a deal: the guard and the Israeli embassy personnel could go home to Israel; the metal detectors would be removed from the access points to the Temple Mount. It all happened very quickly, and it would have been done quietly as well except Netanyahu decided to publicly welcome the security guard back home with a very public hug. The King of Jordan was not pleased, but the deal held.
And so, last Friday, a week ago, I wandered around the streets of the Old City, including the Muslim and Christian Quarters, and saw enormous numbers of Israeli security personnel—police and military—guarding all entrances to the Temple Mount. They briefly hand checked bags, but there were no dreaded metal detectors. There were an inordinate number of members of the international press taking pictures and filming the Israeli security precautions, and there were still protest prayer services, smaller ones, outside the walls of the Old City. There was no violence. There were no serious problems.
What to make of this on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation after the fast of Tisha B’Av? What consolation do we take from this rather ordinary, utterly illogical mess at the very place where our people connected with God in the days of the Temple, in the week after we remember its destruction?
Well, perhaps the lesson is what else is going on in Israel, how positive the daily reality is. Two weeks ago tonight on the Friday just before all of this came to a head, I attended Shabbat services at the Port in Tel Aviv. Hundreds of Jews from all around the world, and many from Tel Aviv itself, sat looking at a magnificent sunset over the Mediterranean and sang and celebrated Shabbat with joy and music. I met our new Shinshinim in Modi’in, and their intelligence, optimism, energy, humor, and commitment to service were a wonderful reminder of just how spectacular the best of young Israelis are. I attended Shabbat services at the rebuilt Churva Synagogue in the Old City, and enjoyed Sabbath peace as one can only feel it in Jerusalem. I enjoyed an excellent performance of Madame Butterfly at the Tel Aviv Opera House, while in the courtyard just outside the opera a free concert attracted a thousand people who sang along with popular Israeli songs.
There are, as always in every visit to Israel, new highways, great new buildings, entirely new neighborhoods, wonderful new restaurants and public works, all the dynamism that is an essential part of the character of the Jewish state. And only in Israel could there be regular radio ads celebrating the public reading of a new, modern, Israeli interpretation of the Book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av…
Israel continues to grow and flourish and develop and mature rapidly, just as Palestinian society continues to be stagnant and troubled and self-destructive. The contrast is, as always, stunning.
We Reform Jews do not believe the Temple should be rebuilt, not on the Temple Mount, and not anywhere else. But in a very real way the modern, organic, creative State of Israel is a kind of fulfillment of that dream of Zion rebuilt. We have moved on from the loss of Tisha B’Av to a very real, extraordinary, amazing reality in Israel.
And that is more than mere comfort; it is profound reassurance, hope, and joy.
May it always be so, even at times of provocation.