For two weeks I traveled from Tel-Aviv Yafo, Israel to Madaba, Jordan; from Kiryat Shmona to Bethlehem, Palestine. As I sojourned in these places I listened and learned, I watched and weighed what I saw, tasted, heard, and walked around. Not only did I pay attention to the communities and locations I was visiting, but also the group -- the evangelical "Holy Land" tour -- with which I participated.
Over the next couple of weeks I will be sharing perspectives and informed observations from my time in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. They are limited, to be sure. However, I want to take the time to focus on pertinent issues regarding these places and U.S. involvement and experience. To do so, I am inviting other informed and expert voices into the conversation.
The blogs will focus on two particular issues: politics & peace in the region and Christian travel and "Holy Land" tourism.
This first week I am starting our conversation with a perspective from Dr. Alon Harel originally posted with Sightings from the University of Chicago's Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion. Dr. Harel is a law professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he holds the Phillip P. Mizock & Estelle Mizock Chair in Administrative and Criminal Law. In this post, Dr. Harel shares his suggestions for temporary solutions regarding two explosive contestations over politics and religious freedom in Israel. This post is not necessarily an affirmation of Dr. Harel's words, but an opportunity to enter into the conversation and hear his perspective on what is often a contentious issue for many at home and abroad. I invite your comments and perspectives.
Stay tuned for later this week when I share a conversation with Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian leader and Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem, about his book
Here are Dr. Harel's words for your review:
Two recent debates in Israel have drawn a lot of attention, raising questions about freedom of religion in cases in which the religious practices of one group directly impacts other groups.
The first is a debate concerning the desire of Women of the Wall to pray near the Wailing Wall. The second is a debate concerning the desire of Jewish Temple Mount activists to pray on the Temple Mount near the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine.
The first debate involves Women of the Wall, a multi-denominational feminist organization based in Israel whose goal is to secure the rights of women to pray at the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded the Jewish Temple's courtyard (also called the Wailing Wall, see Sightings May 9, 2013 in Resources below).
The participating women conduct rituals which are according to prevailing view among orthodox Jews reserved for men. For instance the women read aloud from the Torah and use religious garments traditionally worn by men such as tallit, Tefillin and kippah.
While Women of the Wall also includes orthodox women their activities are considered offensive by Ultra-Orthodox groups who protest against the women and, at times, use violence against them.
The women regard their right to conduct these rituals near the Wailing Wall as part of their religious freedom while opposing orthodox groups argue against this right on the grounds that the Wailing Wall is a holy site and it cannot be used by groups who violate the rules of the Jewish religion as understood by them.
The second debate involves Temple Mount activists— groups consisting of nationalist and orthodox Jews who wish to conduct prayers on Temple Mount which is also a holy site to Muslims.
Some members of these Jewish groups are extremists who wish to destroy the mosques on Temple Mount and re-build in their place the Jewish Temple which had stood in that location until it was destroyed in 70 CE. Others simply urge the government to allow Jews to pray on Temple Mount while conceding also the rights of Muslims to conduct their religious practices there.
While most orthodox Jews believe it is a grave sin to pray on Temple Mount (as it is a Muslim holy site), Temple Mount activists regard praying there as a fundamental right.
Both cases raise similar questions.
It is evident that Women of the Wall has an interest in conducting their rituals in the place which is among the holiest places to Jews. Yet it is also evident that the Wall is also holy to orthodox communities who regard these rituals as a grave sin.
The Ultra-Orthodox community claims that while no one may prohibit these rituals when they are conducted in Israel or the city of Jerusalem, performing them near the Wall should not be allowed since these religious rituals, for them, are no different than opening a night club or a brothel.
Similarly Muslims argue that Jewish prayers on Temple Mount disrupt their own rituals and is detrimental to their religious practices. The recent riots and violence in Jerusalem, including the attempt to murder a prominent Temple Mount activist (Yehuda Glick), are attributed by some observers to the recent efforts of Jews to pray on Temple Mount.
But while both cases raise similar questions the political forces that support the one group oppose the other. Women of the Wall is a group that is supported by liberal (including secular) forces in Israeli society. They want to challenge the control that orthodox Jews have over the Wailing Wall.
In contrast Temple Mount activists are supported by national extremists including extremists who are secular.
I find this state of affairs to be a regrettable one. I do not deny that there may be major distinctions between the cases that may justify a differential approach. Yet the public debate concerning the right of both groups to pray has similarities which ought not to be ignored.
A serious public debate concerning the right of each of these groups ought not to be subject to the positive or negative feelings one has towards one group or another.
The right to religious freedom is not only the right of leftist liberals to conduct feminist rituals nor is it only the right of extremist nationalists. It is not a political right but a religious one.
While it is evident that both Women of the Wall and Temple Mount activists have, in addition to their religious convictions, political and nationalist agendas, this does not justify treating the conflict as a political rather than religious conflict.
Ultimately the state of Israel and its political and legal institutions will have to address the conflict. The courts have an important role to play since some of the issues raise legal questions as well as questions that affect constitutional rights.
Religious leaders will also participate and their voices will inevitably be heard by the Israeli political establishment.
Lastly, the risks of violence and disruptions will also play a major role in guiding decision-makers. The issue is a thorny one and has a potential to trigger violence on a large scale. This fact is well known to political leaders.
I would consider the possibility of setting up temporary arrangements that would be subject to review every ten years with the hope that there would be greater trust between the groups in the future. I would also favor pragmatic decisions even when pragmatism conflicts with some of my moral and political convictions.
Hirschhorn, Sara. “Women of the Wall Prevail.” Sightings, May 9, 2013. https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/women-wall-prevail-sara-hirschhorn.
Women of the Wall. http://womenofthewall.org.il.
Chabin, Michele. “Jewish girls want to read from the Torah at the Western Wall, new bus ads proclaim.” Religion News Service, October 13, 2014. http://www.religionnews.com/2014/10/13/jewish-girls-want-read-torah-western-wall-new-bus-ads-proclaim/.
Goldenberg, Tia. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews Attack Jerusalem Buses Over Women Of The Wall Ad.” AP Huffington Post, October 23, 2014, Huffpost Live/Religion. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/23/ultra-orthodox-jerusalem-bus-ad_n_6036936.html.
Sharon, Jeremy. “Women of the Wall smuggle tiny Torah scroll to Western Wall for Bat Mitzva.” Jerusalem Post, October 24, 2014, Israel News. http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Women-of-the-Wall-smuggle-tiny-Torah-scroll-to-Western-Wall-for-Bat-Mitzva-379719.
Times of Israel staff. “New bill would allow Jews to pray at Temple Mount: Likud, Labor lawmakers behind controversial initiative; regulations currently permit only Muslim worship in compound.” Times of Israel, May 19, 2014, Israel & the Region. http://www.timesofisrael.com/mks-propose-law-allowing-jews-to-pray-at-temple-mount/.
JTA. “Despite confiscations, Women of the Wall light Hanukkah candles.” Times of Israel, December 19, 2014, Jewish Times. http://www.timesofisrael.com/despite-confiscations-women-of-the-wall-light-hanukkah-candles/.
Eisenbud, Daniel K. “Jerusalem’s Temple Mount closes to all visitors after shooting of Yehuda Glick: Prominent right-wing activist evacuated to capital’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center for surgery; police searching for suspect.” Jerusalem Post, October 30, 2014, Israel News. http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Unknown-assailant-shots-seriously-wounds-known-right-wing-activist-in-Jerusalem-380210.
JPost.com Staff. “Chief Rabbi: Jewish prayer on Temple Mount is crime punishable by death.” Jerusalem Post, November 7, 2014, Arab-Israeli Conflict. http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Chief-Rabbi-Jewish-prayer-on-Temple-Mount-is-crime-punishable-by-death-381106.
Margalit, Ruth. “The Politics of Prayer at the Temple Mount.” New Yorker, November 5, 2014, News. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/furor-temple-mount.
Yashar, Ari. “Netanyahu Assures EU: No Jewish Prayer on Temple Mount.” Arutz Sheva Israel National News, November 7, 2014, Inside Israel.
Israel Today Staff. “Muslim Cleric Says Jews Should Prayer on Temple Mount.” Israel Today, December 23, 2014, News. http://www.israeltoday.co.il/NewsItem/tabid/178/nid/25699/Default.aspx.
Image: On the right, the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded the Jewish Temple's courtyard in Jerusalem, Israel. On the left, the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim Shrine located on Temple Mount; Credit: Sean Pavone / shutterstock.com creative commons.
Author, Alon Harel, (D.Phil. Oxford University) is Phillip P. Mizock & Estelle Mizock Chair in Administrative and Criminal Law at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2014, Harel was Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He specializes in political philosophy, jurisprudence, criminal law, constitutional law, and law and economics. He is a leading advocate of Israeli human rights in Israel. Harel is the founder and editor, with David Enoch, of the journal, Jerusalem Review of Legal Studies. He is the author of the monograph, Why Law Matters, Oxford Legal Philosophy (2014)