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TIMES OF ISRAEL OPED | Ascending from slavery: Why I fight for the Temple Mount

My heart sunk when I woke up Friday morning to the news of riots on the Temple Mount. Flipping through an endless barrage of cell phone videos flooding the many WhatsApp and Telegram news groups I subscribe to, scrolling through reports on social media from those who witnessed the destruction – and those who proudly posted their participation in it – and speaking to the men and women on the front lines, serving in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, it was apparent to me that the situation was as bad as it could be, perhaps even worse than I could comprehend from afar.

On any given week I will make as few as four, and as many as nine aliyot, or ascensions, to The Temple Mount. It is here I walk proudly but cautiously. It is here that I attend minyan for Shacharit and Mincha, and I pray quietly but with intention.

I discuss Torah, Talmud, Mishna and obscure Halakha with my Rebbe, or listen to the shiur given by the Rabanim from Yeshivat Har HaBayit.

I engage in hisbodedus with Hashem, and in conversation with those making their first ascension, pointing out the interesting archeological, historical, and religious tidbits I have been privileged to learn during the two years I have made weekly, very early morning, trips from my home in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to participate in the process of normalizing our presence, a Jewish presence, on the Temple Mount.

I take the time to say hello to the Israel Police Officers who regularly ensure our security, many I now consider friends, inquiring about their families and their children.

I am surrounded by the many friends I have made here, a community of believers who regularly ascend with me. I talk with their families and play with their children. We celebrate the Bar or Bat Mitzvah ascending with his or her parents, as well as the grooms and brides preparing for their weddings later that day. We celebrate births and brit milah, we strengthen the sick and weary amongst us and far from us, we mourn the fallen – those we knew and those we did not.

But always, we bask in the bright sunshine of the mountain top, which seemingly never hesitates to peak out from behind the darkest of dawns, or most dreary of days, the moment we step onto this hallowed ground.

What I, and the hundreds of Jews who regularly ascend to Har HaBayit, do not do is riot. We do not throw rocks and smash centuries-old marble pillars. We do not break windows, pound on doors, nor build bunkers and barriers from which to launch fireworks and other lethal projectiles.

We do not throw our holy books, because we are not permitted to bring any with us when we ascend. We do not hide our faces or obscure our identities under our tallit, like the Arabs rioters who obscure their identities under their keffiyeh, because we are not permitted to wear them when we ascend.

We do not hang Hamas flags from the intricate, ancient arches, nor do we even carry Israeli flags, because that would be reason enough for a Jew to be detained and potentially banned from ascending for days, weeks, and sometimes months, at a time.

We do not “storm” the Temple Mount, as our enemies will have you believe, nor do we “occupy” this place, as they also claim. How can we, when Jews are only permitted on Har HaBayit five days a week, five hours a day, for just an hour at a time? Hours which have been drastically reduced since the start of Ramadan, to a mere three or four at most, and which are often diminished further due to security concerns, infringing on the already limited time Jews are allotted access.

We do not shout or scream, nor do we declare death to anyone, let alone the Muslims worshippers with whom we share our mountain. Because this is a Holy, sacred place, consecrated for all time. It is the site where twice our Temple stood, and where it most certainly, one day, will again.

We need not be reminded that Passover is a time to celebrate our freedom – freedom from slavery, from exile; to celebrate our freedom to build a Jewish family, a Jewish life, a Jewish state in this Jewish land. But to celebrate our freedom, when the Temple Mount is held captive by rioters, criminals, provocateurs, and terrorists – aided and abetted by the Israeli government which refuses to demand from them what they demand of us – feels imprudent, almost perverse.

On January 6, 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered the most important, defining, and critical speeches in American, if not human, history. Europe was engulfed in war. Jews were engulfed by the flames of Nazi ovens. And it seemed as if the end of days was quickly encroaching. Yet despite the haze of human smoke haphazardly obscuring our vision, FDR saw clearly a vision of what the future could be, and what humanity must demand it should be.

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms,” Roosevelt began.

“The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.

“The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world.

“The third is freedom from want…

“The fourth is freedom from fear…

“That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

In the eight decades since FDR’s words resonated across the world, great strides have been made to actualize this rational idealism. There have been many successes, and an equal number of failures. Nonetheless, the world is – by all tangible metrics and analytical indicators – a freer place then when FDR delivered his speech. But there is still much work to be done.

And perhaps no more so than here in Israel, and specifically on Har HaBayit, where the authoritarianism of the past has been preserved, seemingly consecrated for all time, having taken refuge in the place of our refuge.

Because it is here, on Har HaBayit, that Jews experience the “apartheid state” our enemies would have you believe exists for them in Israel (but which I assure you, does not). It is here that carrying objects of faith – tefillin or Tehillim – is prohibited, despite the blue tzitzit swaying by our sides as we are rushed by police across the sprawling complex. It is here that to walk too slow, sit too long, pray too loud, or bow too low is justification for a restraining order to be issued against you by the Israeli state… but only if you are a Jew.

It is here, at the only gate Jews are permitted to enter the Temple Mount (from among the many that exist), that we are required to go through metal detectors, or be patted down by police dare we carry in our pocket a piece of paper with a prayer or psalm… an indignity the Arabs are not subjected to. And for many of us who regularly ascend, we are often required to provide our identification cards, despite the police knowing very well who we are and why we are there.

It is also here, on Har HaBayit (supposedly Holy ground for Arabs too), that the Jordanian Waqf dumps garbage along the only route Jews are permitted to walk. The same route that teenagers leave glass shards in hopes that those who ascend barefoot might be injured. Here on the Temple Mount, Arab children play soccer near the entrance of the most Holy of Holies while sporting machine gun logos on their shirts and shorts – the newest fashion craze sweeping East Jerusalem. Here on the Temple Mount, Arab women hiss and Arab men curse at Jews as they silently walk by.

And it is from here, from this Holy place, that a radical Imam who preached daily in the al-Aqsa Mosque, while moonlighting for Hamas, ventured into the streets of the Old City to hunt and kill Jews.

It is here that, until just a few months ago, Jews were not permitted to drink from the water fountains, which were reserved for Muslims only. Because although the authoritarian yoke of apartheid is as banal as it is belligerent, we have proven with this small victory, it can also be bent, and will eventually be broken.

But the status quo remains staunch, steadfast, as there are few of us fighting for this, for our collective Jewish freedom. And it is still us – the ascending Jews – who are labeled “troublemakers”, “instigators”, “radicals”, “right-wingers” “fanatics” and “zealots”. It is us, with our deep desire to pray where the Shekhina, the Divine Presence, resides, who are called “careless”, “controversial”, and “corrosive”. And therefore, it is us, the Jews, who must have our rights – our freedoms – curtailed, constrained, and callously cut off by the leaders we elected to defend them.

At our Passover Seder we ask four poignant questions. But they are not the ones we should be asking this year. Rather we must ask – and demand an answer to – four questions far more pressing, far more urgent, if “next year in Jerusalem” is to mean anything at all:

Why are Jews not permitted freedom of speech and expression on the Temple Mount?

Why are Jews not permitted the freedom to worship on the Temple Mount?

Why should Jews not be afforded freedom from want – the want to access the Temple Mount at any time, on any day, from any entrance, for any reason, and with any religious objects?

Why should Jews not be afforded freedom from fear – the fear of being detained or banned from the Temple Mount for simply acting Jewish, or the fear for our lives every time we ascend for simply being Jewish?

As Rabbi Yehuda Levi plainly writes, “the Temple Mount is Judaism’s Holiest Site, and it always has been… [It’s] importance to the Jewish people cannot be overestimated. It represents the hopes and dreams that have sustained them in spite of virtually insurmountable odds throughout the thousands of years of their history.”

So, we will continue to hope, and dare to dream. We will continue to push back against the insurmountable odds stacked against us, and all the Jewish people, in accessing the Temple Mount – whether you fight with us, against us, or not all. We will not be prevented from ascending. We will not be deterred from ascension. For this fight is not against any slavery imposed upon us, but rather a fight for the freedoms we have stolen from ourselves.

It is said that the heart and eyes of Hashem dwell in this Holy place (I Kings 9). As I walk around the Temple Mount today, and every day this week, I wonder if His heart feels as broken as mine, if His eyes cry the same tears for the destruction that I see. Because I know the terrorists, and our government, will not shed any tears over the House of G-d.

But I will also remind myself, as the Chassidic Masters teach, that every descent is for the sake of ascent, and that Hashem firmed the world, as King David wrote, so that it should not falter (Psalm 30).

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