The government's decision to bar Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat from attending Christmas mass last week sparked loud accusations, both at home and abroad, that this violated his religious freedom.
Yet none of these Israeli and foreign champions of religious freedom has ever said a word about a far more severe Israeli violation of this right - a prohibition that did not merely prevent a lone Muslim from attending a non-Muslim rite on a single day, but that has barred an entire people from worshipping at its own holiest site for 15 months.
Indeed, the government's ban on Jews praying on the Temple Mount - instituted following the outbreak of the intifada last fall and kept in place even after Ariel Sharon replaced Ehud Barak as prime minister - has elicited barely a flicker of protest at home, and not a peep from overseas.
That the non-Jewish world would remain aloof from what is essentially an internal Jewish matter is understandable. The silence of the Jewish world, however, is virtually incomprehensible. This is the site of the holy Temple - the center of Jewish life in the time of the ancient Jewish commonwealth; the site to which Jews prayed three times a day during 2,000 years of exile; the focus of the Jews' longing to return to their own land. And yet the government of the Jewish state can quietly ban Jews from the site for 15 months, and no one cares? What makes this silence even more puzzling, if possible, is the obvious political implications of the ban - implications to which one would expect even a government that is tone-deaf to religious concerns to be attuned.
To begin with, the ban makes a mockery of Sharon's stated goal of not rewarding the Palestinians for starting a war. To have succeeded in barring Jews from the Temple Mount for 15 months - something they had not been able to achieve through negotiations prior to the intifada, though Barak did offer it at Taba three months later - is a juicy reward indeed.
Even more serious, however, are the implications for the future. The Temple Mount has been one of the thorniest bones of contention in previous negotiations with the Palestinians, and it will presumably be so again should diplomatic talks ever resume. And a priori, even waiving the argument of possession, Israel has by far the strongest claim: It is Judaism's holiest site, compared to Islam's third holiest; it is the destination of all Jewish pilgrimages, whereas Mecca holds this honor for Muslims; it is referenced hundreds of times in the Bible, but not at all in the Koran.
Yet by imposing this ban, which sends the message that Israel does not really care about the site, the government has severely undercut the Jewish claim. What are future negotiators supposed to say - that it is acceptable for Jews to be banned from the Mount, but we insist on being the ones to do the banning?
According to a study conducted by Israeli, Palestinian, and American researchers in 1995-96, the Israeli public in fact cares deeply about this issue. The poll found that 59 percent of Israeli Jews deemed it very important for Jews to be allowed to pray on the mount, and another 27 percent deemed it important - 86 percent in all. Even among nonobservant Jews, 73 percent deemed it either very important or important. But this merely underscores the question of why the public has remained silent about this ban.
The most likely answer is simple short-sightedness. Everyone understood that reopening the Mount to Jewish worshippers would initially spark Arab rioting, and both the government and the public therefore tacitly agreed to accept a temporary ban in order to ease the burden on Israel's already overworked security services. Unfortunately, little thought seems to have been given to the long-term cost of this short-term gain: the de facto undermining of the Jewish people's claim to the Mount.
The good news is that it is still possible to reverse this mistake. By reopening the Mount, even at this belated date, the government would send the clear message that Jews are not willing to let Palestinian terror keep them permanently from their holiest site. The other good news is that both the Sharon government and the Israeli people have proven that when they understand the implications, they are willing to risk short-term unpleasantness for long-term gains - a good example being Sharon's decision to finally shut down Orient House, which most of the public supported.
It is hard to imagine many issues with greater long-term significance than upholding the Jewish people's claim to its holiest site. One must therefore hope that the government will soon come to its senses and take the necessary action.
©2001 - Jerusalem Post