So you want to ruin a religious experience. But how can you do it? How can you take a beautiful, unique spiritual activity and make it feel as uncomfortable as possible? Who has time for all that hard work? Luckily, the good folks who run things at the Temple Mount have done all the work for you! I recently went up to the Mount, and witnessed how they’ve achieved this feat. All you have to do is follow their simple steps, and see how a religious experience is truly ruined, as it was for me.
Step 1: Daunting Expectations
Before the experience starts, you want to dishearten the visitors. At the Temple Mount, this process begins even before the visitors get there.
It is common knowledge that Muslims may enter the site from ten different entrances, each with minimal security, any time they want. Just for reference, I sat next to one of these entrances for about an hour once. The Israeli police officers made sure that not only did I not enter through that gate, but that I maintained a 3-meter distance from the gate at all times. As I sat there, three meters away, reading a book I’d brought with me, I saw dozens of Muslims casually enter and exit the site unperturbed in any way.
But that’s for Muslims. Non-Muslims are relegated to one entrance with maximum security, which is only open for three hours. So even before I got on the line to get in, I knew my visit would be a lot more difficult than just breezing through as the Muslims do. I was still in the planning stages of the visit, and I already felt pressured.
Step 2: Presentation
When visitors arrive, you want them to feel as unwelcome as possible. Don’t have a pleasant, dignified entrance; that will only make the experience start off nicely. Instead, do what the Temple Mount police have done.
Before you get to the locked iron gate in front of the security checkpoint, you are presented with a large sign that reads: “Announcement and Warning: According to Torah law, entering the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to the holiness of the site. – The Chief Rabbinate of Israel.” They may as well have put up a skull and crossbones with the caption: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” As most people are aware, there are many valid interpretations of Torah law on numerous subjects, including visitation to the Temple Mount. Many prominent Orthodox rabbis have ruled that it is indeed permissible to enter the area (provided one adheres to the specific restrictions involved). But the wording of this sign is deliberately harsh in order to scare off any would-be visitors.
Fun fact: this sign, which seems to apply to ALL people regardless of religion, only appears at this entrance. None of the ten Muslim entrances display any such warning.
But if you’ve gotten past the intimidation of the sign and continue into the entrance area, you’re treated to one of the least impressive entrances ever.
When you go to Disney World or Universal Studios, you can marvel at the attention to detail that went into the entrance to each ride, ensuring that the visitors would not just be not-bored but building their excitement and anticipation as they waited.
Your “welcome” to the Temple Mount is a narrow corridor strewn with litter. The left wall of this corridor is comprised of a temporary metal gate covered by heavy fabric that was once white but is now a dingy grey, except for the bottom-most part that sways in the breeze and sweeps the floor. That part is black and frayed. There is a bench which is used in the religious segregation portion (more on that later), and a beaten-up metal bookcase that looks like it came form a dorm room.
And then you see it, in all its glory: the security checkpoint. I’ve been through airport security here and abroad, security checks throughout the country, and at border crossings. None of them have failed to impress me more than the security booth by the Temple Mount. It’s a trailer. A trailer with a couple of doors in the side and some metal detectors in it. If “underwhelmed” is the reaction they’re going for here, then I heartily say “Bravo!”
But really, this is where the real degradation begins.
Step 3: Draconian Security
Don’t let people waltz into the area freely, despite the law that allows such access, as that will make them feel welcome to the site. Instead, subject them to extreme scrutiny. That way, they’ll feel as awkward and uncomfortable as possible on their special, holy pilgrimage.
As I mentioned above, there are two doors into the security booth. One is for Israeli Jews (or anyone who looks Jewy), and the other is for non-Jews (or anyone who can pass as such). This is a fantastic blend of racial profiling and religious segregation.
On my latest visit, I was accompanying two Jewish tourists who wanted me to show them around the Temple Mount. These two guys were Jewish, but not visibly so. They were taken through the non-Jew door and told they could go right up after they cleared the metal detector. As an Israeli Jew, I had to go through the Jew door. I told the two tourists to wait for me just outside the security booth. The officer in charge, a greasy homunculus with a raging Napoleon complex, told me that they couldn’t wait for me, they had to go up immediately. He then told another officer to “make sure to check the ID of this Metoraf (lunatic),” hooking his thumb toward me. I don’t know what made me a “lunatic.” My Israeli ID? My exposed Tzitzit (religious fringes)? My wool hat that covered my ears? I have no idea, but apparently I was a lunatic that needed extra scrutiny as my friends had to go up to a strange place without their guide. I ignored the “lunatic” remark and explained to the officer that I was the guide for the two men and was needed to explain what they were seeing up on the Mount. “You don’t explain anything,” I was told, “I do the explaining around here.” I tried to illustrate that I wasn’t seeking to undermine his authority, I just wanted to guide them as they had asked me. “Why are you starting up with me?” was the officer’s response. “Do you not want to go up to the Mount today at all?” I responded that I did want to go up, I just wanted to accompany two people who had never been here before and would therefore be lost without a guide. “That’s it,” he said, “you’re not going up today.” I asked why. He told me to hand over my ID, sit on the bench outside, and shut up. So with a shrug, my two friends went up on their own as I waited with a few other “lunatics” (Israeli Jews who looked Jewy) on the religious segregation bench, watching non-Jews walk past us up to the Mount. After 15-20 minutes, I was told to go through the metal detector with the other “lunatics.” We went through, one at a time, and were then escorted to a tiny room, also one at a time, where we were each asked to take off our hats, lift our shirts, and submit to a pat-down.
Digression: As I was going through this invasive check, with the non-Jews passing me by and watching me, I began to empathize with the embarrassment expressed by Arabs that undergo such security checks regularly. But as I thought about that, I realized a disparity between the two experiences. The Arabs go through those checkpoints because of security concerns due to past incidences. What past experience justified this severe search? Has any Jew ever carried out any act of violence on the Temple Mount? As of this writing, I have not been able to find any such examples. I know the Arabs have rioted up there many, many times. I know that a Christian tried to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque in 1969. I also know that some Jews were arrested for plotting to blow up the mosque and the Dome of the Rock in the 1980s. But I cannot find any evidence that would justify such religious segregation and tight security that includes background checks and pat-downs. If anyone can provide such evidence, I’d be happy to hear it. End of digression.
After our clothes were back on, the officer took all the “lunatics” aside and gave us strict instructions, the same instructions all Jewy-looking Jews receive whenever we go there: “Do not interact with anyone on the Mount. Do not deviate from the path as led by your police escort. Do not sing. Do not dance. Do not say any political slogans. And above all, under any and all circumstances, do not pray.” Many of you readers may think I’m embellishing. If only.
And so with a welcome fit for any maximum-security prison, Jewish visitors already feel alienated and repressed before they’ve even set foot on the site they’ve come to visit. So far, so good!
Step 4: Harassment
Just because visitors have made it beyond the preliminary hurdles you’ve set in place doesn’t mean they get to enjoy their actual visit. Instead, why not make their time there as grueling as possible?
When a non-Muslim group enters the Temple Mount compound with their security detail, they are accompanied by agents of the Waqf, the Muslim group in charge of the day-to-day running of the Temple Mount. These Waqf agents have a very important job: they watch the lips of everyone in the group to make sure nobody is praying. Even though Israeli law protects the right of anyone to pray by a site sacred to their religion (as the Temple Mount is to Jews), the police uphold the Waqf’s insistence that any non-Muslim caught praying there is to be arrested. Why? Because. And since you asked, you’re now under investigation, too.
Most times, such as my third trip up to the Mount, Jewy-looking groups are followed everywhere they go by small “study groups.” These study groups sit as close as possible to the Jewy group and shout “ALLAHU AKBAR!! ALLAHU AKBAR!!” as loud as they can, over and over and over. The reason is to drown out the Jewish guide so that none of his group can hear his guiding. I have to say, this is very effective. I couldn’t hear a word my guide said the entire time I was with him. All I heard was the repetitive screams of the study groups that followed us. Naturally, the police escort keeps Jewy groups moving so that the screaming study groups keep their harassment auditory, not physical (Or so I thought – more on that later). But it is impossible to enjoy and appreciate the sublime spiritual experience of visiting the holiest place on the planet when you have men and women (not in the same study groups, of course) of all ages yelling at you at the top of their lungs. And what did the Israeli police do to stop them? Not a thing. In fact…
Step 5: Police-Assisted Harassment
Why let someone else ruin a religious experience, when you can ruin it yourself? That seems to be the idea behind the Israeli police force tasked with security on the Temple Mount.
Not only do the police not quiet the groups who deliberately disrupt Jewish guides, they angrily hurry the Jewish groups away from the increasingly-agitated screamers, as if the Jewish group was the one in the wrong. Any psychologist will tell you that giving in to violent behavior only reinforces the behavior and emboldens the violent person to continue their violent ways. That is exactly what the Israeli police do on the Temple Mount.
As I mentioned earlier, the job of the Waqf agents is to ensure no non-Muslim prayer takes place there. But why let them do all the work? Every Israeli police security detail has at least one video camera constantly trained on the Jewish visitors, trying to document any unsanctioned prayers. On one of my visits, there was a man the police suspected of praying very quietly, so the officer held the camera 2-3 inches away from his mouth so as to detect even the smallest movement of his lips. The camera definitely had a functioning zoom that would have accomplished the same thing, but literally holding a camera in someones face has an intimidation factor that is lost with a zoom.
Also mentioned above was the move-along policy of the security detail, presumably to calm the ever-shouting “study groups.” But That’s not exactly true. On one of my trips up there, the place was relatively empty. Aside from me, five other “lunatics,” our 5-man security detail, and the two Waqf agents, there were maybe ten other people on the whole 37 acre compound. It was a refreshing change, since there was a delightful lack of study groups to pester us. We had the place basically to ourselves! And yet, the police still hurried us along on our strict not-to-be-deviated-from path. Whenever we lingered to take pictures or to ask questions of one another regarding the history of the site or just to remark about one thing or another, we were told we had to keep moving along. Why? Because. And since you asked, you’re now under investigation, too.
So there you have it! Five easy steps to ruin a religious experience. I don’t know what religious experience you’re looking to ruin, but if you just behave like the Israeli police do on the Temple Mount, you can be sure that you’ll succeed. After all, I’ve been to Muslim countries and my town’s three closest neighbors are Muslim towns but I have never felt religiously oppressed until I went up to my holiest site. Congratulations, Israeli police – you’ve managed to bring that good ol’ exile feel right in the heart of our own home.