“Where are you from?” asks the guard after I have gone through the metal detector at the non-Muslims’ entrance to the Temple Mount, a metal detector that has been there for many years and about which no one, as far as I know, has ever complained.
“From many places,” I answer.
“From many places,” he laughs. “I haven’t heard that one before. Do you have any ID?”
He is dark-skinned and has African features, perhaps he has Ethiopian roots, I think. Israel is an ingathering of the exiles.
I hand him my foreign passport. I have not yet decided whether I am ascending the Temple Mount as an Israeli or as a tourist. For, I hear, this decision will very much determine the experience I have there.
He begins to speak with me in Hebrew. I respond. “Do you have other ID,” he asks? I hesitantly give him my Israeli identity card. I am a bad liar. I do my best not to lie, ever.
“Are you carrying any religious articles?”
“No, I know it’s not allowed.”
“You’re not religious, are you?” He and the guard behind him both ask. I am wearing a dress that covers my knees and a shirt that covers my elbows, so why would they assume this? Is it my uncovered hair at my advanced age?
“I’m religious in my own way,” I answer.
“Ah, religious in your own way. Then wait here. You’ll be going up as an Israeli, with a police escort. It will only be a few minutes.”
Tourists can go onto the Temple Mount freely, during proscribed non-Muslim hours. They don’t need to wait, they don’t need an escort, and they can walk around the site as they wish.
Israelis (or Jews, or religious Jews, I’m not sure which was the incriminating characteristic) must go up in a group, stay in the group, and be escorted around the perimeter of the mount by policemen. They must wait until the previous group of Jews has finished before they can go up. In my case, that “few minutes” turns into a wait of over an hour, as it gets hotter and hotter, and closer and closer to and then beyond the time I am supposed to be at work. And while we wait, tourists ascend the ramp freely, unencumbered by belonging to the nation that supposedly has sovereignty over the site.
Let me clarify that my motivation in going up to the Temple Mount is not to protest or demonstrate that I believe Jews should have access to their holy, their most holy, sites, although I entirely agree with this message and think it should be shouted from the rooftops. I am going because I want to feel the place, to walk silently among the ancient olive trees, under the arches at the entrance to the platform on which the Dome of the Rock sits, which is believed to be the place where the Temples stood. I want quiet, solitude, an opportunity to absorb, to breathe that holy air deep into my being.
It is the new moon that marks the beginning of the month of Av, the start of an intense period of mourning on the Jewish calendar, leading up to the day on which both Temples were destroyed and numerous other calamities befell the Jewish people. The Second Temple, it is said, was destroyed due to causeless hatred, and will be rebuilt through causeless love.
A group of 30, mostly visibly religious, Jews, including young children, are finally allowed to ascend the ramp. Before we start, the rules are explained. No religious objects. No prayer. No moving out of the line. No prostration. As we ascend, the men sing Jewish songs loudly. They are making a point. I did not come to make a point. In fact, I came at this time that Muslims are boycotting the mount so that the energy would be less confrontational, so that it would be more calm.
At the entrance gate, we are surrounded by about ten policemen, mostly Muslim (yes, there are Muslims, Christians, Druze and Jews in the Israeli police force). Many of our group remove their shoes because it is apparently prohibited to wear leather shoes close to the place of the temple. I also remove mine, which are not leather, in order to feel the smooth, warm, ancient stones beneath my feet as I walk the holy ground.
This group of Jews, visiting its holiest place, is then herded around the perimeter of the Temple Mount by the policemen. It is supposedly for our protection, but it seems to be more for our degradation. They bark at us, barely let us stop to take photos or look at a building, a fountain, a tree. If one of us lingers, or walks two feet in another direction, they herd us back in, like dogs herding cattle. “Hurry up lady. Hurry up. There’s no time,” they yell, after we have waited over an hour to get in.
We are not allowed to go near the platform of the Dome of the Rock, the true Temple Mount. I look with intense envy at the tourists up there, taking their time, going where they want, able to sit with their eyes closed in solitude, or dance or linger…. While I, in my country, in my holiest heart’s place, can’t go near it. They can have the experience I want, but that is denied me.
I feel like those Jews who, before 1967, stood on the roof of King David’s tomb on Mt. Zion, looking towards the Temple Mount with longing. I weep my way through this tour that I didn’t want, feeling the infinite distance of that mere 50 meters that stands between me and the steps up to the platform.That platform where the Temples once stood, that platform now housing the exquisite Dome of the Rock, that platform where everyone except a Jew can go. If there is apartheid in Israel, this is it. I feel the חורבן, the destruction, the desecration. I feel it deeply. And, as befits a חורבן, there is no comfort for this grief.
On the eastern side of the Temple Mount there is a gate carved into the rock walls, a gate that does not open. This is Sha’ar HaRachamim, the Gate of Mercy. Belief has it that, when the Messiah comes, this gate will open and he or she will enter Jerusalem through it. I am used to looking at this gate from the outside, from the Mount of Olives, seeing the Muslim graves scattered around it, containing the bodies buried there in the hope that they will be the first to rise from the dead and welcome the Messiah.
But now, we approach the gate from the inside. I look up and see my favorite tear-shaped chapel across from me, on the Mount of Olives, and groups of colorfully dressed people standing in its yard, overlooking the Temple Mount. It is a beautiful sight, a beloved place from the opposite point of view… I am now inside the Gate of Mercy. That gate that is a physical manifestation of potential, the potential for a world of lovingkindness. But we live in a world where that gate is still closed.
“Move it lady. We don’t have time,” a policeman barks at me. “Come on, get a move on!” I feel like a prisoner, and I am. A prisoner of Israel’s decision to give the Wakf exclusive jurisdiction over the Temple Mount.
The Hebrew word rachamim, meaning mercy or compassion, comes from the same root as rechem, womb, the place of unconditional, causeless love. The kind of love that will bring the Messiah, that will rebuild the Temple. Or, as I prefer to believe, will bring us back to Temple consciousness. That will open the gate.
Meir Banai, the talented Israeli singer-songwriter who died earlier this year at way too young an age, has a beautiful and haunting song about finding his way to the Gate of Mercy, Sha’ar HaRachamim (you can listen to it here, and I recommend it strongly). The chorus ends with the following words:
בואי איתי יחד, בואי מתוך הפחד, כי את, גם את חלק משער הרחמים.
Come, let’s go together… because you, you are also part of the Gate of Mercy.
We are all — Jew, Muslim, Christian and others — part of the Gate of Mercy, and it is our responsibility to create a world in which that gate will open. A world of compassion and kindness, a world of causeless and unconditional love. A world in which we will be free from the hatred, separation and constriction that imprisons us. A world worthy of the Messiah — whatever that may mean — entering Jerusalem, and the world, through Sha’ar HaRachamim. May it be soon.