A few years ago, I was riding shotgun with a resident of Efrat as he drove me around part of Gush Etzion. As we approached one of the red signs erected by the Israeli government warning its citizens not to cross the invisible border with Area A of the West Bank — the portion under direct Palestinian Authority control — my settler companion turned to me and said: “That’s the real apartheid.”
I was taken aback by his comment. He was an Israeli citizen, with the right to vote for the government that posted the warning notice and a passport to travel to over 160 countries, with easy access to an international airport. These are basic rights a Palestinian living on the other side of the red sign could only dream of. Unfair? I suppose — ideally, people should be able to go where they want without procedural obstacles or fear for their safety, but if you were to consider whether a Palestinian or an Israeli citizen faces more such roadblocks, the answer would certainly be the former. Two wrongs do not make a right, but the real injustice in the occupied territories? Come on.
Yet, as detached from reality as this argument was, I believe the person making it was 100 percent sincere. And it is this same mindset that informs many people who look at the uproar over Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s recent visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and earnestly believe this is a simple issue of Jews being denied equal rights at our most important holy site. But it isn’t so cut and dry.
This isn’t my framing of the issue. During the fall Knesset election campaign, Ben Gvir himself called for “equal rights for Jews” at the Temple Mount. And under normal circumstances, that would not be a controversial demand. Why shouldn’t Jews be allowed to pray anywhere, let alone the most sacred spot in Judaism?
However, the Temple Mount does not exist in normal circumstances. Neither does the city of Jerusalem, nor the rest of the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Because the arrangement following Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the Six Day War left the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif under the aegis of the Muslim Waqf, the site is unique in the city, a place where Palestinians have some measure of control. The significance of that fact cannot be overstated in Jerusalem, where Palestinians — 40% of its population — lack citizenship rights (and where citizenship applications are routinely denied), and where, right next door in the West Bank, Palestinians’ positions are even weaker.
Imagine if Jews were disenfranchised and generally discriminated against in an Arab Palestine stretching from the river to the sea, but Jews could assert control over the Temple Mount. Sure, Palestinian Muslims should, in principle, have access to the site in the name of freedom of movement and religion, but you could hardly expect interactions between citizen Palestinians and non-citizen Jews to be totally normal there.
Now consider in this hypothetical what the reaction might be if Yahya Sinwar or Ismail Haniyeh or some other Hamas politico wanted to visit the Mount, the one place in Palestine where the otherwise downtrodden Jewish population exercises a modicum of sovereignty.
Kahanist Itamar Ben Gvir happily talks about equality when it comes to the Temple Mount, and he and his fellow Temple Mount enthusiasts would love to be seen as the Israeli civil rights movement, but the civil rights movement in the United States was not about throwing the white people off of the bus once black people got a seat. As long as many of the champions of Jewish access to the Temple Mount are also vocal proponents of Palestinian dispossession like Ben Gvir, a visit to the site by such a figure is naturally going to be incendiary.
In reality, many Jews who are not Itamar Ben Gvir go up to the Temple Mount without incident. In fact, the number has grown of late, reaching 50,000 in the Jewish year 5782 (2021/2022). Although these pilgrims are nominally subject to the religious status quo on the Mount (to quote Benjamin Netanyahu: “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount”), the line between a visit and a prayer is blurry, and, in practice, often unenforced. The Waqf might not like that. Hamas might not like that. The PA might not like that. Many average Palestinians might not even like that. But there is rarely a serious crisis.
While Israel faced opprobrium in the international arena over Ben Gvir’s visit — including, notably, at the initiative of a close regional partner, the United Arab Emirates, as well as Saudi Arabia — the actual reaction on the ground has remained largely muted. We should be grateful that this has so far been the outcome, and hope, for the sake of Jerusalemites of all faiths and nationalities, that nothing changes. Yet such a peaceful conclusion is never guaranteed when it comes to the Temple Mount, and certainly not with Ben Gvir. I don’t say this because I want to see anyone get hurt to prove a political point, but because we have actually seen events at the Temple Mount go south quickly in the past, most recently in the spring of 2021.
None of this justifies violence or terrorism. It doesn’t give moral weight to conspiracy theories that distort or outright fabricate Jewish and Israeli actions at the Temple Mount. And it doesn’t mean the awkward status of Jewish prayer there should be aspirational. But if you look at the situation and say that the issue is Ben Gvir’s “equal rights” or the red sign outside of Area A, then you are missing quite a bit of context.
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