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The illusion of religious freedom in Jerusalem

Official Israel loves to boast of the complete freedom of worship it grants to members of all religions. In reality, however, it’s just another deception brought to you by your local ‘hasbara’ dealer.

By Orly Noy

Israeli Border Police officers stand at the entrance to Jerusalem's Old City, as they prevent Muslim Palestinian worshippers from attending Friday prayers in Al Aqsa mosque, September 26, 2014. (Photo by Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

Israeli Border Police officers stand at the entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City, as they prevent Muslim Palestinian worshippers from attending Friday prayers in Al Aqsa mosque, September 26, 2014. (Photo by Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

One of the main tools in the Israeli hasbara toolbox is the ‘religious freedom’ discourse. As subscribers of the “villa in the jungle” worldview, Israel advocates never miss an opportunity to emphasize the religious freedoms that Israel supposedly gives to believers of all faiths, unlike its Arab neighbors. Prime Minister Netanyahu, especially, loves to make this claim — and he repeats it ad nauseam. For instance, in a special message at the dedication ceremony for the Hurva (“Ruin”) Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem a few years ago, he said:

[…] For the first time in generations, we allowed members of the other religions to pray in Jerusalem and to restore their places of worship. To pray in complete freedom of religious worship […] We returned to our cities, we came to build our houses of worship, but at the same time, we are also giving the same freedom of worship to other religious. That is the uniqueness of the nation of Israel: we preserve our own heritage while at the same time allowing others to do the same.

The papal visit to Israel this year was yet another chance for Netanyahu to reiterate:

[The Pope’s] visit here is an opportunity to show the world the true Israel, the advanced, modern and tolerant Israel, in effect, the only country in the Middle East that ensures complete freedom of worship to those of all faiths, guards the holy places and ensures the rights of all – Jews, Muslims, Christians, everybody.

Of course, that tolerant paradise is not quite the reality we live in. The daily reality that the occupation brings to the Old City of Jerusalem is not that of free men of different religions who have unhindered access to their holy places; it is a reality of structured conflict between occupiers and the occupied. First off, there are the more than 2 million West Bank Palestinians living under Israeli military rule who need special permits to even enter Jerusalem, permits that we know are handed out sparingly at best.

However, even for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem itself, access to the Aqsa compound is not guaranteed: it is regularly restricted according to the whims of Israeli authorities. During the recent Rosh Hashana holiday, for example, Israeli police prevented Muslim men under the age of 50 from entering the compound; while flocks of Jewish worshipers flooded toward the Western Wall, Muslim worshipers stood facing down a wall of police separating them from the mosque.

Israeli Border Police officers prevent worshippers from entering the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, September 26, 2014. (Photo by Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

Israeli Border Police officers prevent worshippers from entering the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, September 26, 2014. (Photo by Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

A Palestinian man performs Parkour at an Israeli police checkpoint in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 26, 2014. (Photo by Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

A Palestinian man performs Parkour at an Israeli police checkpoint in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 26, 2014. (Photo by Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

Israeli police officers block an alleyway in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Photo by Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

Israeli police officers block an alleyway in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Photo by Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

It’s not only during Jewish holidays that Israel restricts Muslim worshipers’ access to the Aqsa Mosque — it does the same during Muslim holidays, too. The excuse, as always, is security. It’s a viscous circle in which tens of thousands of people are prevented from accessing their holy sites out of fear of riots, which is ironic considering the hindering of freedom of worship itself feeds the feelings of anger that Israel fears so much.

Meanwhile, Jewish politicians and public figures make provocative visits to the Temple Mount from time to time to demand that Israeli sovereignty be exercised upon it. And that happens despite the traditional prohibition against Jews entering the Temple Mount compound for halachic reasons. That’s just how it is, it seems, when the man in charge of the two relevant government portfolios — the Religious Services Ministry and Jerusalem (and Diaspora) Affairs Ministry — is the same man who has already declared his intention to increase the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount.

But of course it’s not only religious interests at play here. A short refresher course in the not-so-distant and bloody history of the conflict can remind us all how that is bound to end.

This article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.

Related:
Disturbing the ‘peace’ in Jerusalem’s holiest site
PHOTOS: Clashes in E. J’lem after police kill young Palestinian
Religion and politics during Ramadan in Jerusalem

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    COMMENTS

    1. bir

      What?!

      Israel doesn’t just offer complete freedom of religion, in Israel the different faiths have their religious leaders in charge of civil laws that affect their constituents.

      As for the Temple Mount, you write about restrictions with no mention of the violence perpetrated against Israelis and Israeli police in these areas? Young men aren’t permitted in there after multiple attacks that normally took place after sermons on Fridays. The sermon-giver is still giving the sermons!!!!

      To suggest that Israel doesn’t offer complete freedom of religion and religious practice to all Israelis is such an outrageous lie that I dare you to go to the Baha’i world headquarters in Haifa and tell them this. I dare you to go to Christian Arab Israelis and tell them this. I dare you to go to the Islamic Movement in Israel and tell them this. I dare you to go to the Druze and tell them this.

      I’ve seen lots of lies and propaganda on this site, but this article has to be among the worst.

      “The excuse is always security.”

      Indeed.

      Reply to Comment
      • A Junemann

        The facts speak for themselves. You can try to defend it, but it’s pointless.

        Reply to Comment
        • bir

          No, the facts speak to this article being a big lie.

          A shameful one.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Sammy

      This article totally ignores the fact that the Islamic Waqf controls the holiest site in Judaism and severely restricts Jewish access to it.

      Even when Jews are allowed access, they aren’t allowed any Jewish ritual objects (tallit, siddur, etc.).

      Furthermore, Palestinians riot and throw stones whenever a Jew goes there.

      While by no means perfect, the Israeli government does seem to have brought the most religious freedom to Jerusalem that it has ever had in its long, bloody history.

      Maybe that freedom pales in comparison to American-style religious liberty, but simply writing it off as “hasbara” is itself anti-Israel propaganda.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Richard

      Orly seems to think that Muslims don’t have religious freedom until they’re allowed to throw rocks at Jews on the Western Wall plaza. What a travesty it is that Jews should have security at their holiest site on Rosh Hashanah. What a complete joke this piece is.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Boris

      Not only does Israel not have freedom of religion, more importantly, it has no freedom FROM religion.

      Reply to Comment
      • Alvaro Ruiz

        Israel has both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, the second one still needs work but Israel is a million miles ahead of any country in the region.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Alvaro Ruiz

      This piece is typical of the hysterical anti-Israel nonsense spouted by these activist journalists. The other comments have already covered it but to deride Israel for its imperfections (and to ignore the challanges it faces) in ensuring religious freedom in a city such as Jerusalem is nothing but anti-Israel propaganda designed to deamonize Israel and Israelis.

      Reply to Comment