Controversy Swirls Over Court Ruling on Jewish Presence at Har Habayis

By Yisrael Price

Committee Chairman Ram Ben Barak leads a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset. (Flash90)

YERUSHALAYIM – Amid a heated controversy over a lower court ruling on the Jewish presence at Har Habayis, High Court President Esther Hayut warned against inflammatory comments on Israel’s judiciary system.

The latest furor over Israel’s administration of the Al Aqsa Mosque compound was touched off by Magistrate Court judge Tzion Saharay’s lifting of a ban on three Jewish teenagers from entering the Old City after police said they had violated the status quo.

In his ruling, Saharay said that he did not consider bowing and reciting Shema Yisrael a sufficient cause to curtail freedom of religion for fear it would cause a disturbance at the site. He further quoted Police Chief Kobi Shabtai who said last May that officers would ensure freedom of religion for “all residents of the country and the territories” at the flashpoint holy site.

Police sources were quoted later Sunday that Saharay misconstrued Shabtai’s comments in an attempt to buttress his ruling, and that the state prosecution said it would appeal his decision.

At the same time, he stressed that his ruling was not intended to interfere with police enforcement of security at Har Habayis, and that it only pertained to the ban on visiting. Still, it did seem to many that was saying that some Jewish prayer was permissible at the site.

Meretz MK and Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej denounced the ruling, saying it “bordered on stupidity.”

“It reminds me of how one idiot can burn a whole forest,” he told Kan news. “It is not a judicial decision, but political,” he charged.

“Everyone has their place to pray, with the Temple Mount for Muslims and the Western Wall for Jews,” Frej said. “The majority want things to continue as they are. We must not play with fire. We are heading toward an escalation.”

The leading poskim have long clarified that halacha forbids Jews from entering onto Har Habayis.

In a speech at the Israel Bar Association conference in Eilat, Hayut decried what she called a “dangerous” trend.

“Regrettably, civil dialogue and personal responsibility have given way to confrontational discourse that has bred attacks on the judiciary and its judges and strident calls to harm them and curtail their powers,” Hayut said

“One can talk about the court’s errors, and about the need to file an appeal or request another hearing,” Hayut said. “But to my dismay, public discourse today… is deteriorating and going to places that we have not seen before, […] and these are extremely dangerous places.” She did not say which “errors” she had in mind.

Hayut previously defended the judiciary in February, after Likud MK David Amsalem accused her and her colleagues of racism against Mizrachi Jews. In response, Hayut wrote a letter of complaint against Amsalem’s remarks, which followed a letter of warning she filed against him last year.

Also on Monday, Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben-Barak, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a former deputy director of the Mossad, told Kan that “I think that during this sensitive period care must be taken. We should not, with our own hands, cause a religious war here or all kinds of provocations that are liable to ignite the Middle East.”

Once again, to dampen tensions, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement that “There is no change, nor is any change planned, on the status quo of the Temple Mount. 

“The Magistrate Court’s decision is focused exclusively on the matter of conduct of the minors brought before it, and does not include a broader determination regarding the freedom of worship on the Temple Mount.

“With regard to the specific criminal case in question, the government was informed that the State will file an appeal to the District Court,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, a Jewish man was detained by police for attempting to engage in tefillah on Har Habayis on Monday. Video showed two men trying to enter the site while wearing talis and tefillin and being stopped by police at a security gate. One of the men was later detained.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party, posted the video and accused police of “not respecting a court decision.”

“The police are sending a message of anarchy and regrettably encouraging youth to not uphold judicial decisions,” he wrote.

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