Deputy mayors forced to remove religious items at Jordan border, sparking row

Jerusalem voices outrage over ‘extreme’ step, allegedly taken by Amman to preserve delegation’s safety; participants decry ‘humiliating’ inspection, which included body searches

The Yitzhak Rabin Border Terminal at the Wadi Araba crossing between Israel and Jordan. (CC BY 2.5, Wikipedia, NYC2TLV)
The Yitzhak Rabin Border Terminal at the Wadi Araba crossing between Israel and Jordan. (CC BY 2.5, Wikipedia, NYC2TLV)

Israel on Tuesday voiced protest and threatened retaliatory measures after Jordanian border guards barred entry to dozens of religious Israeli deputy mayors because they were carrying Jewish religious garments and symbols.

The row was the latest in a series of incidents in which Amman has clamped down on Jewish prayer and symbols in its territory, reflecting deteriorating ties with Israel.

About 100 deputy mayors from various Israeli cities attempted to cross Tuesday morning from the southern city of Eilat to Petra for an official tour.

The religious and ultra-Orthodox members of the delegation were told earlier to wear hats over their skullcaps for their safety, but that didn’t help.

“When we arrived at the Jordanian side, after we paid the fee and went through security, the Jordanians ordered us to open our shirts to see if we were wearing tzitzit [knotted ritual fringes],” Haim Cohen, an ultra-Orthodox deputy mayor of Jerusalem, told Hebrew-language media.

“As soon as we saw that, we said ‘that’s it,’ turned around and left,” he added.

The Jordanians claimed the step was aimed at keeping the delegation members safe.

The group was taken back for a second security check, this time focused on the religious items. Some Orthodox deputy mayors ended up taking them off and entering Jordan without them, but most refused and did not enter the country.

The inspection was described as lengthy and humiliating, with some saying it included searches of the officials’ bodies and pockets, and even demands that religious women take off their head coverings.

“The women wearing wigs or hats were taken aside and stripped down,” said Givatayim deputy mayor Orly Niv, a secular woman, in a Facebook post titled “Anti-Semitism??? Probably.”

“After the second inspection something still wasn’t satisfactory to them, and they asked the entire group to return for a third inspection,” she said, adding that the guide had confirmed that under government orders, he had been ordered to make sure no religious symbols should be visible during the tour.

“That is where we got fed up,” Niv added, saying many members of the group decided to go back in protest. “Is this what we call peace? Jewish Israelis cannot collectively be treated like this.”

“How would people of other faiths react if they had to go through the same humiliating ritual at a border crossing?” asked Rehovot deputy mayor Yaniv Markowitz. “I’m sure there would have been a major outrage. I will not go there again.”

He called the incident “absurd, humiliating, degrading and embarrassing for the Jordanians.”

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, denounced Amman over the treatment, calling it “an extreme and severe step.”

Illustrative: Interior Minister Aryeh Deri leads a Shas faction meeting at the Knesset on May 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After Deri spoke with Foreign Ministry officials and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, the delegation was eventually allowed into Jordan without restrictions, but at that point many in the delegation refused to enter.

In talks with Jordanian officials, the Israelis had threatened that Deri was considering banning Jordanian workers from entering the country.

Shas MK Michael Malchieli wrote an urgent letter to Foreign Minister Israel Katz demanding that a meeting be convened on the matter, saying: “This remind us of dark periods in history. No country in the world can demand that, and this kind of incident cannot go without a response and serve as a dangerous precedent.”

Amman subsequently announced it would reconsider the restriction on Jewish tourists entering with religious items.

While security ties between Israel and Jordan have flourished, political relations have soured recently over a number of matters, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge in September to annex the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, if he is given another term in office.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II, reviews an honor guard before giving a speech to parliament in Amman, Jordan, November 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)

Jordan’s King Abdullah II recently said ties between the countries were at an “all-time low.”

On Sunday, President Reuven Rivlin announced that Jordan would reopen the Aaron’s Tomb pilgrimage site to Israeli tourists, after it was closed to Jewish pilgrims in August over a video that appeared to show Israelis praying there.

At the time, Jordan said several hundred Israelis arrived in Petra, without prior coordination or permission to pray at the site. According to Jordanian media, the visitors held what they termed “talmudic religious ceremonies” — likely referring to Jewish prayer — at the tomb.

An Israeli tour guide leading the group denied the tourists had been praying and said the visit had been coordinated.

The pilgrims were in Jordan to visit the tomb of Aaron, the biblical high priest and brother of Moses, who tradition maintains is buried on Mount Hor, near Petra, at a site known locally as Jabal Haroun.

While some Jews believe Aaron was buried in the mountain, others have expressed doubt that his tomb is located there. Muslims also revere Aaron and consider him to be a prophet.

In 2017, Jordanian police threatened a group of Israeli tourists at the tomb and said they risked being jailed if they prayed anywhere in the country, an Israeli official had said.

Most Popular
read more: