An Israeli tour organizer lambasted Jordanian authorities over their treatment of Israelis visiting Jordan last week, which he described as “incredibly humiliating” and “demeaning.”
Roni Ayalon has led Israeli groups to Aaron’s Tomb — on a mountaintop in a remote part of Petra — for the past five years, on behalf of Ashira, an organization that spreads Hasidic Judaism. He said that Jordanian authorities mistreated the 250 Israeli tourists he brought to Jordan last Wednesday and Thursday.
“It started at the border when they began confiscating yarmulkes and head coverings,” Ayalon said in a phone call on Sunday. “They then told us we cannot pray anywhere in Jordan. They said even if we are alone in the middle of the desert, we cannot pray.”
Ayalon said he had planned to bring the Israelis to Aaron’s Tomb to mark the anniversary of the biblical and quranic prophet’s death, but Jordanian police officers accompanying him and the Israelis strongly opposed the idea, and encouraged the group to stick to the other stops on its itinerary, including Wadi Rum and the central parts of the Petra archaeological city.
“They really did not want us to go to Aaron’s Tomb. They even canceled jeeps we ordered to take us there on Thursday,” he said. “We still wanted to go and found Bedouins who agreed to drive us close by.”
While some Jews believe Aaron was buried at the mountaintop site in Petra, others have expressed doubt that his tomb is located there. Muslims also revere Aaron and consider him to be a prophet.
Spokespeople for the Jordanian government and foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Ayalon said that after he and the other Israelis arrived at Aaron’s Tomb, they started singing and dancing. He stated that the Jordanian police officers then immediately made them leave the site.
“They made us go down and they didn’t let anyone else come up,” he said. “What happened is not right. It was incredibly humiliating and demeaning. Imagine what would have happened if a Jordanian tourist visiting Jerusalem were treated this way.”
Videos posted on Twitter and Facebook appeared to show the group of Israeli tourists loudly singing in Hebrew and excitedly dancing at Aaron’s Tomb.
The tour organizer insisted that singing and dancing did not constitute prayer.
“We were only singing Jewish songs. We were not praying,” he said.
Jordanian media widely reported that the Israelis prayed at the site and some news sites accused them of carrying out “Talmudic rituals.”
Fury in Jordan
Shortly after Ayalon and the Israeli tourists vacated Aaron’s Tomb, Jordanian social media users started to circulate those videos, prompting an uproar among many Jordanians including some government officials and politicians.
Jordanian Awqaf and Islamic Affairs Minister Abdul Nasser Abu al-Basl accused the Israelis of illegally entering Aaron’s Tomb and decided that Jordan would close it to all tourists with the exception of those who receive prior government approval, according to a statement on Thursday by the Awqaf Ministry, which oversees holy sites in the Hashemite kingdom and Jerusalem.
Abu Basl also told Al Mamlaka TV, a state-funded channel, that he decided to close the tomb following “Israeli violations” at the site and “the performance of rituals without the knowledge of the ministry.”
Suleiman Farajat, a Jordanian official who deals with tourism issues in the Petra region, vowed that Jordan would take action to prevent Jewish prayer at Aaron’s Tomb.
“Israeli tourists have been coming to Jordan since the 1990s. In terms of them coming as tourists to Jordan, we will not prevent them, but we can bar these religious practices and we will do just that in the future,” he told Al Mamlaka TV on Friday. “We will work with our partners in the Awqaf Ministry to make sure that only Islamic religious rituals take place at the site, as it is a mosque.”
Oraib Rantawi, the director of the Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman said: “What happened was a provocative act. They did not have permission or a license to do what they did. The place is an archaeological site and nothing else.”
He also claimed in a phone call that Jordan was wary of Israelis trying “to expand their territory on the basis of religious claims.”
Ayalon said the groups of Israeli tourists he brought to Jordan in previous years did not face obstacles in visiting Aaron’s Tomb and even prayed there.
“We generally have not had problems. In the past, we typically have been alone and they let us do what we want,” he said. “This last time was the worst that they have treated us.”
Israeli tourists have, however, previously encountered challenges to worship freely in Jordan.
Jordanian police threatened a group of Israeli tourists in 2017 that they would risk being jailed if they prayed anywhere in the country, an Israeli official said at the time.
A fraught political climate
Taylor Luck, an Amman-based analyst and reporter, said he and a Lutheran minister visited Aaron’s Tomb in 2012 and prayed there together without encountering any problems.
“There is a small army outpost below the site. We told the soldiers that we wanted to pray there and they gave us the key and offered us water and tea,” he said, adding that visitor’s log held many entries in Hebrew.
Over the past several years, Jews, including Israelis, have posted videos and pictures of themselves visiting and praying at Aaron’s Tomb on social media.
Luck argued that the fraught regional, political climate has made the very presence of Israelis in Jordan a thorny issue.
“The tense state of affairs — poor ties between [Jordanian] King Abdullah and the Israeli government and apprehension about the implications of the US peace plan on Jordan — has made it more difficult for many in the Jordanian public to accept Israelis visiting Jordan,” he said. “Jordanians are welcoming and usually differentiate between governments and people, but the climate has deteriorated so much recently that the lines are starting to blur with respect to Israelis.”
Luck also pointed to a recent encounter between Israeli tourists and a Jordanian mayor to further demonstrate how complicated Jordanian engagement with Israelis has become.
In April, Ibrahim Karaki, the mayor of the Jordanian city Karak, helped a group of Israeli tourists hiking in Jordan, fed them and gave them a honorary plaque.
After the Kan public broadcaster aired a story on the encounter between the mayor and the Israelis, Jordanian social media personalities lashed out at him, and a member of the Karak Municipality resigned in protest.
Karaki later issued an apology and expressed support for “liberating Palestine” from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
Israel relatively quiet
An official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Israel and Jordan were communicating regarding Aaron’s Tomb, but declined to make any further comments.
Spokespersons for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi either declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries.
Ayalon said that the Foreign Ministry asked him to “stay out of the headlines in the press.”
Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, argued that Amman closed Aaron’s Tomb in response to public pressure, but has also acted carefully not “to blow the matter out of proportion.”
In a phone call, he underlined that the Jordanian foreign ministry and government spokespeople have not publicized statements on the issue.