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'If it were done at a Jewish cemetery, how would we react?'

Report: Police chief says MK’s shofar-blowing near flashpoint site could ignite war

Kobi Shabtai said to pan Simcha Rothman’s actions at Muslim cemetery as ‘pure provocation’; courts have repeatedly upheld activists’ right to perform ritual

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman blows the shofar close to the Golden Gate of the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem, October 1, 2022. (Courtesy)
Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman blows the shofar close to the Golden Gate of the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem, October 1, 2022. (Courtesy)

The chief of police has condemned the conduct of a hard-right Knesset member, saying his performance of a Jewish ritual at a Muslim cemetery near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount could spark a new war, according to a weekend report.

Haaretz reported that Kobi Shabtai made the comments in an internal police conversation, telling officers MK Simcha Rothman’s actions could “lead us to Guardian of the Walls 2” — referring to the May 2021 outbreak of violence between Israel and Gaza that also saw major unrest in mixed Arab-Jewish cities.

Rothman, a member of the right-wing Religious Zionist party, and Temple Mount activists have in recent weeks on several occasions blown the shofar at what is known as the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount complex, where a Muslim cemetery is located.

The report cited unidentified sources who were present at the meeting. It said Shabtai called Rothman’s actions “a pure provocation” intended “only to cause unrest.”

“Why provoke just for the sake of it?” he reportedly said. “If such a thing were done at a Jewish cemetery, how would we react? It is done simply to hurt [Muslim] feelings.”

He added that such actions could “ignite the Middle East.”

Activists and police have become embroiled in an ongoing legal battle over their efforts to blow the shofar at the site.

Over the past month, a brewing feud between the two sides has played out in the courts, turning into a legal contest over freedom of religious worship and the extent to which security considerations can be used by the police to restrict that right.

The legal battle centers around the efforts of Temple Mount activists to blow the shofar at the Golden Gate of the Eastern Wall, outside of the holy site, so that it can be heard by Jewish visitors on the Temple Mount above.

The activists have repeatedly been arrested by the police, who argue that their activities could ignite tensions with Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank and lead to violence.

Rothman has avoided arrest due to his parliamentary immunity.

On Sunday, Emanuel Brosh — one of the primary activists involved in the controversy — was detained for the third time since mid-September and released eight hours later.

On Monday, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court rejected for the fourth time the efforts to ban Brosh from the site, thereby upholding his right, for all intents and purposes, to blow the shofar anywhere along the Eastern Wall.

In a rebuke to the police, the judge also ordered the department to pay NIS 2,000 ($565) in legal costs for Brosh.

The controversy is the latest chapter in persistent efforts spanning well over a decade by religious and secular nationalists to secure greater Israeli control over the Temple Mount and increase Jewish access and prayer rights.

These efforts have frequently been opposed by the police and the serving minister of public security due to the importance of the site in Islam and the fact that Israeli actions at the Temple Mount have, on numerous occasions, been followed by violence.

The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism and is revered as the location of both ancient Jewish temples. The compound is Islam’s third holiest site and is managed by Jordan — from whom Israel captured the Old City and the rest of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War — as part of a delicate arrangement with the Jewish state.

Starting last month, during the Jewish month of Elul ahead of the High Holidays, Temple Mount activists have blown the shofar outside the Golden Gate of the Eastern Wall so that Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount above can hear it during their visits to the site, which are strictly time-limited.

The Eastern Wall forms the eastern side of the Temple Mount complex and at the same time the eastern outer wall of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is also the oldest of the walls surrounding the site, dating back to the Hasmonean period.

An Orthodox Jewish man walks past the Golden Gate in the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount, August 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On the Temple Mount, prayer and the use of prayer items such as tefillin, prayer shawls and a shofar — the ram’s horn used by Jews ahead of and during the High Holy Days — are prohibited by the police.

Activists have therefore in the last three years blown the shofar down by the Golden Gate, outside the Temple Mount complex, at the specific time when visitors are in the vicinity above.

The police have, however, repeatedly arrested activists blowing the shofar at the Golden Gate and on the public path that runs the length of the Eastern Wall, insisting in court that they are seeking to prevent provocations against the Muslim population that could further exacerbate an already fragile security situation.

Temple Mount activist Emanuel Brosh is arrested outside the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem, September 23, 2022. (Courtesy)

The police have noted in their hearings that the Golden Gate lies amid a Muslim cemetery and that Jewish prayer services and activity at the site are provocative toward Muslims.

In the first hearing in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on September 19, the police specifically noted that the activists broadcast their ceremonies on social media, and warned that “Arab authorities including senior people with standing in the Muslim world with connections to the Temple Mount” have noted and reacted to these activities.

But the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court and the Jerusalem District Court have sided with the activists in every incident, refusing to grant the police requests for restraining orders and ruling that the activists have a right to blow the shofar at the Eastern Wall. Judge Amit Shaked of the Magistrate’s Court added that the danger to public security emanated not from the activists themselves, but those hostile to them.

Following the most recent legal decision on Monday, Brosh said that given the absence of any court ruling restricting his movement, he is entitled to blow the shofar at any point along the Eastern Wall.

“The resounding victory today in the court is dedicated first and foremost to the Temple Mount,” said Brosh following the decision.

“[Poet] Uri Zvi Greenberg coined the phrase ‘He who rules the mountain rules Jerusalem and rules the entire land’… We will continue to work for sovereignty over the entire land.”

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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