Secular activist crusades for religious access to the Temple Mount

Joining forces with radical right-wingers preparing for a third Temple, Linda Olmert frames Jewish prayer at the holy site as a civil rights issue

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Temple Mount activist Linda Olmert, December 10, 2014 (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)
Temple Mount activist Linda Olmert, December 10, 2014 (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)

Linda Olmert is not the typical Temple Mount activist. She’s secular, lives in the upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana and doesn’t wish to see a third Holy Temple built before the coming of the messiah.

Nonetheless, Olmert, is passionate about restoring and protecting the right of Jews to pray on the holy site, the focal point of so much religious and political tension in recent months.

Olmert works closely with Yehudah Glick, the rabbi who survived a recent assassination attempt by a Palestinian Muslim opposed to his efforts to restore Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. They are among the co-founders of an organization called HALIBA (a Hebrew acronym for Hameizam L’Chofesh Yehudi B’Har Habayit, or the Initiative for Jewish Freedom on the Temple Mount), for which Olmert serves as deputy director.

Since conquering the Old City from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and reuniting East and West Jerusalem, Israel has had sovereignty over the Temple Mount, the holiest site for Jews and the third-holiest site for Sunni Muslims after Mecca and Medina. However, administration and management of the site remain in the hands of the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, a religious trust. Although freedom of access was officially enshrined in Israel’s Preservation of Holy Places Law, in actuality, Israeli police bar Jews from praying on the Temple Mount for security reasons.

Individuals who wear Jewish religious attire such as a yarmulke or tzitzit (fringes) may not move around freely on the Temple Mount, but must instead be accompanied by an Israeli Border Police officer and a representative of the Waqf. In addition, non-Muslims may only enter the Temple Mount through one of its many gates.

“Everyone is talking about whether it is worth risking the status quo. But when is it ever in anyone’s interest to appease a bully?” asked Olmert — about Muslims who harass Jews on the Temple Mount — in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.

“We know from all different examples in history and education that giving in to bullies is never the right thing to do,” she said. “They know the Temple Mount is central to us. If we give in on Jerusalem, where will the line be?”

‘Everyone is talking about whether it is worth risking the status quo. But when is it ever in anyone’s interest to appease a bully?’

Although she had been upset about reports of Muslims destroying and dumping archaeological evidence found on The Temple Mount, the fight to allow Jewish prayer at the holy site was not hers until a year and a half ago, when she realized that she could frame the struggle in terms of civil rights.

Previously, the only Jews she knew of who were working on the issue were ones who wanted to build a third Temple on the Temple Mount.

“That’s not something I could get on board with,” she said.

However, when the Israel Independence Fund — a philanthropic endeavor supporting grassroots projects aimed at strengthening Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people — started talking about Jewish prayer and congregation on the Temple Mount as a matter of civil rights, Olmert decided to get involved.

“With the support of the IIF, we formed HALIBA as a lobby for Jewish civil rights on the Temple Mount,” explained Olmert.

“We don’t have to lobby for anyone else’s rights, because no one stops them from going up and praying as they wish.”

Linda Olmert's HALIBA colleague Rabbi Yehudah Glick (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Linda Olmert’s HALIBA colleague Rabbi Yehudah Glick (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Olmert, works closely with Glick, although agrees to disagree with him when it comes to the rebuilding of the Temple. In fact, she chose not to attend the conference in Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage at which Glick spoke right before he was shot and seriously wounded on the evening of October 29, because its topic was the rebuilding of the Temple.

Olmert had sat in a meeting in Jerusalem with Glick just three hours before the incident.

“At the meeting, he said that nobody cared about our Temple Mount work, and he spoke of the threats he was getting,” she recalled. “He said that nothing would change until Jewish blood was spilled.”

After the shooting, Olmert got a call from one of her group’s members who had been at the conference with Glick.

“I was in shock,” she recalled.

Olmert is adamant, however, that the attempt on Glick’s life will not deter her from her Temple Mount activism. And from conversations she has had with Glick since his discharge from the hospital, he is reportedly also no less fervent and dedicated to their shared cause.

This is not to say that Olmert, who worked in Jewish education before focusing on her Temple Mount crusade, is not scared to a certain extent for her personal safety. So far, she has managed to stay under the radar, mainly because of the fact that her non-religious appearance (she wears pants and doesn’t cover her head) does not arouse the attention of the police and the Waqf representatives.

Yehudah Glick said that ‘nothing would change until Jewish blood was spilled.’

Olmert, 60, who describes herself as a “traditional” Jew, is the only daughter of Holocaust survivors who settled in Toronto, Canada, after WWII. Growing up in a very Zionist home, she knew from age six that she would one day immigrate to Israel (which she did in 1975, at age 21).

“I honestly thought I had a sibling called Israel,” she recounted. “If I needed a new coat or a new pair of shoes, my parents, who were poor, would always debate whether they should buy me the new attire or send the money to Israel instead.”

Three years to the day after arriving in Israel, she married Yossi Olmert, a brother of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. The marriage, which produced three daughters, ended a decade ago following a headline-making financial scandal involving her husband, an academic who has several times run unsuccessfully for political office.

Olmert doesn’t understand why more Jews, both in Israel and outside it, aren’t concerned about Jewish civil rights on the Temple Mount.

“The Western Wall has become the focal point for Jews, but focusing on the Wall is like having a party at your home and bringing the food out to the fence around your yard and making your guests eat it there,” she said.

Religious Jews visiting the Temple Mount, March 27, 2013. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)
Religious Jews visiting the Temple Mount, March 27, 2013. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)

When Olmert first got involved with HALIBA, she would take groups of Jews up to the Temple Mount a couple of times per week. But the plan to get as many Jews as possible up on the Temple Mount has been put aside because of logistical difficulties. The days and hours that non-Muslims can visit the site are limited, and “arbitrary closures” imposed by the police can prevent religious Jews who travel long distances and make ritual preparations from actually reaching the Temple Mount.

Now, the HALIBA board (comprised of Jews ranging from secular to ultra-Orthodox) has revised its strategy, deciding that “lawfare” is its best option. According to Olmert, the organization is in the midst of preparing a case to bring to court. It is currently deposing individuals about incidences of harassment and civil rights violations on the Temple Mount.

‘They know the Temple Mount is central to us. If we give in on Jerusalem, where will the line be?’

“The Supreme Court has said 16 times that Jews can pray on the Temple Mount, subject to police discretion. The problem is that the government allows the police to take the path of least resistance by banning Jewish prayer instead of stopping Muslim rioting,” Olmert said.

She dismisses suggestions that any changes to the status quo on the Temple Mount be postponed until Jerusalem’s status is determined as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

“A peace agreement without full Jewish access to the Temple Mount is an oxymoron,” she said.

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