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Strangers in a familiar land

Stewart Weiss- Saturday 1st Nov 2003

Whose country is it, anyway? Last week, my wife decided to pay a visit to Rachel's Tomb, which she had not seen for several years.

Although the building housing Rachel's Tomb has been extensively renovated and is quite impressive, the experience of visiting there is a harrowing one.

The road between the border of Jerusalem and the tomb itself is just 300 meters long, but is open only to bulletproof vehicles – private cars are banned – which must proceed, snail-like, in single-file procession.

Civilians are not allowed outside, so the vehicles pull up as close as possible to the tomb, at which time the visitors run like scared rabbits into the fortress-like complex.

Unfortunately, the situation at Rachel's Tomb is not a unique one; at virtually every one of our holy places, free and comfortable access is the exception rather than the norm. Every pilgrimage has the feel of a military mission, and it's a major struggle to safely get in – and get out.

The Machpela Cave in Hebron – the ancient burial place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs – established that city as one of the four holy cities of Judaism. Visitors to the Cave encounter a heavy police and army presence, understandable in the light of numerous Palestinian terror attacks. After being thoroughly searched, Jews are permitted to pray in the "Avraham" and "Jacob" areas, but not in "Yitzhak" – the largest of the chambers – as that is reserved for Arabs only.
On 10 days of the year, the Cave is open to either only Arabs or only Jews.

It will be interesting to see what transpires this year, when the yahrtzeit for Sarah – the first of the Matriarchs to be buried in Machpela – coincides with the end of Ramadan; both communities have requested exclusive access.

Outside, near the entrance to the Cave, is a spot called "the Seven Steps." For many years, when the Muslims were in control of the complex, Jews were barred from actually entering the Cave itself.

They were restricted to praying at the side of the building, on several steps that led nowhere. There they pitifully lit candles and recited Psalms, so near – and yet so far – from the holy place itself.

The Palestinian Authority – our erstwhile "partners" in the "peace process" – have boasted that if and when they again take total control of Hebron, Jews will once again be banned from the Cave and forced to huddle as beggars at the Seven Steps. In reality, I doubt we would even get that far.

And what of the Temple Mount, Har Habayit? The primary site of our ancient Temple – Judaism's holiest spot – is essentially Judenrein. Even on those rare occasions when Jews are allowed up there, the Muslim Wakf zealously watches them to be sure they do not move their lips in prayer or so much as bow in homage to God. If they do, they are rudely shown the exit, and often even arrested.

While it is true that many rabbis forbid Jews to enter the Temple Mount because of the prohibition to walk in certain sacred areas there, other rabbinic authorities – most prominently the late chief rabbi Shlomo Goren – ruled that there are clearly some places on the Mount that are not hallowed ground, and thus religiously accessible.

Our failure to visit the Temple Mount has emboldened some of our own politicians, whose ties to tradition are pragmatic, at best, to offer full control of the site to the Wakf. It also weakens our case that this is a Jewish treasure that must remain in Jewish hands. As one (non-Jewish) US Congressman asked me: "How can you Jews claim to revere this place so much if you won't even set foot on it?"

And then there is Joseph's Tomb in Nablus. Just two weeks ago – for the second time in two years – wild mobs of rampaging Palestinians set fire to the holy place, gleefully torching any prayer books or holy texts they found there. This is where Rabbi Hillel Lieberman was murdered two years ago when he tried to rescue Torah scrolls left behind when the IDF abandoned its post at the Tomb. Our presence there is sporadic and fraught with danger.

All this combines to send two distinct messages. The first is that the Arabs have never and will never respect the sanctity of Jewish holy places, regardless of world pressure. Just as the Jordanians systematically destroyed every last synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City when it fell into their hands in 1948, [MEDIA EYE COMMENT - WITH THE BLESSING OF THE BRITISH LABOUR GOVERNMENT WHICH CONTROLLED THE ARAB LEGION ]so will the Palestinians desecrate and destroy any place sacred to us if, God forbid, they wrest it from our control.

And that includes the Western Wall; I have no doubt whatsoever that the Palestinians would attempt to do what even the Romans could not accomplish – turn the Wall into a heap of rubble. Moshe Dayan's catastrophic decision to turn the keys to the holy sites over to the Wakf should be reversed, not reinforced.

But the second message is meant solely for us. We, in a sense, have become prisoners in our own homes. While our enemies roam free, and sleep the sleep of the just, we are restricted and restrained all over our land. At times I can understand why so many nations question our legitimacy in Israel; by our fear to assert full rights of ownership in our own homeland, we appear more like tenants than landlords.

If we have any sense of Jewish pride, if we want to finally and fully establish our sovereignty over the land of Israel, then we must sing, in full voice, "This Land is My Land." We must hold our heads up high and end this self-imposed national house arrest. We must take back that which is rightfully ours.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana.



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