A little over four years ago, US President Barack Obama gave a passionate speech defending the American principal and practice of freedom of religion, enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, in the face of fierce opposition to one group’s attempt to exercise this right. In August of 2010 Obama declared that
As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.
The occasion, of course, was the controversy over plans to build an Islamic Community Center in downtown Manhattan, about two blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center, a building that became known as the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Opponents found the plan to be totally inflammatory. A family member of one of the 9/11 victims called the plan “despicable” and the site “sacred ground.” Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich characterized the plan as a form of aggression, and linked the proposed name “Cordoba House” to a “symbol of Islamic conquest.”
But the President stood firm in the face of this hostility, asserting that
The reason that we will win this fight [against Al Qaeda] is not simply the strength of our arms — it is the strength of our values. The democracy that we uphold. The freedoms that we cherish. The laws that we apply without regard to race, or religion, or wealth, or status. Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us.
The position Obama articulated in 2010 was mandated both by the US Constitution and by mainstream American values. So it was jarring, though by now hardly surprising, to see US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jordan last week, pushing to continue to deny religious freedom for Jews on Judaism’s holiest site. At a press conference in Amman on Thursday Kerry said “We [Kerry and Abbas] particularly talked about the urgent need to address the greatest tension between Israelis and Palestinians beginning with the imperative, the absolute need to uphold the status quo regarding the administration of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and to take affirmative steps to prevent provocations and incitement” (emphasis added).
Whether the “status quo” on the Temple Mount is a policy that is wise or necessary is an issue for Israelis to debate among themselves, and to work out with Waqf authorities. Notably, despite this debate, Netanyahu has stated repeatedly that he has no intent to change the current policy. There is no denying, however, that the policy is objectively discriminatory. It grants a right — the right to pray on the Temple Mount — to one group, Muslims, that it denies to another group, Jews, purely on the basis of religion. That the Secretary of State of a country that makes the grandiose promise that its own laws “apply without regard to race or religion” should travel abroad and say that there is an “imperative, absolute need” to uphold an objectively discriminatory policy, should pressure another democracy to continue to curtail religious freedom for one group, goes beyond hypocrisy.
This is not the first time that this administration has pushed for discriminatory policies in Israel that would be simply unthinkable in the US. In October White House spokesman Josh Earnest condemned the legal purchase of homes by Jews in a predominantly Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem, despite the fact that in the US, the practice of segregation in housing was banned in 1948. It is extremely troubling to see this administration opposing the very same freedoms for Jews in Israel that it stands up so strongly for at home.
Update: Seth Frantzman seems to have taken issue with some of the points that I raised. Thanks to Seth for reading. I don’t, however, agree with his analysis.
First, Seth analogizes that people cannot conduct organized prayer services any place that they choose, for example, in a subway station. This may be true, however, in the US, rules that regulate conduct in public spaces must apply equally to all religions. To continue with his example, a rule prohibiting any conduct of prayer services in a subway station would probably be acceptable, but a rule allowing Christians, but not Rastafarians, to conduct prayer services in a subway station, would plainly be discriminatory. Next, Seth claims that a privately owned synagogue does not have to allow Christian or Muslim services to take place inside the synagogue. Seth offers no evidence, however, that the Temple Mount is privately owned, and I was unable to find any support for that proposition myself. What is being discussed, moreover, is not the ability to conduct an organized Jewish prayer service inside the actual mosque. Currently Jews are barred from even individual, silent prayers, even in the open spaces on the Temple Mount, outside of the mosque itself. As I said above, this policy is objectively discriminatory.
In response to Seth’s claim that Muslims and Christians are not permitted to pray at the Kotel, I will respond simply by providing an example of a prominent Christian praying at the Kotel.