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Tisha B'Av 5761
by Judy Lash Balint
July 2001

Tisha B’Av 5761: Another day that the media distorted events here in Jerusalem and played into the hands of those bent on inflaming tensions.

A silent, dignified erev Tisha B’Av march by tens of thousands of Jews around the walls of the Old City was completely ignored by both Israeli and world media. The day after Tisha B’Av, the story was not the rocks hurled at Jewish worshipers standing in prayer at the Western Wall, but the reaction of Israeli forces who went up on the Temple Mount and managed to quell the riots in just a few minutes.

The traditional walk around the walls of the city attracts throngs of Israelis who gather across from the US Consulate on Agron Street half an hour after Shabbat. Many of us were concerned that the turnout would be adversely affected because those living outside Jerusalem would have difficulty getting there so close to Shabbat, or that the hazards on the roads would keep people from coming into the city. But even as the baal koreh starts to read the mournful Eicha (Lamentations) over the microphone, thousands cluster on the grass with flashlights, straining to hear every word.

Across the street, the US flag flutters atop the consulate building, as wary consular security officials keep watch on the crowd. Just a little way up the block, the gaudy blue neon cross atop the French Catholic church shines out into the night.

As the marchers move off following a huge banner proclaiming our slogan of allegiance to Jerusalem, organizer Nadia Matar reminds the crowd that this is not a demonstration or a rally, nor is it a social event. In fact, no reminder is necessary, as the restrained mass of Jews soberly sets out to encircle the gates of the Holy City.

Scattered amongst the marchers are quite a number of non-observant people. Women wearing pants and sleeveless tops walk side by side with others whose hair is carefully covered with scarf or hat. Many parents are there with small children and there are large numbers of older people too. Walking up the hill to Tzahal Square we turn to look back at those behind us. People as far back as we can see—accompanied by huge Israeli flags, quietly taking part in an ancient Jerusalem tradition.

On down past New Gate, traffic traveling in the opposite direction on Route #1 is held up as we take over the streets and pour down the road toward Damascus Gate. Most of the Arab stores are shuttered tight, but a 24 hour bakery is open, its few customers studiously ignoring our presence. A few shebab (Arab youth) are loitering around outside Herod’s Gate accompanied by the ubiquitous Israeli police burdened on this warm night with their bulletproof vests.

In front of us we see the Mount of Olives crowned with its Arab and Christian institutions. Despite its Jewish historic and spiritual significance, the only living Jewish presence on the Mount today is Beit Orot, the hesder yeshiva and development initiative.

Turning the corner to walk along the eastern wall, we look out at the vast expanse of the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world. Sticking out like a sore thumb is the Ras el Amud mosque built on the south-eastern corner of the cemetery. The green neon on the tower is extinguished as we come to a halt in front of Lion’s Gate—the gate used by the paratroopers who liberated the Old City in 1967.

As a few Arab kids play noisily in a house above, we listen in silence to the words of Temple Mount archeologist Gabi Barkai; Rabbi Moti Elon and Rabbi
Shalom Gold. “They tell us that approaching Har Habyit is dangerous these days,” said Rabbi Elon. “I say turning our backs on Har Habayit is what’s dangerous.”

Many of us wander over to the wall to gaze at the Kidron Valley below with Absalom’s Tomb and the monument to the prophet Zecharia. Across the valley we can see the new Maale Hazeitim development that acts as a buffer between Abu Dis, home of Arafat’s parliament building, and the Temple Mount. Rounding the corner, we look up at the imposing Southern Wall of the Temple with the steps and Huldah’s Gate, before making the ascent towards Dung Gate and the entrance to the Western Wall. Glancing backwards again, the sight of the masses of people still behind us is awesome. Quiet and dignified, the march has gone off without incident.

Tisha B’Av morning the media was already full of screaming headlines about Arab reaction to the annual effort by members of the Temple Mount Faithful to go up to the Temple Mount. The group generally attracts only 30 people, and Israel’s High Court had already ruled last week that the Faithful would not be permitted to carry out a cornerstone laying ceremony on the site. Israeli police had given assurances that no such action would be tolerated.

Nevertheless, the usual Arab spokesmen still threatened that the group was a provocation and they wouldn’t be able to control the violence that would ensue. As if on cue, at around 11 a.m. rocks were hurled from above onto Jewish worshipers in the Western Wall plaza below. People started running for cover, some using plastic chairs as protection against the barrage. Within moments, hundreds of Israeli police in riot gear ran through the gate atop Robinson’s Arch and onto the Temple Mount. All it took was about three minutes to subdue the agitators. But the headlines had already been written. “Israeli troops storm Moslem holy site,” trumpeted one wire service.

The morning’s events impacted another traditional Tisha B’av observance. Later in the afternoon when calm was restored, Rav Ariel made an announcement to a few hundred people who had gathered to observe the custom of reciting prayers and blowing silver trumpets at the gates of the Temple Mount. Due to security concerns the police had prohibited the group from carrying out their annual observance. We would have to make do with a token ritual at the top of the stairs looking over the Mount and then down below at Robinson’s Arch. The planned mincha (afternoon service) that was to have taken place at Huldah’s Gate was cancelled.

Instead, a few of us head to the Kotel Hakatan, the small section of the Wall closest to the Holy of Holies. In the cool tunnel on the way to the Moslem Quarter, a few men are stretched out to rest. One is dressed in sackcloth, the traditional mourning dress.

The alleyways to the Kotel Hakatan are heavily guarded, but all is calm at the tiny courtyard of the Wall. Rabbanit Chana Henkin , dean of Nishmat is davening there with a few other women. As we prepare to leave, we’re replaced by a contingent of yeshiva students from Beit El.

Back in the plaza of the Western Wall, the tired, hot and hungry are sprawled on the ground waiting for the fast to be over. A thirty-something policewoman in pants is downing a bottle of water. Apologetically she announces to her friend that she’s still fasting, and is taking only water to be
able to work.

So forget about what you’ve seen on CNN or heard on NBC, CBS or the BBC. The Jews have once again taken seriously the observance of Tisha B’Av, even if it means enduring rocks and bad press.

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