An American Congressman has expressed his "shock" after witnessing anti-Jewish discrimination on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, during a recent fact-finding mission to Israel.
US Rep. Bill Johnson, (R-OH) was joined by Congressman David McKinley (R-WV), on a tour of the State of Israel organized by the Israel Allies Foundation and Yes! Israel missions "to see the situation there for ourselves".
The trip took them to all corners of the holy land; from the southern towns of Sderot and Ashkelon, where they met with local residents and heard their accounts of life under rocket-fire from the Gaza Strip, to Judea and Samaria, central Israel and the Golan Heights.
The trip, Johnson said, left him with the indelible impression that "the people - especially the Jewish people - are very interested in peace."
He noted, for example, how in the Golan Heights Israel is treating Syrians injured by the civil war there without discriminating between the sides.
"Many of these are the very same people that on any other given day would want to kill the Israelis!" he remarked.
His visit to Judea and Samaria was extremely enlightening, he said. "When people talk about 'settlements' you think plywood and tents... but these people live just like us. There are schools, houses, shopping centers - these are real communities with real people."
'Shocking and disturbing'
But he said his experience on the Temple Mount stood in "stark contrast" to the rest of his time in Israel.
In an exclusive interview Congressman Johnson told Arutz Sheva that while he was inspired by his experience in Israel as a whole, he was "shocked and disturbed" by what he witnessed firsthand at Judaism's holiest site.
Despite being the holiest site in Judaism, Jewish access to the Temple Mount is very limited - including a blanket ban on Jewish worship there - in what activists have condemned as a capitulation to Muslim extremism. Israeli police, in an attempt to appease the Muslim Waqf trust which was left in charge of the compound after the 1967 Six Day War, ban Jews from praying or performing any other form of worship.
The two US legislators were part of a small group of six people, led by Rabbi Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute, among hundreds of people queuing to visit the Mount, which is also the site of the Al Aqsa Islamic complex.
Rabbi Richman urged the legislators to pay attention to the difference between how their group - which included religious Jews - would be treated in comparison to other visitors to the Mount.
"No one knew who we were... that we were members of the U.S. Congress or anything like that," Johnson said. And it was that anonymity which enabled them to experience a ritual that is all too familiar to the countless Jews who have visited the Temple Mount.
"We were first in line," he recalls, but after handing their IDs to police as requested they were forced to wait until everyone else behind them ("and it was a long line!") filed through, before they were finally allowed to ascend.
"When we were finally allowed to go through we were followed very closely by a member of the Waqf," he recounted.
"It struck me how intimidating this gentleman was trying to be. He looked like someone out of a Hollywood movie - with his hair slicked back and his shades hiding his eyes so you couldn't see what he was looking at... he stayed pretty close to us, and followed us around wherever we went.
"The rabbi pointed out that if he were to take out his Torah or give any indication that he was exercising his freedom of worship on the Temple Mount by praying - or if any of us were to take out our Bibles and try to pray or express our religion on the Temple Mount... we could have been arrested and removed and incarcerated.
"This thug followed us everywhere we went and if we stopped and took too long in one place he would look at the Israeli police, who would say 'you need to keep your group moving.'"
Despite a police escort, the group was subjected to a torrent of verbal abuse by a group of female Muslim worshipers who, he noted with some irony, were engaged in "their own prayer services, their rituals" on the Mount, "something Jews are not allowed to do."
'Only one side interested in peace'
The experience left him "shocked and disturbed", and he said he found it hard to reconcile such a jarring experience with the rest of his trip, which was overwhelmingly positive.
But Johnson was philosophical about the episode, saying it taught him something far deeper about the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole.
"It showed me the extent that the Israeli people and Israeli authorities are going to in order to try to create an atmosphere of peace. They are going to the extremes to try and create an atmosphere where there's no violence and no one feels intimidated."
The issue, he says, is that "the Israeli police have been instructed to prevent anything occurring on the Temple Mount which could incite violence - but it's the Waqf which gets to decide what constitutes incitement!
The result is a situation where Muslim authorities have monopolized control over the Temple Mount, to the extent that Jews "are not allowed to go up and express their freedom of religion in their holiest place!"
He said the message he has taken from the experience has been that further pressure on Israel to make more concessions is not the answer.
"The Jewish people have conceded enough. They have given up land for peace over generations, they have been squeezed into such a confined space that now even today they do not have full autonomy, authority and sovereignty over the very holy places that define their existence in the first place.
"The rest of the world seems to be blind to the fact that one side truly desires to live in peace and harmony - and that's the Jewish people.
"The other side, the Palestinian Authority, don't desire peace at all - I think they just desire the Jewish people to go away."