A recent incident at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport nearly turned the terminal into a flashpoint of international conflict. On Sunday, five Muslims, travelers from Turkey on looking for a place to pray, entered the terminal’s synagogue and prostrated themselves towards Mecca, spreading out fringed prayer shawls to kneel upon in place of the traditional prayer rugs. While some reacted with anger at the incident, perceiving it as desecration of Jewish prayer spaces and ritual objects, others saw it as a positive sign of coexistence.
The incident occurred when a Turkish Muslim family found themselves in Israel’s airport during the ascribed time for one of their five daily prayers.The airport does not have a mosque, so the family entered the terminal’s synagogue in order to pray.
Since it was just before the holiday of Simchat Torah, a day on which religious Jews do not travel, the small synagogue was empty. Designed for Jews, the site did not fit their needs precisely, but the family adapted it to their needs. The Ark which contained the Torah scrolls faced south-west towards Jerusalem, which is slightly north of Mecca. Muslim prayer rugs were unavailable, so they made do by spreading out fringed Jewish prayer shawls, called tallits, available at the synagogue. They knelt on the tallits and began to pray.
Muslims Pray in Synagogue
A passing Jew pointed out their error, and the Muslim family apologized. They carefully folded up the prayer shawls and left.
Though the incident passed quietly enough at the time, it was hotly discussed on the internet after a video was posted to Facebook by Yossi Cohen, a religious Jew who was not a witness to the strange incident. Cohen noted, “Now, I can understand how the Temple Mount became a Muslim site. The Jews were simply not around during the Diaspora, so the Muslims just took over.”
Some comments were more forgiving. One comment on Cohen’s Facebook post noted that this precise situation was discussed by Maimonides, the foremost Torah authority of the 12th century, whose rulings are still used as the basis for much of Jewish law. Maimonides ruled that it is permitted for Muslims to pray in a synagogue.
Some comments criticized the disrespectful use of the prayer shawl, but one comment pointed out that just a few weeks ago on Yom Kippur, many Jews used their prayer shawls to kneel upon in synagogue. Jews do not normally kneel during prayer and, in fact, it is forbidden to lie or kneel directly on the floor while praying except in the Temple. However, at several points in the Yom Kippur liturgy, kneeling is required. Though it is preferable to use a towel or cloth to cover the floor, lacking that, it is permissible to kneel on a tallit.
When the incident was discussed on the Yeshiva World website, a person identified as Besalel commented, “A shul (synagogue) is a house of prayer and this man wanted to pray. Now when will Muslims allow Jews to pray on the holiest site to Jews?”
Besalel was referring to the prohibition on Jews – and any non-Muslim, including Christians – worshiping at the Temple Mount. Many Jews have been arrested or banned from the site for doing so, despite the fact that it is technically legal due to freedom of religion laws, in order to placate Arabs who police fear could riot and attack any Jew seen praying.
Several other comments raised the issue that despite the airport having two synagogues, there is a lack of prayer facilities for other religions. In fact, both a church and a mosque were included in the planning stages of the new terminal in 2006, but bureaucratic snafus got in the way.
Ophir Lefler, spokesman for Ben Gurion Airport, has responded to hundreds of inquiries about the incident. “The people who wanted to see it as positive, as a positive religious connection, saw it that way,” he told Breaking Israel News. “The people who wanted to get angry, they saw it a different way. I have heard from both sides.”