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How the once-fringe Jewish Temple Movement is going mainstream

The Jewish Temple Movement has for years tried to change the status quo in one of the most contested holy sites in the world. Now the most mainstream figures on the Israeli right are finally listening.

By Yonathan Mizrachi

Temple Mount activists take part at a Sacrifice procession at the Cardo in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Temple Mount activists take part in a sacrifice procession at the Cardo in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Hebrew and Muslim calendars have, at times, had an effect on the political conflict surrounding the contested Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. Both calendars are based on a lunar cycle of 354 days, although the Hebrew calendar adds an additional month every four years, so as to match the sun cycle.

The fact that there is no alignment between the two calendars has, over the last year, led to a number of complex political challenges. The first one took place in the beginning of June when Jerusalem Day — the national holiday in which tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis march through the Old City to mark the re-unification of the city, often provoking the Palestinians there — coincided with the end of Ramadan.

Temple Mount activists, who seek to upend the decades-long status quo and worship freely at the site, took advantage of the coinciding days to pressure the government to allow them to enter the Temple Mount. The government acceded, leading to confrontations and violence with Muslim worshippers there. Israeli politicians didn’t seem to mind.

The fact that this year Tisha B’Av coincided with the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha had far greater consequences. For religious Jews, Tisha B’Av marks the day Jews mourn the destruction of their Temple, and is considered one of the most religiously important days of the year — especially for those who seek to worship at the Temple Mount. The fact that it fell on the same day as Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the Muslim prophet Ibrahim’s test of faith, was potentially explosive. Until Sunday, there had never been any non-Muslim presence on Haram al-Sharif during Eid al-Adha. That is why maintaining the status quo on the first day of the holiday has been especially important for Muslim worshippers.

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That Israeli elections are just around the corner also gave the Temple movement a boost on Tisha B’Av. The Israeli media’s focus on the entry of Jewish worshippers to the Temple Mount led to a war of words between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who accused the prime minister of “weakness” and showing “zero leadership” for initially barring Jews from entering the compound on Tisha B’Av. The pressure from the far-right worked, and the police eventually allowed the worshippers to enter the site. In the eyes of the prime minister, preventing their entry would have played directly into the hands of the far-right Yamina party, whose voters he is trying to court.

The responses by Israeli politicians to the events at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif this week reveal that the Temple Movement has succeeded in both getting the attention of the media as well as receiving newfound support from the right. Smotrich’s backing, of course, is nothing new; in 2015 he submitted a bill to the Knesset that would allow Jews to pray freely at the Temple Mount. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who reiterated his support for changing the status quo, has also repeatedly backed the movement.

A Jewish girl prays at the Cotton Gate to the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem after clashes broke out on the Mount on Tisha B'Av and Eid al-Adha, August 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A Jewish girl prays at the Cotton Merchants’ Gate to the Temple Mount Jerusalem’s Old City after clashes broke out on the Mount on Tisha B’Av and Eid al-Adha, August 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The movement’s newest supporter is Ayelet Shaked, who ostensibly supports all the right’s goals but has yet to officially endorse a change in the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. On the contrary: back in 2015, Shaked even said Israel should refrain from allowing Jews to worship at the Mount. Currently in the throes of a fateful election campaign that will decide her political future, she has decided to court the right-wingers who support the Temple Movement. Like Smotrich, Shaked also criticized Netanyahu, most likely after she understood that it would be politically wise to back the movement. Her support significantly strengthens the complete legitimization of Jewish worship on the Temple Mount among the religious right, which is politically to the right of Likud.

Matters of religion and state will be a central issue in the upcoming elections, and Jewish worship at the Temple Mount aligns perfectly with the right’s aspirations to strengthen religious elements in Israeli society, including in the education system and the legal establishment. The presence of Jewish worshippers entering the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif during Eid al-Adha signals not only a change in the status quo between Israel and the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, the custodian of Haram al-Sharif, but also in the way right-wing voters themselves view the Temple Movement, which just a few years ago was considered fringe, even among the settlers. If the right manages to stay in power after these elections, there is no doubt that the status quo will continue to come undone.

Yonathan Mizrachi is a members of Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO that working to protect ancient sites as public assets that belong to members of all communities, faiths and peoples. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    1. Keiner Nit

      “The Muslim prophet Ibrahim”, better known as Abraham, was co-opted for political reasons to legitimize the Arab invaders by tying them to the legendary forefather of the main religions in the land (Jewish, Christian, Samaritan).

      Some misguided Jews, hoping the people who had admittedly just saved them from a Roman genocide would let them rebuild the temple, showed the Arabs the Foundation Stone, which was co-opted into the new religion created to rule the people of the land.

      Facts matter.

      Reply to Comment
      • Some-one.

        Jews had been banned from Jerusalem for centuries until the Proto-Islamic invasion (there was no “Exile” by the Romans apart from a ban of Jews being in Jerusalem); are you sure that Mosque is actually built where Herod’s Temple was? Also doesn’t Halakhah ban Jews from entering there?

        Reply to Comment
        • Keiner Nit

          Jews were allowed into Jerusalem once a year, to visit the Temple Mount on Tisha Ba’av. Yes, even during the worst persecutions of the Romans, we entered it once a year.

          While people oversimplify the Exile by saying it happened right in 70 CE, Jews were displaced from Palestine over the course of numerous wars, rebellions, genocides, ethnic cleansings, crusades, etc. — the vast majority of which were at the hands of Europeans.

          Contemporary records show that the Jews pointed the Foundation Stone out to the Arabs. It’s something they knew where to find because they entered the city once every year to visit it.

          Reply to Comment
          • Keiner Nit

            Additionally late Roman Christian writers such as Jerome attest to the Jews being allowed to enter once a year for Tisha B’av. There were even long periods when various rulers (Roman and Persian) gave the Jews permission to rebuild the Temple, only to be thwarted by a new ruler revoking such permission.

            A contemporary of Jerome wrote of Tisha B’av in Jerusalem: “There are two statues of Hadrian, and, not far from them, a pierced stone to which the Jews come every year and anoint. They mourn and rend their garments, and then depart.”

            Jews were intimately famliar with the Temple Mount.

            Reply to Comment
      • john

        i’m confused by yr original contention that islam is not an abrahamic faith.

        Reply to Comment
        • Keiner Nit

          Mormonism is an “Abrahamic faith.” The Unification Church is an “Abrahamic faith.” There are countless “Abrahamic faiths” in existence, all of which involve appropriating the heritage of the Jewish people. We just want to live and worship in peace without the world explaining our own traditions to us, appropriating our holiest sites, and claiming to supersede our heritage.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Oh please. Really? This sounds to me like an attempt to deny the shared heritages and common links between the three ancient religions by convention designated Abrahamic faiths. In other words, more “us” versus “them” thinking with a hint of contempt for “them.” And refusing to envision bridges to be built.

            And this is not Utah nor it is Korea or Southern California.

            “appropriating the heritage of the Jewish people”

            Excuse me but this sounds like you are insinuating that Judaism is real and legitimate but Islam and Christianity are heritage-less non-entities worthy of de-legitimization or of less respect–or something.

            “We just want to live and worship in peace.”

            Would that it were so, bro!

            Reply to Comment
          • Keiner Nit

            As a matter of historical record Judaism existed long before Christianity or Islam were even concepts, and in appropriating our heritage both religions took pains to denounce the people they stole it from while materially harming that people. A grave disrespect that continues to this very day. Cultural appropriation is when you lift elements of a culture while oppressing the people you lifted those elements from; both Christianity and Islam are clear examples of this. Even the original “Jewish Christians” were hated and persecuted by the people to whom Christianity spread.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            OK, this finally tells me from which fanatical spot you are coming from. If you think that the 21st century answer here is a fanatical derogation of the centuries-old other two Abrahamic faiths of the Holy Land as mere “cultural appropriations,” lording it over them as their superior elder brother, or that the answer to the anti-Semitism fostered at times by these other faiths, is a seething, revengeful supremacism in the present, you tell us more than we ever needed to know about what intentions you have for minorities and for Jerusalem in “the nation state of the Jewish people,” and what the Israeli right means by “sovereignty” and what it sees as the future ahead of it. Move over, Itshak, you have competition.

            Reply to Comment
          • Keiner Nit

            I support the complete dissolution of Israel and its replacement with a single secular state for all. I do not support the idea of nation-states in any sense, let alone a “nation-state of the Jewish people.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is political, not religious, and the solution is a secular state with equal rights for all.

            I’m going to go on speaking about how my heritage has been mishandled by people with no claim to it, though. Especially the constant defilement of our holiest site, first with a temple to Jupiter, then with an actual garbage dump, then more places of foreign worship. What gives anyone the right to treat our holiest site in these ways?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I still don’t get it. Are you having an imagined conversation with people in 70 CE, 320 CE, and 685 CE? Or are trying to converse with the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf in 2019, or what are you doing? And what exactly do you mean by “no claim to it”? Some Mother of all Real Estate Deed bestowed on Mt Sinai kind of thing with the Mother of all Easements specifying exclusive Jewish tribal ownership in perpetuity?

            And what gives anyone the right to treat the Palestinians of Jerusalem all around this holy site the way the Israelis ruthlessly treat them, and then expect the Palestinian religious conservatives to open up and say “come right on in, you lovable, trustworthy Hebrews with the best intentions! What could go wrong?!”? And how is it you think any of this is separable? How is it you think any of this negotiation is manageable outside of a comprehensive real solution to the conflict? Which Israel has never offered.

            And meanwhile, parenthetically, you might check in with any number of rabbis who fiercely oppose any Jew setting foot on the Temple Mount until the end of days because as you know it’s not like Jews are united on this thing. And you might also consider the sheer problematic weirdness of a Third Temple actually being built and animal sacrifice system and whatnot being resurrected in a state that its founders had every intention of being a modern secular one until Ben Gurion made the tactical mistake of giving the Orthodox too much of a foothold. And the internecine Jewish conflicts that would arouse never mind the interfaith conflicts. You, champion of the diaspora and Rabbinic Judaism and not I presume Pharisaic Judaism.

            And do you think that the sacredness the other side accords their 1300-year-0ld ‘Haram esh Sharif’ is not also an estimable thing or are you going to reduce it to “holiest” versus “third holiest” simplifications?

            And do you really think this temple mount thing is at the heart of matters or an inflammatory side show?

            Reply to Comment
          • Keiner Nit

            Pharisaic Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism are one and the same. And Pharisaic Judaism is good, actually. The alternatives were the Sadducees, who wanted more power for the priesthood and for the king, and the Essenes, who may not have even existed, having only ever been mentioned by a literal traitor. Denouncement of the Pharisees comes mainly from Jesus, and we all know the suffering his followers have inflicted upon the world – not even just to Jews. Native Americans, Native Australians, entire nations completely wiped out by Christian colonialism.

            It’s true that the State of Israel, being what it is, wants to use issues like the Temple to get people’s passions inflamed and to get them to stop thinking about actual issues of importance to Jews today, this much is for certain. And yet it’s still a problem, one that can and should be discussed – ideally under better and more equitable conditions. It may not be entirely separate from the occupation, but if you think this problem is caused by Zionism, your chronology is out of wack. This problem has existed since long before the Zionist movement, which at worst has sought to exploit it.

            But might I ask you why this deeply, uniquely evil State of Israel hasn’t simply done the most evil possible thing and taken the Temple Mount for itself, as the proto-Muslims did and as the Romans did and as the Crusaders did? Might I state for the record that I have never and would never advocate such a thing, and ask you why that is? Israel is bad, and it has committed crimes, and it has done inexcusable things, and it is based on a solution that anyone could have seen as flawed from miles away. But that’s no reason to demonize it. Far more ruthless, far less compassionate people have controlled that territory. I speak not of any people or religion as a whole, but of the rulers and their armies who conquered the land and slew its inhabitants indiscriminately, sold us into slavery, desecrated our holy sites, etc..

            Reply to Comment
    2. Reality Check

      How does a group claiming to “protect ancient sites as public assets that belong to members of all communities, faiths and peoples” not actively support the right of Jews and Christians to also pray freely on the Temple Mount?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Your phrasing of this misunderstands the real long term aims of Emek Shaveh, twisting the issue in precisely the direction of the militant nationalist zero-sum conflict game about sovereignty played by both sides that Emek Shaveh opposes–for both sides. Emek Shaveh’s ultimate aim is for both sides to transcend this zero sum conflict game. “In contrast, the Third Temple Movements have an interest in provoking conflict.” Read the Related Stories in the box above.

        “…the real issue underlying tensions at the Temple Mount:it is not a question of sovereignty, but whether it will become a place for Jewish prayer alongside the Muslim prayer. So long as both sides employ arguments that are thousands of years old and religious fervor intensifies, the risk of a conflagration remains high.”

        “…the violence this area has suffered due to both Israelis and Palestinians using archaeology as a zero-sum game. Instead of monopolizing a single nationalist narrative, perhaps it would be better for leaders on all sides to create an environment that is inclusive of the many narratives the landscape holds.”

        Reply to Comment
    3. itshak Gordine

      The fact that Jews can not go to the Temple Mount, their holiest place to pray, is outrageous discrimination. It is the same for the holy city of Hebron. I traveled with thousands of Israeli and French tourists to Hebron yesterday to support the Jewish heroes who live in this city as part of the Israel Forever association. We prayed at the vault of Mahpela on the tombs of our patriarchs and matriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rebecca, Lea for the memory of the Jewish inhabitants of the city who, in 1929, were massacred, mutilated, women raped, in the way that Arabs know so well. We prayed for the total liberation of the city and supported the Yechiva of the city, one of the most famous in the country, which prepares its students for the army. What is truly scandalous is that the Mahpela vault is not constantly open to Jews who must ask permission from Muslims to bow to the ancestry of the Jewish people. Let’s hope that the new government coming out of the 17 September 2019 elections will bring a change to the Temple Mount and Hebron. This anti-Jewish discrimination has lasted long enough. It leaves the door open to frustrations and risks of violence that must be avoided at all costs.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        It’s the occupation, stupid.

        You won’t get that, I know. Because the fingernail clipping of a Jew is worth more than 10 million Arabs and what you cruelly do to them is a mere trifle. The Bible tells you so. And “our great rabbis” are apparently whipping folks like you into a religious-nationalist frenzy over it. Spoiling for a conflict rather than a non-nationalist-extremist coming to terms. Which has you, kahanist settler, stupefyingly, whining about…discrimination!! The mind boggles.

        The good folks at Emek Shaveh, however, understand all this and their minds and hearts are in the right place.

        Reply to Comment
        • Itshak Gordine

          The “good folks at Emek Shaveh” do not count in Israel.The Jewish people will never give up the smallest part of their ancestral heritage. And to pray for the memory of the Jewish population of Hebron massacred in a cruel and heinous way is for you stupid? We see the type of individual you are.

          Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          But before June 1967, there was NO occupation.
          Yet there was still Arab terrorism then.
          It’s a mystery ain’t it ?

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Lewis & Itshak: Dogged black and white zero-sum gamers are predictable and confirm that Emek Shaveh’s vision is a good one.

            Reply to Comment