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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
    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