Over the past week or so there have been some strange doings on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. As the lyrics of the old song go:
There’s something happnin’ here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I’ve go to beware
It appears that a growing band of Israeli messianic settlers have banded together to orchestrate a crisis on the Temple Mount. Their ultimate goal seems to be taking Jewish control over the sacred ground, including two of the holiest sites in Islam, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
For many years, there have been radical settler groups preparing for such a day. Ateret Cohanim maintains a yeshiva which is training priests to resume the Temple rituals including animal sacrifice. Dov Hikind’s wife earns $150,000 a year as its U.S. fundraiser. They’re also breeding cattle in the hopes of find that miraculous red heifer which would serve as a sign that God is ready to resume Jewish rites on this sacred ground.
The settlers know that for Jews to rebuild the Temple would mean a holy war in the Holy Land that would likely dwarf the Crusades for passion and bloodletting. For these Jews, such an eventuality would bring the days of the coming of the Messiah closer, thus making the human suffering not just acceptable, but even desirable.
These Temple activists are also fundraising on behalf of their messianic Armageddon. Here, they’re raising $10,000 to preserve “Jewish rights” on the Temple Mount. The website says there is no written budget because the uses to which the funding would be put would be “sensitive.” Therefore such documentation is for “internal” purposes only. You can imagine what this means. They’re likely raising a lot of their funding from the types of American Jews giving to the Hebron Fund and Central Fund of Israel.
There is a political echelon in the radical settler movement which is preparing the ground for such a Jewish takeover. It’s led by Moshe Feiglin, who recently took nearly a quarter of the vote in the Likud leadership primary by running to the right of (!) Bibi Netanyahu. Flyers were publicly posted throughout Jerusalem two weeks ago calling for Jews to make aliyah en masse to the Temple Mount. The term aliyah in the Temple context is a historic term used to denote Jewish pilgrims who went to the sacred spot for worship on Jewish festivals. In other words, it would only be used today by someone who saw himself as commanded to rebuild and renew Jewish worship there. To do this, one must first evict or destroy the Muslim holy sites there as was done by Hindu nationalists to a mosque in Ayodiyah, India.
The extremist site, The Temple Mount is Ours, calls for a mass pilgrimage ”in order to strengthen claim of Jewish sovereignty” to the site. You can see in the video above from February 19th and this one what is the result of such settler provocation. The last time such a thing was attempted, Ariel Sharon instigated the Second Intifada and propelled himself into the prime minister’s chair. Feiglin is smart enough to understand that such political grandstanding can be the making of an Israeli prime minister.
But he’s also smart enough to understand that by identifying himself too explicitly with this movement he could get himself investigated by the police and possibly jailed. So he deftly denied credit for the flyer and made his own visit to the Temple Mount earlier than the time specified in the flyer.
A Feiglin associate in this interview posted by IMRA denies that the founder of the Manhigut Yehudit ["Jewish Leadership"] movement wants to rebuild the Temple. Instead, he claims Feiglin only wants to prepare the Jews for the moment when the Messiah will come and accomplish this task. I’m afraid this sort of nuance is justifiably lost of Muslims who mistake a Jew who wants to lay the groundwork for stealing their holy site from them, with a Jewish Messiah who will actually do this. Feiglin’s representative rather ominously states in the interview that it’s the founders’ dream to “make” all Jews share in his vision, and that this is what will bring the Messiah and a rebuilt Temple.
Strangely, the representative of Feiglin’s group adamantly maintained that it had no obligation to publicly renounce the flyer. Further, he said it had no plans to file a complaint with the police about the document it claims was a fraud. This is generally diametrically opposite from the way most political parties operate in Israel. In similar circumstances, they would file a complaint and ask the police to investigate in order to clarify to the public their rejection of the message and the act of fraud. The fact that Manhifut Yehudit behaved so differently in this case raises major questions about its relationship to the flyer and those who created it.
The settler agitators are camouflaging their covert campaign for Jewish sovereignty, couching it in terms of religious liberty. No one, they seem to think, can reject a call for Jews to have the same access to the Temple Mount that Muslims enjoy. The only problem with this notion is that Muslims for generations have controlled the area. Until the type of agitation initiated by Sharon, access was relatively open. In fact, I can remember visiting both holy mosques during my stays in Israel in 1972-73 and 1979-1980. It was only after Muslims became afraid that Jews wanted to take control from them that relations went bad.
There will be some among you who will say: C’mon. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. Feiglin barely has a following. Hardly anyone takes him seriously. He leads a bunch of radical kooks. No Israeli in their right mind would come anywhere near these cockamamie ideas.
That’s all well and good. But I’m not buying. History is full of examples of kooks whose ideas began by being spurned by the mainstream, until they weren’t. While this will agitate some of our friends, remember Hitler’s beer hall putsch in 1923? What did they think of him then? Crackpot, right? Threw him in jail, where he proceeded to write Mein Kampf and plan his takeover of the German state.
OK, so you don’t like that analogy. How about one closer to home? In 1967, Israel conquered the West Bank and reunited Jerusalem after the War. On Passover 1968, Rabbi Moshe Levinger held his first Passover seder in Hebron. There were no settlements then. The Greater Land of Israel was only a gleam in his eye. But every great movement begins with a small spark. And from that spark comes a terrible conflagration.
After that Seder, the messianic nationalists who founded Gush Emunim provoked a crisis. Instead of waiting for government approval, they re-established the Gush Etzion settlement which had been destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948. This had been one of the more traumatic incidents of the war in which a group of Jews had been slaughtered by the Arab army in the battle for Jerusalem. While Levinger’s re-occupation of the Etzion bloc on behalf of Israel was an enormously popular nationalist statement, it also ignited the decades of hate and mistrust that have inflamed relations with the Palestinians ever since.
Later in 1975, Gush Emunim organized the aliyah to Sebastia, where they created a new settlement, Elon Moreh. After numberous attempts were rebuffed by the IDF, the Israeli government in the form of Shimon Peres, signed an agreement legalizing the new settlement, which in turn opened the floodgates for the massive expropriations and settlement growth that followed. This was the first example of government capitulation to the settler movement and was the model the movement used in all its subsequent confrontations.
This is the history of the settler enterprise. They begin with an inch, and within a year or a decade they’ve taken not just a mile, but an entire city or nation. But they recognize that in the case of the Temple Mount they are dealing with an even more sensitive subject. One that has no national consensus as the settlement enterprise perhaps did in 1967.
National polls show that while Israeli Jews overwhelming want to rebuild the Holy Temple, only 30% are willing to see the government take active steps to do so. In other words, while most Israelis harbor vague religious hankerings to restore the glory of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Most realize that to do so would start a religious war the likes of which the region hasn’t seen for centuries. In fact, in this report Jordan, which is nominally responsible for the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem warns Israel not to attempt to change the status quo or risk grave consequences.
So the settlers must mount a carefully calibrated campaign to achieve their goal. It must start with small incremental steps that lead to larger ones. One of these is the call for full Jewish access to the sacred confines of the Temple Mount. To dramatize this, they’ve enlisted the willing help of their U.S. Jewish water carriers, the Zionist Organization of America. ZOA put out a bizarre press release calling for all the mainstream American Jewish groups to take up this cause of religious liberty by criticizing the Israeli government for its supposedly high-handed tactics in denying Jews access:
The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) believes that unfettered access and freedom to pray at a holy site is a basic, universally recognized right, which certainly should be accorded to Jews in the Jewish State of Israel…Yet, Israeli police and security personnel, hoping to appease Muslim extremists including the Wakf authority on the Temple Mount, have been engaging in blatantly discriminatory and humiliating behavior toward Jewish visitors.
…The ZOA strongly urges the ADL, AJ Committee, the Orthodox Union, Emunah, AMIT, RZA and other groups to work to end bias and discrimination on the Temple Mount against identified Jews.
The group is playing the role of key interlocutor among American Jews on behalf of settler extremism. They published this press release in coordination with the flyer I mentioned above which called for a mass rally to the Mount:
…[To] purify this place of the enemies of Israel, thieves of [Holy] lands, in order to rebuild the Holy Temple on the ruins of [their] mosques
The flyer was so egregious, so incendiary that police immediately cancelled access to the site for Jews and blamed Moshe Feiglin for provoking the hysteria. As soon as Feiglin denied responsibility for the flyer, ZOA immediately took down its press release, only to republish it four days later, after the incident had blown over.
The press release and accompanying rhetoric pulls out all the guilt-inducing stops in the Jewish conscience. It accuses Israeli police, responsible for determining who and how many Jews will enter the Temple confines, with organizing “selektzias,” (the Nazi term for lining up concentration camp inmates to determine who would live and who would die) in which they line up Jews before entering the Muslim sacred grounds. Note below how the ZOA both inappropriately exploits Holocaust rhetoric and shamelessly excuses the offense at the same time:
Identified Jews are shunted to the side to wait separately in what some have come to cynically call “the selekzia,” alluding to the Nazis’ orderly process of deciding which Jews would live and which Jews would go to their demise. [While ZOA does not condone inappropriate use of Holocaust imagery, especially in matters relating to Israel, it is telling that Jews subjected to systematic abuse on the Temple Mount would even contemplate using this term.]
The ZOA claimed police were looking for “Jewish traits” in determining who could enter and who couldn’t:
Identifiably Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount are singled out for biased treatment…Remarkably, if your appearance or behavior openly shows you are a Muslim you are treated with respect [!]
All of this is meant to conjure up the Holocaust in Jewish consciousness in much the same way that settlers evacuated from Gush Katif wore orange armbands with Jewish stars that denoted they were being treated by the Israeli police and IDF the same as Jews sent to the gas chambers during World War II.
The press release also exhibits historical amnesia by erasing past incidents of Jewish and non-Jewish terror associated with the holy site contested by two major religions:
There is no security basis for targeting Jews on the Temple Mount…
Overall, this is a tremendously effective bit of political-religious theater in an Israel context. The secular government has little response to it other than invoking its own civil authority, which isn’t a very resonant concept when compared with the Holocaust. That is why the settlers have vanquished the secular authorities at every turn and all but dominated the political realm.
The current campaign for the right of Jews to freely access the Temple Mount is two-pronged. There’s a grassroots cadre who agitate on the spot by lining up and demanding physical access. Their efforts have been successful at causing serious rioting over the past few days which involved Israeli police invading the sacred confines of the mosques. This, of course, is a severe breach of the sanctity of the place, all of which the settlers want.
The grassroots element is supported by an official political effort backed by far-right Knesset members. Members of the Interior Committee in fact, have dragged before them the senior Israeli police officer responsible for maintaining order on the Mount. They publicly excoriated him for the demeaning treatment he’s allegedly offered Jewish Temple visitors. All this serves as a pincers movement against the civil authorities. They’re beset on the one side by the activists in the street and on the other by the political leaders demanding the government take their hands off these poor Jews doing nothing worse than demanding their God-given right to visit the Holy Temple.
But given the history since 1967, we know where this will lead. The police will eventually back off. The settlers will become more provocative and brazen. Confrontations will become more violent and more frequent. Till there is some sort of defining catastrophic moment.
In 1984, the Jewish Underground attempted to foment such a crisis by bombing the Mount and destroying the mosques. Fortunately, the conspiracy was exposed and the members arrested before they could carry out their plans. Of those arrested, most were eventually pardoned, which again shows the impotence of civil authority in the face of the religious zeal of the settler movement.
We don’t know what the settlers have in mind to provoke such a crisis this time around. But the angrier they can make the Muslims in Jerusalem, the more violence they can provoke, the closer will come the Final Day of Reckoning.
Let any who dismiss this as a far-fetched fantasy beware. Such fantasies have a way of becoming not just reality, but nightmare reality in the pathological hot-house environment of the Middle East.
This article appeared at Tikun Olam
About the author: Richard Silverstein
Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.