The past 15 years have seen a revival of Jewish extremist movements seeking to upend the status quo around the Temple Mount in the name of multicultural ideals. Betty Herschman says failing to see through this veneer could lead to the enflaming of one of the world’s most combustible hotspots.
By Betty Herschman
The current intensification of religious extremist activities on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is not a new phenomenon, but rather the ultimate realization of a slow, decades-long crusade. The story behind today’s mounting pressures – from increased attempts to ascend and pray on the Mount to legislative challenges to current arrangements – offers a case study in political alchemy. Through organizational perseverance and the co-opting of the lexicon of religious rights, what have become known as the temple movements have managed to secure the support of the mainstream Israeli establishment while successfully exploiting liberal Jewish ideals.
In their joint 2013 report, Dangerous Liaison: The Dynamics of the Rise of the Temple Movements, Israeli NGOs Ir Amim and Keshev trace the growth of these movements, along with their ideological underpinnings and ties to Israeli governmental institutions. According to the report, over the last decade, a status quo carefully maintained since the Ottoman era has progressively shifted as a result of activity by Jews determined to strengthen the status of the Temple Mount as a Jewish religious center, while marginalizing the claims of Muslims to the Mount.
In the past year alone, hundreds of national religious Jewish pilgrims have ascended the Mount, including groups of rabbis, women, members of Knesset and uniformed soldiers. While the various Temple organizations may have differing goals and varying impacts, a common denominator of religious and nationalist messianism distinguishes the movement as a whole. Religion has becomes a tool for realizing extreme national goals at a site that is a focal point of political and religious tension.
Twenty years ago, these organizations were on the radical fringes of the political and religious map. Since 2000 they have attained a respectable position within the mainstream political and religious right, and have benefited from close ties with Israeli authorities. Likud member Moshe Feiglin actively calls for ascent to the Mount. The Ministry of Education funds curricula promoted by temple groups. The Temple Institute, a group devoted to the rebuilding of the Third Temple, organizes an annual conference promoted and attended by members of the political establishment.
The dangerous coalescence of the rise in temple movements, along with growing mainstream support, threatens a delicate administration of the holy sites in Jerusalem (Muslims conduct their religious worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, while Jews worship at the Western Wall). This principle was revalidated after Israel occupied the complex in 1967, when it was agreed that IDF soldiers would vacate the Mount area and deploy around it, allowing internal supervision to remain under the purview of the Waqf (the Islamic trust best known for controlling and managing the Al-Aqsa Mosque) while designating authority for external security to Israel’s security forces. The arrangements are further embedded in the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, which states that the Hashemite Kingdom has preferential status on the Temple Mount. Therefore, any change in arrangements on the Mount necessarily involves the Hashemite Kingdom and Israel’s relations with it.
While those who have made it a mission to challenge existing arrangements on the Temple Mount are not driven by visions of a multicultural, religiously inclusive society (as their religious rights branding would suggest), their growing success effectively relies on our own nurturing of such visions. Failure to recognize and challenge this deception could lead to the enflaming of one of the world’s most combustible hotspots.
Betty Herschman is the Director of International Relations & Advocacy at Ir Amim.