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Israel

In Jerusalem, Muslims v. Jews Battle Brews Over Temple Mount

Even as diplomats look to push the peace process, a movement of ultraorthodox Jews is demanding the right to pray at the Temple Mount, home to the Dome of the Rock.

Israeli policemen in front of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock during clashes with Palestinians on Feb. 7
Israeli policemen in front of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock during clashes with Palestinians on Feb. 7
Laurent Zecchini

JERUSALEM — At the entrance of the Mughrabi Bridge, a quick glance is enough for police officers to identify the religious Jews in the crowd waiting for access to the Temple Mount. Muslims call it the “Noble Sanctuary,” where both the golden Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque stand.

The tourists are guided towards the lane on the right, and their bags are searched. Visitors with crosses around their necks or rosaries in their hands are not allowed to access the Noble Sanctuary.

Those wearing kippahs are directed to the left lane for meticulous control, and they have to leave their identity papers with the guards. The Jewish visitors are reminded that any expression of devotion is strictly forbidden on the esplanade. Police stop any troublemaker they spot praying in silence by simply moving their lips or pretending to speak on the phone.

Yehuda Glick, spokesman for the Messianic Judaism movement, leads a group of about 15 religious Jews on this particular morning as an official guide. The police officers know this talkative redhead well, and they exchange handshakes.

TheMughrabi Bridge overlooks the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall that stands against the Noble Sanctuary. A dozen meters below, strictly separated men and women are praying, turned towards the high wall — in other words, the Temple.

Jews believe the Dome of the Rock was built on the exact location of the second Temple, which was destroyed in 70 A.D. and had itself been built on the supposed site of Solomon’s Temple.

After arriving on the esplanade, Glick and his flock are surrounded and protected by a police squad, though that does not reassure them completely. Glick gives a speech about the Temple, but the lesson comes to a sudden end after about 40 minutes, when the group has been noticed and surrounded by a group of Muslims shouting, “Allahu Akbar” and “We are prepared to die for you, al-Aqsa.” As the Muslims shout louder and louder, the Jewish pilgrims retreat, still under police protection.

Glick got what he wanted. Several times a week, he brings his believers to the Temple Mount, where clashes regularly ensue.

Other leaders of the Temple Mount movement like him have increased the number of pilgrimages to mark their presence on what they believe is the most holy location in Judaism (and third holy place in Islam) and claim their right to pray there, which has been recognized by the Supreme Court.

But no government has ever dared to confirm this decision, fearing that it would trigger an outbreak of violence. As a result, police only grant a few authorizations to pray on the Temple Mount, depending on the security situation.

The epicenter of all the tensions

If this religious activism is potentially threatening, it is because the Noble Sanctuary is the epicenter of all the tensions in Jerusalem.

The Sept. 28, 2000, visit made by Ariel Sharon, then leader of Israel’s center-right Likud Party, sparked the Second Intifada. Anyone who thinks it’s ancient history hasn’t met Moshe Feiglin, the most famous and probably most influential lawyer of the Temple Mount movement.

Elected as a deputy of the Likud Party in January 2013, he is Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s historic opponent and doesn’t veil his ambition to succeed him. Fiercely opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state, he is now vice president of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

“The Jewish dream that for 2,000 years has kept our people alive is the reconstruction of the Temple,” he says. “Whoever abandons this purpose excludes himself from the Jewish people.”

It is not just about praying on the Temple Mount — he is himself regularly expelled from the site — but about sovereignty, he says. “So it is out of the question to share the Temple Mount,” he adds. “Do the Muslims share Mecca? Do the Christians share the Vatican? I will not share my Jerusalem: It is a red line!”

When we tell him he is in the minority, Feiglin retorts that he represents the “main part of the Jewish people,” and says that “the values of Judaism are currently reawakening.” He is not wrong. The movement linked to Jewish messianism is deeply rooted in Israeli society and has powerful political connections.

Kerry’s “declaration of war against the Creator”

From former Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Benyamin Netanyahu and current Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, most Israeli politicians have reasserted “the rights of the Jewish people on their most holy ground.”

Beyond this political claim, Jewish fundamentalism finds its inspiration in the Temple Institute. Located a few hundred meters from the Wailing Wall, its museum welcomes “one million visitors per year,” according to the president and founder of the Institute, Rabbi Yisrael Ariel.

Ariel is one of the five rabbis who addressed an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in early January to stigmatize his “declaration of war against the Creator” — in other words, Kerry’s peace efforts with the Palestinians.

“The Arabs know that their mosques will have to disappear, because the day when the Temple is rebuilt, Jews, Christians and Muslims will come to pray in the Holy of Holies,” Ariel says.

Until then, they are preparing for that day: training the servants of the Temple who will organize the ceremonies and animal sacrifices, the manufacturing of the ritual objects, the priest clothes and the music instruments. All of that is the work of Haïm Rosenfeld, head of the historical center of the Institute.

“In the Genesis and Exodus Books, we have extremely precise details at our disposal, and all these objects are in strict conformity to those that existed in the times of the Temple,” Rosenfeld explains. “If we want to rebuild the Temple, it is because it is the solution for global peace.”

Ok, but when? “God created the world for 6,000 years, and it is the year 5,774” according to the Jewish calendar, Rosenfeld keeps saying. For the prophecy to be fulfilled, an essential element prescribed by the Torah is still missing: the ashes of a red heifer, which, for the moment, is nowhere to be found.

A groundswell?

Is all of this simply extreme religiosity and marginal fanaticism? Though the majority of ultraorthodox rabbis still forbid Jews from praying on the Temple Mount — saying it is impure — the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau made a two-hour visit to the Temple Institute in December.

The Temple movement is intrinsically linked to Zionism, or at least to a branch that is still advocating colonization. They share ideology, starting with the conviction that God gave the entire Land of Israel to the Jews, which amounts to refusing any perspective of a Palestinian state.

In November 2013, there was a heated debate in the Knesset about the right to pray on the Temple Mount. The Arab-Israeli elected members have accused the government of creating the conditions for a third Intifada. Rabbi Elie Ben-Dahan, deputy minister of religious affairs, answered: “We are trying hard to find legal means” to authorize Jewish prayers on the Mount. Suffice it to say that all the chapels of the movement felt encouraged.

And several of them coexist more or less within the Messianic movement: The more moderate put forth “the respect for human rights and religious freedom.” The more extremist claim Jewish hegemony over the Land of Israel.

Only a few organizations are well established, and the movement is mostly embodied by half a dozen charismatic personalities who are supported by a few thousand followers.

As for the real fanatics, who probably number no more than a handful, their rhetoric mentions the infamous Baruch Goldstein, the man who massacred 29 people at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, and Yigal Amir, the man who killed former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Is it a groundswell within Israeli society? Yisrael Medad, a Temple movement activist and researcher at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center Museum in Jerusalem, attests that there is a “return to the national Jewish ethos.” Professor Hillel Weiss from the Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, also a Temple movement activist, is unafraid of talking about “a tsunami of the spirits and moral senses.”

The messianic and ideological awakening, with its potential excesses, poses a threat for the preservation of the status quo on the Noble Sanctuary and religious peace in Jerusalem. Al-Aqsa, as Muslims call it, could be “in danger.” Whether someone has found the red heifer or not.

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