Israeli Knesset member Yehuda Glick, center, speaks to journalists after visiting at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, Aug. 29, 2017. Sebastian Scheiner | AP

How the Third Temple Movement in Israel Rebranded Theocracy as “Civil Rights”

In a troubling trend that continues to be overlooked by international media, the Temple Activist movement that seeks to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and replace it with a Third Temple continues to advance its agenda. The movement’s forward progress is largely thanks to its successful efforts in recent years to rebrand as a “civil rights” movement — securing support from secular and religious Zionists alike — as well as to growing levels of support in Israel’s executive and legislative branches of government.

As was detailed in Part I of this series, the Temple Activist movement is now more mainstream than ever before and its effort to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam, has advanced with great rapidity since the year began and has picked up precipitously in recent weeks. Yet this new face of the Temple Activist movement — one that claims that its quest is to wrest control of the holy site from Jordanian and Palestinian custody in the name of “equal rights” for Israeli Jews — obfuscates the troubling origins of this once-fringe yet now normalized campaign.

Beginning in earnest after the Six Day War in 1967, the Temple Activist movement within Israel was largely formed by two groups of people: 1) a small, then-fringe group of messianic religious Zionists led by Rabbi Shlomo Goren that supported the complete annexation of Palestine, particularly Jerusalem with the Al-Aqsa mosque; and 2) former members of the secular Zionist paramilitary groups Irgun and Lehi, known for their penchant for massacring Palestinian civilians for political gain, who either became religious messianists following Israel’s 1967 victory or remained secular and felt that salvation for Israeli Jews necessitated the miltiary conquest of Palestine and the destruction of its mosques and churches — particularly the site of Al-Aqsa mosque, often referred to as either the Temple Mount or Haram El-Sharif (Arabic for “the Noble Sanctuary”).

The modern “friendly” face of the Temple Activist movement — embodied by figures like Yehuda Glick, former executive director of the Temple Institute and a member of Israel’s Knesset — hides the extremist and largely secular origins of this quasi-religious movement that — as Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss of Neturei Karta, an international organization of ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed to Zionism, told MintPress in Part I — is ultimately colonial (i.e., Zionist) in nature and uses religious imagery and appeals “to excuse their occupation and to try to portray this [the occupation of Palestine] as a religious conflict.”

As this installment of this multi-part series on the current threats facing the historic Al-Aqsa Mosque compound will show, the Temple Activist movement’s extremist origins and increasing normalization in Israeli society parallels the rise of Israel’s political far-right, particularly of the Likud Party — whose roots, much like those of the Temple Activist movment, trace back to secular Zionist paramilitaries like Irgun. 

Miko Peled, Israeli author and human-rights activist, described this trend to MintPress as “the resurgence of the ‘good old days’ when young zealots were the forefront of the Zionist project.” Peled pointed out that these zealots set up the foundations for actions that are later pursued and consolidated by the Israeli state, such as in the context of the settler movement where, as Peled noted: 

The [Israeli political] establishment comes in and takes over and turns an ‘outpost’ [established by a small group of extremists] into a settlement and then a city. The Haram El-Sharif or Temple Mount compound will be the same. These zealots, young and old are the cutting edge of Zionist ideologues and they do the ‘dirty work.’ Now they do not seem so radical any more and soon the state will come in full force.”

For that reason, and as this report will show, there is a significant degree of overlap between the dominant parties of Israeli politics today and the Temple Activist movement, with a majority of current Israeli government ministers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, and a large and influential lobby of lawmakers in Israel’s Knesset openly supporting the Israeli government takeover of Al-Aqsa mosque and its destruction and replacement with a Third Temple. Subsequent installments of this series will show how such an outcome is a grave threat to peace — not just in Israel/Palestine, but the entire Middle East — and a major yet widely overlooked motivation behind the foreign policy objectives of not only Israel’s current government but the Trump administration.

Shlomo Goren: The man who lit the match

The Israeli military’s conquest of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967 was seen by some of its soldiers as a sign from the divine that end-times prophecies were being fulfilled. Among those who were the first to arrive at the newly conquered historic district of Jerusalem were three men who — in distinct ways — would go on to lead a movement aimed at remaking this area of Jerusalem in the image of their specific, and then-fringe, interpretation of Biblical prophecy. They were Shlomo Goren, then-Rabbi of the IDF and later Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel; Geroshon Salomon, then-soldier and later founder of the Temple Mount Faithful; and Yisrael Ariel, Rabbi and founder of the Temple Institute. 

Goren, center, carries a Torah and submachine gun during a 1956 Israeli assault on Gaza. Photo | AP
Goren, center, carries a Torah and submachine gun during a 1956 Israeli assault on Gaza. Photo | AP

Shlomo Goren, euphoric after the Israeli military’s takeover of the Temple Mount, led the celebration, where both Ariel and Salomon were present. Per Ariel’s recollection, Goren’s words about the prophetic significance of the Israeli takeover of the Temple Mount gave meaning to the occasion and would go on to inspire Ariel, as well as Salomon, to found organizations devoted to Goren’s vision of a Third Temple in the place of Al-Aqsa mosque, which currently sits on the Temple Mount of Haram El-Sharif. 

Soon after the celebratory mood had faded that fateful day in 1967, Goren — according to several accounts — pushed the IDF’s Chief of Central Command Uzi Narkiss to seize the opportunity to bring down the historic mosque with explosives, something Goren felt was best done under the cover of war. Narkiss’ rejection of Goren’s plea would subsequently be remembered bitterly by Goren and his allies, Ariel and Salomon among them, as a missed opportunity and, for some, an act of “treason.” Such bitter feelings were reserved, not just for Narkiss or then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, both secular Zionists, but also for the State’s rabbinical authorities who, following the 1967 capture and subsequent occupation of Jerusalem, maintained the centuries-old opinion that it was against Jewish religious law for Jews to ascend the Temple Mount.

While the 1967 war did not result in the destruction of the Al-Aqsa mosque or the Dome of the Rock as Goren and others had hoped, Goren dedicated much of his future career to advancing what is now often referred to as the Temple Activist movement, which aims to replace the Al-Aqsa mosque compound with a Third Temple. Goren specifically believed that the Third Temple must be built before the Messiah could be revealed, as opposed to after he is revealed, and that the conquest of the site in the 1967 war meant that the time had come to build a new temple where Al-Aqsa sits. 

It is worth pointing out that Goren’s beliefs were, and remain, at odds with the rabbinical authorities both within Israel and abroad. As Motti Inbari, scholar of Jewish fundamentalism and messianism and associate professor of religion at UNC Pembroke, wrote for The Times of Israel in 2015: 

According to halakha (Jewish religious law), anyone who enters the mount will be punished by karet — death sentence carried out by God. This decision has been reinforced in innumerable rulings. One was handed down by the chief rabbinate after the capture of the Mount during the Six-Day War in 1967… And this custom is followed by the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox rabbis.”

Goren’s rise to further prominence was meteoric after the 1967 war, and he became Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, Israel’s most important state rabbinical position, just a year after retiring as the IDF’s first chief rabbi in 1972. Miko Peled, Israeli author and human rights activist, told MintPress that Goren’s role as chief Rabbi made him “a strong influence on the ‘Religious Zionist’ movement that sought to settle all of the ‘Land of Israel’” — meaning “Biblical Israel,” which includes all of occupied Palestine and large parts of territory of several neighboring countries. 

Goren’s quick ascension to the most prominent position in Israel’s Rabbinate was dogged by accusations that he had cut a secret deal with the then-Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir, and that Goren had promised to assist Meir in finding solutions to pressing conflicts that had arisen between Israel’s actions as a state and Jewish law. As chief rabbi, Goren would adapt Jewish religious law to scientific advances and military conflicts, solving many of the problems that had concerned Meir in the early 1970s.

As chief rabbi of Israel, Goren later developed a close relationship with Menachim Begin — former leader of the Irgun paramilitary and terrorist group, and Israel’s prime minister from 1977 to 1983 — who was denounced as a fascist and a terrorist by numerous Jewish American intellectuals and public figures – including Albert Einstein. Goren became an important liaison between Begin and U.S. President Ronald Reagan at a time when Begin was actively courting the American evangelical right, specifically Christian Zionists. Begin and Goren had both long advocated for complete Israeli control over the Temple Mount and both shared a vision of a “Greater Israel,” where the state of Israel would expand through all of the occupied Palestinian territories and into several surrounding countries.

Begin, right, bows his head to receive a blessing from Shlomo Goren in 1977 at Ben-Gurion Airport. Max Nash | AP
Begin, right, bows his head to receive a blessing from Shlomo Goren in 1977 at Ben-Gurion Airport. Max Nash | AP

In one example, Goren claimed that he had been sent by Begin to the White House to personally deliver Reagan a message regarding the withdrawal of Israel from the Sinai Peninsula and “to provide Reagan with a sense of the moral and spritual feeling in Israel,” which included warning against the formation of a Palestinian state, keeping Jerusalem “united,” and recognizing the city as exclusively Israeli.

As chief rabbi of Israel, Goren’s “activism” regarding the Temple Mount continued unabated and arguably grew with his growing political influence, both within Israel and abroad. Having led extremists in ascending the Temple Mount since the Old City’s conquest in 1967, Goren’s stature as chief rabbi allowed him to continue and expand his efforts to push for an increased presence of extremist religious Zionists on the Temple Mount. Following the 1967 war, Goren also created detailed maps of the Temple Mount with the intention of delineating where the Third Temple should be built and where he believed the long-lost treasures of the Ark of the Covenant were hidden beneath the Temple. Those maps are still used by Temple Activists today.

Yet Goren’s “activism” on behalf of a Third Temple was much more far-reaching during his time as chief rabbi. In 1981, Goren along with Rabbi of the Western Wall Yehuda Getz, began excavating a series of tunnels under the Temple Mount, without archaeological approval, in an alleged search for the Ark of the Covenant artifact. They believed that finding the Ark of the Covenant would signal that the time to build a Third Temple had arrived. One of the volunteers aiding Getz and Goren was Gersh Salomon, who had founded the Temple Mount Faithful a few years prior. 

The tunnels — conducted without archeological supervision, as is required by Israeli law — were dug with the support of Israel’s Religious Affairs Ministry. There was also another government connection to the illegal project, owing to the intimate involvement of Rafi Eitan in the project. Eitan was an influential counterterrorism and security adviser to three Israeli prime ministers (Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres), a former officer for the Mossad and Shin Bet, and a “personal and close family friend” of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He later gained notoriety for recruiting Jonathan Pollard, a former United States Navy intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel, and serving as his handler. 

Goren, Getz and their group of volunteers managed to reach Warren’s Gate, an ancient subterranean passage leading to the Temple Mount. Accordig to Salomon, “We needed just two days more to come to the place where the Ark of the Covenant is located.” However, their ambitions were cut short when Palestinians guarding Al-Aqsa heard strange noises coming from below Al-Aqsa Mosque and quickly discovered the group’s excavations. A riot nearly broke out and Israeli authorities subsequently sealed the tunnel.

A few years later, in 1986, three years after leaving his position as chief rabbi, Goren, together with other prominent rabbis, issued a religious edict that called for the immediate construction of a Third Temple on the Temple Mount and for public Jewish prayers on the site, an act historically forbidden by Jewish law. Prior to the end of his life in 1994, Goren issued several other controversial religious edicts, such as one that ruled that IDF soldiers could disobey government orders in order to remove extremist settlers from the West Bank, and another stating that Jewish law compelled Jews to murder Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The Temple Mount Faithful

Goren’s impact on the Temple Activist movement is unique, as his actions following the Israeli conquest of Jerusalem’s Old City were the spark that inspired the two other most notable forces in laying the ground for the Temple Activist movement of today: Gershon Salomon and Yisrael Ariel.

Salomon was one of the paratroopers who helped “liberate” the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in 1967 and he went on to found the Temple Mount Faithful soon after. Following the war, he “dedicated himself to the vision of consecrating the Temple Mount to the Name of G‑d, to removing the Muslim shrines placed there as a symbol of Muslim conquest, to the rebuilding of the Third Temple on the Temple Mount, and the godly redemption of the People and the Land of Israel,” according to the Temple Mount Faithful website. He worked directly with Goren for a number of years, and others who were greatly influenced by Goren, such as Ariel, later joined Salomon’s group.

Gershon Salomon, right, poses in front of al-Aqsa Mosque in 1967.
Gershon Salomon, right, poses in front of al-Aqsa Mosque in 1967.

Goren participated directly with the Temple Mount Faithful on some occasions, such as in hosting a “conference” in front of the Temple Mount where Goren, Salomon and other attendees called on Israel’s government “to purify the Temple Mount from its Arab and Islamic presence and desecration,” as it was later described by Salomon. 

The group attracted members from the messianic fringes of religious Zionism, as well as more secular, fascist elements that were associated with the precursors to the modern-day Likud Party. Indeed, Motti Inbari has noted that most of the Temple Mount Faithful’s membership during its “golden years” (from the late 1960s to 1987) were former members of the Irgun and Lehi Zionist paramilitary groups, both of which have deep ties to Israel’s Likud Party. 

For decades, the Temple Mount Faithful’s main activities were demonstrations that Inbari, who attended several of the group’s demonstrations, states were intended to “cause provocations and riots bordering on hysteria among the [Palestinian] Muslim public.” These provocations center around the group attempting to physically place cornerstones they commissioned for a future Third Temple on the Temple Mount. One of the group’s cornerstone demonstrations led to what became known as the Al-Aqsa massacre of 1990, which resulted in rioting among Palestinian worshippers who were then at the mosque. Israeli police shot and killed over 20 Palestinians and wounded an estimated 150 more.

Yet, beginning in the mid-1980s, a rift started to emerge in the Temple Mount Faithful between the religious and secular Zionists within the group. The rift was initiated by Rabbi Yosef Elboim and saw religious Zionists, like Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, leave the Temple Mount Faithful en masse, as they felt the movement could only grow in influence if it focused more strongly on the Third Temple’s religious and ritual importance, as opposed to its importance as a nationalist and Zionist symbol, a view espoused by Salomon.

Though Salomon frequently uses religious and biblical imagery when discussing the Temple and sees the construction of the Temple as his divine mission, he ultimately viewed the Temple as a symbol of Israeli nationalism. This view of the Temple as a nationalist symbol was first articulated by members of the Zionist and fascist paramilitary group Lehi, also known as the Stern Gang. The view helped Salomon win over some influential secular Zionists to the Temple Activist movement, though it caused him to lose influence with religious Zionists. Yet this loss of support from religious Zionists led Salomon to reach out and forge ties with another group, the Christian Zionists of the West.

Temple Mount Faithful members step on a mock coffin symbolizing Palestine during a 2007 parade in Jerusalem. Alex Kolomoisky | AP
Temple Mount Faithful members step on a mock coffin symbolizing Palestine during a 2007 parade in Jerusalem. Alex Kolomoisky | AP

The 1987 rift with the Temple Mount Faithful resulted in the official creation of the Temple Institute, which was founded by Rabbi Ariel and has since become the most prominent organization of its type within Israel. Soon after its creation, the Institute joined an alliance of other Temple Mount Faithful splinter groups and associated groups, known collectively as the Movement for the Establishment of the Temple, but did not include the Temple Mount Faithful itself.

The Jewish Underground

While many former members of Irgun and Lehi joined the Temple Activist movement following its formation in the late 1960s, others chose an even more extreme approach than that offered by the Temple Mount Faithful. Shabtai Ben-Dov, a former member of Lehi who believed that the Third Temple and Jewish Messiah could only be achieved through violence and blood-soaked conquest, was one of the “guiding lights” of a group known as the Jewish Underground.

Ben-Dov is an obscure figure to most Israelis, but his impact on Jewish messianic groups in Israel was profound. He was an enthusiastic member of Lehi — or, as noted above, “the Stern Gang” — a Zionist paramilitary group known for its use of terrorism as well as its role in comitting several civilian massacres; the assassination of UN and British officials; its attempts to formally ally with the Nazis; and desire to create a Jewish state in Palestine based on “nationalist and totalitarian principles.”

Ben-Dov, who became increasingly more religious following the founding of the state of Israel and the dissolution of Lehi, turned to writing and argued that Lehi’s totalitarian vision for the state of Israel should be realized through the establishment of a theocracy, led by a king and the Sanhedrin, a council that served as the main political, judicial and religious force for Jews during the Roman period and was guided by the values of “conquest and holy war.” Furthermore, he believed — like Avraham Stern, who founded Lehi — that the Third Temple must be built as soon as possible and that doing so would solve all of the problems then facing the Jewish people.

Though his beliefs didn’t catch on — then, at least — Ben-Dov’s writings were dramatically inspirational to Yehuda Etzion, a settler activist who became profoundly disillusioned with the efforts to broker peace between Israel and Egypt that eventually resulted in the Camp David Accords in 1979. Shortly prior to Ben-Dov’s death and soon after the accords were formalized, Etzion sought out the former Lehi member, who successfully convinced the young Etzion to actively participate in the “messianic process.” When Etzion asked Ben-Dov if destroying the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque would catalyze the “redemption” process and usher in the coming of the messiah, Ben-Dov responded, “If you want to do something that will solve all the Jew’s problems, do that.”

With that, the planning of the now infamous plot of the Jewish Underground to destroy Al-Aqsa began, a plot that was narrowly foiled just a few years later in 1984. Indeed, Etzion and his co-conspirators, all of whom were later convicted of terrorism, had raided an Israeli military outpost in the occupied Golan Heights and had managed to steal over 2,000 pounds of explosives, which were used to build at least 27 bombs with which to commit the deed. For reasons that will become more relevant in a future article in this series, Etzion and his co-conspirators also believed that destroying Al-Aqsa mosque would first lead to a war with rival Middle Eastern nations, a war from which Israel would emerge victorious — and only then could the Third Temple and a theocratic Israel take shape. 

Israeli police carry Yehuda Etzion after he breached the Temple Mount in 1997. Zoom 77 | AP
Israeli police carry Yehuda Etzion after he breached the Temple Mount in 1997. Zoom 77 | AP

After his arrest, Etzion had lamented that the plot had failed only because “the generation was not ready.” As noted in Part I, he called for the building of “a new force that grows very slowly, moving its educational and social activity into a new leadership,” a force that — as this article and Part I of this series clearly show — has been spectacularly successful. 

Though a convicted terrorist and a proponent of theocracy and “holy war,” Etzion today is considered “the most revered figure among patrons of the Temple Mount,” according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Etzion was even the subject of a rather sympathetic New York Times article in 2015, as the rebranding of the Temple Activist movement (discussed shortly) was in full swing. That article asserted that Etzion “laments violence now used against Palestinians,” despite noting that Etzion “does not regret, exactly, helping plant bombs in the cars of Palestinian mayors and plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock in the 1980s, nor does he express remorse.” 

Though Etzion’s ideology may once have been fringe and his embrace of violence odious, it has gone increasingly mainstream, much like the Temple Activist movement itself, and there is considerable overlap. A fitting example of such overlap was seen just a few months ago when Bezalel Smotrich — now Israel’s Transportation Minister, who has openly called for the construction of a Third Temple and incited settlers to violently attack Palestinains in the occupied West Bank — called for Israel to be ruled by Jewish law and to become a theocracy at a time when he was under consideration for the position of Justice Minister. 

Smotrich is but one example of how the ideas promoted by figures like Etzion have found their way into Israel’s halls of power. Indeed, Israel’s current Minister of Strategic Affairs, Internal Security, and Information Gilad Erdan, former Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, and Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein are all close associates and supporters of Etzion and his Chai Vekayam (Alive and Existing) movement.

Carmi Gillon, former head of Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet, stated last year that the former members of Jewish Underground have become so influential that they have won the battle for Israel’s future. Gillon told Haaretz

They are more devoted to their idea. It’s exactly what you see with Hamas or Hezbollah. A religious person who believes he is commanded from on high can’t compromise on that command. A secular person is more pragmatic to begin with. But they have one goal: to turn Israel into a Jewish state governed by religious Jewish law, to perpetuate the occupation and to rescind liberal laws.”

The “Moderate” facade of the Temple Institute

Today, the Temple Institute, founded by Yisrael Ariel, is treated by many media sources as the “moderate face” of the Temple Activist movement. Yet, Ariel — much like Salomon, Etzion and other prominent figures in the Temple Activist movement — has long been an extremist, making his institute hardly “moderate.” As the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

After following Shlomo Goren to the Western Wall the day of its conquest in 1967, Ariel became deeply involved in the settler movement and became the “unofficial” rabbi of an Israeli settlement in the Sinai Peninsula. After that settlement was dismantled as part of the Camp David Accords, which saw the Sinai returned to Egypt, Ariel returned to Jerusalem and joined one of the most radical, racist political parties in Israel’s history, Kach.

Yisrael Ariel oversees a Temple Mount Faithful enactment of rituals for a rebuilt Third Temple. Tomer Appelbaum | Haaretz
Yisrael Ariel oversees a Temple Mount Faithful enactment of rituals for a rebuilt Third Temple. Tomer Appelbaum | Haaretz

The Kach Party was founded in 1971 by American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, a convicted terrorist known for his racist, extremist positions that advocated Jewish supremacy, the expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories, and prison sentences for Palestinian men accused of having intimate relations with Jewish women. In addition, an often overlooked aspect of his radical platform was complete Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

In the 1981 elections, Ariel ran as Kahane’s number two right-hand man as a member of Kach, later served as Kahane’s deputy in the Knesset, and continued to be active in the party until it was banned from participating in Israeli elections in 1988. A few years after Kahane was assassinated in 1990, Baruch Goldstein, a Kahane follower and Kach member who murdered scores of praying Palestinians in a Hebron mosque, was praised by Ariel as a “martyr” and “our advocate in Heaven,” even as Goldstein’s actions led the Kach Party and its spinoffs to be labeled terrorist organizations by Israel, the United States and several other countries.

During his lengthy association with the Kach Party and Meir Kahane, Ariel founded the Temple Institute, registering it first as an association in 1984 and then creating a more formal organization in 1987 soon after other religious Zionist elements of the Temple Mount Faithful left that group en masse.

Ariel’s reason for doing so was based on his view that the Third Temple must be pursued at all costs. Ariel’s “Holy Temple Prayerbook” as cited on the Temple Institute’s website, summarizes his beliefs in his own words:

Through the years, the more I studied the more I began to understand that we had only ourselves and our own inaction to hold accountable: God does not intend for us to wait for a day of miracles. We are expected to act. We must accomplish that with which we have been charged: to do all in our power to prepare for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, and the renewal of the divine service.”

Furthermore, Ariel feels that the Temple lies at the heart of Israel’s future as a state and as a panacea for all of its problems. He stated the following in 2005: 

The State of Israel can be only one thing — a state with a Temple at its center. Otherwise it is no different from any other state. All of today’s troubles originate in the sin of abandoning the Temple Mount and the site of the Holy Temple…The Holy Temple is the solution to all of our problems.” 

This same view that held that the Temple would solve all of Israel’s problems was also voiced by Shabtai Ben-Dov, the former Lehi member who advised members of the radical Jewish Underground terrorist group to blow up Al-Aqsa mosque in the early 1980s.

While the worldview of Ariel and his ideological allies can easily be dismissed as that of an extremist, the issue is that — over the past few decades — the Temple Institute he founded has taken a central role in the Temple Activist movement and has found growing levels of support from Israel’s government, including financial support.

Since its formation, the Temple Institute has created detailed blueprints of its vision for a Third Temple, based partially on the maps first made by Shlomo Goren in 1967, as well as 3-D computer animations and physical models of that Temple. In addition, it has created several artifacts for use in a future temple, including a golden menorah, incense altars, priestly garments and a variety of ritual vessels, among others. The menorah alone is estimated to have cost 5 million NIS (about $1.3 million USD).

A Temple Institute workshop in Jerusalem where tailors produce garments for Third Temple priests. Kevin Frayer | AP
A Temple Institute workshop in Jerusalem where tailors produce garments for Third Temple priests. Kevin Frayer | AP

These artifacts and models have allowed the Temple Institute to obfuscate its extremist origins by opening a museum dedicated to the Third Temple, a museum that enjoys Israeli government sponsorship. That museum, dubbed the “Disney Land for Temple fundamentalism” by the Times of Israel, receives hundreds of thousands of visitors every

Beyond its creation of artifacts and structures to be used in a future temple, the Institute has also dedicated itself to training a new generation of Levite priests with the intention that they perform ritual sacrifices in the future temple, and has also attempted to recreate a “Red Heifer” for use in a purification ritual. 

Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss of Neturei Karta — an ultra-Orthodox group of Haredi Jews founded in Palestine in 1938, who believe Jews are forbidden from having their own state until the Jewish Messiah is revealed — told MintPress that these rituals cannot be performed because the red heifer, among other objects, is no longer available as these objects were when these rituals were practiced nearly two thousand years ago. Yet, the Temple Institute has made efforts to recreate a red heifer using advanced techniques in animal husbandry and artificial insemination and claimed to have produced a suitable red heifer in 2018.

Over the years, the Institute has received increasing levels of support from Israel’s government, even though the Institute’s activities run counter to official Israeli government policy in relation to the Temple Mount and also violate a 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan that explicitly forbids non-Muslims from praying on Haram el-Sharif (the Temple Mount), in keeping with Islamic theological doctrine regarding its most holy sites. According to Israeli non-profit Ir Amim, the Temple Institute has been receiving direct funding from Israel’s government since at least 2008 — receiving an estimated 412,000 NIS (~$114,775) annually from Israel’s Ministry of Culture, Science and Sports, headed by Miri Regev, as well as Israel’s Ministry of Education from 2008 to 2012. In 2012 alone, the educational arm of the Temple Institute, the Midrasha, received 189,000 NIS (~$52,650) from the Ministry of Education. 

Prior to obtaining direct government funding, the Temple Institute received funding from “persons in different government ministries,” according to statements made by Ariel in 1992 when thanking members of the government for helping finance the Institute and offset its debts. Notably, government funding of the Temple Institute is a small portion of its estimated $1 million annual operating budget. However, direct government funding of the organization suggests that the current Likud government led by Netanyahu is relatively supportive, at least covertly, of its mission.

This is corroborated by the fact that recent years have seen overt support for the Institute and its objectives by prominent Israeli politicians. For instance, in 2013, Nir Barkat — then-mayor of Jerusalem and member of the ruling Likud Party — presented Ariel with an award for his work at the Temple Institute. It was subsequently revealed that the Temple Institute had received a government contract from Israel’s Ministry of Education. That contract paid the Temple Institute to develop a mandatory social studies curriculum that would instill a “longing for the Temple” in children at the kindergarten level and above. Critics argued that the curriculum “could drive students to take violent actions to advance the building of the Third Temple,” according to Haaretz. The Institute’s relationship with Israel’s government is further revealed by Israel’s allowing of women to perform their mandatory national service in lieu of mandatory military service by working as tour guides in the Institute’s Museum.

A schoolbook created jointly with Israel’s Ministry of Education depicts the rebuilding of the Third Temple. Credit | Ir Amim
A schoolbook created jointly with Israel’s Ministry of Education depicts the rebuilding of the Third Temple. Credit | Ir Amim

The combination of government support for the Temple Institute and the Institute working as a government contractor in developing a national educational curriculum has resulted in growing support for the Third Temple among religious and secular Israelis alike.

Miko Peled told MintPress that the type of material being taught and normalized in schools throughout the country had been a key factor in the Temple Activist movement’s goals becoming mainstream: 

The mainstreaming of these fringe [Temple Activist] groups is possible only because within the mainstream in Israel there is a desire to see the Temple ‘restored.’ The mythical narrative of King David and King Solomon and his magnificent temple are taught as history, and so even secular Israelis see this as a symbol of their identity and a right. This is taught in schools, through Israeli folk songs, etc. Furthermore, among the ‘tour’ organizers and the Temple activists there have always been non-religious Israelis.”

As the Temple Institute’s influence has grown and as it has perfected the capacity to speak to more moderate as well as extremist factions within religious Zionism, Ariel has notably felt emboldened to articulate the controversial, extremist beliefs he has long held. In a video recorded in 2015, he made overt calls for genocide and murder based on his interpretation of the works of 12th-century Jewish sage Maimonides.

In that video, publicized by Canadian journalist David Sheen, Ariel makes several outrageous statements, including claims that Jewish law compelled religious Jews to assassinate then-President of the United States Barack Obama, and calling for a Jewish army to conquer the entire Middle East, specifically Iran, and to destroy all mosques and churches. 

Ariel also called for the murder of all Muslims and Christians who do not renounce their religions in order to follow the “Noahide laws,” which Ariel and other extremists believe must be imposed on all of humanity, aside from practitioners of Judaism, as a condition of their existence. A year later, Ariel again garnered attention from Israeli media for claiming that the Temple Mount must be “flattened and cleaned” of the Al-Aqsa mosque so a Third Temple could be rebuilt.

From extremist to “civil rights” movement

Though Rabbi Yisrael Ariel is often considered the face of the Institute, the Institute’s increasing prominence has been aided by a somewhat younger generation of Temple Activists who have become influential in Israeli politics.

There is no better example of such a figure than Yehuda Glick, who was the Temple Institute’s executive director for five years and became a member of Israel’s Knesset for the ruling Likud Party in 2016. Largely thanks to the “affable” face Glick and some of his contemporaries have lent to the Temple Activist movement, it has been able to rebrand from an extremist colonialist project to a “civil rights movement” promoting “equal rights” for Jewish Israelis when it comes to praying on the Temple Mount. Yet Glick differs little, in terms of ideology, from the old guard, as evidenced by his personal beliefs and his close relationships with figures such as Etzion and Ariel.

Glick, through his prominent role in the Temple Institute and the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation, had become a well-known figure in the Temple Activist movement by the time he was attacked and shot in early February 2014, almost losing his life to his assailant, who was alleged to have been a young Palestinian. Glick’s serious injuries, which he survived, became the basis for a subsequent and successful media campaign within Israel that helped paint the Temple Activist movement as a “civil rights” movement aimed merely at securing “equal rights” to pray on the Temple Mount, for both Jews and Muslims alike. 

This narrative soon went beyond Israel, with prominent media outlets like the New York Times euphemistically describing Glick as an “agitator who has pushed for more Jewish access and rights at a hotly contested religious site in Jerusalem.” Left unmentioned was Glick’s history of arrests for participating in provocations at the Temple Mount, his assault of a Palestinian woman at the contested site, and the fact that he lives in an illegal West Bank settlement.

Yet, there is much to doubt about the narrative surrounding Glick’s attempted murder, leading some critics to suggest that the attempt on his life may have been a “false flag” aimed at creating enough public outrage so as to force Israel’s government to alter the current status quo on the Temple Mount. Indeed, just a week before he was nearly killed, Glick had told Haaretz that the situation on the Temple Mount would only change after a Jew was violently attacked by an Arab.

Yehuda Glick arrives to cast his vote during Likud party elections in Jerusalem, still healing from an alleged attack, Dec. 31, 2014. Oded Balilty | AP
Yehuda Glick arrives to cast his vote during Likud party elections in Jerusalem, still healing from an alleged attack, Dec. 31, 2014. Oded Balilty | AP

“When will the change take place?” Glick told the Israeli newspaper, answering: 

As soon as the Arabs harm someone on the Temple Mount, the prime minister will wake up and it will be too late…Violence is escalating every day, and the police are simply helpless. Police impotence leads to violence…Bibi is tying their hands and the Jordanians are tying their hands.” (emphasis added)

Soon after the murder attempt, Ali Abunimah detailed at Electronic Intifada many of the other discrepancies regarding the events that led to Glick’s injuries, including the swift extrajudicial execution of his alleged attacker before an investigation or trial could take place and some of the dubious claims made by witnesses at the scene, particularly witnesses known to be greatly involved in the Temple Activist cause. Two of the witnesses were none other than Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, founder of the Temple Institute, and Moshe Feiglin, then-Likud member of the Knesset and outspoken Temple Activist, each of whom later called the attack on Glick “inevitable” and “expected,” respectively.

A year and a half after the attack that threatened his life, Glick became a member of Israel’s Knesset for the Likud Party, occupying the post left by former Defense Minister Mosha Ya’alon, who had resigned. Though Glick had previously served a minor role in government, his ascent to the Knesset as a Likud lawmaker gave him a platform to continue to promote Temple Activism as an issue of “civil rights,” one that was received by outlets like Forward with great sympathy. 

“The discrimination on the Temple Mount is obvious,” Forward quoted Glick as saying soon after he became a member of the Knesset. “[Under Jordanian control] the Temple Mount became a center of incitement and hate instead of a center of peace.”

Miko Peled described the effort to rebrand what was once a radical, fringe movement as a “civil rights” struggle that has been “very successful” and played a role in the increasingly mainstream status that the Temple Activist movement now enjoys. Peled told MintPress:

Their [the Temple Activists] entire discourse is now about their rights, and the denial of the rights of Jewish [people] to freedom of worship, etc. This works well in promoting them as more moderate and friendly and as victims of a reality that once again discriminates against Jews. They realize that what is working for the Palestinians is the fact that their narrative is framed as an injustice and they now do the same. You hear them complaining that while the world, and even the Israeli “Left,” stand for Palestinian rights, they — once again — don’t stand for the rights of Jews.”

Powerful mainstream proponents

Since the attack on Glick and the subsequent rebranding of Temple Activism as a “civil rights” movement, the decades-long effort to manufacture consensus among both secular and religious Israelis has grown dramatically. The growth of this movement, much of which is detailed in Part I of this series, has been most noticeable within Israel’s halls of power, with a large number of Israel’s most powerful politicians, and a majority of Israel’s current cabinet, now openly pushing for Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount and for the reconstruction of a Third Temple. 

In the interest of brevity, MintPress has compiled the following list of current Israeli government ministers who have shown or expressed varying degrees of public support for the construction of a Third Temple, the destruction of Al-Aqsa, and/or complete Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Some of the individuals listed below hold multiple ministerial positions.

Current Israeli Government Ministers Supportive of Temple Activism

Those listed above account for more than half of all Israeli government ministers (11 out of 20) and nearly 60 percent of all ministerial positions (16 out of 27) that are not currently held by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is currently serving as the Minister of Health, Defense, and Diaspora Affairs in addition to being Prime Minister.

While it may come as a shock that more than half of all current Israeli government ministers are supportive of key aspects of Temple Activism, numerous other prominent Israeli politicians in the Knesset and other positions of political power are also strong advocates for altering the current Temple Mount status quo.

The strong presence of Temple Activist supporters in Israel’s halls of power has not been lost on leaders within the movement. Rabbi Chaim Richman, head of the Temple Institute’s International Department, told Christian Headlines in 2017 that:

Today there’s a lobby in the Knesset … many members of the Knesset that are constantly speaking about Jewish rights to pray on the Temple Mount. There are members of the Knesset that actually talk about rebuilding the Holy Temple. Do you realize that 20 years ago these people wouldn’t have been given a moment on prime time television to say these things. They would have been laughed out.”

Netanyahu’s dance

In addition to its increasingly strong hold on Israeli legislatures, the Temple Activist movement’s reach stretches all the way to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu, given his role as prime minister, has long avoided any explicit endorsements of Temple Activism, though his actions over his decades-long political career offer enough insight to conclude that he is, at the very least, supportive of the movement and some of its objectives.

Netanyahu, from his prominent political position, has publicly maintained that his government seeks to maintain the current status quo on the Temple Mount, likely to avoid stoking unrest and protests. Yet, such claims are at odds with the fact that a majority of his ministers have publicly stated that they wish to wrest control of the holy site from its current custodians. 

Furthermore, Netanyahu himself in 2017 told the Knesset the following: “To you, the members of the Knesset, the citizens of Israel, and to the entire world, I want to make it clear: The Temple Mount and the Western Wall will stay under Israeli sovereignty forever.” In that same speech, Netanyahu referred to Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem prior to 1967 as a “black cloud” that had hung over the city.

Though Netanyahu has been relatively mum on the subject of the Third Temple specifically, his practice of remaining silent after prominent members of his government and political party promote Temple Activism has not escaped the notice of Israeli media, which has repeatedly pointed out that the claims of government officials close to Netanyahu qualify as incitement under Israeli law, a punishable offense. Such silence has been taken by some Netanyahu critics as tacit support for Temple Activists, as has Netanyahu’s recent appearances at events where Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock have been edited out of the Jerusalem skyline, despite the compound’s iconic status.

Netanyahu attends an event back-dropped by an image of the Temple Mount with a dome-less mosque, June 13, 2019. Olivier Fitoussi | AP
Netanyahu attends an event back-dropped by an image of the Temple Mount with a dome-less mosque, June 13, 2019. Olivier Fitoussi | AP

Yet Netanyahu is silent not only about many of his closest political associates embracing Temple Activism, but about the considerable support that some of his most important political donors have given to Temple Activist groups. A 2015 Haaretz investigation found that top Netanyahu donor Kenneth Abramowitz — an American billionaire who also heads American Friends of Likud — had given more than $1.3 million to the Israel-based institution that funds all of Yehuda Glick’s Temple Activist organizations. 

In addition to funding Netanyahu, Abramowitz has also donated to Yisrael Katz and Gilad Erdan — current Minister of Foreign Affairs and current MInister of Strategic Affairs, Internal Security and Information, respectively — both of whom support upending the current status quo on the Temple Mount. Palestinian academic and journalist Ramzy Baroud told MintPress that Gilad Erdan is “the main person advocating for this [Temple Activist] movement within Israel’s government and within Israeli politics.”

Another key financier of Netanyahu — U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson — also appears to be supportive of Temple Activism. For instance, Israel Hayom — the Israeli newspaper that Adelson funds — has published numerous articles supportive of Temple Activism, including front-page stories that call for the destruction of Al-Aqsa mosque. Furthermore, Adelson has grown increasingly close to Israeli politician Naftali Bennett, who has increasingly pushed for increased Israeli control over the Temple Mount in recent years. Adelson even allegedly favored Bennett over Netanyahu for the position of prime minister at one point. 

Bennett, who until recently was Education Minister, spent his tenure at that ministry inserting Temple Activist educational material into mandatory school curriculums, some of which were developed by the Temple Institute as part of a contract with the Bennett-led Education Ministry. In addition, Bennett — after failing to secure enough seats in Israel’s elections this past April — is mulling joining forces with Moshe Feiglin, one of the most pro-Third Temple Israeli politicians of all. 

Beyond his close association with donors and politicians who support Temple Activism, Netanyahu’s relationship with prominent religious leaders have led to speculation that he supports the construction of a Third Temple on the Temple Mount. During a meeting in 1990 with Rabbi Mencahem Schneerson — then leader of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, an international Orthodox Jewish organization that has gained global prominence and also invited controversy — Netanyahu asked Schneerson, often referred to simply as “the Rebbe,” for advice on both personal and political matters. 

Schneerson, who up until his death was a strong advocate for the religious messianic belief that physical actions could speed up the fulfillment of end-times prophecy and the coming of the Messiah, advised Netanyahu that he “do something to hasten his [the Messiah’s] coming.” Netanyahu responded, “We’re doing, We’re doing…,” at which the Rebbe interrupted him, saying “Apparently, it’s not enough,” urging him to do more still, and eventually garnering a “Yes” from Netanyahu. After that meeting, Schneerson stated that Netanyahu would later “hand his keys over to Moshiach [the Messiah],” suggesting that Netanyahu’s political career would culminate in the building of a Third Temple, a prerequisite for the appearance of the Messiah per Schneerson’s teachings.

Given that Schneerson heavily promoted the construction of a Third Temple during his lifetime and frequently received Third Temple models from devotees as offerings and gifts, this exchange has contributed to speculation that Netanyahu supports the same vein of religious messianism and vision propounded by Temple Activists.

However, leaked audio of a private meeting between Netanyahu and other Likud Party members provided evidence that Netanyahu does not personally approve of constructing a Third Temple, but turns a blind eye to those that do within his ruling coalition and among his donors purely out of political expediency. In that leaked audio, recorded in 2015, the prime minister stated that if Israel wanted to destroy Al-Aqsa “it would not require a great effort… but it goes against everything we stand for.”

Yet, in the years since that meeting took place, the prime minister has made some moves that have suggested that he may no longer think that destroying Al-Aqsa is “against everything we stand for,” especially given that Temple Activism is much more mainstream now than it was in 2015. Such claims of possession and right have increased following the beginning of the Trump administration in the United States, which — as the next installment of this series will show — also contains numerous figures who are committed to building a Third Temple on the Temple Mount, albeit for different reasons.

Netanyahu poses with Yehuda Glick, who is holding his Temple Activist “guide book” to the Temple Mount
Netanyahu poses with Yehuda Glick, who is holding his Temple Activist “guide book” to the Temple Mount

During his speech last May at the dedication of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem — a political move heralded by numerous Temple Activists and Netanyahu himself as having “fulfilled prophecies” related to the Third Temple — Netanyahu made numerous references to the Temple and the Temple Mount and linked Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the presence of a physical temple. 

According to Miko Peled, Netanyahu’s recent ministerial appointments following Israel’s recent elections in April reveal his private support for Temple Activism. Peled told MintPress:

Recently, Netanyahu brought two new members into his cabinet — Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz. They are from the heart of the settler, religious Zionist, messianic, Temple movement. They are clear about their political goals and are not shy about stating their goals. 

They talk about giving the “Arabs of Israel,” as they call the Palestinians, three options: surrender and live without rights in a Jewish state, leave, or die. They make no secret of their desire to build a temple in place of Al-Aqsa. Netanyahu brought them in only because he agrees with them, shares their vision, but cannot express it as they do for fear of losing his international standing as a ‘statesman.’”

While Netanyahu may share their vision, as Peled asserted, other political moves he has made since the April elections suggest that he is likely not ready to enact such a vision, at least in regard to the Temple Mount. For instance, while he did include Smotrich in his cabinet, Netanyahu denied the controversial politician the ministerial positions he had desired, either Defense Minister or Justice Minister, precisely because of Smotrich’s comments about and stances regarding the Temple Mount. 

Mainstreaming the apocalypse

As Yehuda Etzion had hoped back in 1985, writing from his prison cell after his failed effort to destroy Al-Aqsa, the “new force that grows very slowly, moving its educational and social activity into a new leadership” in the Israeli political establishment has now clearly manifested. Thanks to the efforts of Etzion and other Temple Activists like Yisrael Ariel and Yehuda Glick, the Temple Activist movement has become more mainstream within Israeli culture and politics than ever before, largely owing to the movement’s huge success since 2014 in rebranding itself as a “civil rights” movement, despite its origins steeped in religious extremism and terrorism.

In Part I of this series, the urgency with which the Israeli political establishment and Temple Activists are pursuing their agenda targeting Al-Aqsa and the Temple Mount was detailed, revealing – as Ramzy Baroud described it – that support for the Third Temple within Israeli society is now “greater than at any time in the past.”

Yet, as the next installment of this series will show, none of this would be possible without strong support from the United States government, where powerful politicians and individuals – particularly within the Trump administration – share the vision of the Temple Activists, although many of them, being Christian Zionists, do so for radically different reasons. The combination of strong support for using political force as a driver of eschatology — among certain groups, whether of Christians or Jews — has increasingly become a common denominator between U.S. and Israeli politics in recent years, one that has colored the foreign policy of both countries.

However, far from a benign influence, the end-times prophecies that are motivating these influential individuals are stocked with future events that portend untold suffering, mass loss of life and cataclysmic wars. Given that both Christians and Jews that favor this interpretation of the end-times believe that active steps must be taken to usher in these apocalyptic scenarios by those with the capacity to do so — e.g., politicians, political donors and so on — it makes understanding this often overlooked aspect lurking behind current Israeli and U.S. foreign policy both a critical and urgent task.

Feature photo | Israeli Knesset member Yehuda Glick, center, speaks to journalists after visiting at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, Aug. 29, 2017. Sebastian Scheiner | AP

By Whitney Webb
Source: MintPress News

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