by Amanda Borschel-Dan
April 28, 2016

All hell broke loose Tuesday on the Temple Mount as two white-clad Jewish men prostrated themselves in an overt act of worship. Face down on the ground, the men were immediately surrounded by a mix of Border and Israel Police — and an encroaching crowd of angry Muslim men and Jordanian Waqf officials.

The police, wearing bullet-proof vests and armed with stun grenades and tear gas, whisked the two men from the melee. A short brawl between Israeli forces and Muslim men ensued, and a total of eight men were ejected from the Temple Mount — or Haram al-Sharif as it is known to Muslims — before things returned to “normal.”

But “normal” is a loaded term on the Temple Mount, historically the preeminent Jewish holy site, and the Muslims’ third most revered spot.

“Normal,” according to the status quo agreement established by former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan 10 days following the holy site’s capture by Israeli soldiers during the 1967 Six Day War, means Jews may freely visit the Haram al-Sharif plaza. However, it also means that the site is to be administered by the Jordanian Waqf — and only Muslims are allowed to worship there. (The 1994 peace treaty with Jordan cemented this deal.) The Israeli government, at the time eager to quell Arab unrest in its newly conquered territories, reinforced that status quo agreement as a necessary security measure and nixed the few anguished voices who called for Jewish prayer.

The official Israeli government stance has never wavered.

But today, Israeli public perception of the ban on Jewish prayer has shifted. Through the fruits of a long-term concerted PR campaign, now using updated jargon calling for “freedom of religion” and “human rights,” the previously fringe Temple Mount movement — while still intent on fighting the status quo that is preventing Jewish prayer there — is increasingly mainstreamed.

The movement that was once taboo and limited to extremist politicians has today garnered support from a who’s who of religious leaders, current MKs and even cabinet minister Uri Ariel, who has called for the building of the Third Temple on the Temple Mount. Ariel could be called the political poster child of the movement: In September, before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s blanket ban on ministers visiting the site, Ariel was filmed on the Temple Mount while praying.

To get a sense of the prime minister’s own view of prayer on the Temple Mount, the next candidate on the ruling Likud party’s list is Rabbi Yehuda Glick, a personal friend of Netanyahu who survived an attempted assassination for his work as the head of HaLiba, a coalition of organizations promoting Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount.

In this Passover holiday period, as some 850 Jews ascend the Temple Mount during the week, the numbers of Jewish activists intentionally breaking status quo ordinances also swell. And all eyes are on them as they perform furtive marriage ceremonies, attempt to conduct animal sacrifices or even film themselves mumbling prayers — and resultant arrests — that are broadcast over social media. Almost every day this week, the intermediate days of Passover, police have ejected several Jews from the Mount for breaking restrictions during their visits.

But the question of the activists’ intentions is ever looming.

Last week long-term leaders of the Temple Mount movement called for the razing of the Temple Mount. This summer, a detained extremist’s widely circulated manifesto urged for the overthrow of the government to pave the way for the rebuilding of the Temple.

Was Tuesday’s worshipful prostration by the two men intended as an act of protest promoting their freedom of religion? Or was it aimed at sparking Muslim outrage, and even armed Israeli retaliation? Are the visits of increasingly media savvy Temple Mount activists merely civil disobedience, or are they a provocation?

To answer these questions, The Times of Israel spoke with foremost experts in the field of Jewish fundamentalism, delved into the troubled history of the Temple Mount movement — complete with a planned bombing of the Dome of the Rock — and took a field trip to its welcoming public face, the Temple Institute’s popular visitors center.


It was the height of the Six Day War when 28-year-old Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, serving as a reservist in a paratrooper unit, was deployed to Jerusalem’s Old City. And while his unit led the Israeli advance to the Western Wall and Temple Mount, he was swept up with messianic fervor. Later he told that upon hearing two soldiers state they’d met two old men on their way up, Ariel immediately took them for the Prophet Elijah and the Messiah himself.

“Who else would appear here during the battle for the Temple Mount after 2,000 years? That’s what seemed natural at the time,” Ariel said decades later in an interview for Or Chozer, a journal for pre-army yeshiva students.

The two old men turned out to be his teachers at the bastion of religious Zionism, Yeshivat Mercaz Harav Kook, Rabbi David Cohen and Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. While they embraced at the Western Wall, he said he and many others felt the Messiah was on his way — “it would just take another hour or two.”

“No one who was privileged enough to witness this moment, and whose feet stood on the Lord’s mountain after thousands of years of Jewish absence, could fail to be elated by the great moment for the Jewish people. These are the Days of the Messiah!” Ariel said in the interview which is republished in English in Dr. Motti Inbari’s 2014 essay, “Rethinking the Messianic Idea in Judaism.”

‘No one who was privileged enough to witness this moment, and whose feet stood on the Lord’s mountain after thousands of years of Jewish absence, could fail to be elated by the great moment for the Jewish people’

Today, Ariel is the founding head of the Temple Institute, the open, moderate face of the Temple Mount movement. The institute serves as a “halachic technical college,” equipped with laboratories, lecture halls and research programs, according to Inbari, an Israeli-born scholar of Jewish fundamentalism who teaches at the University of North Carolina, Pembroke.

The institute raises funds — including grants from the State of Israel — and public awareness for the Third Temple, while conducting meticulous research for the Temple vessels on display in its well-traveled Jerusalem Old City visitors center. There, hundreds of thousands of tourists a year see intricate reconstructions of priestly garments, watch instructive videos and view artistic representations of the Temples. With automated Ark of the Covenant curtains, it’s a little like Disney Land for Temple fundamentalism.

Its kinder, gentler scholarly image, however, is called into question after examining statements made by founder Ariel. At a mock Passover animal sacrifice last week held by the Joint Staff of Temple Organizations, Ariel publicly called for the holy site to be “flattened” and “cleansed” of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. (Likud MK Miki Zohar was also in attendance.)

According to scholar Inbari, the institute has a sort of “dual personality” and “speaks in two voices.” The museum side of the organization gives it legitimacy, state funding and brings the religious Zionists to its doors.

“Nobody can make an argument against a museum,” said Inbari this week. It allows the organization to “walk a thin line between what is legitimate and illegitimate,” he said.

‘God does not intend for us to wait for a day of miracles’

However, despite the Temple Institute’s mild-mannered image, its founder’s rhetoric is hardly far from kumbaya. During Meir Kahane’s 1981 Kach run for Knesset, Ariel was listed as the extremist’s #2 right-hand man. Later, in 1994, he is also recorded as having praised Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein who massacred 29 Muslims while praying in a Hebron mosque, saying that Goldstein is a “martyr” and he “will be our advocate in heaven.”

Clues to Ariel’s extremist ideology can be found in that first night after the Temple Mount was again in Jewish hands, which, postulated Inbari, led to Ariel’s “radicalization.”

Following the capture of the Temple Mount, Ariel was posted on guard duty on a spot that he concluded must have been the Holy of Holies. He felt the arrival of the Messiah to be imminent.

“This was not just a peak of conquests, but a peak of the manifestation of divine love for the people of Israel,” said Ariel. He described his anticipation of any moment seeing soldiers carrying crates with vessels for the Temple. “There was an expectation of more to come, of a divine event, of a miracle that would remove any question marks that had appeared.”

But the Messiah didn’t appear that night, nor any other. According to Inbari, this event “constitutes a classic case of an encounter with crisis, suggesting he underwent a process of radicalization in reaction to the fear of the failure of messianic faith.”

‘There was an expectation of more to come, of a divine event, of a miracle that would remove any question marks that had appeared’

For Ariel, raised in the action-driven religious Zionist world, it was clearly a turning point in his life.

“This led to a certain sense of letdown that so many of us experienced. After all, we have arrived at the threshold of the Holy Temple: we are standing at the Western Wall — where is the Messiah?” he wrote in his Siddur HaMikdash, published by the Temple Institute. “In the passing of time as I pursued my studies, I discovered that our expectations were simply misplaced.

“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,” he wrote.

In other words, build the Third Temple and the Messiah will come.

And, according to Inbari, “This call must be heeded, even if it poses risks from the surrounding nations.” For as Ariel himself said, “It is a commandment to trust God and observe His commandments, even if this involves danger.”


After the 1979 Camp David Accords, several dozen Jewish fundamentalists, afraid that political compromises would spell the end of Greater Israel, formed a group they called the “Jewish Underground.” There were two main arms to the movement: one group committed extreme violent acts of “vengeance” against Palestinian leaders and civilians in the West Bank to induce them to flee, and the other developed an intricate plan to blow up the Dome of the Rock.

Yehuda Etzion was tasked with planning the destruction of the sanctuary. A founder of the Ofra settlement, in 1984 Etzion hoped to trigger a war between Israel and Arab nations, which would lead to the building of the Third Temple. As scholar Inbari put it in an interview with The Times of Israel this week, Etzion essentially tried “to push God to interfere in history.”

The Jewish terrorists’ wish was almost granted. A 2004 Haaretz article quoted former Likud MK Ehud Yatom, a former Shin Bet official who was one of the commanders of the operation to arrest the members of the Jewish Underground terror group: “We were close, very close, to a situation in which people with truly distorted, wicked minds, tried to strike a place very sacred to Muslims on the Temple Mount,” said Yatom.

“It would have meant the entire Muslim world against the state of Israel and against the Western world, a war of religions,” Yatom said in that 2004 interview, ahead of the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip which sparked new fears of organized Jewish terrorism.

Central ringleader Etzion, said Inbari, was caught, sentenced, and upon his release, apologized — sort of. “He said it wasn’t upon a few individuals to create a change, the Temple is something for the entire people to come and demand,” said Inbari.

Today Etzion is still a leading voice in the Temple Mount movement. As the founder of his Chai VeKayam Movement for Redemption, he has been repeatedly banned from the Temple Mount, even put on house arrest.

With all this historical baggage, it is remarkable that following the murderous Duma arson attack in late July 2015, which killed three family members, including 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh who was burned alive in the fire, Etzion spoke out in the media against violent Jewish extremism. (On January 3, 2016, 21-year-old Amiram Ben-Uliel was indicted on three counts of murder and two counts of arson.)

Also currently detained is Meir Ettinger, the 24-year-old grandson of Meir Kahane and an alleged leader of radical “hilltop youth” responsible for a rash of attacks against Palestinians and their property. Last summer Ettinger allegedly penned a much-shared document in which he reportedly wrote, “If we see that there is a government that gets in the way of carrying out our mission, we must think about how to overthrow the regime that interferes with the rebuilding of the Temple, that stands in the way of the true and complete redemption.”


“On the eve of the Passover holiday, all kinds of extremist elements are promoting lies about our policies on the Temple Mount with the aim of causing riots and fueling tensions,” Netanyahu reassured the world during a speech in Tel Aviv to the union of local authorities in mid-April. “We are working against these inciters and against these inciting elements, and we will increase our forces in places of friction and also take defensive measures. We are also sending messages to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the entire Arab world.”

“I tell you with full certainty: There has not been, nor will there be, any change in our policy toward the status of the Temple Mount-Haram al-Sharif. Do not believe the lies that are promoted, unfortunately, by a number of Knesset members,” Netanyahu said. “We are committed to maintaining peace and security and we will do whatever is necessary to ensure the security of Israeli citizens.”

The Arab world, still smarting from the prime minister’s semi-hysterical call for Israelis to counter “droves” of Arab voters at the polls in March 2015 elections, may or may not find reassurance in Netanyahu’s speech.

A few days ahead of Netanyahu’s talk, head of Fatah’s armed Tanzim wing in Jerusalem Adnan Gaith told Israel Radio that any calls by Jewish religious and political leaders to visit the flashpoint compound “will not bring about peace or quiet… Al-Aqsa is a red line, people will not think twice about protecting it,” Gaith said.

Jerusalem Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, the Muslim cleric in charge of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, also warned against increased Jewish “provocations” during Passover. “We must stop religious groups and extremist Jews from invading this Muslim holy site,” he told the radio station.

And in early March during a trip to Indonesia, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of attempting to “Judaize” the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Every slight Israeli alteration of historical arrangements, such as an October 2014 proposal to open a second gate for non-Muslim visitors or the planned 2007 Mughrabi Gate renovation, is met with vehement, if not violent, protest.

“While not a one-sided affair, the activism of Temple Mount prayers and the Murabitat (the Muslim women that patrol the mount) have definitely heightened tensions and this threatens the post-1967 status quo,” said Dr. Sara Hirschhorn, a University Research Lecturer in Israel Studies at England’s Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

‘The post-1967 status quo is an illiberal measure’

“One thing I find interesting is how the Temple Mount Institute people are trying to challenge that — they don’t speak necessarily in terms of faith or the Messiah, but like I’ve observed with my Jewish-American settlers (of which, many are also represented in the TMI), they’ve cast this terms of a battle for human rights and religious freedom — the right for all religions to pray on the Temple Mount,” said Hirschhorn, whose book, “City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement Since 1967,” is set for publication in 2017.

“In theory, I would say that I am sympathetic to this argument: there is an issue of discrimination in the Waqf forbidding Jewish prayer on the Mount, just as there is discrimination in the Temple Wall rabbis discouraging Muslim, Christian and other religions’ prayer on the Kotel Plaza. The post-1967 status quo is an illiberal measure. However, we know in practice that, unfortunately, renegotiating this arrangement is a recipe for political turmoil and violence,” said Hirschhorn.

Temple Mount activists claim it is the Muslims who are not upholding the status quo, through selective opening hours and consistent harassment of visibly Jewish visitors, but it is the Jews who are demonized. The 1994 Jordanian peace treaty stated: “The Parties will act together to promote interfaith relations among the three monotheistic religions, with the aim of working towards religious understanding, moral commitment, freedom of religious worship, and tolerance and peace.”

Jewish activists wonder, where is their freedom of worship?

On the forefront of the fight for freedom of religion is American-born Yehuda Glick’s movement, HaLiba: The Temple Mount Heritage Foundation. Through a series of educational endeavors and social media outreach — complete with photo ops with Netanyahu — it is working to change the Israeli approach to the Temple Mount.

Last summer Glick published a guidebook for visitors to the Temple Mount titled “Arise and Ascend,” which he delivered in person to the prime minister. The booklet features an eclectic array of endorsements, from Efrat rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Turkish author Adnan Oktar and Methodist pastor Keith Johnson, as well as from Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin. Glick’s organization’s website has links explaining the detailed purification process that must be completed before ascending the Temple Mount.

But hip to the Millennial interest in human rights, the website also showcases an animated propaganda video targeted at the broader Israeli society that addresses the themes of freedom of religion as an argument for changing the status quo.

This is an argument with deep historical roots, dating back to 1967.


A few hours after the IDF took the Temple Mount in 1967, the Israeli chief rabbinate issued a warning over Israel Radio not to enter the site. However, one minority opinion immediately contested Dayan’s status quo decision: IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren.

As recorded in a 2014 Ministry of the Interior sub-committee report on the Temple Mount, in an anguished response, Goren decried the absurdity that the Temple Mount, the most holy site of the Jewish people, was shut off from Jewish faithful.

“The decision rocks me to the very depths of my soul… the place that was consecrated to be a house of prayer for all the nations, it is the sole place on the entire globe where Jews are forbidden from praying… Who would have thought that the Israeli defense forces would be forced to disturb Jews praying before God on the Temple Mount which is under the auspices of the government of Israel,” he wrote in a 1967 letter. But the religious school he had set up on the mount was disassembled, as was the office he’d established there.

As recorded in historian Inbari’s “Religious Zionism and the Temple Mount Dilemma,” on the first Tisha B’av following the Temple Mount’s liberation, Goren and a group of his supporters brought a Torah scroll, ark and prayer benches to the holy site, where they prayed the afternoon service.

“After the prayer, Goren announced that he would also hold Yom Kippur prayers on the site. His plans were thwarted by the intervention of Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan and Chief-of-Staff Yitzhak Rabin,” wrote Inbari.

However, when Goren was appointed as the Ashkenazi chief rabbi in 1972, he tried to change the rabbinate’s position and again pushed for prayer on the Temple Mount. He was unsuccessful, but, wrote Inbari, “Goren found a faithful supporter in Mordechai Eliyahu, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi during 1983-1993. Eliyahu adopted an innovative and creative halachic approach when he proposed that a synagogue be built on the Temple Mount, within the permitted areas” [land outside of the biblical district dedicated to the First and Second Temples].

‘Eliyahu proposed that the synagogue should be higher than the Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques, in order to manifest its superiority over the Muslim houses of worship’

“Eliyahu proposed that the synagogue should be higher than the Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques, in order to manifest its superiority over the Muslim houses of worship, whose presence he saw as a reminder of the destruction,” wrote Inbari. (In subsequent years, others, including Minister Uri Ariel, have also spoken of the idea of a synagogue on the Temple mount.)

According to the 2014 Ministry of the Interior report, while it is in the power of the Minister of Religious Affairs to create new regulations to allow for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, no minister will touch the issue. The Israeli chief rabbinate also has yet to change its stance.

But another influential body of rabbis has — the Council of Yesha Rabbis which serves the religious Zionist settler movement.

In 1996, suffering from a crisis of faith in the face of the Oslo Accords, the CYR directed all rabbis to “ascend the Mount themselves, and to guide their congregants in ascending the Mount within all the limitations of the Halacha,” wrote Inbari. “The argument behind the ruling was that the lack of a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount, due to the halachic [Jewish law] prohibition against entering the site, had led the Israeli governments to see the site as one that could easily be relinquished,” he explained.

Glick’s HaLiba movement echoes Inbari’s analysis on its website.

“In face of this deliberate aggression, and subsequent Israeli governments attempts to ‘compromise’ on the ‘status’ of the Mount, (that is, to hand over sovereignty to the Palestinian Authority), the daily presence of Jews on the Temple Mount, has taken on crucial significance. Our peaceful presence is testimony to the paramount significance of the Temple Mount to the Jewish people. No less importantly, our peaceful presence on the Mount is a daily reminder to the Israeli government, and to freedom loving people around the world, that our most fundamental and inalienable rights of freedom of worship are being denied,” writes the organization.

And thousands are answering the call: During the Second Intifada the site was closed to Jews until 2003. From 2004 onwards, however, Jewish visitation has skyrocketed. According to data published in the Israeli daily Makor Rishon, the number of Jewish Israelis who visited the Temple Mount has moved from 6,568 visits in 2009 to 10,906 in 2014. And just through Thursday this week, some 850 Jews have visited the Temple Mount, of whom 35 were ejected for praying, or not following other ordinances.

“This outburst of enthusiasm has been led by important religious and political leaders from within the religious Zionist camp, and not necessarily from its more extreme wings,” wrote Inbari.

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t troubled by it.


On a sunny April afternoon, The Times of Israel toured the Jerusalem Old City’s Temple Institute with the soft spoken, spiritually minded head of its international department, Rabbi Chaim Richman. The flocks of tourists in the center were from abroad, and, with prominent gold cross pendants, were decidedly not Jewish.

One has to wonder what the American Christian crowd makes of the attention to detail and meticulous research displayed in the Institute’s work.

As Richman sheepishly said, “if not understood properly, it sounds like some sort of heebie jeebie, voodoo.”

The American-born Richman, who has worked at the Institute since 1987, explained that the central importance of the Temple to Judaism is obvious in that of the 613 commandments required of religious Jews, fully a third deal with the Temple. Indeed, the amount of ink devoted to the Temple in the Hebrew Bible is completely disproportionate to any other subject.

“People assume that building the Temple is unnatural, that it can’t be done, that it’s something the Messiah has to reinstate,” said Richman. “That is the excruciating frustration in my work, that I have to struggle with the notion that the Temple will come down from heaven.”

‘The whole goal of the Temple Institute is to be as actively engaged as possible within the reality of the current political climate’

“That is the antithesis of Jewish thought. Everything about the life of a Jew is about action, tikkun olam, doing. There are hundreds of expressions in the Bible that have to do with doing, actions,” said Richman.

“The whole goal of the Temple Institute is to be as actively engaged as possible within the reality of the current political climate,” said Richman, who disavowed any political implication in the organization’s work to create the Third Temple’s vessels and other areas of research. “It’s the first stage,” he said.

“Everything that goes on in the Temple is a psychodrama, jarring, jolting, visceral, violent,” he said. Animal sacrifices, said the 30-year vegetarian, are “a strong psychological experience that make man think deeply about life, the sanctity of life… Everything is about bringing man to a higher level of consciousness… Everything in the Temple is level upon level of meaning.”

For those involved, it is a labor of faith and love to discover anything from the stones that adorn the high priest’s breastplate to the fact that the gland of a particular snail can be used for both the blue and purple tints on the high priests’ vestments, depending on the amount of exposure the animal has to sunlight.

But can the average Israeli school group fathom the controversy in the preparation of the future Temple’s vessels? Does the random passerby understand the significance behind the institute’s $3 million gold menorah, which now occupies prime real estate in the Old City, visible to all who descend the well-worn stairwell to the Western Wall?

Perhaps a lack of nuance is precisely the institute’s goal.

Although the Temple Mount activists’ rhetoric centers around inalienable rights, freedom of religion, and even levels of metaphysical meaning, scholar Inbari maintained they “are creating a danger to the State of Israel by taking radical actions and inciting others.”

“It’s a very serious issue that ought to be dealt with seriously,” he said.

At the “respectable” establishments, such as the Temple Institute, “they are kind of like winking. They are saying, ‘We are doing what we are doing, because this is the limit. We’ll push the limit and see where the limit is flexible. People will understand that we are playing a double game,” he said this week. “In Israel, many understand the winks, the double language.” The tourists from abroad markedly less so.

In conversation by phone from his North Carolina home, Inbari is not overly worried about an imminent Armageddon caused by the activists, rather Israel’s political climate.

‘There might be people who are plotting and planning the destruction of the mosques; I’m not dismissing it’

“The fact is that someone like Yehuda Glick could be possibly be counted as an MK shows something about the radicalization of the Israeli society, how the Israeli right is being pushed to the extreme,” he said.

“There might be people who are plotting and planning the destruction of the mosques; I’m not dismissing it. But now the radical right is more on an educational mission — to change the hearts and minds and convert the faithful to their ideas.

“They’re not trying to practically spark an apocalypse; that was the lesson learned from Yehuda Etzion. The apocalypse they’re aiming for is to create an educational change among the nation, so the nation will demand the Temple Mount,” said Inbari.