Eight Jewish Israelis have been arrested on Temple Mount in Jerusalem over the past two days after police feared their attempts to pray there would incite violence.
Among those arrested were right-wing Likud party member Moshe Feiglin and Yehuda Liebman, a prime figure at the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the hard-line West Bank settlement of Yitzhar.
Among the suspects is the more moderate Elyashiv Cherlow, son of Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the Petah Tikva yeshiva, who is considered a relatively liberal religious Zionist leader.
Though the arrests may suggest otherwise, the Temple Mount Faithful movement has recently made a giant leap towards the mainstream. Just last year, their activists were firmly planted in the far-right messianic fringes of Orthodox Judaism and were shunned by most religious Jews. This has ceased to be the case, and Cherlow’s arrest can only attest to their rapprochement to the heart of the Orthodox establishment.
The Temple Mount Faithful take pride in the growing list of rabbis who withdrew their ban on visiting the Temple Mount, some of whom even visited the holy site themselves. They also note the growing number of Jewish worshippers visiting the site for spiritual reasons.
It was also the first time activists for repealing the ban on Jewish ritual on the Temple Mount have managed to translate their predominantly theological campaign into a concrete political program. MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union) has tabled a bill, and MK Ze'ev Elkin (Likud) made a public statement, both calling for changing the legal status of the Temple Mount for the first time since 1967, the year Israel occupied the Old City of Jerusalem and barred Jews from entering the compound, as well as allocating prayer times for Jews.
Meanwhile, based on information recently gathered by a prison informant, police believe "price tag" attacks on Muslims at the Temple Mount are imminent. A suspect arrested in connection to other "price tag" attacks told the informant that he was planning to "go and do something big" at Temple Mount.
Theological taboo dissipates
One of the main impediments to changing the status quo at Temple Mount has been the stern halakhic ban on Jews visiting the site, for reasons of religious purity. But that prohibition has worn off in recent years, as more and more Zionist rabbis have permitted visits to the site, and even gone themselves.
Alongside Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, the list of so-called moderate rabbinical visitors includes the rabbi of Efrat, Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi Ya’acov Medan of the Har Etzion yeshiva, and Rabbi Haim Druckman, author of the program for drafting Haredi men. That's on top of the extremist rabbis who have visited the site, including Shmuel Eliyahu, Dov Lior, and Yisrael Ariel, who have deemed Temple Mount as a legitimate site for spiritual and political activity.
However, most of the ultra-Orthodox community and all the main Haredi rabbis remain opposed to changing the status-quo. Shmuel Rabinovitch, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shlomo Avineri and the people affiliated with the hard-line Mercaz Harav yeshiva are all staunch opponents to lifting the ban.
"The messianic tension surrounding the Temple Mount could ferment Jerusalem and the whole region," warns Dr. Gadi Gvaryahu, among the founders of the Tag Meir forum, which is acting against religious extremism. "The attempts by the 'price tag' people to mount to Temple Mount and pray there, together with acts of arson and vandalism of mosques, might end up in some fanatic group damaging the mosques on Temple Mount, in a similar manner to the Jewish underground that operated in the 1980s," he said.
Legitimizing visits to the Mount
Once sanctioned by leading rabbis, the prospect of opening Temple Mount to Jews is likely to gain further traction among the religious-Zionist movement and among the right in general. The change is evident in the unprecedented proliferation of movements and pressure groups focusing on Temple Mount and the temple itself.
No less than ten organizations, including the Temple Mount Faithful, the Temple Mount Movement, The Temple Institute, and Women for Temple Mount now share a very active central administration. It has managed to shake off the movement's messianic image and reposition it as a legitimate body. In recent years even the Education Ministry has been encouraging schoolchildren to visit the site. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom was a guest of honor at the latest conference on Temple Mount and many MKs have visited the site, or demonstrated public support for the various mount-related movements.
According to the movements, some 15,000 religious Jews will have visited Temple Mount this year, compared with 9,000 in 2011.
Myriad factors have prompted this change in attitude. The evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements in 2005 radicalized some circles in the settler society, giving rise to a fundamentalist generation. Evolution in the Halakhic literature may also be a factor. But, according to MK Eldad, it is first and foremost a renewed sense of pride. "This public feels less and less inferior vis-à-vis ultra-Orthodox rabbis," he explains. "What had been marginal once upon a time is gaining momentum. Temple Mount is perceived as avant-garde. It attracts the young. Maybe older people had become accustomed to Temple Mount belonging to the Arabs and waiting for the [third] Temple to fall from the heavens."
Yehuda Glick, spokesman for the Temple movements’ coalition, says his goal for next year is for "Jews to become part of the scenery at Temple Mount." But the Rosh Hashanah cards the joint staff sent to their followers spell out a far more radical aspiration: "May this be a year of redemption… A year in which the disgrace is lifted from us, a year in which the Temple is rebuilt and the Kingdom of Judah takes back the reins."
Featuring a picture of the Temple’s Foundation Stone against the backdrop of the Dome of the Rock, it is very clear what "disgrace" the writer wishes to eradicate.
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