The Temple Mount Has Gone Mainstream

The shooting of Yehuda Glick is a stark reminder that those seeking a return to Judaism’s holiest site are no longer a bunch of fringe extremists. We dismiss them at our peril.

Tomer Appelbaum

Yehuda Glick is a dangerous extremist whose actions could plunge us all into a bloody religious war. Yehuda Glick is a civil rights activist bravely fighting for freedom of worship. Yehuda Glick is a Jewish supremacist seeking to extend Israeli occupation to one of Islam’s most sacred sites. Yehuda Glick is a sweet-natured, gentle man seeking to fulfil the vision of our prophets where members of all faiths come to Jerusalem to pray side-by-side in peace.

In the schizophrenic state of this city, Yehuda Glick, who was critically wounded on Wednesday in what looks like an assassination attempt, is all these things. He also represents what could be the greatest ideological challenge in this century to the religious Orthodox establishment, to old-fashioned Zionism and to secular Judaism, all at once.

Glick was shot at the end of a conference he had organized promoting greater access for Jews to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The conference venue, the Menachem Begin Center – not an obscure yeshiva on some settlement, but a monument to Israel’s first right-wing prime minister who made peace with Egypt and declared that the rule of law, even when expressed by liberal judges, takes precedence over religious and nationalist politics – was testament to just how much this cause has entered the mainstream. Just as is the fact that Glick kept away some of the more militant Temple Mount activists who seek (and in at least one case actively tried) to destroy the mosques and build the Third Temple in their place, while inviting to speak a member of the left-wing NGO Ir Amim, which promotes coexistence in Jerusalem.

Make no mistake, the campaign to reestablish a more permanent Jewish presence on Mount Moriah is dangerous. Their Judaism is one that exalts sacred stones and hallowed soil above human life, and threatens to take the Zionist endeavour down a dark alley where it was never intended to go.

Many of those involved are blatantly trying to provoke exactly the kind of violent Muslim reaction that will lead to a downward spiral of bloodshed, that they believe will once and for all end any possibility of a territorial compromise between Israelis and Palestinians. That was the express intention of Yehuda Etzion and his Jewish underground, who tried in the early 1980s to blow up the mosques in the hope it would derail the Camp David Accords.

Gershon Salomon, founder of the Temple Mount Faithful, used to say when trying to enter the compound that “we are seeing the end of the Arab period in Eretz Yisrael.” They’re still around and the numbers of their followers have grown, but a wider movement has also evolved and it isn’t just about religious extremism or ultra-nationalism but something much deeper.

For some of the activists the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not even part of the narrative. They have drawn up maps purporting to prove how the Temple Mount can be “shared” between members of the two faiths and have tried, some would say naively, to engage with Muslim representatives. There is an inherent contradiction here, as they yearn at the same time for the day that the Temple will stand instead the mosques, but some sincerely believe that is not in their hands and until the day of heavenly intervention we can all just get along.

It is much too easy to explain away the growing Temple Mount movement as another phenomenon of the growing right-wing religious radicalism in Israel – though that does play a major role, of course. There is another motivation at work. I tried to ask a friend who has gone to pray on the Mount, a modern-Orthdox feminist lawyer who has worked for left-wing NGOs, why she did it and she answered that she wanted to try and “connect with something deeper and purer than the everyday mundane religious practice.”

I thought of asking her sarcastically why she couldn’t just fly to India and spend a week meditating in an ashram instead of playing with a box of matches in the biggest explosive warehouse in the Middle East, but I bit my tongue.

The Temple Mount movement, like any other wave of religious and national awakening, is full of political charlatans and racist fundamentalists, but those are easily identifiable and while extremely dangerous, have been countered and contained in the past. Even Israel’s most right-wing governments, including that of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who had previously made his own high-profile pilgrimage to the Mount, have prevented them from entering during periods of tension.

The real challenge is those motivated by a general malaise and disillusionment with a hidebound religious establishment and ultra-materialistic Israeli state, seeking a return to a fuzzy notion of an ancient and cleaner past. The fact that this past never existed and that by all historic accounts the Jerusalem temples, like any other godly institution, were rife with corruption and political intrigue, doesn’t diminish those yearnings.

For over a century most rabbis took a pragmatic line and prohibited entrance to the Mount on the grounds that until the Messiah comes, we are unclean and the Temple site too holy to bear our physical presence. That is still the official policy of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate today and most rabbis of all streams of Judaism continue to adhere to it. The Temple is spiritual dynamite that they fear handling.

But many young religious Jews today are challenging the rabbinate on just about every issue. Defying their edicts by going up to pray on the Mount is akin to their insisting that women should be allowed to recite kaddish in public or that Orthodox communities embrace homosexual couples. For them it isn’t about politics, but about challenging old norms – and it is the same for the small but growing number of secular Israelis supporting the cause. No longer content with fulfilling the old Zionist vision of just being a “nation like all others” and disenchanted with its latest evolution as the startup nation, which anyway has brought prosperity only to a minority of Israelis, they are looking for a new frontier of Zionism. For some that means founding ecological cooperatives in the Negev desert, for others it is coming to grips with a mystical taboo at the heart of Jerusalem.

It is another symptom of the collective lack of imagination of rabbis, Israeli politicians and secular Jewish educators to provide alternatives. Religious rigid discipline, empty Zionist slogans and flabby liberal cliches of tikkun olam are all failing to energize a disillusioned generation. Many opt out, lose interest in their heritage and seek a comfortable life in Berlin, while others seek to broaden the envelope of their Jewish existence. To them the Temple is the last frontier and Yehuda Glick is its brave pioneer.

The Temple Mount Faithful is no longer a fringe element or an obscure cult of religious extremists. Treating them like a bunch of dangerous, yet containable crazy fundamentalists, increases the chances they could cause a major disaster.