The Israelis Who Take Rebuilding the Third Temple Very Seriously

Eran Tzidkiyahu, a guide to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, explains why Temple activists are so driven - and how their mission clashes with a fundamental part of Palestinian identity

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Eran Tzidkiyahu.
Eran Tzidkiyahu.Credit: Emil Salman
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Talking to: Eran Tzidkiyahu, 36, research associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking, and a “geopolitical” tour guide. Where: at the foot of the Temple Mount. When: Sunday, 10 A.M.

What does it mean that you are a “geopolitical guide”?

It means that I engage in the conflict from the perspective of its geographical and political aspects. Essentially, I take people out and show them the conflict in the field – on the Temple Mount, in the territories, in settlements. In places that are holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

What sorts of people are interested in this type of tour?

Representatives of various civil-society organizations, students and faculty members from universities in Israel and around the world, American Jews, groups of rabbis. Not long ago, I guided senior officials from the Mossad.

We also went up to the Temple Mount earlier today. The policeman at the entrance asked if we wanted an escort, warned us not to touch anything, not to enter the mosques. He said that the situation is sensitive.

A Jew prays in front of an entrance to the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, on Tisha B'Av, a day of fasting and lament, in Jerusalem's Old City, August 1, 2017Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

I think that we need to stop for a moment and look at this place from the outside. I really try to read the space as if it were a text. I am interested not only in the main event that is going on, but also in the little things all around it. The guard, the bitterness of the group of Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews] waiting on the bridge. The conversations conducted by the policemen.

Interesting. What did you see that I couldn’t see?

For instance, all of the entryways to the Western Wall [Plaza] are very wide. Only the [non-Muslim] entry to the Temple Mount is small and off to the side. The state isn’t interested in having you enter there, it intentionally doesn’t make this entrance into a terminal with 10 inspection points. No, it is a little station, and the Jews standing there are held up for quite some time.

Before they inspected my bag, you asked me if I was carrying a copy of the Book of Psalms. You said it might cause us more trouble than the tablet and the voice recorder. What did you mean?

Jews aren’t allowed to bring religious objects up to the Temple Mount. The police enforce the status quo that prevents Jews from conducting ritual acts on the Mount. And if someone is not aware of that and has such an object in his possession, his entry to the Temple Mount will be significantly delayed.

But there was a huge group of Haredi Jews waiting to go up. Aren’t they carrying siddurim [prayer books]?

There are special cabinets down below for them to store their objects. Anyone who pulls out a Jewish book on the Temple Mount plaza will immediately be detained by the police. Something new that I noticed today for the first time is that they’ve installed sunshades along the path. Someone made the decision to provide shade to this narrow and uncomfortable column of people waiting in line.

And what do you make of that?

In my opinion, it reflects a change in approach by the police. I think it is evidence of the great deal of pressure being exerted on the authorities responsible for the Temple Mount by the various pro-Temple groups. That these groups are becoming increasingly more powerful.

Perhaps you could tell me about the Temple groups.

Currently it is a real conglomerate of organizations and groups and individuals that put the Temple Mount at the top of their agendas, whether it is to attain rights to ascend and pray on the Mount, or whether it is to promote the establishment of the Third Temple. Back in the 1990s, these groups were marginal, they were considered way out there. Today a significant share of their demands has entered the mainstream. To a large extent, [Likud Knesset member] Yehudah Glick is the man responsible for the unification of these groups into a single body that acts to strategically promote its objectives. Together with [Public Security Minister] Gilad Ardan, [Culture and Sports Minister] Miri Regev, and the commander of the Jerusalem police district, he has succeeded in attaining real achievements.

Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick. Credit: Emil Salman

Define the achievements.

The Temple Mount is talked about in the corridors of the Knesset and in the Prime Minister’s Office. The Internal Affairs and Environment Committee chaired by Regev has held several hearings on the right to pray on the Temple Mount by Jews. The Murabitun and the Murabitat [Muslim groups, the former for females, latter for males, that see themselves as the gatekeepers of the Temple Mount] have been declared illegal. Jewish groups ascend the Temple Mount in numbers and frequency that are continually growing. But the primary achievement, as I mentioned, is the penetration into the mainstream. Nowadays, every secular Israeli can be expected to say that we have rights on the Temple Mount, and many of them even support the right to pray there.

It’s a change in public consciousness.

One that also has its expressions in the field. From the level of Gilad Erdan, who speaks out against the status quo that he is supposed to maintain, to the leaks from the cabinet on the matter of the metal detectors, which demonstrates that their conduct is not limited only to what is practical and feasible – that there are also considerations related to religion, identity, even messianic beliefs; to things that I can see with my own eyes.

It is the police that are supposed to deal with Jews ascending to the Temple Mount. To impede, to delay, to thin out. Supporters of the Temple are familiar, of course, with the policemen on the Temple Mount, and the policemen recognize them. In the past year, I have seen a real, closer relationship emerging between the policemen and the Temple supporters. This year, a month or so before the murder of the Druze policemen [on July 14, 2017], police Major General Yoram Halevi went up to the Mount with a group of Temple supporters, where he was photographed with them. He is the district commander, and he received a blessing from them on the Mount that was photographed and documented. That is sheer lunacy. On his blog, Arnon Segal, a Temple activist, wrote that this [specific] ascent to the Temple Mount was a “national-state ascent” dedicated to the memory of Hallel Ariel, the girl who was murdered in Kiryat Arba [in 2016]. Her parents are extremely enthusiastic and dedicated Temple activists. Her mother constantly speaks of a Temple consciousness.

What does “Temple consciousness” even mean?

Living your life with the awareness that your purpose in this country as a Jew is to live in accordance with the commandments of the Torah, and that there are a great deal of commandments that cannot be observed without a Temple. So one has to live with full intention with respect to this. For instance, she works with women on baking of the special bread that needs to be prepared for the Temple. For these people, the Temple is our reason for being here.

Does it come across as authentic to you?

Absolutely. These are interesting and serious people, and I would by no means dismiss them. Partly because of the potential repercussions of what they are doing, and partly because we are speaking of intelligent people possessing a profound religious and national consciousness, some of whom are immersed in it with all their heart and soul. The closer I get and watch and listen to them, the more I see this experience as highly authentic.

I understand that you are in close touch with them.

I know all of these people personally. I even completed a course for Temple Mount tour guides run by the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation.

What is a Temple Mount tour guide course?

In view of the fact that increasingly more Jews are going up to the Mount, the Temple Mount organizations decided to launch an initiative: The goal is for each Jew who comes to the Mount to encounter another Jew who will accompany him, tell him about it, and explain the history and theology.

I can’t see you fitting in in a course like that.

When I joined the course they really were pretty apprehensive. They asked me what my motives were, because they know me and my opinions. When I said that I simply wanted to understand, they agreed that I could join – on condition, of course, that I would not write any posts on Facebook or share the course contents with anyone.

But there is an obvious agenda.

For sure. The course is led by prominent Temple activists. Yehudah Glick himself conferred the certificate for completing the course on me.

Eran Tzidkiyahu.Credit: Emil Salman

What was the content of the course?

Mainly it was historical religious content concerned with the Temple and the Mount. A great deal of attention was paid to the dimensions of the Temple. One of the main reasons for the halakhic [Jewish legal] ban on ascent to the Temple Mount has to do with the concern about entering forbidden holy areas, so this is extremely relevant to them, as they want to know where it is permissible for them to walk and where it is forbidden. For them, the most interesting question is where exactly the altar on the raised platform to the east of the Dome of the Rock actually stood.


Because you don’t need a Temple to offer sacrifices. The Passover sacrifice, for example. They are saying, “Why shouldn’t we come in with a young goat and offer the Passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount?” After all, that would not deter from the sanctity of the Muslims. It is permitted. It’s even required. For that, it is important to know where the altar is.

I can’t even begin to tell you how hard it is for me to relate to this.

Look, when you are standing up there on the Mount, with these people, and they are standing on the northern steps and looking at the Dome of the Chain, they’re not seeing what you see. They are seeing the place of the sacrificial altar. The site of the Temple. They are in a different dimension.

As in some sort of a vision? Is that what you felt when you were among them?

Totally. They’re on a high. They are not seeing the things that surround them – the line or the cops or the Waqf. They only want to go up already, and the moment that they pass through the gates, some of them bow down and prostrate themselves. That is permissible in Judaism only on the Temple Mount. Total prostration, hands and feet stretched out on the ground. Anywhere else, that is considered idol worship and is forbidden. These people are seeing on the Mount a mythological past and a mythological future, and not the present.

Yes. That definitely explains a great deal.

As far as they’re concerned, the building of the Temple is a logical and correct idea. Look, “Zion” is not, after all, about building kibbutzim. If you had asked a Jew 200 years ago what the meaning is of “Return to Zion,” he would reply, “returning to the Holy Land and rebuilding the Temple.” That is what people pray for and that is where all of “Zionist” consciousness was directed – until the advent of Zionism. Zionism is essentially a repudiation of this discourse, an attempt to secularize it, to nationalize it. Zionism attempted to escape from this idea of Temple, and now you’re seeing it coming back.

Is it coming back, or is it being brought back by religious Zionism?

Essentially, it reentered the arena in response to the possibility of territorial compromise. The Gush Emunim folks did not focus on the Temple. Oslo was the crisis that has brought broader segments of the religious Zionist public to express interest in the Temple Mount. In March 1996, the Yesha Rabbinical Council [representing the settler rabbis] issued a call to ascend the Temple Mount. It was at the height of the month of Ramadan, and on the Friday that followed the issue of this call, 250,000 Palestinians came to pray there. This is the dynamic of the two sides. A few months later, the Western Wall Tunnel riots broke out and the [Israeli] Islamic Movement decided to engage full-on in the Al-Aqsa issue.

The status quo, the unwritten agreements between the authorities and the Waqf, that had held for 30 years, collapsed. Essentially, both the Yesha Rabbinical Council and the leadership of the Islamic Movement in Israel are united around the same holy site. It is not a coincidence. It is impossible to speak of the Temple Mount as driving Jewish identity without speaking of Al-Aqsa [by which Muslims refer to the entire esplanade] as driving Palestinian identity. In the same way that this idea was raised at a time when there was an attempt to reach a compromise and perhaps end the conflict, the same thing happened on the Palestinian side. It isn’t an academic question or a philosophical argument; it is a fact of life for all of the Palestinians.

Are you convinced of that?

Palestinians pray as Israeli police officers look on by newly installed metal detectors at an entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, July 16, 2017. Credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Just before we met, an old Palestinian man in the Muslim Quarter said to me, “As a Palestinian, I am commanded to protect this site; I am speaking with you from the heart and not from the head.” It isn’t that every Palestinian in Jenin and in Umm al-Fahm is thinking of Al-Aqsa all the time, but at the heart of the Palestinian identity, what distinguishes them from the Arab and the Islamic world around them is their connection to Al-Aqsa and their sense of the timeless mission of protecting it against the takeover of the heretics, throughout history. This is a Palestinian-national message no less than an Islamic-religious one. In the same way in which Jews see as holy the Second Temple period, the ethos of Masada and Hanukkah, the last period of Jewish sovereignty, so does Islam in this country unite around the idea of protection of the holy sites in Jerusalem – “Al-Aqsa, whose precincts we did bless” [from Surah 17:1 of the Koran] – as the third holiest site to Islam, there we are protecting the holy places of Islam from the dangers that lay without. That is a very deep foundation of the Palestinian identity here.

We won’t review the whole, long history of clashes on the Temple Mount here, but what is common to all of them, I think, is a dynamic of reaction. One side is dragged into it in the wake of acts committed by the other side.

People look at it, both on the Palestinian side and on the Israeli side, as if “the other side is doing this to us,” when in effect the situation is as you described it, there is a constant flow of response and counter-response.

Maybe you could describe to me this place through the eyes of the Palestinians. Through the eyes of the individual who comes up to the Mount to pray five times a day.

The Temple Mount is not only the third-holiest place to Muslims in Israel, it is also the largest park in East Jerusalem, the biggest open space in an area that is otherwise an urban disaster. It is the only place where there is a certain degree of freedom and independence for Palestinians, because it is the place where Israeli sovereignty is at its most imperfect and the Israeli occupation is less present. Therefore, here you can see families getting together for picnics, people passing through here for no special reason in the middle of the day, just to rest, to pray, to eat. This phenomenon has changed gradually in recent years, and this is precisely what the Palestinians feel that they are losing – not only their national symbol, but also their personal expanse of freedom, to which they are connected not only at the religious level, but also at the individual level. Again, you have to understand – there are no parks, no gardens, there is only the Temple Mount. The childhood memories of many of them are rooted in this place. In light of the balance of forces in this space, they interpret everything that happens on the Israeli side as an attempt to deprive them of their place here.

On the matter of sovereignty, yesterday I read an old quote from the historian Shlomo Ben-Ami, who argued that more than we are sovereign on the Temple Mount, we are hostages of the Temple Mount.

He’s right. We are hostages of the sovereignty question on the Temple Mount. Our sovereignty here is the problem and not the solution.

Every times there’s a flare-up, when it is put to the test, we rediscover that in actual fact, we do not have sovereignty.

That is true, in my opinion, for all of Jerusalem. The State of Israel believes that the solution in Jerusalem is application of sovereignty, but it has already been 50 years that sovereignty in Jerusalem has been expressed only through power, and every child who takes an introductory course in political science can tell you that the more you use physical strength, the less real institutional power you actually possess. A sovereignty that is expressed by means of battalions of Border Police officers is not a profound sovereignty, and there will be no solution to the Temple Mount so long as we speak in terms of absolute sovereignty. Who is the “registered” owner of the Temple Mount? Does it matter at all? Is the legal process suitable for the management of this thing? At the end of the day, we do not have sovereignty, neither on the Temple Mount nor in eastern Jerusalem, and that is the fact. We aren’t even able to put metal detectors in place.

Some people are referring to the sense of accomplishment among Palestinians in the wake of this recent round [of violence]. What are you hearing?

I am hearing Palestinian friends, even totally secular ones, speaking with total euphoria about the power and the communal organization. They said they haven’t felt this way ever. If they were children during the second intifada, or they were born afterward, they aren’t at all familiar with this sense of collectivism; they’ve only known day-to-day survival, being afraid of everyone they see. All of a sudden they’ve received a connection, a sensation of communalism, a hope that it can be different. The Palestinian media is filled with calls to draw conclusions from this victory. The first conclusion is that Israel cannot stand up to organized, mass, nonviolent actions.

Palestinians gather at the Temple Mount compound after Israel removed all security measures it had installed there, in Jerusalem's Old City July 27, 2017.Credit: MUAMMAR JAMEL AWAD/REUTERS

Whose idea was it – for Muslim worshippers to refuse to enter the compound [so long as the metal detectors were in place]? Of the prayers of defiance outside of the gates?

I don’t know. I was sitting here a few days ago with friends, experts on Jerusalem, among them Palestinians, and we weren’t able to come up with an answer as to who started it – the religious leaders, the Waqf or the residents. After all, the Waqf couldn’t have known that the residents would support it.

How did it look out in the field?

Tons of people in the streets. The women of the city brought out piles of food for them. We are talking about five prayers a day, which is basically all day long. People coming from every corner of the country. I was in Baka al-Gharbiyeh the day before, where I met with some well-known Arab intellectuals who were saying – we are going up to Al-Aqsa tomorrow, the whole family. We are on a mission here, we have an obligation here. The police put roadblocks on one road. At night they checked each and every car to try and deter people from trying to get through, but tens of thousands nevertheless made it.

What exactly is the role that the Waqf played in the story of the spontaneous organization?

What has happened here in the past two or three weeks rose up from the Palestinian street of East Jerusalem. In Jerusalem there is no leadership. There simply isn’t. There is the Waqf. It is the largest and most influential institution. In the wake of these events, the Waqf and the street found each other. A well-organized organization with power and money and hierarchy encountered a street that was yearning for leadership and collective action. The interests converged – the Waqf gained renewed strength from the street, and the street gained leadership. To a certain degree, it is the same Jerusalem street that has been looking out for Al-Aqsa for years.

When [Jordan’s King] Abdullah and Bibi [Netanyahu] agreed on the installation of cameras in 2015, the street simply did not let it happen. Now the street has again entered the picture. In my opinion, a profound change in the conception of organized activity in East Jerusalem has taken place. New structures have emerged, a new modus vivendi. It is reasonable to assume that new leaders will also arise here. Something big has happened here – a non-violent populist organization that forced Israel to cave in. The Palestinian internet is already dealing with the subject.

What are you seeing there? What are they writing?

“We’ve succeeded in having an effect on Israel and we have to keep it up.” This public, that always had deals being made over its head, is now the public that spearheaded the process, and [Turkish President] Erdogan and [U.S President] Trump and King Abdullah and Bibi could only hover around it. The Jerusalem street is currently rediscovering its strength.

Do you think Netanyahu understands this?

I don’t know. On the Temple Mount issue, Netanyahu is constantly hiding behind low-ranking cops.

What about Yoram Halevi, the Jerusalem district commander, whom we spoke about earlier?

I don’t know him. Judging his performance alone, it’s a disgrace. Yoram Halevi goes up to the Temple Mount along with Temple activists, changes their status, goes on record arrogantly on the matter of the metal detectors, as if this were the entrance to a shopping mall. We are speaking of a lack of professionalism and a failure to understand the turf. It’s that idea of wanting to teach a lesson, of acting inflexibly in a manner that will ignite popular protest.

He wanted “to prevent the Palestinians’ having a picture of victory.”

That is what he said. And in the end, he lost. If he is indeed a serious professional, he is apparently motivated by other considerations.

Eran Tzidkiyahu.Credit: Emil Salman

The bottom line of this conversation is very depressing.

I am actually optimistic. I think that if we remove the matter of sovereignty from the equation, it would be possible to think of creative solutions. Of a discourse of cooperation. When we stand as equals, there will not be the difference in the balance of forces that currently exists; we could carry on this conversation, and Jews would be able to pray on the Temple Mount as do the Muslims.

I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Why not? It happened in Ireland, with the Good Friday Agreement. There, too, there was a conflict going back centuries, bearing a religious aspect. It is a long path, and it is up to us to try and take that path – or to succumb to pessimism. We cannot change the course of history, we can only choose our path.

You know, I came back here, after three years in France, in the middle of Operation Protective Edge [in 2014]. From tranquil Strasbourg right into the air-raid sirens. It wasn’t a simple thing, but I have no doubt that I made the right decision. I feel that my life is full of value and meaning, in spite of the challenges and the concern over the future of the children.

Strasbourg gave me inspiration. After all, it stood at the center of the French-German conflict for centuries, and it became a symbol of European reconciliation. There are a large number of French-German couples who live there and who are unable to understand how someone could have fought over it, in the same way as the children born after the reconciliation in Ireland.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that you have to be humble when it comes to history, and not to say that something will not happen, because it can always happen. A child who is born a minute after the agreements are signed here will be unable to understand how we could have thought or lived otherwise.

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