The ‘destruction of the Third Temple’ ? – Israel’s apocalyptic civil war weakens state, military

Juan Cole

Informed Comment  /  July 22, 2023

Ann Arbor – On Friday, all hell broke loose in Israel, even more so than the recent norm. The Israeli newspaper Arab 48 reports that an earthquake struck the Israeli Air Force when 1,142 reservists published an open letter saying that they will be forced, with great regret, to resign their commissions if the current government passes its law neutering the Supreme Court. A loss of this magnitude, including 400 highly trained fighter-jet pilots, would much reduce the country’s military preparedness. Some doubted whether the Israeli model of citizen-soldiers can even survive.

At the same time, Israeli protesters mounted a massive miles-long march on Jerusalem.

A committee of the parliament, dominated by a right-wing coalition that includes out-and-out extremists, reported out an article of the new law on the judiciary that removes the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review on the grounds of whether a law is “reasonable” in the light of Israel’s basic laws on issues such as human dignity. The country does not have a formal constitution, but some laws, on human rights issues, have been taken as the basis for overturning subsequent legislation that contradicts the basic laws. Removing the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review would make Israel an elective dictatorship, where the ruling party can pass retrograde laws permitting discrimination against women, Christians, Muslims, secularists and gays, in accordance with the principles of the Israeli Religious Right.

The Supreme Court has also branded some squatter-settlements by Israelis on Palestinian-owned land in the West Bank as illegal, and extremists Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir want to prevent the court from so ruling in the future.

It is expected that the government will pass the controversial legislation on Monday, since the current coalition has more than enough votes to do so and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is unmoved by the huge demonstrations that have been mounted for 28 weeks in a row. Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, and the new legislation may save him from being convicted.

Thousands of protesters against the new law set out this week from Tel Aviv, walking on foot to the Givat Ram district of Jerusalem where the Israeli parliament or Knesset meets, to stage a big demonstration this weekend and into Monday against the passage of the law neutering the Supreme Court. The journey is about 44 miles. On Friday evening, the group, some 10,000 strong, halted 9 miles outside Jerusalem to hold Friday evening worship ceremonies.

Although they never blocked the main road, Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, and notorious extremist and racist, ordered the police chief to clear it with as much force as needed. Ben-Gvir seems to want to treat secular Jews rather as the occupied Palestinians are treated. It shows that once you go in for occupying other people and depriving them of their rights, it eventually blows back on the metropole.

The demonstrators issued the following statement:

“We are entering the most fateful days in the history of the state. This is a war of independence for the vast majority of the citizens of Israel, patriots who have given up everything and have been fighting for months for its future as a liberal democracy. We are in the phase before the destruction of the Third Temple, and the government and its president must hear the people’s cry and stop. Starting Saturday evening we will all be in the streets, and only with firm resistance will we stop the dictatorship.”

The reference to the destruction of the Third Temple is almost apocalyptic in tone. Solomon’s temple, the center of Jewish worship according to the Bible, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Iranian Achaemenid Empire then conquered the Near East and allowed Jews to return to the Levant, to a special district for them named Yahud. There they built the Second Temple. It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Thereafter Judaism developed as a different sort of religion, based in scattered communities rather than around a central cultic site, and developing rabbis who advised on the practice of the religion in the absence of a temple. The destruction of both edifices is lamented in Jewish tradition. The protesters are saying that Israel as a secular liberal democracy functioned sort of as a Third Temple for the Jewish people, and that Netanyahu and his colleagues are no less a threat than had been the Babylonians and the Romans.

Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment ; he is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the author of, among others, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam