+972 Magazine / March 20, 2023
With its activists now sitting in Israel’s government, the once-fringe movement has gained unprecedented influence over the fate of Jerusalem’s holiest site. The next weeks could herald even more danger.
Five young, clay-colored cows touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport in late September, greeted by a joyous gathering of rabbis and well-wishers. Flying cows from the plains of Texas to the Middle East is no easy task, and those waiting to greet the livestock celebrated the success of their years-long effort with a shehecheyanu, the Jewish blessing over something new.
These are no ordinary cows: they are red heifers, and as such any one of them might be the final missing ingredient needed for the coming of the Messiah — at least if you ask the rabbis who came to greet them. All of the rabbis are part of the Temple Mount movement, a loose coalition of groups and individuals working to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque currently stand, and in so doing usher in the messianic age. Part of this grand plan involves restoring Temple worship, and for that to take place, the priests conducting the services must become ritually pure — a process that requires mixing the ashes of a slaughtered purely-red heifer with water from the Gihon stream, in Jerusalem.
Whether the red heifers meet the exacting requirements of Jewish law as prescribed in the book of Numbers — they may not have more than two non-red hairs on their body, and those two hairs cannot be adjacent — is another matter. But for those eager to see Temple worship resume after a 2,000-year hiatus, the arrival of five red heifer candidates in Israel is a pretty big deal.
The Temple Mount movement, for all its ambition, long languished in one of the most ideologically idiosyncratic corners of Israeli society. They faced opposition from the Israeli public, mainstream rabbinical authorities, the government, and the police — in addition to Muslims worldwide, for whom the Temple Mount compound is Al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), the third holiest site in Islam, and who regard attempts at reviving Jewish Temple worship as a threat to the sanctity of the mosques, and to the political fate of the holy city.
But over the last few years, the movement has been extraordinarily successful at pushing past each of these sources of opposition. In what may be its greatest achievement yet, a striking number of Temple Mount activists now make up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the most famous of whom is Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Kahanist star of the last election who is now national security minister. With the surging movement at his back, Ben-Gvir has returned the Temple Mount to the Israeli Zeitgeist, inflaming tensions that have been steadily rising for years.
The situation is constantly on the brink of bloodshed. Last April, one of the more extreme groups affiliated with the Temple Mount movement, Hozrim LaHar (“Returning to the Mount”) offered a cash prize to anyone able to smuggle a lamb up to the site and perform the traditional Passover sacrifice. A few days later, in the middle of Ramadan, Israeli police raided al-Aqsa (for the second year in a row) in response to what they called a “riot.” This year, the holidays will again overlap, with Ramadan beginning this week.
The confluence of the two holidays has led to violence in the past, but developments over the last few months have brought the situation on the Temple Mount to a particularly tense point. Since its inauguration in late December, the far-right government has cracked down on every front of Palestinian life, on both sides of the Green Line, fuelling anger at the injustices of occupation and apartheid.
Meanwhile, Hozrim LaHar submitted a request to Ben-Gvir to permit a Passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount, hoping that their days of needing to secretly smuggle lambs up to the complex may be over. In anticipation of this and other moves Ben-Gvir is poised to make over the next few weeks, the police issued new restrictions on the number of Jewish visitors to the Mount during holidays, while Hamas threatened to “intervene” should Israel encroach further on the holy site.
This is the story of a group of organizations and activists — once considered to be on the fringe of the fringe — transforming into a movement with unprecedented power and influence. Now, that movement may get to call the shots on what is arguably the most religiously and politically fraught 37 acres in the world.
Obstacles to the movement
Jews have dreamed of building the Third Temple since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE. But it wasn’t until the advent of Zionism, and even more so the 1967 War and the occupation of East Jerusalem, that the Temple Mount became the site of serious political activism for Jewish fundamentalists who regarded building the Third Temple as tantamount to the full realization of Zionism.
But there were three distinct problems facing these Temple Mount activists. First and foremost, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque — erected in the intervening millennia since the destruction of the Second Temple — are located on the exact spot upon which the Temples once stood. Destroying these structures and building a Temple atop their ruins in the name of Jewish redemption would almost certainly trigger a catastrophic religious war.
The second issue was a strictly internal one: for centuries, most rabbinical authorities forbade Jews from entering the Temple Mount compound, let alone worshiping and performing sacrifices there. Anyone who has been in contact with a dead body, such as by going to a funeral, entering a cemetery, or even by standing in the same building as a dead body — which is to say, everyone — is considered ritually impure and therefore unfit to enter the Temple Mount, for fear that they might inadvertently step where the Temples’ inner sanctums once stood. Only purification with a red heifer’s ashes could enable Jews to enter the site.
Finally, under the post-1967 status quo, Jews were permitted entry to the Temple Mount only under tightly controlled conditions that included an express prohibition on prayer and ritual objects, and highly restricted hours of entry and points of access. This status quo was enforced by the Waqf, the Muslim religious authority that oversees the site; the Israeli police; and Muslim volunteers from two groups, the Murabitun (for men) and the Murabitat (for women), who would shout at and disrupt Jewish visitors, regarding their attempts to pray as a violation of the status quo and an infringement on an Islamic holy site.
Taken together, these obstacles kept the Temple Mount out of the minds of most Jews. Though multiple Temple Mount groups were founded in the years after 1967, they failed to gain much traction: the site remained, for most Israelis, irrelevant, dangerous, and forbidden.
By the 1990s, however, as the Oslo Accords took shape, rabbinical unanimity on the prohibition on Jews ascending to the compound began to crack, and the Temple Mount movement kicked into gear. Though the Oslo process deferred final status negotiations on Jerusalem until later stages, both Israel and the future Palestinian state were expected to claim the city as their capital, potentially sharing sovereignty in the Old City (or even handing over control to an international body, like the UN).
The prospect of giving up further land for peace — which had previously set off drastic rebellions among religious Jewish settlers during earlier peace talks, including a plot to blow up the Temple Mount in the early 1980s by the Jewish Underground terrorist group — provoked a sense of crisis for the expansionist wing of the religious-Zionist movement, and they understood this as their moment to stave off the Oslo catastrophe.
Religious-Zionist leaders in West Bank and Gaza settlements formed the Council of Yesha Rabbis and, after initially calling on Jews to ascend to the Temple Mount, contravening centuries of halachic rulings, announced that visiting the site was not only permissible but should be encouraged by rabbinic authorities. But to push past the two other obstacles — Muslims worldwide and the Israeli state — Temple Mount activists needed something else for their newly-invigorated movement: a leader.
‘We believe in pluralism’
In the early 2000s, the American-born Yehuda Glick was a young, charismatic, low-level government official. When then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his plan to unilaterally disengage from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Glick resigned in protest. It was a time of unprecedented civil disobedience by a religious settler movement determined to derail the disengagement plan, and Glick’s defiant refusal caught the attention of the media. A smart, passionate, right-wing mini-celebrity, fluent in both Hebrew and English, Glick was a valuable commodity to the movement. And so, turning away from government work, Glick decided to join a then-obscure right-wing settler organization, called the Temple Institute.
The Institute’s mission is to be ready, at any moment, for the revival of Temple worship. It runs educational initiatives (including multiple yeshivot and a curriculum for other schools), a publishing house, and a museum displaying a variety of ritual objects, all of which meet the requisite halachic standards to be immediately used in the Third Temple.
Walking through the museum, perched just above the Western Wall Plaza, you can view slaughter knives cast from pure silver, priestly garments woven with the otherwise prohibited mixture of linen and wool draped over a mannequin, and the tiny insects and herbs that will be mixed with the ashes of the red heifer in the water purification process.
While there are no red heifers at the premises of the Old City museum, rabbis affiliated with the Institute worked with Byron Stinson, a Texas businessman and evangelical Christian Zionist who runs the Boneh Israel [“Building Israel”] organization, to locate and transport the five candidate heifers to Israel. (Stinson did not respond to a +972 request for comment.) Glick, who no longer works for the Institute, told me he was “updated all the time, and made a few connections.”
By the time he left the Institute, in 2009, Glick had become the face of the Temple Mount movement – and, soon, the symbol and cause of its surging popularity. In October 2014, minutes after delivering a speech in Jerusalem advocating for Jewish worship on the Temple Mount, he was shot by a Palestinian man who called him “an enemy of Al-Aqsa.” Glick remained in critical condition for weeks, but eventually recovered.
In the aftermath of the attack, Glick’s reputation underwent a crucial transformation in the mind of the Israeli public, especially the center-right that had previously been uninterested in or even dismissive of the Temple Mount movement. Whereas before he was generally perceived as a right-wing provocateur, stoking resentment at an insolubly contentious holy site, he now came to be viewed as a victim of Palestinian violence — for the sole reason, his supporters claimed, that he was trying to express his equal right to worship.
Glick himself acknowledged as much in an interview for this article, saying the attack “brought attention to the danger to those who were going to the Temple Mount. It also changed the focus, because many people were referring to those ascending as the dangerous people and referring to the Muslims as those under threat.” Less than two years after the attack, Glick was elected to the Knesset with Likud, where he remained until 2019.
The notion that Glick, and the movement more generally, are simply being persecuted for their religious beliefs is bolstered by Glick’s insistence that his goal is simply to achieve “equality” on the Temple Mount. For years, Glick has been uncompromising in his claim that he is weaving foundational ideals of liberalism — freedom of worship, equality, pluralism — into his Temple activism.
Distinguishing himself from those who consider him a provocateur — that is, anyone who isn’t on the right — Glick explained: “They [Muslims] don’t want me to pray. I want them to pray. I believe in diversity, I believe in pluralism, but you can’t say, as John Kerry does, ‘We believe in Western values, we believe in allowing total pluralism — and therefore on the Temple Mount only Muslims can pray.’ That is a contradiction. That is not logical.”
In the abstract, Glick has a point: theoretically, everyone should be allowed to pray in the spaces they consider sacred. The problem, critics argue, is that this religious utopia cannot possibly be achieved under the current political circumstances of Israel’s occupation and apartheid. “[Glick and the Temple Mount movement] manipulate the listener into thinking that the Jew is the victim of discrimination,” Eran Tzidkiyahu, a scholar of the geopolitics of the Temple Mount and a guide at the site, said. “Muslims [in Palestine] keep losing more power and more symbolic space, so they can’t let go and give anything to the Israelis. When they know their rights are protected, maybe then we can start talking about universal rights of worship.”
Despite its disregard for context and the current political reality, the movement’s use of liberal language gives it cover. Glick understood that the Temple Mount movement was inescapably politically toxic for the vast majority of Israeli society, and that the only way to make it politically viable would be to disguise its ideological goals as a form of apolitical activism. “All of my political agenda I do after the Temple Mount,” he said. And according to him, the opposite is true for Palestinians: “It’s a political issue [for them]. The vast majority of Muslims in the world really have no interest in the Temple Mount.”
Dr. Jamal Amro, a professor of Urban Studies at Birzeit University who focuses on Jerusalem, dismissed out of hand the idea that right-wing Israelis appreciate the Islamic significance of the site: “They do not understand what Al-Aqsa means — not for Palestinians, not for Jerusalemites, not for the 400 million Arabs in the world, not for the 2 billion Muslims in the world.”
At the same time, Al-Aqsa has indeed taken on political symbolism for all Palestinians, and not just Muslims. “Christians in Palestine are pro-Al-Aqsa and help Muslims protect their holy spaces and buildings,” Amro said. Palestinian Christian support for Muslim sovereignty over Al-Aqsa is rooted in a common national struggle against Israel: as Amro points out, Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, have been blocked from entering their sacred sites in Jerusalem.
“The Israeli right has destroyed [the possibility of] peaceful entrance into Jerusalem. Christians can’t come from other Palestinian cities and from countries around the Arab world to visit churches and monasteries in Jerusalem.” Palestinians don’t use Al-Aqsa as a political cudgel to take away the rights of Jews to pray, according to Amro. Rather, Israeli government policies and practices that curb Palestinian rights drive them to hold onto Al-Aqsa as a symbol of Palestinian identity.
A more friendly police
The Israeli government was, for decades, adamantly opposed to Jewish presence on the Temple Mount. Even right-wing coalitions saw the issue as too explosive to touch, and the emphasis has almost exclusively been on maintaining the status quo.
But following the attack on Glick and other violent incidents at the site, the government needed to respond to the surge in support for the Temple Mount movement. Motti Inbari, a professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the religiously-infused politics of the Temple Mount, said that this period of violence was a turning point in who controlled the narrative. Inbari asked, rhetorically, “Who is leading whom now? Is it the politicians leading the people, or the people leading the politicians?”
The first step the government took was to outlaw, in 2015, two groups it deemed to be the biggest instigators of tension on the Temple Mount. In the midst of the “knife intifada,” then-Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon claimed that the Murabitun and Murabitat, the Palestinian volunteer groups stationed at Al-Aqsa, posed a security risk and must be banned from the site (Glick considers them “terrorists”). In reality, the groups were largely nonviolent, and were tasked with protecting their holy site from violations of the status quo by far-right Jews like Glick and his allies.
This was a logistical victory for the movement: almost everyone I spoke with mentioned the ban as a major factor in increasing Jewish presence on the Mount. The Islamic groups had long succeeded in making ascent uncomfortable for Jews, dissuading all but the most hardline activists. Now, the conditions were favorable for far more Jews to visit the site.
But banning the Islamic groups also marked a symbolic step forward for the movement, a display of the government tacitly endorsing increased Jewish presence on the Temple Mount — or, at the very least, a quiet suggestion that Jewish presence should not be actively opposed.
Nowhere was this more impactful than in the relationship between the police and the activists. While they had previously been antagonists — with the police regularly called in to block and arrest Jews praying at the Mount — now they were increasingly on the same side. Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher at the Jerusalem-focused nonprofit Ir Amim, explained: “Ten years ago, the police regarded them as a threat to public order. Today, police officers are saying that the Temple Mount movement helps to keep the public order.”
The transformation of this relationship is jarring. While Temple Mount activist groups continue to publish videos of “harassment” by police (such as when they prevent Jews from bringing ritual objects to the site), the open warmth between the two is clear to see.
On a recent tour with Beyadenu (“In Our Hands” — a reference to the words of the Israeli commander who led the brigade that conquered the Old City from Jordan in 1967), a group that guides primarily religious Jews around the Temple Mount for free, we were accompanied by police — as all religious Jewish groups are. According to the status quo, the groups are allowed to walk counterclockwise around the site and are prohibited from straying from that designated path. Within moments of entering the complex, however, the tour guide asked the officer next to us if he could show us the gold plating on a series of Temple-era columns, which lay off the designated walking path. The officer nodded in assent. We walked over. Palestinians stared.
A few minutes later, as we neared the middle of the compound’s eastern wall, the guide informed us that here once stood the entrance to the Temple (the Western Wall faces what was the back of the Temple), and that we would be pausing here to pray. None of the tour-goers seemed to be caught off guard by this stop of the tour: they all paused, pulled out their phones, and began to pray. The prohibition on bringing Jewish ritual objects includes siddurim, Jewish prayer books; given the easy availability of online siddurim, the prohibition is, in this case, meaningless.
All the while, police officers stood by in front of us and off to the side.
During the tour, I kept my phone in my hands, to take notes and capture what I was seeing. Off to my left I heard someone say, in English, “I’m glad you brought your phone with you.” I asked him why. Pointing at the police, he said, “It just keeps everyone nice and friendly and calm and subdued. It chills everybody out.”
Holding my phone throughout the tour did not seem to play much of a role in keeping tensions low. While the police do occasionally arrest Jewish activists at the site, the relationship between the two groups on that day was palpably amicable. I even overheard an officer and an activist talking about the “racism” at the Temple Mount – a common refrain in the movement, referring to the status quo that allows Muslim prayer but prohibits Jewish prayer.
Tzidkiyahu, the scholar and guide, chalks the newly cordial relationship between the police and Jewish worshippers up to inflamed tensions in 2017. In July of that year, Palestinian gunmen fatally shot two Israeli police officers patrolling the Temple Mount; in response, the government unilaterally placed metal detectors at every entrance to the complex. This encroachment on the Waqf’s custodianship of the site was too much. Outrage poured out across the Arab world, and Muslim visitors refused to enter the complex, praying outside it for nearly two weeks. The Israeli government soon relented to the pressure, removing the metal detectors and returning to the security practices of before.
But during those few weeks, when there were no Muslim worshippers at the site and only Jews, the police could lower their guard. And the Jewish activists pushing to build a Third Temple got a glimpse of a possible future — one in which Palestinians somehow just disappear.
Thriving on ‘mayhem and chaos’
The search for red heifers that meet halachic requirements has been ongoing for decades. Claims of the existence of a worthy red heifer surface every few years, only to fizzle out as a dud: a few white or black hairs are found, disqualifying the heifer from eternal glory and postponing the messianic age once more.
The discovery of five promising candidates all at once was serendipitous. They were born during the 2020 calving season, and the sudden arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic meant there weren’t enough farmhands available to do typical logistical work, such as tagging every newborn calf. Tagging usually involved piercing the ear and inserting a tag — a bodily defect under halacha that would immediately render the cow ineligible for red heifer-hood.
The fact that the heifers were found in Texas by Stinson, the evangelical Christian who is helping lead the search for such candidates, is not surprising. As the Temple Mount movement has grown, it has spread across borders and religious lines: Christian supporters of the movement have become crucial donors of both money and political support. (Many evangelicals believe the Third Temple will be inhabited by the Antichrist, which will be followed by massive bloodshed as Jews will be forced to choose between conversion or death, and, finally, the Second Coming of Jesus.)
Moreover, as far as the Temple Mount movement is concerned, Stinson’s success was perfectly timed: the untagged heifers were located and flown to Israel right when the movement was accumulating unprecedented influence. And, as no one could have predicted, they arrived just as Netanyahu swept back into power — alongside a contingent of brazen Temple Mount activists.
On Jan. 3, just days after being sworn in as national security minister, Ben Gvir went up to the Temple Mount. Before becoming an MK, Ben Gvir — who has been indicted with at least 50 crimes over the course of his life, including a conviction for racist incitement and support for a terrorist group — spent much of his career as a trial lawyer defending far-right Jewish activists, including those in the Temple Mount movement. In a high-profile visit to the Mount during the election campaign, Ben-Gvir taunted Palestinian groups that were demanding an end to Jewish presence there.
Ben Gvir’s January visit echoed Ariel Sharon’s notorious visit in 2000, which was widely perceived as the spark that ignited the Second Intifada. Ben Gvir’s visit has not prompted a similar Palestinian uprising, but his provocation is likely only the first of many to come. With the overlap of Passover and Ramadan in April, the only question is what Ben Gvir will allow his Jewish supporters to do — and how much he will restrict Palestinian access to the site.
But whether he chooses to grant permission, say, to Hozrim LaHar’s request to perform the Passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount, is almost irrelevant: what matters is that he is the one who will decide. Ben-Gvir’s ministerial post gives him full control of the police on both sides of the Green Line, including those at the Temple Mount. The status quo is, to a point, in his hands.
What’s more, the current favorable political circumstances may well incentivize religious leaders to seize the moment. Bending the rules when circumstances permit has been a hallmark of the Temple Mount movement over the last few decades — as happened in the wake of the Oslo Accords and following the attempt on Glick’s life, when activist rabbis began urging religious Jews to visit the Temple Mount. It is not difficult to imagine that religious leaders fervently hoping for the return of Temple worship might look the other way when the five red heifers, like all other recent candidates, almost inevitably turn out to be ineligible.
This inspection won’t happen for another year — the heifers first need to grow to their halachically-ordained size. In the meantime, however, Temple Mount activists are optimistic that the government is poised to grant them many of their short-term goals: extending Jewish visitation hours, allowing ritual objects, and even designating a section of the Temple Mount as a synagogue.
Any one of these policy changes could easily spark major Palestinian and international backlash. But while previous Israeli governments have typically sought to keep tensions low on the Temple Mount, nearly everyone interviewed for this article emphasized that Ben-Gvir is different. “I fear that he will try to create complications on the Temple Mount in order to create mayhem and chaos,” expressed Inbari, the professor of religion.
Ben-Gvir thrives on the “mayhem and chaos” Inbari fears; or, more accurately, he thrives on the perception of this mayhem and chaos. In such Reichstag fire moments, populist nationalists can swoop in and enact their radical policy goals, claiming all the while to be protecting the nation and the homeland. The Temple Mount — fraught as it is, a source of never-ending conflict, and, now a symbol of surging religious-Zionist power — is the obvious catalyst for someone like Ben-Gvir. It is easy to foresee him waiting for, or even orchestrating, the right moment to order massive retaliation. “Escalation will not be seen as a problem,” Tatarsky, of Ir Amim, warned. “It will be seen as an opportunity.”
Nate Orbach is a writer from Boston who is currently based in Jerusalem