It’s a site holy to Jews and Muslims — considered the most religiously sensitive square kilometer on Earth.
These days, the Temple Mount — known as the Haram al-Sharif to Muslims — is at the center of an intense debate over messianic religious Zionism. How Israeli society deals with it might hold the key to the peace process.
Temple Mount tensions were sparked by last month’s attempted assassination of U.S.-born Rabbi Yehuda Glick, who was seriously wounded.
Glick is a fierce advocate for building a third Jewish temple on the site of the Temple Mount, where two Jewish temples stood at different times through the ages. He is also at the forefront of a campaign to allow Jewish prayers at the site.
Israel currently bans Jews from praying on the plateau to prevent clashes with Muslims worshipping at the nearby Noble Sanctuary, a mosque considered Islam’s third-holiest site, and with its gold dome, Jerusalem’s most iconic landmark.
A Palestinian shot Glick four times in the chest after a seminar at the state-sponsored Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. Glick is said to be recovering, and Israelis and Palestinians ramped up violence and traded recriminations over whether Glick and like-minded activists are responsible for the clashes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed “terrorists” for the clashes over Temple Mount. On Monday he ordered his security Cabinet to increase the number of security forces on the ground and move forward on the demolition of “terrorists’ homes.”
On Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking in Ramallah at an event marking the 10th anniversary of the death of former PLO leader Yasser Arafat, said Israel’s settlement policies and actions at the Temple Mount have led to a “detrimental religious war.”
That conflict has driven rifts in the Jewish community, too.
After the assassination attempt, Deputy Knesset Speaker Moshe Feiglin went to the Temple Mount, ignoring Netanyahu’s call for restraint, and vowed to “change the reality” of a ban on Jewish prayer at the site.
Later, speaking at the funeral of a teenage victim of a Palestinian attack at a Jerusalem light rail station last week, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef lashed out against politically motivated visits to the site.
“We need to stop the incitement provoked by people going to the Temple Mount,” said Yosef, according to Israeli news site Ynet.
Motti Inbari, a religion professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, worries about the increasingly popular campaign to build a third temple — a proposal that would fan the flames of hatred against Jews around the Middle East.
Inbari noted how advocates of a third temple recently posted a video on Facebook and YouTube that uses computer-generated graphics to illustrate a reconstructed shrine on the Temple Mount. The video then links to an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that has generated $104,814 toward the construction of the temple.
In the video, “you don’t see any mosques on the Mount,” said Inbari, who specializes in studying fundamentalist movements. “The clip suggests that the temple replaces the mosques on the Mount. This can explain why Muslims are nervous.”
Inbari said Temple Mount activists mobilized financial and political support in Israel, particularly through the Temple Institute, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding the temple.
“The Temple Institute is supported with millions of shekels by the state every year,” he said. “They get money from the Ministry of Religious affairs and the Education Ministry, and even the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption is giving them money, so it is already part of the mainstream being supported by the state.”
The tensions have sparked concerns in Jordan, too. Jordan has been the official guardian of the Noble Sanctuary and other Islamic institutions in Jerusalem since 1919, a status reaffirmed in the 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
Jordan withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv last week after Israeli police instituted closures at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is part of the Noble Sanctuary.
Reflecting the views of many Muslims in the region, Wasfi Kailani, director of the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for the Restoration of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the two buildings that make up the Noble Sanctuary, said Glick and his compatriots are dangerous.
“It’s good for Israel not to go too far in ideological goals of speeding up the messiah and God’s will on Earth because this is not different actually from the thinking of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant.”
The Islamic State declared a new Muslim caliphate this summer after gaining a large swath of territory in the region.
Just how influential Glick and other third-temple enthusiasts are is a bone of contention. Several lawmakers from Netanyahu’s ruling coalition were in attendance at the seminar where Glick had been speaking before he was shot. And after being removed from a respirator, Glick called Knesset Speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, according to Israel’s Channel 7 website.
But Mordechai Kedar, an Arabic language lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, rejected the idea that Temple Mount activists were influential or violent.
“I know Yehuda Glick — he’s one of a handful of lunatics who represent nobody but themselves,” Kedar said.
Kedar insists Palestinian leadership has provoked the crisis. He slammed Abbas for sending a condolence letter to the family of the suspect in Glick’s shooting, who was killed by police.
“The Temple Mount activists are not violent,” he said. “They are not going to kill anybody … unlike those thugs. They just work on the Jewish right to pray at the Temple Mount. Did Yehuda Glick attack somebody?”