Longing for a Lost Ideal: The Historic Struggle for Jerusalem’s Temple Mount

Dome of the Rock

 

Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock, April 2017. Picture by Laurien Vastenhout

 

By Laurien Vastenhout

 

During last month’s Pesach, tensions raised in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. Religious Jews had sacrificed a lamb close to the Temple Mount, an area administered by a Muslim religious trust. A few weeks before, the Israeli High Court had upheld the police decision to block a Passover reenactment on the archeological site close to the Temple Mount. Instead, the group was allowed to have the ceremony at the heart of the Jewish Quarter, outside the Hurva Synagogue, only a few hundred meters way from the Temple Mount. Despite some setbacks– the electricity went out for more than two hours, no famous rabbis attended, and the priests ‘ran out’ of blood from the lamb even before they reached the specially prepared vessels – the activists still rejoiced. This was the first time the reenactment had taken place so close to the Temple Mount. At the end of the same month during Yom HaShoah. Jewish Temple Mount activists hung a protest placard at the entrance to the Temple Mount, protesting against its closure to Jews on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day. This article examines why the Temple Mount continues to be a recurring source for controversy and struggle, both to Jews and Muslims.

 

Wandering around the area of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, one can find Jews who are collecting money for ‘the reconstruction of the Temple’. After they have donated money, tourists receive a small red bracelet in return. However, it seems as if many of these tourists do now know that a reconstruction of the Temple unequivocally means that the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine with its characteristic golden cupola, has to be removed first. The Dome of the Rock dates from the 7th century when Caliph Abd al-Malik erected the glorious octagonal building (by then not yet capped by the golden dome). The building is said to house the rock on which Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice. Also, this was the place where the prophet Mohammed rose from the earth on a winged steed to meet Abraham, Moses and Jesus in heaven. The rock, as the story goes, wanted to follow, but as Mohammed pushed it back to earth, he left a footprint on it which is still to be seen today.

 

The construction of the Islamic shrine followed centuries of power struggles within the city between, amongst others, Christians, Romans, Jews and Ottoman Muslims. On the exact same place, Herod’s Temple had been standing centuries before, which in turn had replaced the First Temple, Salomon’s Temple. Salomon’s Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. In 70 C.E. Herod’s ‘second’ Temple*, by then the largest and most awe-inspiring religious monument in the world – glittering with gold and shining white stone –, was destroyed by Titus, the Roman Supreme Military Commander. After two destructions, the Temple would never be resurrected again. To Jews, similar to Muslims, the site is a Holy place. Inside the first Temple, in Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant was located, constructed during the Israelites’ wandering in the Sinaï desert and an important symbol of the Jewish faith. The Ark symbolises the only physical manifestation of God on earth as its construction had been commanded by God to Moses. Although the contents of the Ark have been debated, there is a general consensus that it contained the tablets with the Ten Commandments. To Jews, the Temple is therefore much more than just a building. As a result, the last destruction in 70 C.E. has incited an unprecedented sense of longing and feeling of religious loss.

 

The destruction of the last Temple has become a symbol of human search for a lost ideal. The rituals that have taken place at this site are recorded in an extraordinary level of detail and show the religious importance and centrality of the site. No wonder that the capture of Jerusalem during the Six-Day-War in 1967 and the subsequent capture of the Temple Mount by the Israelis aroused feelings of excitement. Up until then, the site had been ‘lost’ to the Jews. At the end of this war, Israeli Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan proclaimed that the Israeli government wanted to preserve religious freedom for all faiths in Jerusalem, handing over administrative control of the Temple Mount compound to the Jordanian Waqf – a Jordanian appointed Islamic body – while the overall security of the area was maintained by Israel. Jews could visit the Temple Mount, but were not allowed to have religious services at the site as this is now considered a prayer site for Muslims. This is still the reality today. It should be noted here that Orthodox Jews are not allowed enter the site until the Messias comes **. This is why the Rabbi has forbidden them to enter the site, as a sign at the entrance to the Mount indicates. This clearly illustrates the different ways in which the Temple Mount is approached by various Jewish groups in Israeli society.

 

Throughout history, the site has incited actions that experts refer to as ‘the Jerusalem Syndrom’ – a religious madness which comes to a head in the shadow of the Temple Mount. In 1969, a non-Jewish Australian tourist set fire to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, situated on the Temple Mount, claiming he was ‘the Lord’s Missionary’. In 1982, an Israeli soldier went on a shooting rampage in the Al-Aqsa mosque because he hoped to become King of the Jews by liberating the spot. The recent actions can be seen in this light as well – extremist groups try to enlarge their authority on the site and feel it is their right to use the site as a place of religious enactment and remembrance. Despite, or because of, their perseverance, rules at the Temple Mount are strict and seem to have become even stricter over the past years – one is not allowed to bring any religious objects to the site, nor to pray on the Temple Mount.

 

The longing for the lost Temple has resulted in the establishment of Talmud Schools, where scholars are being trained in the rituals of priesthood in case a new Temple is built. Some Rabbis also claim they know the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant which was located in the First Temple until its destruction. Although organisations such as the “Jerusalem Temple Foundation” or “the Temple Institute” have been in a constant battle with the state of Israel, the recent acquittal of the youngsters who protested at the closure of the site during Yom Hashoah, might indicate that government policies are shifting.

 

Without doubt, the Temple mount is a symbol that goes to the heart of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Over the past years, the Israeli government has at times closed the entrance to the Temple Mount, claiming that the atmosphere was too tense. In doing so, they withheld Arabs to pray at the site which, in turn, led to serious political tensions and protests. Far more than a physical site, the Temple Mount, on which the Temple itself is ironically absent, has become a spiritual and political site, loaded with meaning. It is a monument of the imagination for the Jews and a the oldest existing religious Islamic monument which is, after Mecca and Medina, the third important religious site to Muslims.

 

*  Depending on whether your count Zerubbabel’s Temple a building in its own right. In 538 BC, Zerubbabel, the leader of the tribe of Judah, was part of the first wave of Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem. He immediately began with the rebuilding of the lost Temple of Solomon. However, he had much fewer resources.  There was a group of Jews in Jerusalem who were rather disappointed with the Temple. To their minds, it did not even begin to compare with the splendor of Solomon’s temple.

** Religious Jews do not consider Jesus as the Messias and are still waiting for the coming of the Messias.

Populist rivalry: Trump’s impact on the future and politics of Israel

Trump_CPAC_2011

 

Trump_CPAC_2011

 Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 (creative commons).

 

By Laurien Vastenhout

 

After a period of disbelief and evasive responses, the world now has to face that Donald Trump is President of the United States. To the extent possible, Trump’s measured victory speech in November was ‘hopeful’; at least his tone had softened somewhat. It was not unthinkable that he had played a harsh election campaign, but in practice would be more appeasing. These were encouraging signs. However, the interview with the UK’s Times and the German tabloid Bild last week indicated that there was no moderation after all. With Trump’s support of the UK’s ‘hard’ Brexit, and China’s president Xi Jinping’s announcement to protect the world’s economy against Trump, it seems that the entire world politics and economy is about to change over the course of the coming months and years. One of the crucial topics that has to be examined in this context is the everlasting conflict between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East and the role of the United States herein. A friend and true (financial) supporter of Israel for many years, Trump is about to break with the decades of cautious US policy vis-à-vis the conflict. What can we expect from the Trump administration in the Middle East? And is Benjamin Netanyahu, current Prime-minister of Israel and chairman of the right-wing Likud Party indeed as happy with the Trump’s support as it seemed in his tweet of December, 28 2016, in which he thanked Trump for the warm friendship and clear-cut  support for Israel? This article seeks to create insight in the multiple dangers that lie ahead.

 

There are two individuals Trump nominated on central positions who we should investigate more closely: David Friedman, appointed ambassador to Israel, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Friedman is a pro-Israel hardliner, and strongly opposes the two-state solution. Being part of Trump’s advisory team, David Friedman co-authored a 16-point action plan in November last year in which his views on the difficult situation in Israel/Palestine are outlined. The Trump administration will ensure that ‘Israel receives maximum military, strategic and tactical cooperation from the United States’, the plan stated. Between the lines, one can read the rejection of the apparent ‘anti-Israel’ attitude of the United Nation (UN) members– see the recent United States Security Council resolution from which the US abstained –  and a strong support for an undivided Jerusalem capital. The latter is a highly sensitive topic as Palestine seeks to maintain the Eastern part of Jerusalem as future capital of Palestine, while Israel believes all of Jerusalem should belong to their country. The attempted relocation of the Main Office of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem therefore is an important indicator of the political line chosen by the Trump administration. Moreover, Friedman is president of the American Friends of Beit El, which supports Israeli hardline settlement movements and believes that Israel is legally entitled to annex the West Bank.

 

Trump’s son-in law Jared Kushner, who is appointed to orchestrate a deal between Israel and Palestine has no experience with politics in the Middle East at all. Although, as an orthodox Jew, he is undoubtedly concerned with the area, his complete unfamiliarity with both Israeli and Palestinian politicians is disquieting. Kusner’s links to a far-right Jewish settlement in the West Bank, to which he donated money, are not very promising either. Clearly, the settler movement will have solid backing in Trump’s administration. Palestinians and their allies have repeatedly called on the UN to force Israel to stop with the settlements as it causes hindrance to serious negotiations. As a result, one of Trump’s major political goals, to reach an agreement in the ongoing conflict, seems a utopian line of thought. All of these difficulties, added to his wish to pull out of the nuclear pact signed with Iran in 2016, raise concern about the position of Arab countries of the Middle East.

 

Ironically, Trump’s presidency does not only raise difficulties for Arab countries and Palestine in particular; Benjamin Netanyahu might in fact be not so happy with Trump’s involvement in the region either. Netanyahu’s policies on the settlements in the West Bank over the past years can be characterised by ambiguity and delay. By pretending to keep a two-state solution alive, Netanyahu has often safeguarded the support of the United Stated for himself at the cost of more right-wing politicians. Now important positions in the Trump-administration are taken by pro-settler politicians, this tactic has become ineffectual. Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev has somewhat ironically indicated that Trump is in fact making Netanyahu seem a ‘left wing defeatist’. In practice, this means that Netanyahu’s position is threatened by his far-right Minister of Education and political leader of the extreme right-wing party HaJehoedie (The Jewish Home Party): Naftali Bennett.

 

Bennett has suggested that Trump’s election signals the end of the two-state solution and the attempts to establish a Palestinian state. Obviously, he uses Trump’s to pressure Netanyahu to recognise the settlements as permanent. Through his statements, Bennett has secured the support of the majority of the Jewish settlers. For a right-wing political leader, this support is of key importance. Netanyahu’s recent aggressive response towards the UN resolution to end Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories at the end of 2016, indicates that he feels he has to win back right-wing voters. Both Netanyahu and Bennett are increasingly using right-wing, nationalistic discourse to prevail. In the case of Bennett, it is no secret that he aims to become Prime Minister himself. Not only is this an alarming development in Israeli politics, it also might cause that Jews around the world feel increasingly disconnected with the country. This, in turn, will result in an increasing isolation of the country.

 

The current situation in Israel and the proposed policies of the Trump administration, which do not favour a two-state solution, are thus worrisome. Although supported by the US, Israel will become a lone wolf in world politics due to its increasing hard stance vis-à-vis settlements in the West Bank. Both internal and external forces ensure that a solution to the long-standing conflict seems further away than ever, despite Trump’s genuine believe that his administration will broker an agreement. Bennett’s recent declaration that he will propose a bill to extent Israeli sovereignty to Maale Adumin, the third-large Jewish settlement in the West Bank, shows that a first major step has already been taken. The coming weeks and months we will have to wait and see how US policies unfold in the region. Without doubt, Maale Adumin will be the first test case and major determinant of America’s policies in the Middle East.

The Future of Israel: The Impediments of the Upcoming Elections

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu

Photo: Israel/Flickr (CC-BY)

By Laurien Vastenhout –

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, Benjamin Netanyahu encouraged European Jews to settle in Israel. Not only because he considered it to be their sole homeland but also because, due to increasing anti-semitism in Europe, the country provides the only safe haven to Jews. Despite the fact that European governments are most likely still better able to protect their Jewish citizens against (terrorist) attacks than the Israeli government, Jews are currently emigrating from Europe. The expectations are that around 10.000 Jews will emigrate from France this year. Benjamin – ‘Bibi’ – already anticipated on these immigrant Jews and unsurprisingly reasoned that more space was needed to house them. In doing so, he is indirectly justifying Israel’s expansion policies. Last January, the Israeli government published bids for the building of 450 new housing units in West Bank settlements, deepening Palestinian anger and eliciting criticism from the Unites States government which called the move illegitimate, counterproductive and likely to worsen Israel’s isolation. With the elections of the Knesset coming up, Netanyahu’s actions and decisions are increasingly scrutinised. What exactly is Bibi’s standpoint, for example vis-a-vis a two-state solution? What are his future perspectives for the country and does he still have the support of the citizens of Israel?

In his speech given at the University of Bar-Ilan in June 2009, Netanyahu made several concessions concerning the withdrawal from Palestinian territory. “In my vision of peace”, he stated, “in this small land of ours, two people live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect.” Two and a half months before the speech, Netanyahu took the oath of office as the Prime Minister of Israel, pledging to establish a national unity government. These commitments do not really correspond to Bibi’s recent expansion policies and he seems to rather unsteady in his approach to the two-state solution. Recent investigation reports have indicated that there have been several instances over the past years in which Netanyahu was willing to make concessions in order to further a two-state solution. Apparently, there has been a moment Netanyahu agreed to conduct negotiations – in which the Unites States, the United nations, the European Union and Russia were involved – on the basis of Israel’s pre-Six-Day War 1967 borders. The West bank, The Gaza Strip and East-Jerusalem would then become independent Palestinian territories. This would also include territory swaps between Israel and Palestinian territories in order to account for the Jewish settlements in the West bank and in the Eastern part of Jerusalem. The first talks were made in 2011. In 2013 and the beginning of 2014, additional attempts were made to settle the territory issue.

On January, 6 of this year, Netanyahu indicated that the Palestinians have made the speech Bar-Ilan speech meaningless by pursuing unilateral action in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. In addition, the Likud party wrote in a published statement last Sunday that, in light of the situation the Middle East is currently confronted with, any evacuated territory would fall either into the hands of Islamic extremism, or terror organisations supported by Iran. As a result, the party officials argued, no concession or withdrawals will be made. With the national elections coming closer, Netanyahu makes a clear move to the political right. It is a strategically important move as recent polls in which respondents were asked how they characterise themselves politically, indicated that only 8 percent of the Israeli Jews said they considered themselves left-wing, while 35 percent indicated they sympathised with the political right. By making this strong and clear turn to the right, Netanyahu most likely hopes to win the majority of the right-wing voters for his cause.

Netanyahu’s move to the right clearly stems from tactical motives. In fact, everything Netanyahu says should be placed in the context of a particular moment and location – these recent statements are characteristic of his continuous movement from left to right. For a long time, it seemed as if this tactic was fruitful as it appeased several parties involved. However, with only three more days to go until the election day Netanyahu’s chameleonic attitude seems to be taking its toll. A universal fatigue of his changeable policies can be identified among the Israeli citizens. However, what are the alternatives? Although the current tendency seems to be that anyone but Netanyahu would suffice, the alternatives are plenty and the Israelis are divided.

For example, on the right one can choose between Naftali Bennett, Moshe Kahlon and Avigdor Liebermann. On the centre, there is the Yesh Atid party on the left the Zionist Union and Meretz.  In addition, there are some orthodox parties. As the situation in the Middle East is rather unsteady, many Israeli citizens want a rightist leader as recent polls have indicated. Thus, although the interest in Netanyahu may be fading, this does not mean that Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor party and co-founder of the new center-left Zionist Union and currently mentioned as Netanyahu’s strongest opponent, will win. Besides, the expectation is that up to eleven parties are expected to gain at least one seat in the next Knesset, leading to ungovernable situation.  For example, if Netanyahu’s Likud wants to form a right-wing government, it most likely will have to cooperate with many different other parties – e.g. Habayit Hayehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu – in order to establish a majority in the Knesset. The same goes for Isaac Herzog; in fact his situation is even worse as he will have to cooperate with ultra-Orthodox parties in order to become prime minister. Even for some the leaders of parties belonging to the same side of the political spectrum, it will become rather difficult to cooperate – Lieberman, Netanyahu and Kahlon are everything but on friendly terms with one another.

Thus, whereas the current government has lasted for quite a few years, it is questionable whether the government after the election will be viable in the first place. In addition, as it has become clear that a cooperation between at least four or five different parties is necessary in order to establish a majority in the Knesset, there will most likely be a dysfunctional government after the elections. Therefore, the perspectives are dreary and, to complicate things further, external factors are playing a prominent role as well. United States officials, for example, have already indicated that whoever will become Prime-Minister of Israel, they expect him to be in favour of a two-state solution. With his recent claims that Jews are no longer safe in Europe and that they shall come to Israel, simultaneously justifying his settlements policy, Benjamin Netanyahu is increasingly isolating Israel from the rest of the world which is further expanded by his continuous tendency to underline that the country is threatened by many sides (Iran, IS, the Palestinians). This will make it difficult to improve the relation with the United States.

Although the most recent polls have indicated that the Likud party is four seats behind its centre-left rival the Zionist Union, it will be no surprise if Netanyahu wins again: overall, his ‘allies’ on the right are likely to win the most seats. In case the Zionist Union is able to establish a majority, it will become an unworkable situation as it has to cooperate with ultra-orthodox parties. Thus, it is unlikely that a more leftist government will govern the country after the elections. In order to give the Zionist Union a chance, the entire political system has to change. For example by reducing the number of parties, or by establishing a system which makes it easier for the party that has received the largest number of votes to form a well-functioning government. It seems unlikely, however, that these kind of fundamental changes will become reality for Israel´s political system in the short term.