The attempted assassination of Temple Mount activist Yehudah Glick, to whom I wish a speedy recovery, comes as a culmination of a growing trend in the Israeli public sphere. It is a trend that finds clear expression amongst the ruling political party, the Likud, and one which Glick was a leading advocate of. In recent years the Temple Mount movements have acted intensively to increase the number of Jews going up the mountain and concurrently to raise awareness to the situation there. This situation includes a de-facto ban on public Jewish prayer and an increase in violence, mostly verbal, by Muslim Palestinians towards Jews going up on the mountain. Among the most prominent achievements of the Temple Mount proponents was obtaining the explicit support of about half of the Likud Knesset Members.
The Likud movement always had a fondness for national myths, but even among its members Zionism was first and foremost about settlements and security, not religious salvation. The growing interest in the Temple Mount among Likud members embodies the change that has taken place in the political discourse in Israel, one that if not understood, will render our understanding of the current tensions and violence in Jerusalem incomplete. At that same convention at the Begin Center following which Glick (who himself ran for Knesset on the Likud ticket two years ago) was shot, under the title “Israel Returns to the Temple Mount”, the Chair of the Interior Committee of the Knesset, MK Miri Regev, and the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin, both of Likud, called for a return of Jews en masse to the Mount. Regev tied “Our right to pray on the Mountain” together with “Our right to the Land” and demonstrated in clear fashion the mythical coating covering the new Likudnik nationalism.
This is but the peak of a multi-year process, in the course of which the ruling party has turned from a traditional-secular party professing a security-based rejection of territorial compromise, into an ethnic-nationalist party which places at the center of its agenda a mythological concept. This mythic narrative is based on the belief that the Temple Mount constitutes a metaphysical focal point for the People of Israel, a sort of divine power socket, the connection to which charges the nation with force and vitality. Back in 2012 Yuli Edelstein, now the Speaker of the Knesset, stated that “My job is to deal with the daily process, connecting and building the People of Israel, which leads to the Temple.” Influential MK Ze’ev Elkin, meanwhile, explained that “It is important to remove it [the Temple Mount] from the purview of the wild-eyed religious. We must explain to broad swaths of the people that without this place, our national liberty is incomplete.”
Make no mistake – this is not about untrammeled longing for the burning of sacrifices. It is neither the observation of the biblical commandment nor the upholding of the Halakhic stricture that matter to these Knesset Members, even the religious ones among them. The Temple Mount serves Regev, Feiglin, Edelstein and Elkin as a national flag around which to rally. The location of the temple to them is nothing more than a capstone in the national struggle against the Palestinians, and the sovereignty over the mountain becomes a totem embodying the sovereignty over the entire country in its commanding figure. This is why Elkin speaks of “Our national liberty”; this is why Tzipi Hotovely said on another occasion that “The construction of the temple in its place on Temple Mount should symbolize the renewal of the sovereignty of the People of Israel in its Land.”
It was only this past February that Coalition Chair Yariv Levin waxed poetic regarding the importance of the mountain at the center of Jerusalem: “No living organism can function without a heart. It seems to me that when Jews for so many years sat in exile and prayed for a return to Zion, they did not mean Tel Aviv, but Jerusalem. They did not dream of returning to the Knesset building and the Prime Minister’s office, but to someplace else – to the Temple Mount.”
But when Jews sat in exile and prayed for Zion and Jerusalem, they continued to sit in exile and pray; only when they dreamed of Tel Aviv and of the Knesset building did they rise up and build a state. Secular Zionism invested its blood and sweat in building the country, not in religious rites and sacred sites. It is no coincidence that Moshe Dayan handed control of the Temple Mount to the Muslim Waqf immediately following the Six-Day War – he believed the place to be diametrically opposed to the Zionist spirit upon which he was raised and in which he believed.
But what is note-worthy in Levin’s words is not the historical inaccuracy, and not even the organistic view of the nation (as though what a state in which one third of the children are below the poverty line needs is a “heart” in the form of a temple on a mountain). What should cause unease, if not outright concern, is the mythical-messianic promoted by Levin et al through political means. The Temple Mount becomes a pawn to be used in the struggle with the Palestinians, and the discussion of prayer rights for Jews, while justified in and of its own, becomes a political hatchet. Perhaps this is what Leibowitz meant when he cried out against the “prostitution of religion for national interests”.
Gershom Scholem once said that “The salvation of the People of Israel to which I aspire as a Zionist is not at all identical to the religious salvation for which I hope in the future. I am unwilling, as a Zionist, to satisfy the ‘political’ demands or yearnings which take place in an utterly religious a-political field, in the domain of the end-times apocalyptic.” Shalom understood full well the danger in basing a political discourse upon a religious one. Danger to religion, for this way it may be prostituted into a political tool, and danger to the state, for it is very difficult to act in a judicious manner out of messianic fervor.
Religion and politics have been entwined since the dawn of time, but in the last few centuries the Western world has chosen to separate the estates in order to promote a democratic and tolerant public sphere. Before our very eyes we are witnessing an attempt to re-couple the religious myth with the political-diplomatic sphere. The political discourse is undergoing a transformation: It is gathering mythological charges onto itself, reestablishing itself not on the foundation of security but on that of salvation tales, and is served up coated in religious folklore and messianic shmaltz. Whether due to naïve faith and whether to preclude any possibility of political compromise, the Jewish prayer and the Diaspora are invoked, and fiery talk is heard of heart and longing and age-old yearning. Before you can say “A national home for the Jewish people”, the government of Israel has been turned into an agent of the messiah and a contractor of the almighty. Presto – we have entered the domain of the end-times apocalyptic.
Published in Hebrew in Haaretz.