Aug 14th 2008 | JERUSALEM
From The Economist print edition
The issue of Jerusalem’s holiest site may again be dividing Jews
THE lead singer, with yarmulke, beard and guitar, appears with a sheep on the cover of the latest record by Lechatchila, a religious-rock group popular among Orthodox young Israelis. “Don’t stare at me,” the lyrics go. “The Temple is sure to be rebuilt right now. We’ve got to prepare, to believe, to make the redemption happen.”
For two millennia, ever since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, Jews have continued to study, write and indeed sing about the intricate rituals of service and sacrifice, in the belief that one day the Messiah would come and the Temple would be rebuilt. Meanwhile, the faithful were forbidden even to walk on the Holy Mount, let alone worship there.
This suited the regime instituted on the Temple Mount by Moshe Dayan, Israel’s then defence minister, after the 1967 war. He ruled that the mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (or Noble Sanctuary), where the golden Dome of the Rock has stood since the seventh century after Christ, would remain an exclusively Muslim place of worship, administered by the Waqf, or Muslim religious trust. Jews and Christians could visit but not worship there. Rabbis of all religious and political stripes agreed.
This arrangement broadly endured, between periodic bursts of violence. But it never allayed Arab fears that the Jews had designs on the mount. In 1984, the Israeli authorities arrested a group of fanatical Jewish settlers for plotting to fire rockets into the mosque. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, infuriated Bill Clinton (then America’s president) and Israeli negotiators by repeatedly denying there ever was a Jewish temple on the site and rejecting proposals to share sovereignty over it. In September 2000, a walk on the mount by Israel’s then opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, prompted bloody clashes which turned into a six-year Palestinian intifada (uprising).
Recently the rabbinical consensus has been fraying. Nationalist rabbis close to Jews who have settled on the Palestinian West Bank are permitting—even encouraging—their followers to visit the mount. Separately, the energetic and well-endowed Temple Institute in Jerusalem’s old city has been diligently recreating ancient Temple vessels and priestly garments to be ready when needed. The institute runs guided tours of the mount and publishes prayer books in which former Jewish glories are graphically depicted; its director reassures readers of its website that there is no call “for the launching of missiles or the exploding of the mosque”. But the Temple is “not just something historic, stored in a memory chest”. For nationalist-Orthodox children, it is increasingly a reality.
The larger, ultra-Orthodox community remains ostensibly unaffected. Its rabbis still forbid even walking on the mount and are content to wait for the Messiah without spurring him on. But between the two groups there is a theological overlap that translates into a tough brand of politics. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a pivotal part of the government’s coalition, has given notice that it will walk out if there is any negotiation over Jerusalem. Sure enough, in leaked draft proposals put by Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, the question of Jerusalem is postponed indefinitely. Or until the Messiah comes?