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Joshua Weinberg

Playing With Fire

According to the Bible (II Kings 25:1-4), in the year 588 BCE on the 10th day of the 10th month Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. This assault, which began as an attack on the independent sovereign entity of Judah and Jerusalem by a neighboring foreign superpower, culminated in the destruction of Solomon’s Temple (the First Temple of Jerusalem), the downfall of the Kingdom of Judah (the Northern Kingdom of Yisrael fell 134 years earlier) and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylonia.

The Jewish people is still reeling from this event and we mark it annually as a minor fast day, the 10th of Tevet, that was marked earlier this week (corresponding to January 3rd on the Gregorian/Christian calendar). In traditional communities, it is designated as the day to say Kaddish for the victims of the Shoah and for whom there is no one to say Kaddish.

Israel’s new Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir, chose to mark the 10th of Tevet by ascending the Temple Mount, spending 13 minutes traversing the holy site, and leaving. His intentionally provocative ascent was primarily to check a box – to say that he fulfilled a campaign promise and that no Prime Minister or Defense Minister could curb his enthusiasm. He also wanted to emphasize Jewish sovereignty over the Mount and “stick it” to Hamas who threatened violence should he go there.

Condemnations came from the US, Saudis, Gulf States, and other European and Middle Eastern countries. Across the political aisle, opposition leader Yair Lapid said:

“Israel does not receive instruction from anybody when it comes to its security, but to argue with half of the world so that Ben-Gvir can spend 13 minutes on the Temple Mount is politically irresponsible and shows incredible weakness from Netanyahu in front of his ministers.”

Labor MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv said that Ben Gvir’s decision showed he was prioritizing the “promotion of an extreme nationalistic worldview” over Israeli citizens’ safety.

“Particularly on the fast day of the 10th of Tevet, it is important to remember that the connection between political extremism, intoxication from power, and government corruption led to the destruction of the Temple. Standing up against these phenomena is essential to guaranteeing the future of Israel.”

What if things were different?

I agree with criticisms of Ben Gvir’s extremism and deliberate provocation. Yet his visit leaves lingering questions. I wonder why “freedom of religious expression” seems to be applied so inconsistently?

Why do we accept the prohibition barring non-Muslims from the Temple Mount? Why is it so provocative that Jews ascend this holy mountain top, provided they respect the current religious authority and practices? One could plausibly comprehend a prohibition against disruption of prayer but banning all access for Jews to the holiest site in all of Judaism seems to be contrary to our understanding of religious freedom. In the Jewish State of Israel, the spires of churches and the minarets and domes of Mosques are quintessential, irremovable landmarks of Jerusalem’s skyline. In the Muslim country of Saudi Arabia, all non-Muslim houses of worship are strictly forbidden nationwide, though private and secret Christian gatherings are known to occur.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (a.k.a. the Mormon Church) bars non-Mormons from its 170 temples worldwide, even for non-Mormon family members at weddings. But tour guides and displays at the visitors’ center next to the main Temple in Salt Lake City promote the church’s beliefs.

The irony is that both Mormonism and Islam are proselytizing religions that actively seek to convert others.

Imagine an alternative reality…What if instead of seeing an Israeli Minister’s presence on the Temple Mount as a threat or as a lit match in a tinder box, we could dream a different response? I my dream Ben Gvir would be met with a red carpet and open arms.

Imagine that the Waqf (the Islamic religious authority that controls and operates the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque) was to extend a hand of welcome and be audaciously hospitable to him – despite his record of racism, incitement, and threats of deportation and transfer of Palestinians. What if, instead of feeling threatened by his presence, they welcomed him with a cup of tea, and sat together cross-legged in an imagined Islamic Welcome Center that is the Dome of the Rock. I imagine the head of the Waqf coming to Ben Gvir and regarding him not as a militant firebrand or Jewish supremacist, but as a religious Jew. Instead of forbidding prayer by non-Muslims, he quotes from the Book of Isaiah (56:7):

“וַהֲבִיאוֹתִים אֶל־הַר קׇדְשִׁי וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי עוֹלֹתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצוֹן עַל־מִזְבְּחִי
כִּי בֵיתִי בֵּית־תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכׇל־הָעַמִּים׃”

“And who hold fast to My covenant—
I will bring them to My sacred mount
And let them rejoice in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
Shall be welcome on My altar;
For My House shall be called
A house of prayer for all peoples.”

And then the Waqf leader shares a quote from his tradition, from the Quran:

“You who have faith! Be upholders of justice, bearing witness for God alone, even against yourselves or your parents and relatives” (Quran, 4:135),

and

“…do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness” (Quran, 5:8).

Minister Ben Gvir responds accordingly by saying how much he appreciates the hospitality of his Muslim brothers and sisters and reminds the Head of the Waqf that the Western Wall Plaza, Judaism’s holiest site, is open to everyone too (as long as you maintain gender segregation and women don’t read Torah or don talitot and tefillin…), because the prophet Isaiah said that My House shall be called A house of prayer for all peoples…

As Ben Gvir gets up to leave, he says:

יְהֹוָה יִשְׁמׇר־צֵאתְךָ וּבוֹאֶךָ מֵעַתָּה וְעַד־עוֹלָם׃  (תהילים קכא:ח)

“May Adonai guard your going and coming now and forever.” (Psalm 121:8)

Peace Be unto you.

To which the Waqf head replies:

Ya’tik al’afiya (يعطيك العافية), “may God give you good health”, مع السلامة U’Ma’asalama
“May you go with Peace.”

All the above, of course, is a dream.

Instead, Ben Gvir left the Temple Mount and returned to the Knesset to assist his cabinet colleague Justice Minister Yariv Lavin to deconstruct the bastions of Israeli democracy with sweeping judicial ‘reforms.’ If implemented, the most extremist Members of the Knesset would have carte blanche what they please.

Pipe dreams aside, the real question posed directly to Ben Gvir by Channel 12’s anchor Yonit Levy is whether he will encourage, enable, and condone the attempts by fringe Jewish messianists and 3rd Temple activists (i.e. those who wish to tear down the Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Temple) to ascend the Temple Mount and offer an actual sacrifice on Pesach. Ben Gvir ducked the question. When pressed, he admitted to not answering and that he was not going to answer.

Everything Ben Gvir is doing is dangerous. Even if we ignore the fact that the top of the Temple Mount is unavailable to group Jewish prayer at the moment, his slow and steady attempt to normalize Jewish presence on the Temple Mount could augur World War III with the Muslim world. That would be a catastrophe for the State of Israel, the Jewish people, and world peace. Ben Gvir is playing with fire, and we can only hope that saner leaders take the lead and do nothing to change the Temple Mount’s status quo observed since the 1967 Six-Day War.

We will hear voices saying that all this doom and gloom isn’t necessary and that we are exaggerating. Many have asked why are we making such a big deal right? I’m sorry to say that they are wrong. This is a big deal, a demonstrable break from the past and we must be vigilant and outspoken. Now is the time to join our Reform Movement in Israel to protect against these very real threats to Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.
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