Explainer: The Temple Mount Movement

June 21, 2024
Explainer: The Temple Mount Movement

The Noble Sanctuary, including the iconic golden Dome of the Rock on the left, at top. The Wailing Wall, below right. (Photo: Christopher Hazou)

What is the Temple Mount movement?

  • The Temple Mount movement is an extremist messianic Jewish movement whose objective is to build a temple inside the 1,300-year-old Noble Sanctuary Mosque complex in occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem, one of the most sensitive holy sites in the world.
  • Built in the late 7th and early 8th centuries, the Noble Sanctuary ("Haram al-Sharif" in Arabic) contains the iconic Dome of the Rock shrine and al-Aqsa Mosque, and is the third holiest site in Islam. Called the Temple Mount by Jews, it’s also the location where two Jewish temples once stood, the second of which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and is the holiest site in Judaism. The Noble Sanctuary abuts and overlooks a wall known as the Wailing (or Western) Wall, where Jews have traditionally prayed instead of the Noble Sanctuary.
  • Once considered to be on the fringes of Israeli society, since the early 2000s the Temple Mount movement has grown rapidly and become increasingly mainstream. Rabbis increasingly approve of and encourage Jews to visit the Noble Sanctuary and urge the Israeli government to allow them to pray openly there. By 2016, it had become so mainstream that Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau publicly declared he wanted to see a temple built in the Noble Sanctuary.
  • Although they sometimes mask their intentions in terms of civil rights and religious freedom, Temple Mount extremists make clear their goal is to take over the Noble Sanctuary for exclusive Jewish use. As Moshe Feiglin, then-deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and one of the leaders of the movement explained in 2014: "I'm not asking for equality at the Temple Mount; there is no equality - it's ours and ours alone." Echoing those sentiments, notorious far-right Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir - who is in charge of Israeli police - declared in June 2024: “We say in the simplest way, it’s ours.” During a visit to the Noble Sanctuary in 2023, Ben-Gvir declared: “We are the masters of Jerusalem and all of the land of Israel.” 

Temple Mount extremists incite tensions in the region & threaten to start a religious war

  • Provocations by Temple Mount extremists, including senior government officials, in and around the Noble Sanctuary foment tensions in East Jerusalem and throughout Palestine/Israel and fuel Palestinian fears that Israel will one day attempt to take complete control  over all or part of the revered Muslim holy site, as occurred with the historic Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in the occupied West Bank after an Israeli-Americans settler massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in 1994.
  • Temple Mount extremists threaten to spark a major religious conflagration in the region and beyond with their encroachments in the Noble Sanctuary. Their provocations include:
  • In September 2000, notorious ex-Israeli general and then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited  the Noble Sanctuary to assert Jewish-Israeli sovereignty accompanied by hundreds of riot police. In ensuing protests, Israeli police killed scores of Palestinians and wounded hundreds of others, sparking the Second Intifada (uprising) against Israel’s then more than three-decade-old military occupation and colonization of Palestinian land in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.
  • In 1990, Israeli police shot and killed 17 Palestinians and wounded more than 150 others during protests after Temple Mount extremists announced plans to lay a cornerstone for a temple in the Noble Sanctuary. 

The  “status quo” agreement

  • After the Israeli military occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, Israel prohibited Jews from praying in the Noble Sanctuary to avoid provoking religious discord and because the vast majority of Jewish religious authorities at the time barred Jews from entering the Noble Sanctuary based on theological grounds.
  • Under an agreement between Israel and neighboring Jordan, which controlled East Jerusalem from 1948 when Israel was established on the destruction of Palestine until Israel occupied it in 1967, Jordan is supposed to be in charge of administering the Noble Sanctuary. According to the agreement, known as the “status quo,” Jews and other non-Muslims can visit but only Muslims are allowed to pray inside the Noble Sanctuary. Below the Noble Sanctuary, only Jews are allowed to pray at the Wailing Wall.
  • While Israeli officials frequently claim they have no intention of altering the status quo, since at least 2019 Israel has been quietly allowing Jews to pray in the Noble Sanctuary under police protection and for years senior members of Israel’s government have publicly called for the imposition of Jewish-Israeli sovereignty over the site and the building of a temple in its grounds.
  • Despite Jordan nominally having control over the Noble Sanctuary, Israel as the occupying power in East Jerusalem does what it wants, frequently placing restrictions on Palestinian access to al-Aqsa Mosque, invading it and violently assaulting Palestinian worshippers, and other provocations and violations of Palestinians’ religious freedom. The Jordanian government often condemns these abuses and warns against further provocations but has little power to stop them.
  • In addition to frequently denying Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem access to the Noble Sanctuary and Christian holy sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Israel denies millions of Muslim and Christian Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, occupied Gaza, and the diaspora, the right to visit occupied East Jerusalem and worship at its holy sites.

Who funds the Temple Mount movement?

  • The Israeli government has funded extremist groups like the Temple Institute for decades. According to a 2015 report by Haaretz newspaper, over the previous five years the Temple Institute and an associated group received approximately $361,000 (USD) from the Ministry of Education and about $210,000 (USD) from the Ministry of Culture and Sports. The government and city of Jerusalem also sponsor public events put on by the Temple Institute, which is promoted on the municipality of Jerusalem’s official tourism website.
  • A 2018 investigation by Haaretz revealed that a close confidant and key donor to Prime Minister Netanyahu, American Kenneth Abramowitz, and then-Deputy Minister of Defense Eli Ben-Dahan, had donated large sums to the Temple Institute.
  • Israeli public schools indoctrinate children into the Temple Mount movement. As noted in a 2013 report by Israeli NGOs Ir Amim and Keshev: “These educational activities forcefully expose students to the Temple movements’ versions of history, ideology and Jewish law regarding the Temple Mount as well as the yearning and capacity to erect the Third Temple upon it.”
  • Government-funded youth groups like Bnei Akiva also indoctrinate young Israelis into the movement through workshops and other events. including working with Return to the Mount, one of the most extreme Temple Mount groups.
  • Temple Mount extremists also receive funding from foreign-based registered charitable groups, including in the US, Canada, and the UK, making contributions to them tax deductible in those countries. They also receive support from right-wing evangelical Christians.

Notable Temple Mount groups

The Temple Institute

  • The government-funded Temple Institute runs a museum and visitor’s center in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City near the Noble Sanctuary and is the most mainstream group in the movement. It is actively working towards building a temple in the Noble Sanctuary, including making plans with an architect, training priests and making vessels for ritual use in temple ceremonies, and indoctrinating Israeli schoolchildren with the belief that building a temple in the Noble Sanctuary is a religious and national imperative.
  • The institute’s head, Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, is a major figure in the movement. In the early 1980s, he ran for the Knesset with the overtly racist, fascist Kach party, second on the electoral list after its notorious leader, Meir Kahane. Kahane’s Kach party, Jewish Defense League, and offshoots were labeled terrorist organizations by the US government because of terrorist attacks carried out by their members. In 1983, Ariel was arrested on suspicion of plotting to take over the Noble Sanctuary. A year later he established the institute.

Return to the Mount

  • One of the most extreme and dangerous Temple Mount groups, Return to the Mount engages in provocations like attempting to sacrifice animals in the Noble Sanctuary and offering cash to any Jew who does so or gets arrested trying. Members also disguise themselves as Muslims to enter the Noble Sanctuary and pray. Return to the Mount is closely associated with the extremist Kahanist movement and Lehava group, which works to prevent the mixing of Arabs and Jews in Palestine/Israel. 

The Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement

  • One of the oldest Temple Mount groups, the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement openly calls for the removal of the Dome of the Rock shrine and al-Aqsa Mosque, declaring on its website: “The Temple Mount can never be consecrated to the Name of G-d without removing these pagan shrines. It has been suggested that they be removed, transferred to, and rebuilt at Mecca.
  • In 1990, Israeli police killed 17 Palestinians and injured more than 150 others during protests after the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful announced plans to lay a cornerstone for a Jewish temple in the Noble Sanctuary. 

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