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Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount: Who Will Build the Third Temple? by Motti Inbari.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.  211 pp.  $24.95.


The Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the most sacred place for Judaism, has created a delicate and potentially explosive problem for Israel after it was captured from the Jordanians in the 1967 Six Day War. On the one hand, after that victorious—some would say miraculous—war, re-building the Third Temple in place of the Muslim Mosques standing there, seemed like the correct thing to do from a national and religious point of view. On the other hand, Israel always claimed to be dedicated to improving its relations with other countries and especially to reaching peace with its Arab neighbors. Nothing would have enraged the Muslim World, and most of the Western World, more than such a drastic intervention in the sacred status of the holy mountain. Building a Temple, and presumably restoring sacrificial slaughter, is also anathema in light of Israel’s modern, rationalistic, secular ethos, promising the rights of all denominations under its rule, and maintaining a delicate status quo between its secular and religious population. One can only conjecture how Judaism as we know it would be transformed if a Third Temple were built. Meanwhile, religious Israelis, who study about the Temple and pray for its return, encounter the halachic law that prohibits them from entering the sacred compound. By leaving the holy place in the hands of the Muslim Wakf, Israel has, in a sense, bypassed these questions, while institutionalizing a constant reminder that the return of the Jews to their ancient land is inherently partial.

              Motti Inbari starts his book on the Jewish fundamentalists’ attempts to return to the Temple Mount with the reversal of the decree that prohibits Jews from entering the compound. In 1996, the Committee of Yesha Rabbis (Yesha is the acronym for Judea, Samaria, and Gaza) ruled that Jews are permitted, and even encouraged, to enter the Temple Mount. The desire to go there and transform the place has existed before, but the Oslo agreements and diplomatic negotiations regarding the future of the Temple Mount made it imperative, to the mind of those rabbis, to show substantial Jewish presence on the mountain. This decision exemplifies how radical ideas start infiltrating into wider audiences.

              From the perspective of the larger Israeli society, or even the national religious section, the groups that Inbari discusses in his book are small, esoteric, and marginal, the radical fringes of the extreme right, an issue for the Israeli security forces rather than for the understanding of Israel’s politics, society, and prospects for the future. However, as Inbari convincingly claims in his introduction, they are, in fact, of great consequence, both for understanding contemporary Israel and for theoretical considerations. Their potential for provocation is considerable, and within the context of the delicate situation of the Middle Eastern conflict, their historical importance outweighs their actual numbers. They claim the right to a justified interpretation of the fundamentals of religion and nationality (understood as one) and challenge the acceptable boundaries of Israeli belief systems, asking tough questions regarding the meaning of Jewish existence on the Land of Israel. While their connection to canonical Jewish texts is one of their defining features, they are part of a global fundamentalist phenomenon, and Inbari shows how their attraction reaches out beyond Judaism to Christian fundamentalists of North America.

              Motti Inbari’s book is a detailed, nuanced, and profound exploration of the main groups and individuals that constitute the fundamentalist right in Israel, and that have the resurrection of the temple as the basis of their ideology. First to be presented and discussed is Rabbi Israel Ariel and his Temple Institute. The narrative told by Rabbi Ariel, on his mystical enthusiasm following the 1967 war, especially when as a soldier he was assigned as a guard on the sacred mountain, exactly where, by his calculations, Kodesh Hakodashim stood in ancient times, is a prototypical story of the emergence of a fundamentalist. Inbari adds to this story the activities of his institute, which does research and prepares the ground for a possible messianic future. Rabbi Ariel and his institute embody the richness of the fundamentalist phenomenon, acting not only, not even primarily, on the political level, but mostly on more cultural, artistic, and theological levels.

              Next comes Yehuda Etzion, who started out as one of the leaders of the Gush Emunim movement, yet moved to the far right, eventually attempting to blow up the Temple Mount Mosques and going for a short while to jail. Inbari discusses his theology, labeling it as theocratic post-Zionism. More than in other cases, Etzion’s worldview exemplifies how the fringes of Israeli extreme right can produce a perspective that may in the future offer a challenge, comparable to left-wing post-Zionism, to Israeli dominant-yet-contested Zionist ideology.

              Politically, the urge to return to the sacred mountain is mainly connected to the name of Gershon Salomon, who has made returning to the Temple Mount his life mission and created an endless stream of provocations. Inbari notes his political weakness and social irrelevance; significantly, when Ariel Sharon, as opposition leader, did in 2000 what Salomon always preached for, his action ignited (according to some interpretations) the violence of the second intifada. From Salomon, Inbari moves through a fascinating chapter on the ultra-orthodox groups dedicated to the idea, to Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg, his yeshiva and young nationalist supporters, who probably hold the future of the fundamentalist idea in their hands. Their radical activities pose new threats, and show that the Temple Mount will remain a focus of contention in the future.

              Inbari’s account of Israel’s foremost fundamentalists concentrates on their theology. His evenhanded account enables the reader to comprehend the logic of marginal groups, who are acting, as scholar Karen Armstrong expresses it, between the mythos and the logos. In keeping a critical distance and listening carefully to what those radical groups have to say, Inbari has rendered an important service to the study of Israeli society and of fundamentalism in general. At the end of his book he allows himself to express his anxiety regarding the “true believers” he has encountered. Following historian Jacob Katz, he mentions that messianism is a problematic blueprint for a modern state, and the tensions between desire for salvation and the actual capability to negotiate everyday life in a complex, multiethnic and, more important in this context, multi-denominational society may have important implications for the future of Israel. Inbari's concerns are shared by many in Israel.    

Michael Feige

Ben-Gurion Research Institute

Ben Gurion University of the Negev