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On Tisha B’Av and the Danger of Jewish Zealotry

Maya Haber
July 31, 2017

by Maya Haber

WITH THE ARRIVAL of Tisha B’Av, we ponder the destruction of the ancient Temples and this year give thanks that Armageddon was recently averted -- though just barely. On July 14, three terrorists, Arab citizens of Israel, launched an attack at the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary complex in East Jerusalem, killing two Israeli policemen. In response, the Israeli government took the unprecedented step of installing metal detectors and surveillance cameras at the entrance used by Muslim worshipers to access the site’s Al Aqsa mosque. Palestinian riots ensued and Israel was eventually forced to reverse course and return to the status quo ante. Fortunately we avoided a religious war which could have encompassed the entire Middle East.

The reason that this potentially catastrophic violence flared is that the installation of the metal detectors and surveillance cameras was never about security -- notwithstanding the declarations made by the Israeli government. Indeed, Israel’s own security and intelligence services had stood in opposition to the government’s decision and warned of its possible consequences.

Rather, the decision by the Israeli government, which is dominated by religious zealots, was an effort to assert the country’s sovereignty over one of the most sacred places to both Judaism and Islam. Rightwing Knesset members from the ruling Likud party and the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, a senior partner in the governing coalition, attacked the security services for recommending the metal detectors’ removal. Coalition whip David Bitan (Likud) accused the Shin Bet (General Security Service) of conducting itself with cowardice.

Rather than seeking to restore calm, some members of the coalition called to escalate the crisis in order to claim exclusive Israeli sovereignty over Al Aqsa mosque. “I would establish a Synagogue on the Temple Mount,” declared Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich. His party leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, criticized the decision to remove the security measures: “Israel comes out weakened from this crisis. Instead of sending a message about Israel’s sovereignty on the Temple Mount, it sent a message that Israel’s sovereignty can be questioned.”

Bennett and Smotrich are modern-day religious zealots. Throughout Jewish history, there has been an ongoing struggle between zealots and moderates. Zealots demand absolute justice, regardless of the price that needs to be paid. They often see themselves as God’s messengers and choose paths of action based on their self-proclaimed righteousness.

In Jewish tradition, Tisha B’Av is a fasting day designed to allow Jews to reflect upon the consequences caused by the rule of such zealots. The Zealot-led revolt against the Roman Empire in 70 CE nearly brought an end to Judaism. Its failure resulted in the exile of thousands of Jews, the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of Jewish independence. During the rebellion, the Zealots were so inebriated by their own sense of righteousness that they burned down the city’s food supply and refused to allow anyone to leave Jerusalem alive.

On the brink of what would be one of the low points of early Jewish history, Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai escaped from Jerusalem hidden in a coffin, made contact with the Romans and was given permission to reside in the town of Yavne, together with “its Sages.” In Yavne, he established a center for the preservation of Jewish tradition. And from this national catastrophe came the determination, “never again.”

When discussing the reasons for the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sages, it should be noted, didn’t blame the Romans who brought it down. They put all the blame on groundless hatred and the irresponsible silence of the Jewish leadership. The Sages’ mission became the uprooting of fanaticism and zealotry and the call to “love peace and pursue peace” (Pirkei Avot, 1:12). Their message was that we must learn to live peacefully:

“Why was the first bayt hahmikdash [Temple] destroyed? Because of three evils which prevailed at that time: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. . . .Why was the second bayt hahmikdash destroyed, seeing that in its time, the Jewish people were occupying themselves with the study of Torah, the mitzvot, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause. This teaches that groundless hatred is considered as serious an evil as idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed combined.” (Talmud, Mas. Yoma 9b)

This has been our tradition for 2000 years. We lived in peace and feared zealotry.

BUT in the last fifty years something dramatic has changed. Certain people in the religious-Zionist camp in Israel, like MK Smotrich and Minister Bennett, have reembraced the messianic zeal of those whose blind hatred was punished on Tisha B’Av.

Today, it’s hard to recall that in 1967, after the conquering of East Jerusalem, the religious Zionists supported Israel’s decision to maintain the Islamic administration over the Al Aqsa mosque. Then-Religious Affairs Minister Zerach Warhaftig, a member of the National Religious Party (a precursor to Jewish Home), said that, according to Halakha (Jewish religious law), the Third Temple has to be built by God alone. “This makes me happy,” he said, “because we can avoid a conflict with the Muslim religion.”

For generations, Halakha forbade visiting the Temple Mount. With few exceptions rabbis ruled that God would punish by death those visiting the Mount -- because in Judaism the more sacred a place is, the more distance one must keep from it. The Temple Mount was considered simply too sacred to enter -- particularly since we don’t know where exactly stood the Temple building, into which only Cohens (the priestly class) were allowed to enter, and within the building where was located the Kodesh Hakodashim (the Holy of Holies), where only the High Priest could go.

But this almost unanimous Halakhic position started shifting in 1996 -- soon after the signing of the Oslo accord. Why? Because, suddenly, manifesting Israel’s sovereignty over the Temple Mount became more important for the zealots than Halakha or God’s punishments. In recent years, the number of Jews visiting the Temple Mount has grown significantly. Last year, 14,050 Jews visited the Mount. This year, authorities expect the number to reach 20,000. In a survey that asked, “What are the reasons they are going up to the Temple Mount?”, 96.8 percent replied that visiting the site would constitute “a contribution to strengthening Israeli sovereignty in the holy place.”

Jewish zealots are entirely willing to ignite a religious war over Israel’s sovereignty at the Temple Mount. Maybe that’s not so surprising since they are even willing to risk Divine retribution. In recent weeks, these zealots almost got their wish.

JEWISH ZEALOTS, of course, are not alone. The three terrorists who launched the attack on the Temple Mount on July 14, igniting this crisis, clearly wanted to spark a religious war. And there is no place like the Temple Mount to wreak such havoc.

In 1996, a wave of Palestinian violence erupted after the opening of a tunnel attached to the Mount. In 2000, the Second Intifada began after Ariel Sharon, then the opposition leader, made a politicized visit to the site. And in 2014, the Gaza War culminated from events which started with a Knesset committee discussion of the arrangements for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount.

Knowing that the Temple Mount is a powder keg, zealot Jews, Muslims and Christians yearning for Armageddon, a religious war-that-will-end-all-wars that will bring the messiah, are playing with fire. Christian fundamentalists have been funding the Temple Institute, the research center preparing for the Third Temple. And last week the Jewish Press sought to normalize religious zealotry by publishing the article “Tisha B’Av: Time to Wake Up [and] Make the Dream a Reality.”

But as our Sages who escaped Jerusalem as it was burning in groundless hatred taught us: “Who is a wise man? He who foresees what will happen. Who is a mighty man? He who conquers their impulse to evil.”

Maya Haber is Partners for Progressive Israel’s Director of Programming and Strategy.