The GOP’s Plan to Build the Third Temple

Republicans are working with Kahanist activists to advance a violent vision of Jewish control over Jerusalem’s holy sites.

Corey Sherman
October 7, 2022

Jewish worshipers at the door of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem during Tisha B’Av, on August 7th, 2022.

Ilia Yefimovich/dpa/Alamy Live News

Before dawn on April 15th, 2022, Israeli security forces laid siege to the Al-Aqsa mosque and compound in Jerusalem. Police shot Palestinian worshippers with rubber-coated steel bullets, subdued them with stun grenades, and beat them with billy clubs; over 150 were treated by the Red Crescent. By the end of the day, over 300 Palestinians had been arrested. The New York Times explained the Israeli assault as a response to Palestinians blocking Jews from entering the compound amid rumors that “hard-line Jewish activists” planned to perform a Passover sacrifice at the site. Indeed, for weeks in the run-up to Passover, the right-wing religious group Beyadenu (In Our Hands), part of what’s known in Israel as the Temple Movement, had been planning and publicizing mass ascents to the hilltop compound, sometimes referred to as the Holy Esplanade.

When the Israeli government temporarily closed the esplanade to Jewish worshippers on April 25th in an attempt to prevent further violence, Beyadenu called the new policy a capitulation to Palestinian terrorism. The policy was lifted in early May, and Beyadenu soon organized more Jewish ascents to the site. On May 29th, when tens of thousands of armed settlers stormed the Old City for Jerusalem Day—chanting “death to Arabs,” calling for the burning of Palestinian villages, and attacking journalists—thousands entered Al-Aqsa, and Beyadenu celebrated the move. On August 7th—which this year was Tisha B’av, the day that marks the destruction of the Jewish temples—Temple Mount groups rallied more than 2,000 Jews for another ascent. In all of these cases, Jews who entered the esplanade were joined by police, who accompany Jewish visitors to ensure that they don’t violate the policies set by the Jordanian waqf, or religious endowment, that administers the site, which state that non-Muslims are not permitted to pray there. But in recent years, Jews have visited the esplanade in ever greater numbers and prayed in full view of police, who routinely coordinate directly with the Temple Movement to promote Jewish access for tours and “quiet prayer.” The Jewish worshipers who flooded the esplanade on Tisha B’av, for example, repeatedly assured police, “We’ll be quiet, we’ll be quiet,” according to reports, before continuing to worship visibly, audibly, and in unison.

The Temple Movement of which Beyadenu is a part has its roots in Kahanism, the Jewish fascist movement founded by Brooklyn-born rabbi Meir Kahane in the 1960s. In the early ’70s, Kahane created an Israeli political party, Kach, which led a transnational campaign of violence in an effort to provoke the voluntary and forced transfer of Palestinians from Israel/Palestine, and advocated for the establishment of a theocratic ethnostate. Though Israel banned Kach in 1984, publicly available tax filings show that the original party’s infrastructure has been reconstituted in a collection of Temple Movement-affiliated nonprofits founded and run by Kahanist luminaries. Israeli researchers and organizers have documented some ties among Kahanist groups, and between Kahanist groups and the Temple Movement. Jewish Currents’ review of Israeli tax filings identified a larger number of affiliated groups, including some that register nonprofits in the United States. (A new Kahanist party, Otzma Yehudit, has also taken Kach’s place in the Knesset.) “The Kahanist movement is far from being dead in Israel,” said Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher with Ir Amim, which monitors human rights violations in Jerusalem. “It’s the strongest it ever was.”

The Temple Movement’s influence—once largely limited to the most extreme settler groups in Hebron and Jerusalem—has been on the rise since 2010, the same year that US voters gave the GOP control over the House of Representatives. Since then, Republicans traveling in Israel/Palestine have repeatedly visited Al-Aqsa with Temple Movement escorts. A Jewish Currents review of travel filings with the House Ethics Committee revealed that Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan has met with Kahanists on more occasions than any other member of Congress, sitting down with them on four separate trips to Israel/Palestine—in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2020. In all, more than 40 Republicans—including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, and, following his time in office, former Vice President Mike Pence—have met with Kahanists since 2011, in Hebron and near Nablus as well as in Jerusalem. Many of these meetings occurred as part of privately sponsored Congressional delegations to Israel/Palestine that were organized and funded by Christian Zionist groups, including the United States Israel Education Association (USIEA) and Proclaiming Justice to the Nations (PJTN). (Under House rules, lawmakers are permitted to participate in privately sponsored trips like those arranged by Christian Zionist groups, and members of Congress are under no obligation to notify the State Department when traveling on such junkets.)

The Temple Movement’s efforts are aimed at accomplishing a single, symbolically important piece of the Kahanist project: Its various organizations seek, per movement founder Yisrael Ariel, to “flatten” Al-Aqsa, the hilltop mosque and compound in Jerusalem’s Old City that is home to Islam’s third-holiest site. For Palestinians, Al-Aqsa signifies their unbroken historical presence in Jerusalem. But the site is also the former location of Solomon’s Temple, the holiest in Judaism. Since Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, religious Zionists have sought to upend the policies—put in place under Ottoman rule nearly 200 years ago, and maintained today by the waqf—that bar non-Muslims from praying on the esplanade (though anyone may access the esplanade during visiting hours). The goal of the Temple Movement is not only to abrogate this “status quo” arrangement in which the waqf controls the esplanade, but ultimately to destroy Al-Aqsa and Haram Al-Sharif, the compound’s most sacred sanctuary, and rebuild the Jewish holy temple in their place. Temple Movement groups have already drawn up basic blueprints.

The movement’s GOP allies have publicly amplified a sanitized version of these goals, claiming that the Temple Movement’s aim is simply to end religious discrimination against Jews and give them prayer rights at Al-Aqsa. In 2014, after DeSantis and Maryland Rep. Andy Harris entered the esplanade with members of the Temple Institute in secret—concealing their identities as congressmen—Harris put out a video decrying the “discrimination against Jews above any other religion” at the esplanade. In 2020, when the Trump administration unveiled its so-called peace plan for Israel/Palestine, it purported to affirm US support for the status quo, but also included the position that “people of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.” At an event with right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, Trump’s former ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, appeared to take a harder line. When Shapiro told the audience that Jews should “build a [synagogue] on Har HaBayit”—the Hebrew name for the Temple Mount—Friedman signaled his support of the idea, responding, “I said that once and I started a riot when I was ambassador, so I’m not going to say it again.”

A senior official who served under President Obama and requested anonymity to speak candidly about sensitive foreign policy issues told Jewish Currents that Republicans with ties to the Temple Movement represented a growing faction within the party that was “actively trying to cultivate a different approach to what had been a real bipartisan consensus [on Israel/Palestine] for many decades: a negotiated two-state solution.” Their approach would withdraw support for a Palestinian state, endorse Israeli annexation of the West Bank, and advocate ceding total control of all holy sites to Israel. During the Obama years, GOP efforts in support of these aims amounted to a shadow foreign policy that directly challenged the executive branch’s goals. Under Trump, Friedman gave this faction official sanction by joining GOP congressmen when they traveled on junkets to Israel/Palestine funded by Christian Zionist groups, meeting Kahanists and Israeli cabinet members in turn.

In Israel/Palestine, the Kahanist movement has long been a potent but marginal political force. With US legislators amplifying the Temple Movement’s demands, the Kahanists’ violent vision is moving into the mainstream. “We saw people whose stated goal was to destroy Al-Aqsa and replace it with a Third Temple as extremists,” said the former Obama official. The official saw a possibility that the Temple Movement “would [exacerbate] tensions and instigate danger by voicing their views—and more so if they ever made any attempt, even partial, to carry them out.”

The current access policies at Al-Aqsa trace back to an 1852 decree by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid. Though the decree specified that only Muslims could pray at the esplanade, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Haram Al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, it permitted anyone to gain entrance by paying a small fee to the waqf. This policy, often referred to as the “status quo,” was incorporated into the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and formally accepted in 1929 by the British Mandate. Even after Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, the agreement remained largely intact until 2003, albeit with a notable exception: the 2000 incursion into the site by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon, accompanied by armed security forces, which helped spark the Second Intifada.

Nevertheless, in 2003, Israel unilaterally granted access to visitors through a gate in the Jewish Quarter, infringing on the Jordanian waqf’s control. Today, Israeli Border Police stand at every gate to the compound and can limit entry to Al-Aqsa and Haram al-Sharif. “This unilateral change is why Palestinians refer to visits by settlers as ‘incursions,’” explained Mounir Marjeieh, international advocacy officer at the Community Action Center at Al Quds University. “Under the status quo, the waqf is meant to control access to the site, not the Israelis.” Thus, for nearly two decades, “there has been a continuous breach of the status quo.”

Evicting Muslims from Al-Aqsa was one prong of the Kach Party’s genocidal platform—and the Temple Movement has carried it forward even after the party’s banning. The Temple Movement began in earnest in 1983, when Ariel, then the highest-ranking Kach Party member after Kahane, attempted to bore a tunnel beneath Al-Aqsa in an effort to physically seize the site. Israeli police arrested Ariel, who explained in a 2007 interview that he began planning for the creation of what would become the Temple Institute during his detention. Rather than wage violence in the open, he decided, the Temple Institute would use research and advocacy to influence public opinion, ultimately forcing the Israeli government to claim the site and rebuild the Jewish Holy Temple. Since the banning of the Kach Party, Ariel’s Temple Institute has become the Kahanist movement’s organizational fulcrum and publicity arm. Its reach is international: Americans can claim tax deductions by donating to Jerusalem Lights, a 501(c)(3) registered in Texas that is closely associated with the Temple Institute. The institute presents what Tatarsky refers to as the movement’s “friendly face,” arguing that the movement seeks only prayer rights for Jews at the Holy Esplanade.

The Temple Institute maintains a veneer of legitimacy, in part, due to its association with Yehudah Glick, an American-born rabbi who served as a member of Knesset for the right-wing Likud party. Glick rarely leads with his Kahanist bona fides—preferring to focus on what he calls the movement’s “human rights” campaign for Jewish prayer rights—but while serving in the Knesset, he memorialized Kahane at a Jewish Defense League event in 2016. The Temple Institute also shares a board member—the rabbi and activist Shimshon Elboim—with Yeshivat Har-Ha’Bayit, or Temple Mount Yeshiva, run by Israel’s most prominent Kahanist militant, Bentzi Gopstein. According to a post on Yeshivat Har-Ha’Bayit’s website, Glick helped Ariel and Gopstein plan the single largest Temple Movement incursion into Al-Aqsa to date, which occurred in August 2017.

The movement’s aims for the site—and for Jerusalem as a whole—involve replicating the example of the West Bank city of Hebron, where the site known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, and to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, has been divided into one side for each faith, both accessible only via an Israeli military checkpoint. This regime of separation is not limited to the religious site: Military checkpoints in the heart of the city itself prevent Palestinians from accessing major thoroughfares that border Jewish settlements. Hebron is “an apartheid city,” said Inès Abdel Razek, an analyst with the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka, and “there is apartheid in the Ibrahimi Mosque.” These policies, Abdel Razek noted, have driven Palestinians out of the city, effectively depopulating parts of Hebron. “The Temple Movement explicitly says that they want to arrive at a situation at the Temple Mount where there are times for Jews to pray alone, times for Muslims to pray alone, and maybe even a spatial split,” said Tatarsky. “They say, ‘It’s working at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It should be this way at the Temple Mount, too.’”

When leaders of the movement bring members of Congress to Al-Aqsa, they appear to push a similar narrative. In 2018, for example, Chaim Richman, the Temple Institute’s former international director, escorted West Virginia Rep. David McKinley and then-Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton on a tour of Al-Aqsa as part of a trip sponsored by the Christian Zionist organization Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, which pursues complete Jewish control in Israel/Palestine based on the belief that it will bring about the end of days and the second coming of Jesus Christ. Though the Jewish activists don’t share this theological endgame, their aims align with those of the Christian Zionists in the immediate term. On the tour, Avi Abelow, an American-born settler who recorded the excursion and posted the video to his Facebook page—and who also works with Beyadenuexplained that the Temple Institute’s strategy was to “generate the awareness necessary to prepare the Jewish people to be ready to then declare sovereignty [over Al-Aqsa].”

During the same tour, the congressmen attempted to take an olive branch from Haram al-Sharif, a violation of the waqf’s policy preventing visitors from removing anything from the sanctuary, and were detained by waqf guards and police. The Jerusalem Post published a clip in which Abelow interviewed the congressmen about the experience. Tipton called it ironic that “[Muslims] have got a problem with the olive branch—a symbol of peace, as we talked about.” McKinley said that he would raise the issue of religious discrimination at Al-Aqsa with Netanyahu.

Jordan first visited Al-Aqsa in 2011 and 2013, but his itineraries do not specify a local host. On those trips, however, he met with Simcha Hochbaum, a self-proclaimed disciple of Kahane who has reportedly defended Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Kahanist settler who killed dozens of Palestinians at the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994. Also in 2011, alongside Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, Jordan met with Kahane’s relative David Ha’Ivri, who has been arrested for celebrating the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. According to Ethics Committee filings, he planned and then canceled a tour of Al-Aqsa with the Temple Institute’s Richman in 2015, but was able to tour the esplanade with the Temple Movement five years later, in 2020. Glick was his guide that day, and Abelow’s nonprofit, registered in New York, paid for the trip. Before entering the site, Glick explained to Jordan and Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson that while they visited the site, “we will be praying the whole time.” Jordan followed Glick’s instructions, explaining in a follow-up interview with Abelow that he prayed for his family, and for Israel and the US. Jordan noted that his wife, who was also present for the tour, prayed throughout the visit as well, and added that she wanted to move to Israel. Johnson, an Evangelical minister, described his tour of Israel as the “fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy” and argued that the status quo at the esplanade was a “jarring” example of the restriction of Jews’ and Christians’ freedoms of expression and worship. Abelow, Jordan, and Johnson linked the agreement that governs the esplanade to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and to what they described as the “radical left” attempts to silence conservative campus speech and indoctrinate students in the US.

Should the GOP return to power in this fall’s midterms, the Temple Movement’s allies in Congress will be in an even better position to continue chipping away at the diplomatic consensus, to the benefit of the political fringe. Although the House can’t unilaterally usher in the changes that the Temple Movement demands, Republican leaders like Jordan could, for example, pass Congressional resolutions calling on the US to revoke its support for the status quo at Al-Aqsa, or condition congressional appropriations on such moves. These would represent a challenge to President Biden, who has said that hesupports a Palestinian state, though his administration has made no effort to start talks between Israelis and Palestinians. If nothing else, the GOP could use such measures to put the Temple Movement’s vision into wider circulation—just as both chambers of the US Congress in 1995 overwhelmingly passed a resolution to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, decades before Trump actually did so. “The Temple Movement knows how to build power,” Tatarsky said. “Evangelicals and Congressmen provide the movement with access to funding and political support.” Both sides seek total Jewish sovereignty in the area, if for different reasons, he said. “Both groups are using each other for their own goals.”

Corey Sherman is an educator and organizer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.