EXPLAINER: What Are the Temple Movements and Why Should We Be Worried?

In our last explainer, we focused on the immediate causes, context and repercussions of the July crisis at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (also known as Al Aqsa compound, the Noble Sanctuary, the Holy Esplanade, the compound), after armed assailants murdered two Israeli police offers and Israel responded by temporarily closing access to the site and installing metal detectors at its gates.  These actions were perceived by Palestinians, Jordan and Muslims around the world as a breach of the status quo, setting off massive street protests in East Jerusalem. Since the Israeli government removed the metal detectors, there has been a restoration of relative calm at the holy site; but as the Jewish high holidays approach, there is cause for renewed vigilance. 
Why Are We on High Alert as Rosh Hashanah Approaches? 
The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is one of the most complicated and sensitive issues on Israel’s agenda, activating friction points between Israel and the Palestinian population, the Arab nations surrounding Israel, the Muslim world and domestically, within the Israeli Jewish community itself. 
Over the last decade, the fragile status quo (see more below) at the holy site has been increasingly tested, driven by a revival of activity by Jews who are determined to overturn arrangements at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and to marginalize the claims of Muslims to the holy site. In the last several years, thousands of national religious Jewish pilgrims have ascended the Mount, including groups of rabbis, women, Members of Knesset and recently, soldiers in uniform. 
These religious ideologues, known as Temple Movement activists, heighten their activities during festival – or High Holiday – periods and over the last year, they have progressively set new records for ascents.  On Tisha B’Av, a high of more than 1,000 Temple Movement activists ascended. If the trend continues, this High Holiday period could exceed all previous numbers, just months after the major crisis in July. 
What is the Status Quo? 
The “status quo” is a term that is frequently invoked but whose meaning is often murky, even to those using it.   The current situation at the holy sites in Jerusalem is rooted in the status quo established during the Ottoman era. The overriding principle guiding worship arrangements over the past 500 years is the separation of worship sites: Muslims conduct their religious worship in Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and Jews worship at the Western Wall. This principle was revalidated after Israel occupied the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in 1967. Ten days after the occupation, on June 17, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and themembers of the Higher Muslim Council agreed that IDF soldiers would vacate the Mount area and deploy around it, allowing internal supervision to remain under the purview of the Waqf and designating authority for external security to Israel’s security forces. The interdiction against Jewish prayer on the Mount was accepted by a ministerial committee for the protection of holy sites and was tacitly indicated by ordering security forces to evict Jewish worshipers attempting to pray on the Mount. This arrangement satisfied both the Waqf and the Orthodox Rabbinate. The “constructive ambiguity” that enabled the status quo of 1967 has now become an opening for disrupting the arrangement developed at that time. 
What is the Goal of the Temple Movements… and Why Can’t We All Just Pray on the Mount? 
“Temple Movements” is an umbrella term for various Jewish groups whose specific motivations and agendas might vary to some degree but who are singularly united in their goal of overturning the status quo and reclaiming Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount.  These groups range from those who are driven by the goal of increasing the Jewish presence at the site, to those pushing for a change of arrangements, to a third group that envisions the actual building of the Third Temple and attendant destruction of the mosques. Though the third group is perhaps the most ostensibly provocative, the danger of the second group should not be underestimated, particularly in light of its drive to replicate the Cave of the Patriarchs model in Hebron, where division of worship space and time has already been achieved.  Such arrangements on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif would constitute a flagrant breach of the status quo and all but guarantee an eruption of violence in Jerusalem. 
Please take a look at Ir Amim’s seminal report, “Dangerous Liaison: the Dynamics of the Rise of the Temple Movements and their Implications,” for more on various arms of the movement and central figures, including Yehuda Glick.  Glick – now a member of Knesset for the Likud Party - is a particularly skilled front man given his success in mainstreaming himself as a promoter of civil rights, from freedom of speech to gay rights. While increasingly embraced as just a “nice guy,” Glick is tenacious and unswerving in leading the charge to overturn the status quo. 
What is Responsible for the Rapid Rise of the Temple Movements? 
The people in the early forefront of the movement were too far outside the mainstream of Israeli public thought to be taken seriously.  In the early 1980s, the Jewish Underground’s attempt to blow up the Dome of the Rock – their revolutionary initiative to challenge the existing state of affairs through an overnight massive transformation in the attitude of the Jewish population in Israel towards Jewish tradition – failed spectacularly. Times have changed and the Temple Movement leadership has become impressively adept at marketing and political maneuvering.  By coopting the language of religious and human rights, they have insinuated themselves into the public discourse and managed to gain increasing legitimacy.  But it is their increasing power within the Israeli right wing establishment that has bolstered their political ascent, including their securing active support from recognized promoters like Ze’ev Elkin, MK and Minister of Jerusalem Affairs; Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations, Danny Danon; MK and Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Uri Ariel; Minister of Culture and former MK Miri Regev; former Likud member Moshe Feiglin; and now himself an MK, Yehuda Glick. 
What is the Relationship between the Temple Movements and Israeli Authorities? 
The Israeli authorities enable, assist and sometimes even fund the activities of Temple movements that openly declare their intention to change the status quo on the Mount.  The Ministry of Education, under Minster Naftali Bennet of the Jewish Home Party, includes various Temple organizations on its list of recommended field trip sites.  Under the leadership of MK Yehuda Glick, caucuses are now held within the halls of the Knesset at which MKs call for “Strengthening the Jewish Connection to the Temple Mount” while the most radical Temple Movement activists in attendance shout anti-Arab epithets.  In March, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin announced the intention to create a two-million shekel government fund for Temple Mount heritage to promote Jewish ties to the compound. 
Prior to assuming her role as Culture Minister, MK Miri Regev presided over the Interior Committee of the Knesset. Then MK Regev presided over no fewer than 16 sessions on security at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in lead up to a major crisis at the site in 2013. Temple Movement activists were invited to attend these meetings, where representatives of the security establishment were called upon to defend their methods. The routinized attacks on the security officials eventually impacted security decisions taken at the holy site. 
Have the Temple Movements Been Successful in Changing the Status Quo? 
Finally succumbing to the ongoing pressure, in 2014 security officials at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif began employing collective (age or gender based) restrictions, imposing sweeping limitations on Muslim access to the compound as opposed to making situation-specific security assessments and, if necessary, barring an entrant based on legitimate security concerns. 
When we have an imposed reduction of Muslim worshippers at the same time as increasing numbers of Jews are ascending the Mount – as is particularly the case during the Jewish high holidays – the result is something that, at minimum, violates the spirit of the status quo. This dynamic explains why officials from across the Arab world have become increasingly anxious about the status quo over the last several years and why what happens at the compound reverberates far beyond Jerusalem. 
The imposition of collective restrictions – their degradation of Muslim worship rights and their repercussions on the status quo – were a primary contributor to the outbreaks of violence in 2014 and 2015, both in the compound and across the whole of East Jerusalem.  Ir Amim has conducted extensive monitoring and published several policy papers documenting the direct correlation between use of collective restrictions and upticks in tension and violence in East Jerusalem – used as the basis for successful advocacy up until the latest crisis (unrelated to restrictions). You can also find our recommendations for reducing tensions here