Fending off a frenzy of political criticism over a 2011 speech in which he appeared to speak with relish of the theoretical prospect of the Dome of Rock being “blown up” and a new Jewish Temple being built in its stead, prospective MK Jeremy Gimpel claimed in a TV interview on Sunday that he had actually been telling a joke meant to “parody” the extremists who want to destroy the 1,300-year-old Muslim shrine.

Statements Gimpel has made in the past, examined by The Times of Israel, indeed show no record of him explicitly calling for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock. They do indicate that he considers the golden dome atop the Temple Mount an alien element which he wishes would be replaced by the third Jewish temple.

A candidate for the Orthodox, right-wing Jewish Home party, Gimpel also sports a long history of hard-line statements that would raise eyebrows in many circles in Israel and large parts of the Jewish world, including calling the Jewish outlook of non-Orthodox Jewish movements “nonsense” and questioning whether Israel is truly a democracy because it forbids freedom of Jewish worship on the Temple Mount.

On Sunday, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party petitionend the Central Elections Committee to bar Gimpel from running for Knesset because of his alleged incitement. The request, submitted by Hatnua’s Yoel Hasson, was unlikely to succeed. Appeals to bar far-right and far-left politicians failed earlier in the campaign.

During a filmed radio broadcast apparently dating to 2009, Gimpel — who is No. 14 on the Jewish Home slate, and thus a realistic prospect for the next Knesset — declared that most non-Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is made out of gray stone, are rather inconspicuous and thus “blend in” with the landscape. The striking Dome of the Rock, by contrast, said Gimpel, stands out in the Jerusalem skyline — “a big marker” of its foreignness to the Holy City, he said, and a stark reminder of where the Jewish temple “is supposed to be.”

“God had it crafted in such a way that it’s such a sign: Every postcard ever made has this blue building with a shiny gold dome as a marker saying, ‘That doesn’t really belong there.’”

In a 2009 video, Gimpel — an Atlanta native who would be the first US-born MK since 1984 if elected Tuesday — can be seen visiting the Temple Mount with a group of friends. Someone asks a person who seems to be the tour guide whether the Dome of Rock “comes down” when the third temple will be established. “Oh, absolutely,” Gimpel answers.

In the beginning of the clip, Gimpel bemoans the fact that Jews, so as not to offend Muslims and to safeguard the fragile status quo, are forbidden from praying on the Temple Mount and bringing religious items with them.

“The cornerstone of every democracy is freedom of religion. How [is it] that in a Jewish democratic state Jews cannot ascend to the Temple Mount, to their holiest site, without any religious articles,” he says angrily, speaking while waiting to pass the security clearance to enter the Temple Mount area. “Is that really freedom? Is that really a democracy? Perhaps we realize that the throne of God is the Temple Mount. And who is controlling the Temple Mount right now? Is it the God of Israel? Or is it Allah? And that is what this battle is really all about, people.”

On a different occasion, a viewer of Gimpel’s web TV show asked Gimpel why the third temple could not be built on the northern part of the Temple Mount, so that there would be no need to remove the Dome of the Rock. “But that’s like building a Jewish state in Uganda,” Gimpel replied. While the temple is just a sign for a new messianic era, the exact location is indeed important. “The temple being built on the Temple Mount is essential, because that is the sign that Edom, Yishmael, that all of the nations of the world, they all recognize that there is one God: it’s the God of Israel, and Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, is the holiest place in the world.”

Gimpel’s history of comments before he entered politics has become relevant since the weekend, when parts of a lecture he gave in a Florida church in 2011 were broadcast on national television and he responded by claiming the excerpts misrepresented him.

“Let’s say the dome was blown up and we laid the cornerstone of the temple in Jerusalem,” Gimpel, 32, says with enthusiasm during the lecture. He tells the Christian audience that they’d surely all rush to be in Israel if that happened. “No one would be here, it would be incredible.”

Responding to criticism from center-left politicians, Gimpel denied favoring the idea of destroying the shrine. “I unequivocally oppose any violence at any holy site, whether it be the Kotel Plaza, the Temple Mount, or sites sacred to any other faith,” he said in a statement on Saturday night. Speaking to Channel 2 news on Sunday night, he noted that at the time of his Florida church appearance he wasn’t speaking as a politician running for office but was giving an “innocent lecture” on the Book of Ezra. “What I said it was some sort of parody of the fanatics who do want to blow up the Temple Mount. It was a joke — I am against it, I don’t agree with it. It makes me laugh having to defend myself.”

When asked about his views of the Temple Mount, he said his Jewish Home party, led by Naftali Bennett, opposes a Palestinian state and the division of Jerusalem but that no one on the party’s list condones violence or the demolition of holy sites. “The Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. And it will be rebuilt because of baseless love,” he said.

In an op-ed article Monday for The Times of Israel, Gimpel reiterated that “I unequivocally oppose any violence at any holy site,” and added: “Anyone who knows me knows that I have devoted my life to bringing people of faith together through love, education, and mutual respect. My passion for Torah is best summed up by the dictum, ‘Drachea darche noam V’CHOL netivotea shalom’ – Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and ALL its paths are peace.”

Gimpel has urged critics to view his controversial statements in the context of the full lecture he gave. The lecture, which is available in full online, indeed shows that Gimpel did not explicitly call for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock. Rather, he describes the present political situation in the Middle East as similar to that described in the Book of Ezra, in which the Jews returned from Babylonian exile and rebuilt the Temple.

Jewish Home candidate Jeremy Gimpel speaks about a 'blown up' Dome of the Rock, in a Florida church in 2011 (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

Jewish Home candidate Jeremy Gimpel speaks about a ‘blown up’ Dome of the Rock, in a Florida church in 2011 (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

In the lecture, Gimpel — who says his “dream would be to live with barely no worldly possessions on a hilltop next to Hebron” — also compares US President Barack Obama to Persian King Ahasuerus (Achashveirosh), known from the Book of Esther, and expresses outrage at the “building freeze” Obama had been seeking in Jerusalem.

He juxtaposes the events described in the Book of Ezra with the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and a moratorium on settlement building the Israeli government declared in late 2009 after pressure from the White House.

In the fourth chapter of the Book of Ezra, Ahasuerus, briefed by Jewish officials that Jerusalem is about to be rebuilt, demands a stop to the building of the temple, an order the officials execute “with force and power.”

Gimpel expounds: “You can imagine what happened: The Jews that were in Jerusalem, they’re like, ‘I don’t care what Obamaveirosh says, I’m building the Temple! And the political leadership [of the Jews] said: No, you’re not. I’m sending in soldiers, and I’m going to halt you with force and power.”

“And right when I thought that couldn’t possibly be our way to redemption, I see that was exactly what Ezra went through,” Gimpel continues. “And as Ezra’s writing it word for word, with divine inspiration for our time, we would have a biblical blueprint of a potential scenario of how Moshiach [the Messiah] would come; a potential scenario for how the redemption would unfold.”

In chapter five of the Book of Ezra, the Jews start rebuilding the Temple. According to Gimpel, “We are right now exactly on the border of chapter four and five. That’s where we’re at now on this blueprint. I cannot write this off as coincidence.”

In the fifth chapter, Israel’s political leaders “take a side role” and the spiritual leadership rises up, Gimpel says. “A spiritual revolution happens” to “inspire the Jews in the land to fight all odds and built the Temple of God.”

Everyone who thinks that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about the 1967 lines is mistaken, Gimpel asserts. Rather, “this is a spiritual battle.”

‘As the Foreign Ministry is talking about nonsense, we say, well, what would God want us to say?’

Gimpel, an ordained rabbi who grew up secular and became religiously observant, often compares contemporary political events to Biblical stories, such as juxtaposing the Iranian nuclear threat with the Book of Esther. “In my mind, we always have to be flexible and open to what’s happening in the world today, and what is the authentic Jewish, biblical-based message that the worlds needs to hear,” he told a work study group from Fellowship Church in Winter Springs, Florida, earlier this year. “As the Foreign Ministry is talking about nonsense, we say, well, what would God want us to say, what would God want the world to hear?”

He is also on record saying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a “war against God.” “It’s not about borders or politics, it’s a spiritual war and we need to fight it with spiritual weapons. We need to change consciousness to bring people to the understanding that there’s a God in this world,” according to Gimpel.

He also argues that Jewish settlements “are the greatest thing that ever happend to the Middle East” as they increased the birth rate and the prosperity of Arabs living in the West Bank.

While Gimpel has strong friendships with Christian Zionists (and has come under fire for being too close to Protestant groups proselytizing among Jews), he suspects certain international bodies of holding anti-Semitic views.

In one broadcast, he wonders why, for example, the European Union seems preoccupied with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but allegedly fails to be concerned about the plight of millions of Africans. “Perhaps they hate the Jewish people. I think it’s really possible. I think when you look back to Jewish history, and you look at the Holocaust and you see all these nations — something’s up there, man!”

On a different occasion, Gimpel says that the majority of the Buddhist leadership in the US is Jewish. The Jewish soul “calls out for spirituality” but many turn to Eastern religions because they don’t find it in the synagogues belonging to the “Liberal, Reform [movements] — all the nonsense that’s brought here.”