Reporter's notebook'The Temple Mount is now a mainstream concern'

Rare interfaith Temple Mount confab highlights a ‘Christian awakening’

Participants come for the ‘conspiracy theories’ about where Temple was located, stay for the activism in unusual show of evangelical Christian support for Jewish right-wing cause

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Tourists look at a view of the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount from the lookout of the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old city of Jerusalem, on November 28, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Tourists look at a view of the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount from the lookout of the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old city of Jerusalem, on November 28, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Some 150 evangelical Christians and Jews gathered in Jerusalem on Wednesday in a highly unusual interfaith conference on right-wing Temple Mount activism that aimed to dispel what its organizers described as an insidious, viral “hoax” taking hold in the Christian world — that the two historical Jewish temples had never been located on the iconic, holy, politically explosive compound.

The location and timing of Wednesday’s Temple Mount Jerusalem Convention were symbolic. Under tight security, participants gathered at the Menachem Begin Center in the capital, where four years ago Temple Mount activist Yehudah Glick (now a Knesset member) was shot multiple times by a Palestinian terrorist in an assassination attempt over his advocacy for Jewish prayer at the holy site.

And its hosting on the Temple-centric Jewish holiday of Hanukkah — commemorating the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid empire by the Maccabees and restoration of the ransacked Temple and miracle of its oil-burning for eight days — was not lost on the speakers.

Nor did the convention’s organizers attempt to disguise its primary and controversial political aims: to drum up international Christian support for Jewish control of the flashpoint holy site, which remains under Jordanian custodianship since the 1967 Six Day War, and where Jews may visit, but not pray. Though many of the lecturers called for the rebuilding of a third temple, the organization insisted it had no such aspirations.

“Listen, it was evangelicals who helped usher in the move of the embassy to Jerusalem with President Donald Trump. Imagine if Christian evangelicals understood the importance of the Temple Mount and pushed for Jewish sovereignty of the Temple Mount,” said Doron Keider, the executive director of the Cry for Zion organization behind the conference.

Doron Keider, the executive director of the Cry for Zion organization (YouTube screenshot)

The Temple Mount — site of the Biblical Jewish temples, and which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock shrine — has often been the epicenter of tensions between Israel and the Palestinians as the holiest site in Judaism and third-holiest site in Islam. Multiple flare-ups in car-rammings, stabbings and shootings in recent years were attributed by the Palestinian terrorists and attackers to a perceived attempt by Israel to change the status quo at the site. The Israeli government has firmly and repeatedly denied it will change the 50-year-old arrangements.

“There are many Christians who believe the Bible, that there will be a future temple. How that comes about is all in God’s hands. We are not some sort of extremist organization wanting to destroy any buildings or anything like that,” said John Enarson, the organization’s Christian relations director and student at the Scandinavian School of Theology.

View of Hanukkah menorah on the last night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, December 19, 2017 (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90 )

“I know there’s a certain group among the media that are going to be watching, and they’re bound to call us racist, sexist, bigoted, homophones, bible-thumpers, irresponsible troublemakers, zealots and extremists, but the seal of God is truth, and the era of empty name-calling to shout down the opposition, opinions you don’t like, that era is over,” Enarson said earlier, in his opening remarks. “The Temple Mount is now a mainstream concern, in Israel and around the world.”

In recent years, there has been an uptick in visits by Jewish worshipers to the holy site, and, according to the conference organizers, a flurry of interest by Christians, primarily evangelicals, since 2013, though they could not offer precise figures on visits to the site by Christian supporters.

But for many, the draw is not any sort of political activism, but rather various “conspiracy theories,” Keidar admitted.

‘The Temple Mount is now a mainstream concern, in Israel and around the world’

“There’s an awakening of interest in the Christian world, but unfortunately it’s more in the direction of conspiracy theory, you know, the Indiana Jones ‘I’m going to find the treasure and I’m going to be the one who does it,'” Keidar told reporters on Wednesday.

“Our main focus is educating about the Temple Mount, but unfortunately we learned that since we’re engaging with a Christian audience that’s their main thing in the back of their minds, the first thing when you talk about it, [so] we have to address it.”

Israeli security forces escort a group of religious Jews as they visit the Temple Mount on Yom Kippur, September 19, 2018 (Sliman Khader/Flash90)

A third temple in… Silwan?

The crux of a “hoax” addressed during the conference is a long discredited theory by Ernest L Martin — recently revived in books, articles and viral YouTube videos with millions of combined views — that claims the Jewish temples never stood on the Temple Mount, but rather in the nearby City of David in the East Jerusalem Silwan neighborhood, despite an abundance of archaeological and textual evidence to the contrary.

For proponents of the theory, it provides a “solution” to the apparently irreconcilable claims to the compound by Muslims and Jews.

John Enarson of the Cry for Zion organization (YouTube screenshot)

“I think for Bible-believing Christians, it’s interesting to them that maybe it would not conflict with Muslim holy sites, but I think that’s obviously immature,” said Enarson, a Sweden-born evangelical Christian.

He also suggested the allure of the theory could stem from deep-rooted Christian supersessionist views of Judaism.

The archeological excavations in the Givati Parking Lot in the City of David. (Eliyahu Yannai, City of David)

“There’s been thousands of years, almost 2,000 years, of Christian anti-Semitism, of replacement theology that subconsciously, I think, with many Christians it lends it easier to have this idea of ‘oh, the Jewish people missed it. They’re wrong again. And now we found something out that they don’t know.’ So you have articles appear, like ‘Wailing at the wrong wall’ and things like that,” he said.

“I don’t think a lot of Christian people consciously think that, but that’s something in the back of the history of the relationship between Christians and Jews. And we really want to change that.”

‘Jesus loved the Temple Mount’

Will pro-Israel evangelical Christians offer a tailwind to right-wing activism over the holy site? Though Wednesday’s event appeared unprecedented in terms of evangelical interest in the issue, the Cry for Zion organization has limited reach on social media (with only several thousand likes), and the Israeli government has firmly rejected any notion of changing the status quo.

And despite what conference organizers describe as an “awakening” that has seen more Christians visit the compound since 2013 (Why is that? “I really don’t know,” said Enarson), there is still a theological “schism” over the issue.

“A lot of Christians, who love Israel, are rejecting replacement theology and that includes the Temple Mount being passé and old, and being relevant and holy and sacred today,” insisted Enarson.

A packet distributed at the conference attempted to smooth over the theological rifts and questions raised by support for a Jewish Temple Mount movement, with articles such as “What about the temple of antichrist?” and “The apostles loved the Temple Mount.”

Backing animal sacrifices that were traditionally the centerpiece of Jewish ritual at the holy site, an article by Enarson acknowledges, is “touchy.”

“We are all often blind to our own worldview and Christians may be just as disturbed by the Hebrew Bible’s view of sacrificing sheep, as Jews may be disturbed by the Christian thought of the ‘human sacrifice’ of Jesus. It’s high time to take a fresh look at this topic!”

In another article, titled “Jesus loved the Temple Mount,” he writes: “Whatever Christian tradition of interpretation one subscribes to, one thing is clear: Jesus loved the Temple Mount — Mt. Zion — where the holy House of God stood. His disciples even said that zeal for God’s temple consumed him, and, like the weeping prophet Jeremiah, Jesus wept when he foresaw its destruction.”

Outside the conference hall, where books and t-shirts were on sale, and a model temple was set up, a table with a poster citing Psalms 69:8 pandered to Jewish and Christian buyers equally: “For the zeal for your house consumes me.”

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