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‘When I have the opportunity to do it, I will’: Likud lawmaker vows to demolish Al-Aqsa mosque

Likud lawmaker and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Oren Hazan (Photo: Dan Cohen)

“If the day comes and I have the opportunity to lead the country, not to mention become the prime minister, I will build the temple on the Temple Mount,” rookie Likud lawmaker and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Oren Hazan announced last Thursday night at a panel in Petach Tikvah, an Israeli city 20 kilometers east of Tel Aviv.

After the panel discussion organized by the group Students For The Temple Mount, we asked Hazan how he would demolish Al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock in order to make way for a temple, he replied, “It would not be responsible at this point in time to tell you how we would do it, but I will say it clear and loud: When I have the opportunity to do it, I will.”

Embroiled in controversy, Hazan was recently demoted by Likud from participating in parliamentary committees for “purposefully avoiding votes” while the party holds a razor-thin majority in the Knesset. Since he secured a spot on the Likud list in a slot reserved for young members in 2015, Hazan has gained a reputation for boisterousness, sometimes bordering on outright belligerence. Soon after he took his Knesset seat, it was alleged that Hazan had hired prostitutes for his friends and used crystal meth during a stint as a casino manager in Bulgaria – charges he vehemently denied.

Hazan told the students that demolishing Islam’s third holiest site would not incite violent blowback or elicit significant international condemnation. “It was said that the world would get riled up – blowing up Arafat’s helicopters, blowing up the airport in Dahaniya [Gaza], and destroying the [Palestinian] government buildings, etc. In every case, people were afraid. And they folded, and nothing happened. I think it’s the same with the Temple Mount.”

But as Israeli politics blogger Yossi Gurvitz explained to us in a Tel Aviv restaurant Thursday afternoon, demolition of the Al-Aqsa compound and construction of a temple is part of a messianic prophecy that spawned the Temple Mount movements. “They are consciously preparing for the final war in which humanity will be divided into those who serve God and those who serve the devil – and those who serve the devil will be destroyed.”

In order to “liberate the Temple Mount,” Hazan asserted that public discourse must be changed. “It is not extreme. It is the basics. It is the foundation,” he told the audience, before warning that if Israel does not build a temple, “We may not even have Tel Aviv.”

Organized by Students For The Temple Mount, the panel also featured Jewish Home party activist and settler leader Shimon Riklin, Haaretz West Bank settlement correspondent Chaim Levinson, and Uri Zaki, former director of B’Tselem USA and chair of the Meretz Central Committee.

Held in a Petah Tikvah performance space lit with dim blue-lights and a DJ playing Justin Timberlake’s Rock Your Body, the audience of several dozen young people – both religious and secular – eagerly greeted and snapped selfies with Hazan when he arrived. The event began fashionably late, though without Uri Zaki, who got lost en route.

After screening a short video montage of Jews being escorted by police around the Temple Mount grounds, two students introduced themselves.

“We are from the hasbara [propaganda] team of Students For The Temple Mount. My name is Hadas. As you can see, I don’t have a strong connection to religion,” referring to her torn-at-the-knees jeans and leather jacket. After being invited to a lecture, she explained, “I learned that there is something else going on there – that there is blatant discrimination against Jews.”

Shimon Riklin called the status quo on the Temple Mount “apartheid” against Jews, and claimed that the Temple Mount in the only sacred place in the Jewish religion. Riklin said that all the stone walls surrounding the Temple Mount, including the Western Wall, are not holy to Judaism, and that Joseph’s Tomb and Rachel’s Tomb are not just profane, but also fake. “In the Land of Israel, there is one holy place – one. One! Everything else is just stories.”

Gurvitz describes the Jewish demand to pray on the Temple Mount as a red herring. “The point of the Temple Mount movement is not to pray on the Temple Mount because prayer is not important to the Temple Mount movement. The creation of the temple is supposed to abolish prayer. Prayer is a pale imitation of the spiritual experience you will feel once we again slaughter sheep and spread their blood and guts on the floor, for the glory of God,” says Gurvitz. “Originally – and by originally I mean before the destruction of the second temple in 70 AD – the main form of Jewish observance was sacrifice.”

According to Gurvitz, “No one [Jew] may be allowed to climb the Temple Mount: this is the official position of the vast majority of orthodox rabbis in Israel and in the world. A very small minority – I would say less than 5% – are saying Jews may be allowed to climb up the temple mount. This minority, however, is very politically strong in Israel, and it is deforming historical reality for its religious political needs.”

Hazan is one of several Knesset members to express support for the Temple Mount movements, many of whom hold much more prominent positions than him, though his promise to destroy Islamic holy sites and build a temple may be the most hawkish to date. Tens of legislators, primarily but not exclusively from right-wing parties, have expressed support for Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount; these include top government officials Culture Minister Miri Regev, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, former Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, and, for a time, Secretary General of Labor and Deputy Speaker of Knesset Hilik Bar. Some of these, including Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin, have gone so far as to publicly call to build the temple. Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan has donated $12,000 of his own money for the temple’s construction.

Despite the fact that Hazan’s gaffes have embarrassed Likud, it is important for Netanyahu that Hazan completes his entire term, because if Hazan were to leave the Knesset, the seat he currently occupies would be taken up by top Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick.

“This would rubber stamp Likud as the Temple Mount party,” Yossi Gurvitz said.

No Knesset member embodies the growing power of the Temple Mount movements more than Yehuda Glick, the American-born settler rabbi and self-described “human rights activist.” Since an assassination attempt on Glick in October 2014, his profile has risen dramatically, and the campaign to change the status quo on the Temple Mount and permit Jewish prayer there has gained momentum. Currently 31st on the Likud list, Glick is in the on-deck position to become an MK should a sitting legislator lose their seat for any reason.

Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that Israel would not alter the status quo on the Temple Mount. Doing so would be seen as an affront to Muslims around the world and could upset Israel’s diplomatic standing with its international allies and its relations with its neighbor to the East, Jordan, with shares control of the Al-Aqsa compound with Israel.

Despite the prime minister’s denials, statistics show that Israel has in fact been steadily shifting the status quo. In recent years, the number of days in which Israel restricted Palestinian access to the Al-Aqsa compound have increased exponentially, from 3 days in 2012 to 8 days in 2013, to 41 days in 2014 (statistics for 2015 have not yet been made available). Netanyahu has also shown that he is not above razing non-Jewish holy sites; Israel occasionally demolishes mosques in Palestinian communities, and during its 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip, it damaged or destroyed 278 mosques and two churches.

Hazan has clearly realized that under the current circumstances, his Knesset seat is secure, leaving him free to stake out positions on Temple Mount prayer that even the lobby’s more prominent advocates have hitherto refrained from vocalizing publicly. On Saturday night, Hazan signalled that he will not be constrained by coalition discipline during Knesset voting, telling Israel’s Meet the Press: “I will continue to tell the truth without any doubt, without any fear that they will fire me,” adding, “I am obligated only to the Jewish people, to the Land of Israel, to the Torah and to the truth.”

Not all of the Petach Tikvah panelists view the Temple Mount through the lens of the Hebrew Bible, however. Journalist Chaim Levinson, a secular Jew, said, “It’s meaningless, I don’t believe in anything holy, it’s a place that crazy people are willing to kill and be killed for. If it was up to me, they could open up a coffee shop there.”

Riklin took issue with Levinson’s worldview saying, “Levinson is a perfect example of loss of identity – a man who has forgotten what it means to be a Jew.”

“It’s because he needs to be Judaized!” shouted one man from the audience, who later approached the panelists and put a kippah (religious skullcap) on Levinson’s head.

Liberal zionist Meretz Party activist Uri Zaki arrived, apologizing and blaming being late on bad driving directions because he used “an application of goyim [derogatory term for non-Jewish people].” He admitted being hesitant to partake in the panel after fellow “activists from my [liberal-zionist] camp” showed him evidence that Students For The Temple Mount works with a radical group called “Returning to the Mount,” Lehava leader Bentzi Gopstein, and other followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane – the late leader of the banned Kach party which advocated instituting a theocratic government and ethnically cleansing Palestinians from Israel and all the territories it occupies. “You are going to [speak to] the group that is essentially the ‘pretty face’ of other groups,” he said.

An audience member interjected, “But not as a movement,” – confirming that Students For The Temple Mount cooperates with Gopstein in an unofficial capacity.

Zaki described Gopstein – who has called for torching of churches in Israel – as “disqualified,” and accused the student group of “granting legitimacy to Jewish terrorists.”

That’s when the wheels came off.

Zaki and Riklin began arguing, while a moderator attempted to calm the situation: “It’s important for me to say that we didn’t come here to determine that some people are illegitimate – not even settlers and hilltop youth.”

Incensed by Zaki’s criticism of Gopstein, Riklin stormed off the stage and left the event.

The audience became hostile to Zaki, and after a few minutes, he too walked offstage, leaving Hazan and Levinson as the only remaining panelists.

Steering the panel back on course, Levinson said that Zaki was attempting to explain that those like Hadas, the secular moderator who understood the Temple Mount issue as a Jewish rights issue, were being exploited by messianic fundamentalists in order to fulfill their apocalyptic prophecy.

“There are many people that are all about the Temple Mount, and all about democracy and rights,” Levinson said. “But they are cover for people for whom their thing for the Temple Mount is not democracy, but an apocalypse, and to knock out the mosques and start a religious war.”

“The things you are saying could be very, very true – there are those that use this platform to cover up for their deficits or dark sides,” replied Hazan, conceding Levinson’s point.

Gurvitz had earlier explained this dynamic, whereby religious dominionists ride into power on the coattails of secular nationalists, as the Kookian concept of the “Messiah’s Donkey,” developed by the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook. According to Kook, secular Zionists “will be acting as the servant of the messiah,” Gurvitz said. Unaware of their role as the donkey, the secular Zionists will toil to create the Jewish state and army and conquer the biblical land of Israel, which will usher in “the Kingdom of God” – a Jewish theocracy.

Hazan asserted, however, that the political opportunism of religious reactionaries was no reason to abandon the struggle for Jewish rights on the Temple Mount. “At this rate, if everyone is fearful of those that would be in proximity to them,” said Hazan, “there will be no ideology, there will be no action, there will be no contribution, and all be lost.”

Delineating the difference between his own aspirations and those of others who seek the destruction of the Al-Aqsa mosque, Hazan said he would not ban Muslims from the Temple Mount. “I’m not in favor of kicking the Muslims out of there, I’m in favor of freedom of religion for all religions on the Temple Mount,” he told the audience. “Why? For one reason: In order to prove that the reason [for objection to Jewish activity on the Temple Mount is] anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish, and hate for us, and not because of some religion.”

Given his ostensible support for freedom of access on the Temple Mount to Jews and non-Jews, we asked him if he opposed the 2011 Acceptance Committees Law, which allows villages throughout Israel to restrict admittance based on their own secret criteria. Historically, these powers have been used to restrict admittance to Palestinian citizens of Israel, Middle Eastern and African Jews, queer folks, single-parent families and other minorities. “Today I signed, I joined [the sponsors of] the bill that calls to cancel the Acceptance Committees,” he replied, earning himself congratulations and a friendly pat on the back from Levinson.

When we asked Hazan which US presidential candidate he sees as supportive to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, he replied, “Trump, I think? I don’t know why, but I trust him. People tell me a lot that Trump is the American version of Oren.”