Trouble on the Mount

The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, by Gershom Gorenberg. The Free Press, 275 pages, $25.00.

A dispatch from the Middle East: "On the Mount, ... Palestinians began hurling rocks... . a police paramilitary unit opened up with live fire, killing a score of Palestinians. Riots spread through the occupied territories--and to the usually peaceful Arab towns in Israel." This could easily be an account of the latest Arab-Israeli conflict, which began with opposition leader Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount last fall. That it is actually a different skirmish--one set off in 1990 by the plans of a fringe Israeli group to lay a cornerstone for "the Third Temple"--neatly makes the point of Gershom Gorenberg's book The End of Days . Gorenberg, a senior editor for The Jerusalem Report, argues that the messianic fervor inspired by the Temple Mount makes the 35-acre plot a likely flash point.

This we already knew. What is more surprising is that despite the reference to fundamentalism in the book's subtitle, Gorenberg's analysis has little to do with Islamic radicalism. In fact, a good deal of the book is dedicated to the author's travels through the odd world of American evangelism. He encounters a rancher named Harold "Hayseed" Stevens who talks earnestly about the impending Rapture. He visits Pentecostal ministers who read Israel's victory in the 1967 War as the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy. What does this world of revival meetings and Christian talk radio have to do with Israeli security? Everything, says Gorenberg. For years, evangelical Christians have lent financial and moral support to Israel's right-wing Likud Party, the settlers' movement, and, at the furthest extreme, a small band of Jewish Third Temple activists.

With Israeli control of the Old City after 1967, the Jewish religious establishment had to confront the fact that, for the first time in 2,000 years, it was physically possible to break ground on a Third Temple (the first being Solomon's temple and the second Herod's, both built on the same spot). That's not to say that it was politically feasible or even spiritually desirable. Mainstream Jewish thinking holds that the Temple can only be rebuilt with the coming of the Messiah; in our age, religious Jews are forbidden from so much as walking on the Mount, for fear of desecrating the ground where the two Temples once stood. But as Gorenberg documents, some Temple enthusiasts want to take matters into their own hands, either by destroying the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque or by readying equipment for use in the Temple-to-be.

Gorenberg's writing is at its best--crisp and evocative--when detailing the ways these activists dedicate their lives to obscure Temple ritual. There's Rabbi Shmaria Shore and his quest for the perfect red heifer (ashes of a red heifer were used in purity rituals during Temple times); elderly David Elboim, who spent three years weaving priestly vestments according to biblical specifications; and his nephew Yosef, who plans to raise young boys in isolation, on a raised platform, to get around the fact that today's kohanim, descendents from a Jewish priestly class, do not meet the strict purity standards necessary to perform Temple tasks.

Gorenberg makes it clear that the Temple Mount is a "sacred blasting cap," likely to explode at the slightest provocation. What is more complicated--and, in Gorenberg's book, often muddled--is why this is true. Is it that nationalist forces use the power of age-old religious symbols to further their decidedly secular aims? Or does reading the conflict through the lens of nationalism obscure the role that faith continues to play in struggles over the Holy Land? Gorenberg can't quite decide--and maybe he doesn't have to. In Jerusalem, nationalism and religious fundamentalism often overlap. One striking example is the fringe politician Meir Kahane, who believed that the "upturned Jewish fist"--a clear nationalist icon--"sanctified the Divine Name." The detailed profiles in The End of Days go a long way toward erasing the false divide between religion on the one hand and nationalism on the other. But Gorenberg misses an opportunity to elaborate on the important and complicated connections between the two.