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Advocacy groups woo US lawmakers amid fervor over prayer at Temple Mount

Groups organize trips for US Congress members as rhetoric, tension over Jerusalem intensify

At a reception celebrating Jerusalem Day last month on Capitol Hill, Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican, recounted a recent trip to the holy city. While there, he said, “I had the privilege” of visiting the Temple Mount, where “the real discrimination occurring right now is not, as some have suggested, on the part of Israel,” but rather “on the part of the group that held Jerusalem before 1967 — you all know who I mean.”

Tensions at the site have been escalating as some Israeli lawmakers have stepped up provocations to reverse the long-standing ban on Jewish prayer there, once considered a fringe position but now a growing rallying cry on the Israeli right. No Israeli prime minister since the war of June 1967, when the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem began — including stalwarts Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — has supported changing Israeli law to allow Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount, based on security concerns.

As right-wing fervor in Israel for Jewish prayer intensifies, Christian Zionist advocacy groups are making efforts to shape U.S. lawmakers’ understanding of Jerusalem and its holy sites, particularly the Temple Mount, through visits aimed at convincing them that Jews (and Christians) face religious persecution there.

The site is the location of the destroyed Second Temple and sacred to Jews. To Muslims it is known as Al-Haram al-Sharif, and is the location of the Muslim holy sites Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

Since 1967, when Israel captured the Old City from Jordanian control, the Temple Mount has continued to be administered by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, and Israeli law has barred Jewish prayer there. It has long been a flashpoint; in 2000, Ariel Sharon, then campaigning for prime minister, visited the site, igniting the second intifada.

Rep. Andy Harris during his visit to the Temple Mount.
Temple Institute via YouTube

The guide for Harris’ tour of the site was Rabbi Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute, which aspires to rebuild a third Jewish temple there. Richman maintains it will be a precise replica of the ancient temple described in the Bible, with its priestly castes and religious rituals, including animal sacrifice. Richman believes the ashes of a perfect red heifer are “required by the Bible for purification” before the temple can be rebuilt, and he has been involved in efforts to breed one.

According to Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg’s 2000 book “The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount,” which recounts Richman’s quest for the red heifer, the Temple Institute envisions the elimination of the Muslim holy sites as “part of a self-imagined vanguard who will restore the Jews to their proper status in the world.”

In an interview, Harris said Richman is “one of the world’s experts on the Temple Mount and gave me a great tour.”

Richman was once considered an “eccentric” in Israel but is now considered mainstream, said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney and founder of the NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem, which promotes agreement on the status of Jerusalem as part of a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians.

“If current trends continue, there will be a significant eruption of violence on the Temple Mount,” Seidemann said, “within a matter of weeks and months and not years.”

Faith-based advocacy

The Israel Allies Foundation — a nonprofit that launched in 2007 to support the Israel Allies Caucus, which now includes 80 Republican and Democratic members of Congress — hosted the Capitol Hill reception. The IAF also supports similar caucuses in legislatures and parliaments around the world.

In the months leading up to the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks spearheaded by Secretary of State John Kerry, members of Congress of both parties visited Israel and the occupied territories on trips organized by the IAF and a Tennessee-based Christian group called Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, and often led by pro-settler groups once on the ground.

Pro-Israel advocacy groups and legislators have long called for an “undivided Jerusalem,” shorthand for their argument that no part of the city should be used as the capital of a possible Palestinian state. Israel claims to have annexed East Jerusalem, but that annexation is not internationally recognized — and even the U.S. continues to insist that Israeli settlement construction there is “illegitimate,” as Kerry put it last August. The international consensus on terms for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict envisages a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.

But these new faith-based advocacy efforts are notable for focusing the attention of U.S. lawmakers on specific religious flashpoints. IAF-funded trips to Israel for U.S. lawmakers also have included a Richman-led tour of the Temple Mount.

At the IAF reception, members of Congress, members of Israel’s Knesset and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, mingled with attendees treated to wine and kosher hors d’oeuvres. In a succession of speeches, nine members of Congress — five Democrats and four Republicans — attempted to outdo each other with pledges of support for Israel.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, declared himself to be “to the right of Likud,” provoking an audience member to say, to laughter, “Who isn’t?”

Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, spoke of Texans’ support for firearms and for Israel, adding, "I will take my own firearms to protect Israel.” 

The Second Coming

The IAF has assembled a national council of faith-based leaders who will get their congregations involved in political advocacy. One of those pastors, Larry Huch, a televangelist and founder of the Dallas megachurch New Beginnings, was on hand at the Capitol Hill reception. In March, Huch hosted Jerusalem Call, an IAF-sponsored conference, at his church.

In an interview at the Capitol Hill reception, Huch said, “If we lose Jerusalem — what I believe with all my heart — if we lose Jerusalem, we will delay the coming of the Messiah. That’s why the enemy in the spiritual world [referring to Satan] wants to get rid of Jerusalem. Because whether you think he’s coming for the first time or the second time, what everybody knows is he’s coming to Jerusalem.”

Huch added “without a shadow of a doubt” that Jews will recognize Jesus as the Messiah when he returns. That is why, he said, “we devote all of our energy and all of our strength to preserving Jerusalem as one city.”

Jewish Israel — a right-wing, Orthodox anti-missionary group — has been critical of Huch’s alliances with Israeli leaders and his teachings on the “Jewish roots” of the Christian faith, arguing that he “uses Jewish symbols and rituals in order to cross the line between faiths and to promote his messianic vision.”

Huch’s teaching about “Jewish roots” and his sale of Jewish ritual objects on his website is not just objectionable to Jews.

“While it is important for Christians to understand, acknowledge and recognize the Jewish roots of Christianity and the Jewish identity of Jesus, his mother, the early disciples and early church, which began as a movement within Judaism, it is also important that Christians not co-opt Jewish religious tradition or sacred objects,” said the Rev. Wil Gafney, a Bible scholar who, as of July 1, will be associate professor of Hebrew Bible at the Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas.

In both Israel and the United States, Seidemann said, similar ideological changes are taking place.

“That is, the ideological right wing is becoming more ideological, more fundamentalist and more impervious to empirical reality,” he said.

A Christian AIPAC?

The IAF, said its executive director, Willem Griffioen, aims to build “a larger network of Christian leaders around the country” to engage in political advocacy.

“You’ve seen a lot of Christian support,” he added, “but you’ve not seen yet a true political advocacy on the level of, say, an AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] or the Christian Family Research Council.”

Griffioen said Christians United for Israel (CUFI) — the Christian Zionist group launched in 2006 by televangelist John Hagee, which hosts a conference in Washington every summer — lacks a “permanent presence” in Washington. The IAF, he said, with a staff of 20 in the nation’s capital, has a congressional affairs staff as well as fellows on Capitol Hill.

A CUFI spokesman declined to comment.

In contrast to CUFI, Griffioen said, “we try to focus on issues that we call faith-based advocacy issues. Issues like Jerusalem, because that’s an issue Christians can grab onto, it’s in the Bible.”

The organization has experienced “rapid” growth, Griffioen said. According to its tax returns, contributions to the IAF leaped from $240,000 in 2011 to more than $1 million in 2012.

That’s a tiny fraction of the $70 million in revenues the American Israel Education Foundation, the charitable arm of AIPAC that was founded in 1968, enjoyed in 2011. Because the Internal Revenue Service classifies CUFI as a church, it is not required to file tax returns.

But in the past three years, the IAF has begun funding trips to Israel for U.S. lawmakers, a strategy long used by the American Israel Education Foundation, spending $89,000 in 2013 and thus far in 2014. In contrast, CUFI takes pastors to Israel but has not funded trips for lawmakers.

In the same period, the American Israel Education Foundation spent over $2 million on trips to Israel for members of Congress and their staffs. But those tours, according to itineraries members are required to publicly disclose, are more focused on security and diplomatic concerns than on religious ones.

Ruth Lieberman, a political consultant and licensed tour guide with Jaffe Strategies, located in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, arranged the IAF and Proclaiming Justice to the Nations trips. She said she finds “people in key positions who can influence public policy and can advocate for Israel” and provides them with a “wider education.”

AIPAC trips, she said, while “very important,” provide only a “basic understanding,” noting that attendees “haven't visited the Temple Mount or Judea and Samaria, the West Bank.”

‘Pyromania’ at the Temple Mount

Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, which sponsored Harris’ trip to Israel and the occupied territories, is a Christian organization with a mission “to educate Christians about their biblical responsibility to stand with our Jewish brethren,” said its president, Laurie Cardoza-Moore.

In February, two congressional Republicans, Bill Johnson of Ohio and David McKinley of West Virginia, visited Israel and the occupied territories on a trip jointly paid for by the IAF and Proclaiming Justice to the Nations. The trip included a Richman-led tour of the Temple Mount. After the visit, Richman said on the Temple Institute’s Facebook page, the legislators “expressed their belief that the majority of the American people are fully supportive of the right of the Jewish people to pray on the Temple Mount.”

Griffioen said that although the IAF has not focused on the Temple Mount, “we do believe the Temple Mount belongs to Israel and that Jews have the right to pray at the Temple Mount” — a view echoed by Huch.

At home in Tennessee, Cardoza-Moore’s group funded a lawsuit opposing building a mosque in Murfreesboro, about 35 miles southeast of Nashville.

Cardoza-Moore said the Temple Mount is of significance to her group because although there is disagreement among Christians, she believes the biblical prophecy that a third temple will be built at the site.

On his website, Harris portrayed the ban on Jewish prayer as an issue of discrimination against Jews, and an infringement of their religious freedom.

But Seidemann said “the question of the Temple Mount is not a human rights issue. It is not a freedom of religion issue. It is a national, regional and global security issue.”

Seidemann described the calls for Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount — an increasingly mainstream view within Likud, even though Netanyahu opposes it — “pyromania.”

Yizhar Be’er, executive director of Keshev – The Center for the Protection of Democracy, an Israeli NGO that has long reported on Jewish extremist activities at the Temple Mount, said he knew of at least 12 members of the 120-member Knesset who advocate a proposed bill to permit Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount, a position shared by Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon of Likud and Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett, both of the Jewish Home Party.

“There is strong pressure on other Knesset members,” Be’er said, adding that “this is a dramatic change from the past,” as “this idea was out of the public discourse several years ago. Now it is on the agenda of the main party inside the government,” placing it in conflict with Israel’s security establishment.

But, Seidemann said, Netanyahu doesn’t “rein in the pyromaniacs in his coalition.”

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