Making Way for the Messiah

“The Saddamization of Kuwait has won us a lot of friends,” said Rabbi Yechiel Leiter, the mayor of a small Jewish settlement in the center of downtown Hebron on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. As far as Leiter and other militant settlement leaders I talked to recently are concerned, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait greatly buttresses their claim that, in a treacherous neighborhood, Jewish settlements reinforce Israel’s security.

“We are grinning like Cheshire cats,” said Yisrael Medad, aide to Geula Cohen, a leader of the ultranationalist Tehiya party and a resident of Shilo on the West Bank, who believes that Israelis will be much less willing to trade territory for peace now that the PLO and a great many Palestinians in the territories have embraced Saddam Hussein—a move that has even provoked the anger of an embittered and demoralized Israeli left.

Over the years, Jewish settlements have been condemned by the US as an obstacle to peace. Just before the crisis in the Gulf, Representative David Obey, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which establishes funding levels for US aid programs, warned Israel that it risked having its aid cut if it built new settletments or expanded existing ones. And Israel’s request for $400 million in US loan guarantees to house Soviet Jews has been held up by the Bush administration out of concern that the money would flow into settlements in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza or would be used to free up money in Israel’s treasury for settlements.

No other settlement activity has created so much controversy this year as Jewish efforts to “redeem” East Jerusalem’s Old City from its Christian and Muslim inhabitants. The roots of the controversy date back to the first night of Hanukkah in December 1978, when eight young Orthodox Jews announced they had set up a yeshiva, a school for religious studies, in the Muslim quarter of East Jerusalem’s Old. City. They called it Ateret Cohanim, the Priestly Crown. The yeshiva students said they came to the Old City to prepare for the last battle—the quintessential struggle between good and evil which will precede the End of Days and the Redemption of Mankind. The students said they wanted to study the ancient priestly texts in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the Second Temple, which they believe is imminent. Although Al Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock now tower over the ruins of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, the students centend that removing the Muslim holy place is the final step on the path to the Messianic Age.

Matiyuhu Hacohen, the powerfully built, bearded yeshiva student and army veteran who founded the Priestly Crown, is a disciple of the late Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook—the leader of the mystical-messianic West Bank settlement movement Gush Emunim (Bloc of Faithful). Kook encouraged Hacohen to devote himself to the question of how the Third Temple should function once it was…

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