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Meet the American Hedge Fund Billionaire Who Could Start a 'Holy War' in the Middle East

Henry Swieca funds Temple Institute, an extremist group eyeing Islam's third holiest site.

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Religious extremists on both sides frequently fan the flames of hatred around these holy sites, and any brash move could easily spark sectarian conflict in a combustible region. The Temple Institute, funded by Swieca and other private Jewish philanthropists, is one such Jewish extremist group that many say is acting dangerously. And despite being funded by the Israeli government to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, the Temple Institute has encouraged Israeli Jews to publicly challenge the prevailing legal arrangements that govern prayer on the Temple site, though the Israeli government seems to be slowly coming around to agreeing with the organization's goals.

This month, Israel reportedly asked Jordan, which administers the holy site, to consider allowing some level of Jewish worship, feeding into Palestinian fears that Israel wants to control all of Jerusalem forever instead of ceding the eastern half of it to a Palestinian state. Jordan rejected the request, with the director of the trust that controls the site saying that granting the request would spark “bloodshed."

Founded in 1984, the Temple Institute has been hard at work on a number of activities: recreating ritual objects to be used for a Third Temple; hosting conferences on research about the temple; educating the public and Israeli soldiers about its history; and lobbying for changes to the status quo that prohibits Israeli Jews from praying openly on the Noble Sanctuary’s/Temple Mount’s grounds. The organization, founded by a far-right religious zealot named Rabbi Israel Ariel, is also bolstered by the support of evangelical Christians, who provide the organization with much of their income through buying entrance tickets and museum shop items. Christian Zionists fully support the aims of the Temple Institute. They believe that the building of a Third Jewish Temple is a prerequisite to the coming of the Messiah and the apocalypse.

Ariel, a former Israeli soldier who helped capture Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan during the 1967 War, leading to full Israeli control of Jerusalem (and the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai and the Golan Heights), is a former member of the Kach party. Led by Rabbi Meir Kahane, the party was banned in Israel for its violent and racist rhetoric, which included advocating for the expulsion of all Arabs from the lands Israel controls. In 1984, members of a Jewish terrorist group were arrested by the Israeli police for plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock. Ariel was one of the only people to speak out in support of their actions.

Today, the Temple Institute does not advocate for violence. Instead, they’re focused on changing the status quo that prevails at the holy site through other means. Those other means, though, are still considered dangerous and inflammatory. In the words of Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg, the author of a book that examines the struggle over the Temple Mount, the institute’s actions are “education for conflict over the world’s most contested holy site.”

The current arrangement at the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount dates back to the 1967 War.  Although Israel had captured a site revered to Jews, they gave control of the Noble Sanctuary to the Jordanian-run Islamic waqf, a trust that controls access to the site, making it that rare area in Jerusalem where Israeli authorities don’t call all the shots.  In 1921, members of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate crafted rules that prohibited Jews from entering the area.  They said that Jews can only enter if they are ritually pure, but that the necessary purification ceremony is prohibited for various religious reasons.  These rules were recently reaffirmed by the rabbinate.  Jews are allowed to pray at the Western Wall, another holy place considered to be the wall outside the Temple Mount.

 
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