Bid the players make haste.
-- William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III
The crowd overflows the rectangular prayer area next to the Western Wall, filling the wide plaza behind, tens of thousands of men and women holding the hands of small children, and more keep pouring through the metal detectors at the entrance. The men grasp long palm fronds, making the plaza look as if an oasis grove had uprooted itself from the desert and come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It's the autumn festival of Sukkot, and the fronds are for waving in celebration of God's life-giving.
Four guys with scruffy late-adolescent beards sit below the ramp that leads to Mughrabi Gate, waiting for Gershon Salomon. Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, is one of several times of year when Salomon marches up the ramp with his Temple Mount Faithful, demands to enter the sacred precincts, and calls for replacing the Islamic shrines with the Third Temple. Standard turnout is around two dozen--aging ultranationalists alongside a few activists left over from Meir Kahane's Kach movement and some teens from the fringe of religious Zionism. The myriads of Jews, to Salomon's outraged incomprehension, prefer to make pilgrimage to the Wall.
Though the Temple movement has grown, Jewish support for Salomon has faded. The extreme nationalism of soil, myth and messianism no longer grabs Israeli secularists. Though Salomon now wears the skullcap of a religious Jew, he's still perceived in the Temple movement as a secularist, and "Orthodox Jews don't want to join an organization led by a person who's not religious," as one ex-ally says. When one of Salomon's grey-haired followers stands at the Wall plaza, shouting through a bullhorn at holiday worshippers to take the Mount from the Muslims, ultra-Orthodox men gather around to argue theology. "Until the messiah comes, it's forbidden to go up there," roars a yeshivah student. "You're standing in the messiah's way," Salomon's man yells. "You think this is redemption? Redemption is when you and I overcome our evil impulses."
"Great sages told them to, not a few media hounds."
This time, though, Salomon has reinforcements. A Florida pastor stands near the ramp with congregants from his Florida church. He's wearing a T-shirt that reads "Space Coast Prophecy Conference" and a nametag from the Feast of Tabernacles celebration run by the International Christian Embassy.
The "embassy" is a pro-Israel evangelical group formed in 1980; its annual gathering brings over 5,000 people to the city to proclaim love for Israel, and to fulfill Zechariah's prophecy that in the Last Days all nations will come to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot. Salomon has spoken at the Florida church. "We support building the Temple," the pastor says. "We support what he's doing. He's a Zionist."
Salomon arrives, leaning on his cane. Someone hands out Temple Mount Faithful flags, blue and white with a yellow map of the Much Greater Land of Israel stretching from the Sinai to Iraq, and evangelical visitors grab them. At crowd's edge, I get a happy handshake from Texas oilman Hayseed Stephens, who hopes to fund the next Temple's construction after his well hits petroleum where the Bible told him, next to the Dead Sea. Wearing a brilliant white Stetson, he drawls, "Lots of people think Gershon is meshuganeh, they think I'm meshuganeh. The only way to tell is that if he builds the Temple he's not nuts, and if the Lord comes I'm not nuts."
A woman from Philadelphia tells me that for the last year, she's been raising money for the Faithful among Christians; at the Embassy celebration, giving is good. "I don't find much interest among Jews," whether Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, she says. It probably doesn't help that her sales pitch includes catastrophic conflict on Israeli soil. "I think there's a war coming within a year or two," she tells me, smiling and citing Ezekiel 38. It's a reference to the invasion of Israel by the mythic forces of Magog, leading to the Last World War. "Then the way will be paved for the Temple. We're reaching the End of the Age."
Nearby, a Danish woman with a guitar tells me of writing the score for a musical, The Temple Shall Be Built Again. It will be performed at another Tabernacles gathering, organized by the International Christian Zionist Center, a break-away from the Embassy. Finally, the group surges up the ramp, 150 people, perhaps 200. At the green gate at the top, the police commander recites his standard line to Salomon: "I'm sorry to say you can't enter. The Mount is closed today to visitors." The potent fumes of sanctity are in the air, and the cops don't want Salomon lighting any matches.
It makes sense for evangelical backers of Israel to take the unlikely figure of Gershon Salomon as the true representative of Zionism. From the start, dispensational premillennialists have seen Zionism as proof that prophecies of the End are coming true. News reports from the embattled Holy Land have been read as further evidence that is Rapture is near, that God and His oft-mocked faithful believers will soon be victorious.
So for those who accept dispensationalist doctrine, as many evangelicals do, it's natural to proclaim love of the Jewish state. Israel's existence gives a believer the warm feeling that the world is behaving as he or she expects it to. Yet affection for Israel and "the Jew" doesn't keep dispensationalists from stressing Jews' failure to accept Jesus, or from predicting their vast suffering during the Tribulation. This is a curiously cold affection, for dispensationalists do not look at Jews as normal people. Rather, as premillennialist writer Randall Price puts it in his 1998 book "Jerusalem in Prophecy," Jews are the "players...for the prophetic drama," or perhaps simply "the scenery," placed on the stage by the Director. Since they're in place, the "curtain call" of the End, as Price calls it, must be near.
An audience will give its greatest love for the actors who make the play progress toward its desired climax. If the state of Israel is exciting, all the more so are right-wing politicians who want to hold on to every inch of land that Israel has captured, and West Bank settlers who have staked their claim at places with Old Testament names like Hebron and Elon Moreh. Better yet is someone who seeks to build the Temple, who would finish setting the stage for history's final scenes. For most Israelis the Temple movement appears marginal; for many of the country's evangelical backers, the same movement is the ultimate expression of what Zionism is supposed to do. Only one other kind of Jew that can generate such excitement: the rare few who have accepted Jesus, as Jews are supposed to in the premillennialists' Last Days.
When someone is watching a play this important, the temptation is to cheer the heroes, even leap to the edge of the stage and join in. The same beliefs that spur support for Israel create enthusiasm for the Israeli right, and for settlers, and for Temple activists. They can also produce anger when Jews stray from the premillennialist script--for instance, by agreeing to trade land for peace.
And some on the stage, members of the divine repertory company, willingly accept the audience support. If other Jews do not back them sufficiently, let evangelicals help out. Secular politicians and far-right messianists have both accepted such assistance. The relationship presents a picture of missed meanings, ignored motives, mutually contradictory expectations.