By Jessica Buxbaum / MintPress News
Since 1967, non-Muslims have been allowed to visit Al-Aqsa but not pray at the holy site. Yet that status quo is rapidly eroding in recent years as Israeli Jewish settler groups work alongside the government to take control of the compound.
Under Jewish law, the ashes of a red heifer (young female cow) must be scattered across Haram al-Sharif before Jews can ascend it and rebuild the Third Temple. While the hunt for a red heifer has long been considered a fringe initiative touted by Temple Mount activists, new research reveals the Israeli government is now involved in this endeavor.
According to Jerusalem-focused non-profit Ir Amim, the Israeli government authorities helped the temple mount activist group, the Temple Institute, and Boneh Israel, an Evangelical organization, import five cows from the United States last year to be used for the red heifer sacrifice.
The Ministry of Agriculture allegedly assisted in bypassing standard regulations in order to import the live cows from the U.S., which is prohibited. In a press release, Boneh Israel and the Temple Institute claim they received permission to import the cows through the Ministry of Agriculture.
The Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage also assisted in the project. The Ministry’s Director General, Netanel Isaac, disclosed in a speech at the cows’ welcome ceremony in September 2022 that the agency has been funding the development of the Mount of Olives area where Temple Mount activists plan to initiate the red heifer ritual sacrifice. Additionally, the ministry is involved in transferring the cows to a visitor center and farm created for the red heifer project at the Tel Shiloh archaeological site in the occupied West Bank. Currently, the cows are being held at a kibbutz (Jewish commune) in the Jordan Valley. One of the cows is reportedly already at the Israeli settlement research center, however.
Support our Independent Journalism — Donate Today!
Ir Amim emphasized that while this project is being spearheaded by the current Israeli leadership, government assistance actually began during the previous government under former Israeli Prime Ministers Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, which was deemed more moderate and politically diverse than Benjamin Netanyahu’s present coalition.
Senior Ir Amim Field Researcher, Aviv Tatarsky, explained that only 15 years ago, the idea of Jews praying at Haram al-Sharif was a radical notion promoted by right-wing extremists. Yet now it’s firmly rooted in the Israeli mainstream.
“The change is that nationalistic and fundamentalistic ideologies are dominant in Israeli society,” Tatarsky said. “They have won over Israeli society.”
The Israeli ministries involved and the Temple Institute did not respond to requests for comment. Boneh Israel could not be reached before the deadline.
Despite the Israeli government’s vow to keep with the status quo at Al-Aqsa, settlers involved in the red heifer project underscore the aim is Jewish ascension on Haram al-Sharif in order to reconstruct the Third Temple — implying the destruction of the Dome of the Rock.
While Jewish settlers are increasingly storming Haram al-Sharif, many rabbis today forbid this as ancient Jewish law dictates the red heifer’s ashes are required to purify the area before Jews can ascend. Because of this, most religious Jews don’t even enter the compound, and those who do may only walk on certain parts. With the red heifer ritual, the number of Jews storming Al-Aqsa may then multiply.
“It could lead to maybe hundreds of thousands of Haredis [ultra-Orthodox Jews] or Sephardis [Spanish Jews] who might actually break into the mosque and cause a real religious war,” Dr. Abdallah Marouf, an Islamic history professor at Istanbul 29 Mayis University and ex-media official at Al-Aqsa Mosque, told MintPress News.
Senior figures involved in this initiative have told media outlets the project’s ultimate goal is to rebuild the Third Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.
“The prophecies came true, and the Jews are back in Israel,” Byron Stinson, responsible for raising the cattle and bringing them to Tel Aviv, told the Jerusalem Post. “Now they need to build a Temple. But it’s like buying a really nice car. If you don’t have the key, you aren’t going anywhere. The red heifer is the key to making the Temple work like it’s supposed to.”
Stinson is part of Boneh Israel and also founded the Father’s House Foundation, a U.S. tax-exempt charity organizing trips to Israel. In addition to Stinson’s Father’s House Foundation, other U.S.-based, tax-exempt non-profits are also mixed into this red heifer endeavor, like P.E.F. Israel Endowments Fund and Biblical Faith, which accept donations for the Temple Institute. Boneh Israel is backed by Reshit, an Israeli settler group headed by Tzachi Mamo, another key person in the red heifer project.
Reshit is currently working with the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry to develop the “Northern Trail” project, a tourist walking route from Damascus Gate to Sheikh Jarrah highlighting settler homes and sites of Jewish history. In developing the route, the state and settlers are attempting to erase Palestinian identity by expanding existing Israeli sites. In 2023, the organization received 17,635 shekels (around $4,600) from the Israeli Education Ministry.
Mamo told the Christian Broadcasting Network that he bought a plot of land on the Mount of Olives in 2011 meant for performing the red heifer sacrifice.
“And we hope that in a year and a half from today, we can make here in this area the ceremony of the red heifer that actually will be the first step to the Temple,” Mamo told CBN.
According to land registration documents reviewed by Ir Amim’s Tatarsky, the land is registered under an unknown company and was originally owned by Palestinians.
Additionally, Ir Amim’s research notes that the Jerusalem Development Authority is currently working to build a promenade on the Mount of Olives leading to the location where Mamo intends to hold the red heifer ritual.
While the Red Heifer project seeks to obtain Jewish sovereignty over Al-Aqsa, Marouf has faith that the Palestinian people will fight to preserve the status quo, which they’ve done in previous instances when the sanctity of Al-Aqsa was under threat.
“It’s happening now. However, that doesn’t mean that it will happen,” Marouf said. “A very important element in this equation is the Palestinian people in Jerusalem, who have proved to be the main obstacle against Israeli settler rights groups and the Israeli government.”
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.