Messianism and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Professor Rachel Feldman charts the transnational Third Temple movement and the birth of a new Judaic faith.

The Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem has long been at the center of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

For both Jews and Muslims, the elevated plaza overlooking the Western Wall represents a spiritual center with a sacred history. In Judaism, the First and Second Holy Temples, which were destroyed in ancient times, once stood on the Temple Mount. Al-Aqsa encompasses two Muslim holy places: the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was built in the 8th century.

Jewish prayer is forbidden on the site—a directive contested by far-right Jewish activists. In recent decades, interactions there between Palestinians, Israeli police, and Jews have grown increasingly violent.

"The compound is a potent symbol at the heart of the conflict energizing nationalist and religious fervor within certain segments of both Israeli and Palestinian societies," says Rachel Feldman, an assistant professor in the Department of Religion

Hamas named its October 7 attack "Al-Aqsa Storm," claiming that increasing numbers of religious Jews entering the Al-Aqsa compound and the growth of the Third Temple movement, which seeks to build a Jewish Temple on the site, were among its primary motivations. "After the attack, Temple activists immediately took to social media and encouraged Jews to ascend the Temple Mount in even greater numbers," Feldman says.

The cultural anthropologist charts the evolution of the Third Temple movement as a transnational undertaking—and its influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—in her new book, Messianic Zionism in the Digital Age: Jews, Noahides, and the Third Temple Imaginary.

Through ethnographic research that takes her around the world, Feldman details the movement's growth beyond the streets of Jerusalem into communities across the globe of former Christians who now identify as the Children of Noah, or Noahides, an emerging new Judaic faith. An edited Q&A follows.

Research for this book started in Israel and led you to Texas, Mexico, France, Canada, and the Philippines, where you discovered thriving Children of Noah communities that follow Jewish law. Did you set out to expand the traditional field of Israel studies or did this become a requirement as your research progressed?

I had no idea this would become a transnational project. When I began my fieldwork in 2012, my plan was to spend a few years immersed in the study of Israel's messianic right-wing, a religious demographic that views the creation of the State of Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies, strives to transform Israel into a Jewish theocracy, and considers the messianic era to be imminent. I wanted to better understand this community, one that I did not agree with politically or theologically, for a few reasons.

First, I saw their ideologies as one significant obstacle to the establishment of a lasting and just peace in Israel/Palestine. Second, I genuinely wanted to understand their life histories and political trajectories and how this demographic, once marginal, has become an influential political force in Israel in recent years.

Then one day I noticed an announcement online from the Temple Institute, one of the theocratic organizations that I was following in Jerusalem, advertising their upcoming 25th anniversary celebration in Dallas, Texas. I thought to myself: What is the Temple Institute doing in Dallas? I flew to the event expecting to find a crowd of evangelical Christian donors. American evangelicals have for decades cultivated close relationships with Israel's religious right-wing, helping to fund Jewish immigration and organizations like the Temple Institute dedicated to rebuilding a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem—an action that many religious Christians believe is a prerequisite to the second coming of Jesus. 

I was shocked when I discovered that most of the attendees no longer identified as Christian at all, but rather as "Children of Noah," or more simply, Noahides, which is essentially an ancient legal category in Jewish law for the "righteous gentile." They considered themselves partners in building the Third Temple and bringing the messianic era and they had arrived at this new faith identity through interactions with rabbis from Israel's religious right-wing.

This event in Dallas opened my eyes and made me realize that if I wanted the full story of messianic Zionism in the digital age, I would have to look beyond Israel's geographic borders to consider new forms of messianic allyship forming between Israel's religious right-wing and Christians around the world.

How are Noahides connected to traditional Judaism?

While Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, and does not encourage non-Jews to convert in order to achieve salvation, ancient rabbis did formulate this idea that non-Jews, in order to be considered God-fearing and righteous, are obligated to follow seven basic moral laws given by God to the biblical sons of Noah, while Jews, on the other hands, are obligated to follow the 613 laws that make up the Mosaic covenant given at Mount Sinai. 

The Noahide concept, first formulated in the Talmud, has more recently been transformed into a living faith identity for ex-Christians who now follow Orthodox Jewish law, study the Torah with rabbis, and practice variations of Jewish rituals without converting to Judaism. I examine the genealogy of the Noahide concept in my book and its centuries-long evolution from a legal rabbinic debate to a new Judaic faith; a theological evolution that is also deeply entwined with the rise of religious Zionism in Israel. 

You document how Israeli Third Temple activists began building alliances with Christian Zionists in the American Southwest in the 1990s, and how this convergence deepened on digital platforms such as YouTube and Facebook groups, giving rise to the Children of Noah movement around the world. What drove rabbis in Israel to invest in this global outreach?

To answer this question, we need to go back in time to 1984, when the Jewish Underground, a militant and marginal nationalist group, attempted to blow up the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa compound, with the aim of igniting a regional war that would pave the way for Israeli annexation of the Temple Mount and Temple rebuilding. Fortunately their plan was foiled in time by Israeli security. However, since their arrests, desire for the Third Temple has not dissipated.

The first two decades of the 21st century saw the reemergence of new and allegedly "nonviolent" channels for Temple Mount activism focused on bringing Jews to the Temple Mount to pray, educating the Israeli public about their biblical "temple heritage," and staging public reconstructions of Second Temple rituals including the revival of animal sacrifices (discontinued for thousands of years in Judaism).

Since 2012, the Third Temple movement has grown significantly, migrating from Israel's religious margins to a position where it has access to state funding, police protection, and broad-based political support. According to my last count in 2021, 31 Knesset members from across Israel's right-wing and religious nationalist spectrum had issued either statements of support for the Temple movement, advocated for increased Jewish access to the Temple Mount during parliamentary debates, and/or participated in Temple Mount tours with Third Temple activists.

None of this would have been possible without the Internet, smart phones, and the advent of social media, which enabled the Temple movement to rebrand itself as "non-violent" and in turn, reach much wider publics in Israel and abroad. This is where the digital convergence occurs.

Jews make up only 0.2% of the world's population. As a Jew yourself, did you find it moving to meet practitioners of a new Judaic faith in areas where there have historically been no Jewish communities?

I was stunned by their spiritual journeys. For many Noahides that I met, the process of leaving Christianity and migrating towards Orthodox Judaism had been a decades-long process, often involving multiple denominational changes. A common trajectory in the Philippines and in Latin America, for example, was from Catholicism to Protestantism and then to forms of Hebrew-roots evangelicalism or Seventh-Day Adventism and finally Orthodox Judaism. (Noahides do not consider reform or conservative versions of Judaism to be authoritative).

Essentially, tens of thousands of Christians had undergone a slow evolution away from the divinity of the church and then away from the divinity of Jesus, finally arriving on the doorstep of Judaism. My Noahide interlocutors often described this as a challenging and painful process that caused familial conflict. While the Internet had enabled these questioning Christians to access Jewish theological resources, they still faced many obstacles when it came to obtaining Orthodox rabbinic mentorship and figuring out exactly "what they were" now that they had abandoned the New Testament but still clung to the Hebrew Bible.

While some Noahides were content with their new faith and status within Jewish law, others, I discovered, felt like the Noahide faith was a glass ceiling, a watered-down version of the Orthodox Judaism they longed to practice. However, many of these aspiring converts faced seemingly insurmountable logistical or economic obstacles to conversion. In Latin America, for example, I learned that if Noahides wish to fully convert they typically must either relocate to the United States or Israel or complete an expensive conversion program online with American or Israeli rabbis, and both options are out of reach for the economically disadvantaged.

To clarify, conversion to Orthodox Judaism typically requires long-term study and relocation to live inside an observant community and in walking distance to the synagogue on Shabbat. One Noahide man from Mexico City wished to convert but could not afford to relocate. He reflected on this power dynamic with me, stating, "Sometimes I wonder if Noahide has become a poor man's Judaism." The Noahide lifestyle had become a viable and increasingly popular alternative, an intermediary faith identity, for Judaizing Christians in geographic locations where access to Jewish learning and Orthodox conversion on the ground is limited.

On the one hand, my book is a study of traveling biblical and messianic imaginations, but through my work with Noahides it also evolved into a study of some of the racial and class dynamics surrounding Orthodox Jewish conversion in the global South. It is indeed my hope that exposing some of these dynamics will stimulate critical and compassionate discourse in the broader Orthodox Jewish world regarding conversion and the often political and controversial debates about access, authority, and gatekeeping.

Of your fieldwork in Israel interviewing Third Temple activists, you write: "I found myself caught in a constant state of cognitive dissonance as interviewees vividly described their Third Temple dreams and the utopian future they longed to manifest, conversations that felt at times utterly disconnected from the tragic political reality playing out on the ground in Israel/Palestine." How do you interpret this disconnect from the ongoing crisis?

At the beginning of my research, it was often bewildering to me that my interlocutors would look to biblical prophecies as the solution to "the conflict" but over time it became clearer to me why. Many had lost family members and close friends. In addition to a profound disillusionment with diplomacy and peace talks, they articulated what is now a growing anti-liberal rejection of the secular state itself within Israel's religious far-right demographic, viewing democratic ideals and international law as "Western" impositions on the "native" Israelite culture they were trying to revive in Israel.

Both the theocratic Third Temple movement and Hamas utilize religious nationalist imaginations of Al Aqsa/the Third Temple to accomplish political goals and sacralize political violence.

In 2000, the Second Intifada began after former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon provocatively walked on the Temple Mount compound. This past Dec. 7, the Temple movement organized a march from Damascus Gate to the Temple Mount to demand removal of the Waqf and "full Jewish sovereignty" over the site. Such emboldened actions are the result of years of vocal and monetary support from far-right ministers in the ruling Likud party, who uphold policies of continued territorial expansion, dispossession, and the forced transfer of Palestinians. 

Reactions to the current Israel-Hamas war have been interpreted by Jewish, Noahide, and Christian supporters of the Third Temple Movement as evidence that the messianic era is imminent and as a sign that Israel should take definitive action to gain control over the Temple Mount and rebuild the Temple. 

In your concluding chapter, you write: "I am left wondering what tools the Jewish tradition itself might provide to counter ethnocentric and potentially violent visions of biblical revival and Temple physicality. What might an alternative political theology of the Third Temple look like?" How do you envision this?

Since the creation of the state of Israel, Israeli society has become increasingly more religious, and in recent years, religious nationalism, including its more militant far-right variations, has become an influential political force. In many ways, as my Dartmouth colleague Shaul Magid details in his recent book The Necessity of Exile, liberal Zionism has failed to provide a safe homeland for Jews and Palestinians, and Israel is increasingly a society characterized by anti-liberal and anti-democratic political sentiments.

If religion has played a key role in getting us to this point, one must wonder whether it will be the tool to get us out. In other words, I believe that as much as sacred Jewish sources have been used to justify forms of exclusive nationalism and state violence in Israel, Jewish sources can be equally used to push back against these very ideas, providing alternative theological and moral frameworks for thinking about what it means for Israel to be a  homeland for Jews but not necessarily an ethnocratic state. The Jewish tradition is replete with sacred sources deeply concerned with social justice, the fundamental equality of all human beings, and critiques of state power and violence.

With regards to the Temple specifically, Jews have an ancient tradition of thinking about the Temple, not simply as a physical place to be possessed, but as a state of being, an aspirational metaphor for understanding the human-divine relationship. Following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, rabbinic leaders created prayer and ritual substitutes for the Temple's sacrificial services, transforming ancient Israelitism (a religion dependent on the Temple and an elite priesthood) into Judaism, a diasporic religion that could be practiced by any Jew anywhere outside of the Holy Land, a religion not dependent on any one holy monument or priestly intermediary. Already in the Talmudic period, rabbinic commentators went so far as to argue that acts of loving kindness were not only of equal value to the sacrifices offered in the Temple but were ultimately superior. 

How has your research informed your perspective on Zionism?

It is important to remember that there has never been a Jewish consensus with regards to Zionism or what it means. If we go back to the pre-state years, the first three decades of the 20th century, for example, we find both religious and secular Jewish voices from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East in support of a Jewish homeland but strongly critiquing ideas of exclusive Jewish sovereignty over Palestine; and already warning that political Zionism might end up replicating violent settler-colonial dynamics of displacement and dispossession that would turn historically persecuted Jews into victimizers vis-a-vis local Palestinians.

A number of prominent Jewish intellectuals, such as Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt, were already arguing for a binational one-state solution in these pre-state years. They were convinced that the need for a Jewish national refuge was absolutely urgent, especially in the wake of the Holocaust, but that Jewish emancipation and long-term security would remain fundamentally dependent on ensuring the equal rights of Palestinians.

In short, Zionism has meant so many different things that the word feels increasingly meaningless and unmoored today in the public discourse. Inside Jewish communities, its usage has covered the whole political spectrum, from a binational state premised on legal equality to an ethnocracy premised on Jewish supremacy. Amongst non-Jews, it has been used to connote everything from a messianic salvific project for all of humanity to a pejorative slur for all the evils in the world.

It remains to be seen whether a vision of Temple building and theocracy will indeed be the "conclusion" of Zionism as my interviewees hoped. I do not know if an alternative vision can triumph, but such a project can only begin by returning to our sources, to the textual spaces where diverse Jewish imaginations of the Temple have lived for centuries. 

This book project on Jewish fundamentalism illuminated the complex ways in which both religion and secular liberalism have sustained the conflict. I believe that religion and religious leaders can play a greater role in the pursuit of a just and lasting peace process. Historical and religious sources offer some blueprints for how this could be done.