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Ariel's Jerusalem: An Interview with Rabbi Yisrael Ariel

A boy praying at the Kotel became a paratrooper who liberated the Temple Mount. The euphoria ceased when the Mount was handed over to the Arabs.
By Ofra Lax
First Publish: 5/15/2007, 12:28 PM / Last Update: 5/10/2007, 12:28 PM

He remembers the Kotel, or Western Wall, from its small, pre-statehood days, when the Arabs used to humiliate the faithful. He was there when they liberated the Temple Mount and heard Mordechai "Mota" Gur, Paratrooper Brigade Commander, say that the IDF would soon withdraw from the Old City. Today he is associated with the Temple Institute, which he founded and developed in order to spread awareness of the Temple. 
One Sabbath, in the middle of the "Keter" prayer, an Arab passed right through the praying congregants on his donkey, spurring it onward.

40 years after the city's liberation, we listened as Rabbi Yisrael Ariel recalled his feelings about the Kotel as a boy, then as a fighter, and later from the point of view of the man most closely identified with the Temple movement. While it is true that Rabbi Ariel is involved with many activities in varied areas, for the 40th anniversary we chose to concentrate on his connection to the Holy City.

Donkeys at the Kotel
The Italians are the ones who caused Rabbi Ariel to grow up in Jerusalem. He was born at the peak of World War Two in Kiryat Motzkin, near Haifa. The Italians bombed Haifa's oil refineries and caused real fear among the family's children. The parents decided to move to Jerusalem but felt the horrors of war there, too. This time it was the War of Independence, in which Jerusalem was besieged and bombed.

The boy Yisrael Ariel lived in the New City but had the privilege of going to the Kotel before the Jordanians took over. "On Sabbaths we would go to Jerusalem that is inside the walls, pray shacharit and read the Torah at Tiferet Yisrael synagogue. You were not allowed to bring Torah books to the Kotel, so we would go down there for the Musaf prayer. One Sabbath, in the middle of the "Keter" prayer, an Arab passed right through the praying congregants on his donkey, spurring it onward.

The plaza was small and crowded back then, and the Jews, who did not want to move from their place in the middle of the "Kedusha" prayer, were pushed back. It was a trauma, one big insult," he says, but on second thought adds: "It's not like I'm happy with what we have now, maybe today it's worse, because then we were under the British Diaspora and now we are independent."

He completed high school at Kfar HaRoeh and from there went to Kerem Beyavneh. His class was the second one to graduate from the hesder yeshiva. He later joined Merkaz Harav.

The Dream Fulfilled
During the time known as the "Waiting Period" before the Six Day War – when Israel's Arab enemies, led by Gamal Abd-el Nasser, were openly preparing for a war of annihilation against Israel – Ariel was a yeshiva student and a father of two. He was called up to the army for a reserve stint in the Paratrooper Brigade, where he served, and began training for being paradropped over the Sinai.

"During the Waiting Period people had a very dark feeling, that a holocaust was imminent," the rabbi recalls. It was said that they had prepared cemeteries for 30,000 people in Tel Aviv, and were preparing for a poison gas attack." The rabbi says that in those days, the Paratrooper Brigade was the most religious one in the IDF, because that was where the "hesder" yeshiva students (whose military service combined yeshiva time with army time) and the Bnei Akiva Nahal groups wound up.

On the Shabat of Parshat Behukotai, Lag BaOmer 5727, when training was at its most intense, the paratroopers sat down for the Third Meal and then began dancing excitedly. "We started singing 'leshana haba'a biyrushalayim habnuya' – next year in rebuilt Jerusalem – and at a certain point it became 'lashavua haba biyrushalayim habnuya' – next week in rebuilt Jerusalem – which was beyond imagination. In the end it took a little more than a week but we really did make it to Jerusalem, and got to see the song fulfilled."

On that Shabat, the guys asked the yeshiva student from Merkaz Harav to give a sermon. Ariel had only a chumash in his hands, and he read from it: "I said that it is written: 'if you follow my laws… five of you shall chase away one hundred [of the enemy], and a hundred of you shall chase away ten thousand.' Rashi immediately speaks of the mathematical problem in the verse, and says 'a few who fulfill the Torah are not like many who fulfill the Torah,' i.e. unity increases power exponentially.

"I described the reality of that day to the soldiers. I spoke of the Jews from the Diaspora who sent jewelry to the Ministry of Defense to buy tanks with, and of the unity government which had been formed, in which [Menachem Begin's] 'Herut' was included for the first time. The feeling was that the nation of Israel is like one man with one heart."

Rabbi Ariel strengthened his listeners and told them that unity would cause the verses to come true, despite the difficult reality. "I didn't really believe that is what would happen in this war," he reveals today, "but I wanted to strengthen them. In the end I saw the things happen in reality."

Mistakes that Cost Blood
The beginning looked grim. When the war broke out, the soldiers all listened to Kol Yisrael's broadcasts, which quoted the 'Voice of Thunder' from CairoEgypt's Hebrew language propaganda. The Voice of Thunder claimed that Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem were going up in flames. Since Kol Yisrael quoted the claims without commentary, listeners believed they reflected the truth. "It seemed that all of the dark prophecies we had heard earlier were being fulfilled," Ariel remembers.

Then came the order to board the buses. "But instead of the buses going towards Lod Airport, in order to paradrop us in the Sinai, they started driving along dirt paths, and suddenly we saw the mountains of Jerusalem." The howls of protest from the paratroopers, who had been fantasizing about parachuting behind enemy lines, were of no avail. Before dawn, the soldiers arrived in Jerusalem and were divided up among the different war zones in the city.

Rabbi Ariel was in the older group ("among the paratroopers, 27 is considered old") which was called the Regimental Guard and was attached to the Regiment Commander, Mota Gur.

After the battle at the Police Academy, the platoon was supposed to go to the Rockefeller Museum, where the regimental HQ had been established. But the paratroopers had trained for Sinai, not Jerusalem, and as a result, Ariel's platoon commander almost led them into a killing zone. "We advanced in a column. There was shooting from all directions on the way and I was slightly injured in the nose. At a certain point the platoon reached the walls and I took the commander back immediately. He was from a kibbutz and did not know Jerusalem. I told him, 'I see kaffiyehs up there. Where do you want to go?' He said 'the Rockefeller Museum.' When I was a child my father took us to museums, so I told him: 'the museum is right here.'"

After the battle at the Police Academy, the platoon was supposed to go to the Rockefeller Museum. But the paratroopers had trained for Sinai, not Jerusalem, and as a result, their commander almost led them into a killing zone. He was from a kibbutz and did not know Jerusalem. "I told him, 'I see kaffiyehs up there. Where do you want to go?' He said 'the Rockefeller Museum.' So I told him: 'the museum is right here.'"

In the morning, a misdirected IDF artillery barrage began hitting the Rockefeller. There were about 1,000 soldiers there at the time. "I had just put on tefillin, and suddenly we were being shelled. I took them off quickly and ran for cover." 13 men were killed in this tragic incident. "It was a tough blow. We started collecting the dead. Mota Gur understood what was happening. He put himself at risk, jumped out and started shouting and waving his hands: 'everyone get in the building! Everyone get in the building!' several times, and then he ran away. This saved many lives because many more could have been killed."

Later that day Rabbi Ariel was asked to go and collect the bodies of dozens of tank crewmen who had taken the wrong turn at the Rockefeller Junction, just as his platoon had almost done the day before. Rabbi Ariel got the job because the regimental rabbi was not present. The sights were shocking, and they were etched deeply into the rabbi's memory. He had received no mental preparation for the task. Several years later, as the Rabbi for Northern Command in the Yom Kippur War, he became commander of what he calls 'the biggest Hevre Kadisha in the world,' but that belongs in a different story.

After collecting the tank crewmen's bodies Rabbi Ariel returned to the museum, and the guys started asking around, to find out what had happened to friends and acquaintances from the regiment. The rumors about the casualties began trickling in, and they included names of good friends who were no longer alive. This bad news fit in with what they already thought they knew about the situation: the propaganda from 'The Voice of Thunder.' "It's true that we were in the Rockefeller Museum, which is close to the Old City walls, but there was still a feeling of holocaust, and that we are next in line."  

Rabbis Under Fire
This was where Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then the IDF's Chief Rabbi, came into the picture. "He came in and said he had come from Gaza, that there are battles there and his car caught fire, and that when he heard they had reached Jerusalem, he caught the first jeep and came up to the city."

The soldiers' low morale was evident in their faces, and Rabbi Goren strengthened them with words of truth, as Rabbi Ariel recalls with admiration. These words became a central perception of Ariel's, as years went by and his study deepened. "He said that of all the mitzvot, the only mitzvah for which a person may endanger himself lechatchila – on purpose – is the conquest of Eretz Yisrael. Shabat, Yom Kippur and other important commandments are cancelled in the face of mortal danger – pikuach nefesh – but not the conquest of the land. 'Therefore you should know,' he said, "that those who are gone died for kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of the Lord's Name, and those who died for the Kingdom – no entity can stand next to them.'"

"'You can be happy with one thing,' he went on and said. 'Jews were killed in the Diaspora for no other reason than hatred. You at least are in Jerusalem and fighting for it, be glad that this is the role G-d gave you.' These were not empty words, insists Rabbi Ariel. Rabbi Goren too, after all, was in mortal danger, and this became very apparent at mincha prayer.

"'He started praying, and in the middle of the shemone-esre prayer some kind of rocket came in directly at us. In a split second people scattered themselves all over the place. Rabbi Goren was the only one who continued praying. At the moment the rocket passed over his head he bent his knees, as we do when we start to bow in hishtachavaya, and when it had passed he continued his prayer, standing alone in the courtyard."

Then a conversation developed. The soldiers understood that they were only a few meters away from the city's wall and began asking the Chief Rabbi what the rules were regarding ascent to the Temple Mount: can only kohanim ascend and conquer, how is the entrance to be carried out, etc. Rabbi Goren said he still didn't know what was going to happen, and that things were being discussed in the government, but Rabbi Ariel was searching for clearer answers.

"Now I know that there is a halacha that if a little plaster falls in the Holy of Holies, if there is a kohen who can go in and take care of it – he should go in, and if there is not – an Israelite who has purified himself, and if he is impure – let the impure person go in, as long as the Holy of Holies not stay unclean. This is a principle that undoubtedly applies when the Arabs need to be driven out, and certainly in a case of pikuach nefesh." But this explanation was not given to the soldiers then, and Rabbi Ariel cannot forget how he agonized over this. "The Chief Rabbinate should have left contingency plans for such a day."

Unprepared for Victory
Later on, Rabbi Ariel understood that Rabbi Goren really did not know what the government wanted, and that the government's plans were different from what actually occurred. "They put loudspeakers around the Old City and used them to speak Arabic. The officers told me that they were telling them to surrender. The plan had been to also tell them 'the Old City is an international city,' so that the IDF would not even enter the city and withdraw.

"After the fact, Rabbi Goren told us that he, Mota Gur and others spent the entire night shuttling between the government's ministers in order to persuade them to go in [to the Old City]. Moshe Dayan said: 'what do I need all this Vatican for?' And yet, the order was given to go in."

At a certain point, the soldier Yisrael Ariel was asked to stand guard and observe the Temple Mount. He saw the bombs dropping from the planes and raising smoke. "At a certain point there was quiet, it was 8 or 9 am, I see the floor of the Temple Mount lit with sunlight, silence. Suddenly I see two soldiers running, with their heads down, to the Dome of the Rock, going in – and that was that. I remembered the sentence [from the Chanukah prayer book] – 'and then your sons came to the Holy of Holies in your House and cleared your Palace and purified your Temple.'

Immediately afterwards all of the battalions and companies began storming the Old City, mostly through the Lions' Gate. "There was fire and smoke and APCs and everyone was there. And I arrive at the Temple Mount despite all the troubling questions. I saw that the Jordanians had run away and left their artillery pieces, with all the ammunition that was on the walls.

In the background one could still hear gunshots and bursts of fire, but the Temple Mount itself was empty. Rabbi Ariel was sent to stand next to Rabbi Goren and Mota Gur, who were sitting next to the Dome of the Rock. "With the little knowledge I had, I knew that the Dome of the Rock was a real problem, but if Rabbi Goren is there – then I'm in. I went up and saw soldiers stretched out on the floor, after 36 hours' effort, eating food that Rabbi Goren had ordered from one of Jerusalem's bakeries. 

From where he stood he heard the conversation between Goren and Gur. Rabbi Goren suggested that the Paratrooper's dead be buried in the Mount of Olives, but Gur refused. Rabbi Goren told him: 'this is the Jewish people's most important cemetery,' and Mota said: 'But we are leaving Jerusalem soon, and the parents need graves. We'll bury them at Har Herzl.'"

"Mota Gur's famous words on the radio, 'the Temple Mount is in our hands,' were a military announcement. Like saying 'the outpost is in our hands.' It wasn't a national announcement. The commander, one minute after conquering the place, was not willing to bury his soldiers at the Mount of Olives."

This talk only depressed Rabbi Ariel even more. He felt that the Mount had indeed been conquered, but would soon be abandoned. "But suddenly I head a soldier say to his friend: 'two old men from Jerusalem have arrived.' And this brought me alive. I thought to myself: there is still smoke, gunfire, sharpshooters. What two old men could these be? They must be Eliyahu the Prophet and the Mashiach King. If we have conquered the Mount, then the Mashiach King must have arrived. 

Shehecheyanu at the Kotel
A short time later the guys started streaming from the Temple Mount to the Kotel. The way down was through the Mughrabim Gate, which was still under sniper fire. "Every few minutes someone would leap and steal through the gate quickly. And suddenly when I was there I saw two old men." These were not Eliyahu the Prophet and the Mashiach King, but rather Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook and the Ascetic Rabbi, Ariel's rabbis, and he was glad to see them.

The rabbis hugged each other and cried for joy, but Rabbi Goren is the one who gave the meaning. Today we speak of leadership. Not anyone can be a leader. There is the one who seizes the moment and lifts it up, and there is another who does not understand what is going on. In that respect, inside the whole mess, when nobody knew if we were staying or going, suddenly I hear a shear blast and a call: 'all the soldiers, repeat after me – shehecheyanu vekiymanu…' This was not shehecheyanu on a new fruit. When you conquer new territory this is a mitzvah from the Torah, and here, when you conquer the Temple Mount, there is no greater shehecheyanu than this."

Rabbi Ariel describes a great joy, to the point of euphoria. People who did not know each other danced and hugged each other, and there was great excitement.

Later a mincha prayer was organized and Rabbi Goren stood from the side and looked on. "At the end of the prayer I meant to say tachnun, and suddenly I heard a voice thunder out: 'today we do not say tachnun, we say hallel.' It's not just that I was about to say tachnun. I had not yet entered into the feeling that we are at 'hallel'. I had not yet freed myself from the feeling of catastrophe.'" But the Rabbi said so, and Ariel began praying 'hallel'.

Mota Gur later 'retouched' this situation and turned it into a struggle between two rabbis, one who sees the joy in the accomplishments and the other who sees the sadness in losing friends. Gur described it like that in his book but "it was not quite like that," Rabbi Ariel smiles.

The next command given Rabbi Ariel was to go and guard the western entrance to the Dome of the Rock. Today he knows that this is the closest place to the Holy of Holies, but even then he knew that this was the Kohen Gadol's exclusive territory. "Thoughts passed in my head: I am not a kohen nor a Levite, and any child knows that one may not enter this place with the shoes and dust on the feet – and here I am standing here, with the shoes and the gun and the dust."

The Temple Institute was only founded 20 years after that war, but the seeds were planted in Rabbi Ariel's heart in those two or three hours, when he stood guard on the Mount. "I thought that a real Military Rabbinate should have in its storehouse what we have in the Institute today: the Menorah, vessels for the Temple, clothes for the Kohanim and the altar, all ready in crates in the basement, so that when we reach Jerusalem there will be trucks that unload everything, and we can get to work. So it's true that we usually improvise after something has happened, but in this case we did not even have the beginning of what was needed. I asked myself why that was, and that is how the first ideas were born."

Five Chased Away a Hundred
So he never got to see the Mashiach King that day, but he did see the verses that he had taught the soldiers a few days earlier come true. As he stood guard on the Temple Mount he saw an endless column of people, arranged in pairs, dressed in pajamas with their hands over their heads. Rabbi Ariel did not understand why they were coming closer to him, and considered shooting when they reached him.

"Suddenly at the end of the line I see a sloppily dressed soldier walking with an Uzi. When they reached me they received the order to halt, and then the soldier sits them down in groups: one group of a hundred, and another hundred, and another. And I see before me that their hands are trembling. Then two or three more IDF officers came, and started calling the people who were sitting. One was a lieutenant colonel, another was a major, etc." The seated people were the Jordanian soldiers who had manned the fire-spitting artillery on the walls, and they had fled to the nearby houses and dressed up as sick people.

"I said to myself, here are 2,000 people from the Jordanian army, which was an excellent army. Here, the verse 'and five of you shall chase away a hundred' has come true. One of the next verses, by the way, is a blessing, 'and I shall give my Sanctuary in you.' We did not get to see that."

Despite everything that Rabbi Ariel's eyes had seen, at that time he still did not know that the stories he had heard in the beginning of the war, about Tel Aviv burning, were untrue. Only on Friday, when his company climbed aboard buses to assist in the fighting in the north, some civilians threw inside challah bread, sweets and a newspaper.

"Suddenly I look at the paper that is on the floor, and then I see an Egyptian airfield full of smoke, and headlines: 'our soldiers reached the Suez Canal', 'our soldiers reached Sharm a-Sheikh.' I woke up from a dream. I later found out that they had purposely decided to create a fog of war, and let the Arabs tell their stories, let them dream of the fire while we do the work."

The drive northward was already carried out in a totally different mood, and the Shabbat morning 'hallel' was said with great joy.

The Temple Institute – Thanks to the Shabak
Last Friday, a group of Indonesian tourists came to the Temple Institute. Admittedly, this doesn't happen every day, but the Institute's people are used to seeing people from all over the world visit them, even hareidim, who used to shun the Institute in its first years.

The Temple Institute works on many planes to increase knowledge and yearning for the Temple. It holds study days, publishes books for children and youths, study books and sacred books, operates a Torah and research oriented kollel, and more. Most of the Temple's vessels have already been recreated, and visiting the exhibition has become a must for anyone in Jerusalem.

It all started 25 years ago when Yamit, in the Sinai desert, was demolished and Rabbi Ariel, who had been the town's unofficial rabbi, was exiled from it to Jerusalem. The experience was a difficult one for him and he decided to make a clean break, to go back to studying the Torah, and "through the study decide what came next." Six months later the Kiryat Arba hesder yeshiva called him and asked to end the winter semester in his home in the Jewish quarter, in a nighttime study session, and to ascend to the Temple Mount in the morning. The rabbi agreed, and it was decided to study the subject of the Temple Mount, "which they were not very knowledgeable in and neither was I." 

On the appointed day, 30 young men came to the Ariel home, armed with Uzis for self defense. "They placed the guns under the beds, and I went to prepare something for them to drink. Suddenly we heard a stampede in the staircase, and just like in the movies, Shabak men and policemen entered, got up on the chairs with drawn pistols and announced: 'nobody move, put the guns on the floor, you are all under arrest.'"

The group was taken to the Russian Compound police station, where it was held for 11 days. The authorities feared that that this was an underground group that wanted to create a disturbance or make the Pesach sacrifice on the Mount. "There were apparently some guys who were thinking of more than ascent and prayer," Ariel says, in defense of the Shabak. The media had a field day, naturally.

During their time in jail, Ariel suggested to the boys that they study the Temple matters, since that was what had brought them there in the first place. "We turned the place into a yeshiva. We learned a daf yomi – a daily page in the Talmud – and Masechet Midot. We didn't have all of the illustrations that the Temple Institute has today, and I had to learn things together with them."

In the course of those days, Rabbi Ariel and Moshe Asher, who was there with him, agreed that once the publicity faded and the smoke cleared, they would meet and decide what to do. "We registered a nonprofit organization and called it "The Institute for Study, Research and Building of the Temple,' putting things in that order on purpose. We started with a small exhibition and step by step things developed, until they reached their present state. We reached places we never thought we'd reach. Children and adults study and discuss the Temple and ask us questions, some of them so great that we cannot answer."

The Historic Betrayal
The circle which starts with childhood, passes through the Six Day War and reaches the Temple Institute cannot be summed up without asking Rabbi Ariel about the Israeli decision to give up control of the Temple Mount.

In discussing this subject, one needs to go back to that historic moment, with Rabbi Goren, the 'Hallel' and the shofar. Had the rabbis conducted that scene on the Mount and not at the Kotel, perhaps the Mount would have been perceived by the public and the leaders as the place that we must not abandon.

"In a time of mayhem, when you are dealing with a complicated mess, things take their own course. The Kotel was in people's minds: this is the Kotel where Father and Grandfather prayed, and it immediately connects you with tradition, with what is familiar. The Temple mount was not in people's minds, and so it was left untended."

To emphasize this point, Rabbi Ariel tells the story of a man who handed out pictures of the Kotel several weeks before the war, in what was seen as a semi-clandestine operation. "As a Jerusalemite you knew that the Kotel was unmentionable, and the thought of reaching it was as distant as reaching the moon. But the Temple Mount? That wasn't even in spoken Hebrew. There was the Beit Hamikdash or the Kotel. But the term Har Habayit, the Temple Mount, only entered the Hebrew language during the war."

At this point, surprisingly, the rabbi comes to the defense of Moshe Dayan. "He handed over the key [to the Temple Mount], because he was the one who held it, but someone persuaded him to do this." Rabbi Ariel learned this from a 'Bamishpacha' magazine article, and then verified the truth of the claim with hareidi former Knesset member Rabbi Menachem Porush, who was quoted in the article. "According to what he says, the greatest hareidi rabbis, led by Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky, went to Dayan and told him to tell Levi Eshkol to give the Arabs the Temple Mount. 'The People of Israel have no interest in the Temple Mount.' They also said the UN should be notified that we have no interest in the Temple Mount."

Rabbi Ariel uses the word "treason" to describe what he thinks about giving the keys to the Arabs. "This is a mission that was given to our generation after 2,000 years. We prayed: 'bring us up to our land and plant us in our borders and there we shall carry out our necessary sacrifices.' So the Lord heard the prayer. He brought us up and gave us part of the land but we did not fulfill our obligation. We expect him to do that, too, and bring the Temple down from the sky, and on top of all that, we give others the keys we were handed.

"The betrayal is of those who prayed and made an effort throughout the generations to make aliyah and renew the avodah, the work of the Temple: Rabbi Ashtori Hafarchi, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Harav Kalisher and others. Why did the Second Temple people – who were little more than 42,000 when they arrived, like a small Jerusalem neighborhood – know how to resume the avodah immediately, without budgets and despite wars and mixed marriages? They had all of the problems we have, and we are six million Jews, 40 years after the conquest of Har Habayit, yet shamelessly we go to pray at the Kotel!

"Every day when I see the people's estrangement and alienation, I look with disbelief upon what is happening. A generation will come and say that there was a great failure. The religious Judaism, which calls itself Zionist – and Zion is the Temple – has to look in the mirror. A person needs to ask himself where he is and what he is doing with 'and they shall build me a Temple and I shall dwell within them' and many other mitzvot. If, after 40 years, all religious Zionism has to show for its efforts is another flag-dance march on Jerusalem Day, we are in critical condition."

The Temple Institute