For decades, secular and religious influences have brought conflict and controversy in the tiny nation of Israel. Does the Bible predict worse troubles ahead?
In April of 2023, Israel celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary as an independent modern nation. On its fiftieth anniversary in 1998, it was acclaimed by the late Paul Johnson, British writer and commentator, as the most significant of the 100 nations that had been formed in the twentieth century—the formation of Israel as a nation was a miracle, whereas the others were not. To put it in perspective, Israel has survived 75 years, while the Soviet Union collapsed at 74 years.
But the seventy-fifth anniversary was not greeted with the exuberance of the fiftieth. Since January, regular protests have been staged in various Israeli cities both for and against the direction of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the media giving those against the government more coverage. As of the end of September, protests by both sides have continued for nine months. Remarkably, the protests have been without marked violence or damage to property and highlighted by the profuse number of Israeli flags used by protestors on both sides. The basis of the protests is linked to where Israel will be within the next 75 years.
The cause of the protests is a legal reform sought by Netanyahu’s coalition government. Since 1994 and the appointment of Aharon Barak as Chief Justice, the Supreme Court of Israel has become activist to the point of declaring legislation from the Knesset unlawful. Netanyahu has sought judicial reforms that would give the Knesset veto power over Supreme Court decisions and would curb the influence of unelected judges and lawyers on the appointment of new Justices.
But if it has worked for decades, why the urge to change the arrangement now? While many other nations throughout the world have sought to emulate that role of the Supreme Court, the religious of Israel feel aggrieved by the way they have been treated by the Supreme Court and the secular elite. Netanyahu’s reforms seek to enshrine Knesset authority to override Supreme Court decisions and exercise more influence in appointing Justices to serve on that Court.
To appreciate Netanyahu’s desire for change, we need to back up to the beginning of the State of Israel in 1948. Israel was established as a nation based on modern European concepts of statehood. It was to be a secular state, governed by the Knesset, rather than a religious state. Religion was to be subject to the government, just as the government in the United Kingdom oversees the Church of England. The UK Prime Minister approves all major appointments in that church before they are ratified by the monarch as the head of the Church of England.
David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, wanted Israeli citizens to follow the example of the sabras—those rugged native-born Israelis who worked the land and contributed to its industry—rather than emulate the religious Jews devoted to studying, like so many who had died in the Holocaust in Europe. Religion was nevertheless allowed, and provision was made for the Rabbinate to oversee immigration and marriages.
While that may have been acceptable to most in the early years of the state, changes have come along that have profoundly affected the nation. Israelis have largely deserted the left-wing Labour party Ben-Gurion founded and moved to the right of the political spectrum. If an election were to be held in Israel today, some postulate that the Labour Party would not win any seats. Current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of the conservative Likud, is the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, having held the role three times since Likud first formed a government under Menachem Begin in 1977. Yet, conservative or leftist, all of Israel’s prime ministers, from David Ben-Gurion to Benjamin Netanyahu, have been in the secular mold.
While the shift right in Israeli politics can be attributed in part to the economic success of Likud policies, an even greater change is transforming the nation’s demographics, as the numbers of largely religious Mizrahi Jews—those with roots in neighboring Muslim nations rather than in Europe—are growing and becoming a force to be reckoned with electorally, along with the Falasha from Ethiopia and the Haredi (Orthodox).
We should also note that the term secular has a nuanced meaning in Israel that is not entirely irreligious, as it is in the West. Though politics and philosophy rule the lives of the secular, many secular Israelis observe religious holidays such as Passover or Yom Kippur, though for remembrance rather than as a way of life. We can see this in how the city of Tel Aviv has embraced sexual- and gender-identity politics. Noted writer and academic Yossi Klein Halevi summed up this secular position when he wrote:
My Jewish life is religious; my Israeli life is secular. I celebrate the secular state that brought us home and taught us how to protect ourselves, that helped us heal as a people after the Holocaust and retrieved Jewish communities from an increasingly dangerous and dysfunctional Middle East (“The wounded Jewish psyche and the divided Israeli soul,” Times of Israel, July 28, 2023).
By contrast, for most of the Mizrahi Jews, and for the entire Hasidic community within Israel, religion controls their lives in a profound way. The secular philosophies of the day are a passing fad and of no consequence to them.
In recent years, the small religious political parties, which tend to be right-wing on the political spectrum, have become kingmakers in the formation of Israeli governments. Like other recent prime ministers, Netanyahu relies on them for his majority in the Knesset. Thus, Netanyahu—a secularist—today leads what some consider Israel’s first Orthodox parliament.
This makes the judicial reforms, the first of which was passed on July 24, a litmus test of where Israel is going politically: Should Israel be secular or religious? That battle is being waged on the streets of Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, but will soon be played out in the Supreme Court, which on July 28 agreed to consider a legal challenge as to whether it deems the new legislation recently passed by the Knesset as reasonable.
This is setting Israel up for a constitutional crisis. Will the actions on the streets and in the Supreme Court rend the nation apart and cause it to fall? The crisis is serious, and the rhetoric opposing the change is heated—to the point that some reservists in the Israel Defense Force have publicly avowed not to turn up for service training.
But will this mark the end of Israel? As students of prophecy, we understand the 1948 establishment of the modern state of Israel from the pages of an ancient book—the Holy Bible. It makes clear that a Jewish state will be a considerable fighting force at the time of the return of Jesus Christ (Zechariah 12:1–14), and Jerusalem a flashpoint in the times just ahead of us.
At the time the modern, secular State of Israel was established, the Temple Mount was of no immediate interest. It was in the hands of the Jordanians. Jewish concern over the Temple Mount involved the location of the Holy of Holies and the desire to stop people from walking onto (and hence defiling) the sacred ground where it once stood. Ben-Gurion, as Prime Minister, was content to know that it was under the control of the Jordanian government. Israel had enough problems on its hands simply related to survival.
Scroll forward to June 1967 and the Six-Day War, when Jewish forces recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. General Moshe Dayan, the Israeli forces’ leader and a formidable figure in Israeli society, seeing an Israeli flag raised over the Dome of the Rock after his forces captured the Temple Mount, ordered it lowered, commenting, “What do I need this Vatican for?” His comments reflected his secular outlook, especially his dismissal of any form of ritual religion, giving no thought to the importance of the Temple Mount in the prayers of observant Jewish people around the globe. As one observer wrote:
Dayan thought at the time, and years later committed his thoughts to writing, that since the Mount was a “Muslim prayer mosque,” while for Jews it was no more than “a historical site of commemoration of the past… one should not hinder the Arabs behaving there as they do now and one should recognise their right as Muslims to control the site.” (“Moshe Dayan’s Tragic Blunder,” Commentary, February 2023).
Dayan’s statement played into the hands of the Palestinian notion of “Temple denial”—that Jews had never lived in Israel and that a temple had never existed there. By so ruling, Dayan also gave legitimacy to a status quo on holy sites that dated back to Mameluke rule in the thirteenth century. Today, the Temple Mount remains under the control of the Jordanian Waqf. Yet the idea of Israelis being restricted from the Temple Mount, and, above all, from praying on the Temple Mount—prayer is currently only allowed at the Western Wall—is being questioned by Orthodox Jews (“The History of the Temple Mount Status Quo, Which Prohibits Jews from Praying at Their Holiest Site,” Mosaic, August 11, 2022).
Israeli police patrol the Temple Mount armed with camcorders to catch Jews who pray. They can impose on-the-spot judgment on any Jew found so doing. Despite that, increasing numbers of Jews ignore the restrictions and visit the Temple Mount to pray. Jerusalem Day, which annually commemorates the capture of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount in 1967, brings thousands of Jews to the site for prayer. The desire to pray as close as possible to the Temple’s location is a powerful drive for religious Jews. Archaeologists largely agree as to where the Temple was located on the 37 acres of the Temple Mount, and many have no fear of trespassing the purity rules evoked by the rabbis at the formation of the state. Today, we find Jews posting offers on social media to add prayer requests for others to their own prayers on the Temple Mount. This reflects the increase in Jewish spirituality that has been noted over the past few years.
If regular prayer is openly undertaken on the Temple Mount by Jews despite the prospect of on-the-spot fines, what will the future hold? Visiting the Temple Mount to commemorate the fast of Tisha B’Av and the destruction of the first and second Temples, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s minister of national security, stated that his nation needs to “display governance” on the site (“Muslim countries condemn Ben-Gvir’s ‘storming’ of Temple Mount,” Jewish News, July 27, 2023). Under a headline highlighting Muslim opposition to his visit, Ben-Gvir was quoted as saying that the site of the Temple is “the most important place for the people of Israel. We need to return and display our governance.”
Why is this important to us in terms of prophecy? Because the Bible indicates that, while not necessarily today, next week, or next year, the religious parties will ultimately win the battle.
Why can we be so sure of that victory? Because secular leaders would never allow sacrifices to take place on the Temple Mount, and the Bible tells us that daily sacrifice in Israel will be reintroduced for a short period before the end of the age.
If you wonder about this view of the secular world, consider European sensitivities to the kosher and halal slaughter of animals. Secular governments often seek to outlaw such practices. Local authorities in some European countries already have the power to outlaw them. Once that battle is won, male circumcision will likely be next; Iceland already tried to outlaw the practice in 2018. Religious symbols, whether kosher killing, circumcision or—above all—sacrifices, are not acceptable in secular society. Successive governments of Israel have allowed circumcision and kosher slaughter as essential parts of Jewish identity, but have consistently blocked moves toward the reintroduction of sacrifices.
Yet the Bible is explicit about sacrifices being reintroduced. It even uses the enforced stopping of sacrifices as a time marker for the return of Jesus Christ to the Mount of Olives, which is east of Jerusalem and faces the Temple Mount (Daniel 8:8–14; 12:11). The book of Daniel describes the reintroduction of sacrifices and establishes that they will be stopped by the King of the North, a major end-time figure who wages war against the King of the South in the area of Israel and surrounding nations (Daniel 11:29–40).
Daniel tells us it is going to be a time of great trouble. The turmoil in Israel today is just a shadow of what is coming. Following those events, Jesus Christ will return to establish His government over all the world’s nations.
An Israeli government that allows sacrifices on the Temple Mount will not be one controlled by secular forces. It will be deeply religious. Israel is presently deciding what sort of nation it wishes to be. The fact that doctors and other professionals are openly talking about leaving the state of Israel shows that they understand the depth of changes taking place within their country.
Presently within Israel are groups who are preparing for the reintroduction of sacrifices. They have the necessary materials with which to build an altar, as well as clothes and utensils for the priesthood to go about the sacrificial process. They eagerly await the availability of a red heifer to be sacrificed for the purification of the priesthood and those sacrificing (Numbers 19).
Israel today shows us a sharp contrast of lifestyles. Its current battle is ultimately over what sort of nation it will be: secular versus religious, pious biblical conduct versus postmodern lifestyles of unrestrained sexual and gender expression. Neither is accepting of the other. A conflict is inevitable. Keep reading this magazine and watching the Tomorrow’s World telecast to learn more about what the Bible warns will happen to the Middle East nations—and Israel in particular.