Religion Unplugged

Unblemished Red Heifers Key to Understanding Conflict in the Middle East

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
Al-Asqa Mosque in February 2020. (Wikimedia Commons)
Al-Asqa Mosque in February 2020. (Wikimedia Commons)

The main danger in many conspiracy theories lies not in their truth or falsity, but that people believe them to be true and act on that belief.

We ignore this at our peril.

One theory, held widely in the Middle East, is that Israel is planning to destroy the site of Al-Aqsa complex in Jerusalem, which includes the Muslim holy sites of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Some add that this is part of a project by Israel to clear these buildings from the Temple Mount in order to build the Third Temple. A key part of this scheme is believed to be efforts to breed a flawless red heifer.

Why a red heifer? In the Bible, Numbers 19: 1-2 recounts: “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: ‘This is a requirement of the law that the Lord has commanded. Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke ….’”

There is a parallel recounting in the second chapter of the Quran. Those who hold these views believe that the sacrifice of such a heifer is essential to the ritual purification that is a necessary precondition for building the temple.

There are Christian groups who hold to this view and active Jewish groups in Israel such as the Temple Institute. The institute has been training men to be priests and in September 2023 announced the birth of a suitable heifer that it said would undergo “extensive examination” to determine if it's free from any blemish.

The previous September, it had announced that it had imported five suitable heifers from a Christian rancher in Texas who shared their views. Among those on hand when the heifers arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport was Israel's Heritage Ministry's Director-General Netanel Isaac.

These groups have not had wide support in Israel, where most Jews are secular. Most Israelis also believe that these efforts are a needless and dangerous provocation. But influential people, including in Hamas and Hezbollah, maintain that Israelis are actively pursuing this project and that the Israeli government is deeply involved in this scheme.

Hamas has repeatedly described its war on Israel not in secular Western categories, such as resistance to colonialism, but as an attempt to defend Al-Aqsa, which Muslim tradition holds was the site of its Prophet Mohamed's night journey.

Similarly, this past August, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called on Muslims throughout the world to defend Al-Aqsa. Hamas has labeled its Oct. 7 assault on Israel the “Al-Aqsa Wave,” a term resonant not of Palestinian nationalism but of rescuing an Islamic holy site from depredation and destruction by infidels.

This focus on Al-Aqsa has extended to red heifers. Upon the arrival of the five heifers from Texas, Hezbollah and Hamas issued warnings that this meant that the expected assault on Al-Aqsa would soon occur. Following the Temple Institute's September 2023 announcement of the birth of its candidate heifer, the Islamist-oriented Middle East Monitor carried the headline, “Israel’s red cow will blow up the region.”

The Palestine News Network also highlighted the heifers. In an interview for the Hamas television channel, named "Al-Aqsa,” Dr. Ahmad Shihab said that bringing red heifers to Jerusalem shows that "the fascist Israeli government encourages the settlers to continue harming al-Aqsa mosque.”

A senior Palestinian source in touch with the political leadership of Hamas was asked by Middle East Eye: "Why did the attack take place when it did?”

He replied, “The trigger for the 7 October attack was Hamas’s concern that far-right Jews intended to sacrifice an animal at the site of al-Aqsa Mosque, thus laying the ground for the demolition of the Dome on the Rock shrine and the building of the Third Temple.”

It can be difficult to know whether statements by leaders express their sincere beliefs or are an appeal to others’ deep-rooted religious fears. Perhaps something of both. But what is clear is that these claims are widely believed and resonate with many Muslims worldwide. We would be wise not to discount them.

In international affairs and intelligence work, there is always a great danger of “mirror imaging” when we project our own beliefs and motivations onto others and assume that they think and act the way that we do. It supposes that others have similar values and desires to us. Secular Westerners, who often assume that their own parochial worldview is simply obvious common sense that others will eventually adopt, are particularly prone to such mirror imaging.

This has bedeviled U.S. policy toward Iran since its 1979 revolution wherein Shiite messianism has been consistently underplayed and Tehran’s actions have been analyzed simply in terms of power politics.

Certainly, such politics play a major part: Even though Hamas believes Shia are heretics, Shiite Iran supports the group since it fights the greater enemies, Israel and America. Other factors are current Iranian competition with the Saudis and the geopolitical pattern since Cyrus the Great, over two millennia ago, of Persia repeatedly invading to its West.

But modern religious influences should never be discounted. In the Middle East and much of the world, religion is a fundamental human motive and is correctly seen as such. It is arguable that America's neglect of this in relation to Iran has helped lead to the present terrible conflagrations.

We would do well not to repeat this religious blindless in the face of current Middle East carnage.

Read in Religion Unplugged.