Joshua Davis
April 2, 2008 - 6:31pm

Yitzhaq Hayutman holds the key to peace on Earth - it's on a floppy disk in his pants pocket. With his full white beard, bald pate, and well-pressed khakis, the 61-year-old Israeli cybernetics expert and tech investor looks like Moses done over for a Banana Republic ad. Right now, he's showing me how he wants to position an airborne hologram over the Dome of the Rock, a gold-capped shrine that's one of the most holy sites in Islam. "The blimp will go there," Hayutman says pointing into the blue. "And eventually the Messiah will come."

Hayutman is excited by the prospect - perhaps too excited. Twenty yards away, two flak-jacketed Israeli police officers finger their machine guns while four plainclothes members of the Islamic Trust - the Muslim force that protects Islam's holy sites - move cautiously toward us. Violence has a habit of erupting here on the Temple Mount, the world's most explosive plot of land.

For 1,500 years, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have fought for control of this 35-acre plateau in the heart of Jerusalem. The dispute remains one of the main obstacles to peace in the Middle East. Jewish teachings say that a temple must be built here - many say on the exact spot where the Dome now stands - in order to induce the arrival of the Messiah and the coming of peace on Earth. Fundamentalist Christians interpret this to mean the Second Coming of Christ and actively encourage Jewish building efforts. Muslims categorically oppose any encroachment on their holy site, from which they believe Mohammed ascended to heaven to receive the Koran.

All sides acknowledge that tensions on the hill have the potential to start a war, but Hayutman believes he has found a way to resolve the intractable conflict. "What most people see is that if the Muslims are here, surely there is no temple," Hayutman says. "They do not understand that technology has given us the tools to realize the prophecy right now."

He has two big ideas, two ways to engineer the apocalypse. The first: a hovering holographic temple. Hayutman wants to set up an array of high-powered, water-cooled lasers and fire them into a transparent cube suspended beneath a blimp. The ephemeral, flickering image, he says, would fulfill an ancient, widely revered Jewish prophecy that the temple will descend from the heavens as a manifestation of light. Hayutman hopes to finance the project with some of the proceeds from a $20 million patent-infringement suit he and his partners have filed against Palm.

The rest of that money would be poured into Hayutman's second idea for jump-starting the end-times: a virtual temple within a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. The goal is for thousands of people to join in its construction on the Web. Hayutman even wants to display progress reports in the floating hologram as a kind of apocalyptic scoreboard.

Whether it's a hologram or a cyberstructure, Hayutman believes that a techno temple does away with the need for a physical building. Under his scheme, Jews and Christians would get a biblically accurate temple without razing the Dome of the Rock. A description of his plans is on the floppy disk in his pocket, which he says he will give to me when we leave the Mount.

It may sound crazy, but every other effort at peace has failed, and partisans on all sides are surprisingly open to Hayutman's proposals. People in the Middle East are used to radicals who carry guns and explosives. Hayutman is a radical who envisions a peaceful, technological advent to the end of the world. For him, the Bible is a Read Me file for Earth 2.0. Some think he's out of his mind, but in a region where extremists often set the agenda, Hayutman is preparing to click the Install button.

The future Temple which we are expecting, is built and perfected and will be revealed and descend from heaven.
- Talmudic scholar Rashi, 11th century

The first storm of the season has washed boulders and banks of sand onto the narrow road skirting the edge of the Dead Sea. A flash flood courses over the pavement, but Hayutman seems unconcerned.

We are going to meet Ohad Ezrahi, a onetime ultraorthodox rabbi who exiled himself to the desert after falling out with the small right-wing settlement where he lived. Until 1998, Hayutman and Ezrahi had been developing a forerunner to Hayutman's videogame with financing from the Jewish Agency for Israel, a foundation established to encourage, among other things, tech innovation. Hayutman invested $30,000 of his own money, but the duo halted work when they realized they didn't have the resources to code an animation engine. Now Hayutman has arranged a meeting with one of the largest technology companies in Israel and needs to upload stills from the sole copy of the game, which Ezrahi has.

The problem is, a river has swallowed the road. When it starts raining in Israel, most people avoid the desert for fear of floods like this. But Hayutman revs the engine of his Daihatsu mini-SUV and launches us into the torrent. A wide arc of water splashes out on either side.We lurch over unseen obstacles, verge on a rollover, and emerge on the other side.

Hayutman's faith in himself is a little disconcerting, at times annoying, and even terrifying. He talks about flash floods and God for hours without pause while we drive and doesn't notice when I doze off. When I wake up, he's still talking. "God has given me a mission," Hayutman says, speaking in a thoughtful, accented English as rain pounds the windshield. "I am here to show that the temple can be rebuilt peacefully and in such a way that it will bring the beginning of a new age."

What's fascinating about his vision of the apocalypse is that it's not the bloodbath that fundamentalist Christians imagine. It is the end of the current world - with all its inequity and injustice - and the beginning of a new, perfect Earth ruled by the Messiah. The trigger will be a peaceful, technology-fueled spiritual revolution. A velvet apocalypse.

Hayutman has pursued this theme his entire life. Born into a wealthy family, he inherited a small fortune in real estate - his grandfather was one of the founders of Tel Aviv. It has been his family's mission to build cities in new ways. And what could be a better life goal than designing the ultimate building - the structure that will trigger the redemption of the world? "I have always thought of myself as God's architect," he says matter-of-factly.

To prepare for the position, Hayutman traveled to the US in 1967 and earned a bachelor's in architecture from UC Berkeley. Later he moved to London to study design with Gordon Pask, a founder of the field of cybernetics, the creation of lifelike processes in machines. When Hayutman joined Pask's lab in the mid-1970s, they began exploring the relationship between computers and architecture. Both felt that there was a new type of structure to explore: buildings erected in cyberspace.

Back then, technology limited Hayutman to designing simple interfaces. But he still thought of it as work on the temple. His PhD dissertation in cybernetics described how a virtual Temple Mount could create common ground for Jews and Arabs to interact in ways they otherwise never would.

The rain lets up enough to reveal the barren mountains that ring the Dead Sea. This was where Satan tempted Jesus and where Jewish rebels committed mass suicide four years after the destruction of the last temple in AD 70. It's a land that has always been fertile ground for extreme ideas, so it's fitting that Hayutman first envisioned assembling his holographic temple here.

He was inspired in part by a passage in the Midrash Rabbah, a collection of Torah analysis written more than 1,000 years ago, which says that the temple will descend fully built from heaven as a manifestation of light. It's a prophecy that many Jews have embraced because it suggests that only God can build the temple. But Hayutman found a loophole. He realized that another way to get a temple of light to descend from the heavens was to combine a blimp with hologram-producing lasers.

The structure would consist of a transparent polyurethane cube supported by a lightweight metal frame. An onboard fog machine would pump mist into the enclosure to serve as a screen for the lasers. The cube would then be fastened under a large tethered blimp and lifted into the sky. To make it descend, he would simply winch in the blimp's tether and re-aim the lasers.

In 1999, Hayutman took the concept to Joseph Bodenheimer, a laser expert and the president of the Jerusalem College of Technology. Bodenheimer's verdict: The plan's engineering and optics were feasible. But navigating the politics of the Holy Land was another matter. Hayutman would be contending with nearly 40 years of active struggle on the Mount.

That struggle began at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel wrested control of eastern Jerusalem from Jordan. For the first time in nearly 2,000 years, the Temple Mount was in Jewish hands. For many Jews and Christians, this was an electrifying moment. The Israeli government finally had the chance to raze the Dome of the Rock and build the prophesied temple. But in a decision that pains fundamentalists to this day, then-defense minister Moshe Dayan returned day-to-day control of the Mount to the Islamic Trust.

The Israeli authorities argued that the southwestern end of the Mount's retaining wall - better known as the Wailing Wall - was a sufficient religious monument. For centuries, it had been the most holy site in Judaism because the 2,000-year-old weather-worn stones near the bottom were the last remnants of the old Mount sanctuary.

Hayutman can recite the history for hours, but he prefers to talk about the future. As early as the 1980s, he began meeting with Israeli officials to discuss the rebuilding of the temple. Jerusalem's city engineer told him that no plans would be considered on the Israeli side - to do so officially would be viewed as a provocation against Muslim autonomy on the Temple Mount and could spark an uprising. Before he could start talking about nonthreatening, technological solutions to the problem, the city engineer abruptly ended the meeting.

Hayutman is still fuming. "Politicians don't want to address the Temple Mount as a religious problem," he says, slowing for a security checkpoint manned by three well-armed Israeli soldiers. "They think Jews and Arabs should just get rid of their 'idiotic' religions and then everything will be OK. But the whole reason we are here is because of religion. And if you just divide the land, you end up with a situation similar to India and Pakistan - always teetering on the edge of war."

Then Solomon said, "The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud; I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever."
- I Kings 8:12-13

We reach the top of a bluff and see Ohad Ezrahi's compound - a half-dozen decrepit trailers parked near the edge of a cliff. When he was ostracized from the orthodoxy, the rabbi started his own community here, where he now lives with 20 followers. He stays in touch with the outside world in part through his dust-covered Compaq PC, which is where the game prototype is stored.

Despite his foot-long beard, Ezrahi looks surprisingly young when he opens the door. Pushing back his wiry frizz of brown hair, he invites us into his living room. It's not much more than four shoddy trailer-home walls and a shelf lined with more than a hundred books. Most are devoted to the kabbalah, the secretive offshoot of Jewish mysticism traditionally taught only to the most advanced students of the Torah.

As Ezrahi and Hayutman developed the game, some of that kabbalism seeped in. It's still there, in dozens of esoteric riddles and puzzles. But the Jerusalem Games System, as Hayutman now calls his project, has evolved into a cross between Myst and Doom set within the walls of old Jerusalem. Players navigate the narrow streets and bustling marketplaces trying to uncover and decipher Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scriptural clues relating to the end-times. They can choose to kill each other, but they won't be able to move to the next level if they do. The goal is to unlock the secret that will induce the coming of a messiah - whether players believe he will turn out to be the Christian Jesus, the Jewish Moshiach, or the Muslim Mahdi.

It's possible, according to Hayutman, that the game itself may be the realization of prophecy. "The Book of Revelations describes a New Jerusalem which will encompass the entire Earth," he says, citing Revelation 21. "The online, worldwide virtual reality version of Jerusalem is the only thing that could fulfill that requirement. The digital version of the city would exist in Germany or Indonesia at the same time it exists in Jerusalem itself."

Ezrahi launches into a tirade about the Windows operating system and the problems he encountered working with Windows 95 while developing the videogame with Hayutman. One of his tasks was to come up with the look and feel. It turns out that in addition to being a neo-Hasidic kabbalistic rabbi, he's a graphic designer. "I've designed children's books, corporate sales videos, software animations," he says. "But designing this game was a lot more fun. We were going to hook players up to biofeedback sensors and throw demons at them if they got angry."

Hayutman digs through his pocket, fishes out a USB key drive and hands it to Ezrahi, who boots up his computer and copies still images of the game demo onto it. Hayutman needs these for his pitch meeting with Yossi Tsuria, the executive vice president of NDS, a News Corp. company that enables the delivery of movies and TV shows to 34 million cable and satellite subscribers around the world. The Jerusalem-based R&D arm of the company is developing a platform for multiplayer gaming, and Tsuria is interested in the Jerusalem Games System.

"Tsuria?" Ezrahi asks. "Isn't he one of those who tried to blow up the Dome of the Rock back in the '80s?"

All the surrounding area on top of the mountain will be most holy. Such is the law of the temple.
- Ezekiel 43:12

Standing in his modest, unadorned office on the northern edge of Jerusalem, Yossi Tsuria looks like the prototypical Silicon Valley software executive, complete with khakis, a loose-fitting dress shirt, and a short, unkempt schoolboy haircut. He's in charge of strategy and technology for a company that grossed nearly $450 million in its last fiscal year. You'd never suspect that in his younger days he was part of one of the most ambitious plots to destroy the Dome of the Rock.

Tsuria's story sounds like the plot of a straight-to-video movie. In the early 1980s, he joined a group of 26 other well-educated, politically connected young Israeli men who decided to instigate the rebuilding of the temple by blowing up the Dome. They loaded a jeep full of stolen explosives from the Israeli army, manufactured their own bombs, and drew up a scheme to strap 28 charges to the Dome's pillars. They planned meticulously, estimating the amount of time it would take to scale the walls of the Temple Mount and predicting the direction of the mosque's collapse.

But they didn't anticipate that the Shin Bet, Israel's FBI, would unravel the conspiracy before it was put into action. The plotters were rounded up and became infamous overnight, making the front page of newspapers worldwide. Tsuria quickly pleaded guilty and spent almost two years in jail. "I was young and stupid," he says now, visibly uncomfortable talking about the subject. The jail time and the introspection that came with it fostered a distaste for all things radical.

Nevertheless, he greets Hayutman warmly. The two men sit at a table wedged into a corner of the office, and Tsuria explains that NDS is moving into new kinds of interactive television. That's Hayutman's cue to launch into a pitch for the Jerusalem Games System and the realization of the temple. "The assumption of the game," he begins, "is that the Temple Mount is central to the destiny of the planet."

Tsuria looks unfazed by this pronouncement, and Hayutman continues with increased enthusiasm. "Playing a game centered around the Mount has implications for the whole world," he says. "It's infinitely more meaningful than playing Space Raiders or Montezuma's Return." This is an opportunity to create a game that will fulfill prophecy. How many cable companies get a chance like that?

Tsuria seems interested. He peppers Hayutman with practical questions. What language will it be in? How will Muslims be included in the development process so that it accurately represents their views? How will Hayutman portray God without offending Jewish or Muslim prohibitions against iconography? When confronted with such direct questions, Hayutman tends to retreat into vague, even unintelligible babble. That's his tactic now, as he launches into a speech about "interactive psychological and social systems." Tsuria nods, interested but cautious. It's understood that he'll need to see a fully functioning prototype before he will consider presenting it officially to anyone at NDS.

"Do you have the money to build a prototype?" Tsuria asks.

Not yet. Hayutman is counting on his patent-infringement lawsuit against Palm. In 1994, a couple of Israeli inventors - Mike Kagan and Ian Solomon - approached him with the idea for building cheap, wirelessly connected game consoles. Hayutman signed on as an angel investor. He saw an opportunity to open a channel of communication between Muslims and Jews. He immediately grasped that a mobile technology allowing people in different locations to play games together would help bring his Jerusalem Games System to fruition. The game, after all, was all about real people interacting in a computer-simulated world.

He invested $16,000, and by 1995 the inventors had filed to protect their ideas with the US Patent and Trademark Office. (A patent was issued in 1997.) As proof of principle, they produced two consoles that allowed players to compete in a wirelessly networked version of Pac-Man.

But nobody bought the concept, in part because handheld and wireless devices were still in their infancy. Hayutman and his partners contend that they came up with the idea and should therefore receive a royalty on what has become a commonplace device. The group filed a $20 million lawsuit last March against Palm. Early settlement talks broke down, and the case is due to be heard in Delaware's US District Court in June.

Because he recently lost almost $700,000 in a disastrous medical technology investment, Hayutman is hoping the suit will replenish his bank account. His lawyers have told him to expect about 16 percent of the proceeds from the lawsuit, and he plans to funnel most of it into his temple plans. "If I hadn't gotten seduced by biotech, I could have had a prototype of the game by now," he says ruefully.

If the lawsuit succeeds and Hayutman receives his sought-after settlement, there are still larger hurdles to overcome. For instance, even if he can afford to build his blimp-borne hologram, would the Islamic Trust allow it anywhere near the Dome of the Rock?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes.

Glorified be He Who carried His servant by night from the Inviolable Place of Worship to the Far distant place of worship the neighbourhood whereof We have blessed, that We might show him of Our tokens!
- Koran, 017.001

The councillors of the Islamic Trust meet in a domed room built into the wall that surrounds the Temple Mount. The room's large window frames the Dome of the Rock. As the sun sets, the light reflected off the shrine illuminates the wrinkled face of Mohammed Hussein, an imam of the Noble Sanctuary.

Wearing the robes and white headdress of a Muslim cleric, the imam sits silently behind a large, cheap-looking desk. Seated to his left is Adnan Husseini, the Islamic Trust director. Four plainclothes guards stand outside the 18-foot-tall door to the room.

Husseini has agreed to see me on the spur of the moment - he seems intrigued by the appearance of a technology reporter in the Islamic Trust's inner sanctum. "With the imam's permission," Husseini says, casting a glance at him, "you may address me."

The imam raises his hand in approval. I start by asking Husseini if he's familiar with Hayutman's idea of projecting a holographic temple over the Dome of the Rock. "We have heard of this man's projections of light," he responds, speaking slowly and cautiously. "And we will allow it to happen here - when there is a peace settlement."

For a second, I don't know what to say. It seems stunning that the Islamic Trust would even consider allowing a Jewish temple to float above their holy shrine. Perhaps Husseini believes peace will never come. But if so, why not just dismiss Hayutman's idea outright?

When asked if the Islamic Trust would endorse the creation of the Jerusalem Games System, Husseini says he has neither heard of it nor is he familiar with the concept of virtual reality. The aging imam, however, knows all about VR and explains it in Arabic to Husseini, who concludes that Palestinians are focused more on basics like food and shelter than luxuries like videogames.

I leave the Temple Mount wondering if that is true and soon find myself wandering the narrow Arab-quarter streets that run west and north of the Islamic Trust's headquarters. I find kids flocking to the gaming shops set up between spice merchants and butchers hawking skinned lambs. These narrow rooms are filled with teenage boys playing networked games like Counter-Strike and Midtown Madness.

Mohammed, the proprietor of the Ali Baba Internet Café, says Palestinians are more wired than most Arabs, and the statistics back him up. According to Abdul Kader Kamli of Madar Research, a Dubai-based company that compiles data on IT use in the Arab world, Palestinians post higher per capita tech usage than people in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, or Syria, among others. "Palestinian kids are already playing games that help them rebel against the situation here," Mohammed says, citing Hezbollah's Special Force and Dar Al-Fikr's UnderAsh, two first-person shooters in which the targets are Israelis. "Why do we have these destructive games? Why not a constructive game of rebellion? As long as the action is good, the kids will play it."

You are to take some of its blood and put it on the four horns of the altar and on the four corners of the upper ledge and all around the rim, and so purify the altar and make atonement for it.
- Ezekiel 43:20

While in Jerusalem, I make a pilgrimage to the oracle. I ask, "How will World War III begin?" Google answers with a Web site that details the struggle over the Temple Mount. Before coming here, I'd read that the Mount was a "powder keg" and "ground zero for the apocalypse." The reality is that the fuse is already burning. Every day, Jewish zealots are praying for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, and there are legions of Muslims ready to give their lives to avenge its desecration. And though violence is anathema to his vision, Hayutman likes watching the clock tick down, because he believes a climate of urgency is necessary before he can convince radicals on all sides that redemption is only a mouseclick away.

Jewish and Christian fundamentalists are intrigued by this new approach to prophecy. But because they read scripture literally, they have a lot of questions. "How will I perform an animal sacrifice if the temple is in a computer?" demands Amos Taieb, a 32-year-old member of the recently organized Temple Guard, a small group of primarily young Jewish men dedicated to rebuilding a physical temple as soon as possible. Taieb emphasizes that scripture clearly states that lambs must be sacrificed on the temple's altar.

Taieb staffs the Guard's center in the Jewish quarter of old Jerusalem. The small converted storefront on a cobblestoned alley features an impressive 1:100-scale wooden model of the temple. Taieb also has aerial photographs of the Temple Mount, on top of which he lays transparencies of his proposed temple footprint. He positions it so that the structure lies directly on top of the Dome of the Rock. What happens to the Dome? "You take the mosque and blow it away," he says calmly.

As for a holographic temple, Taieb cites the Midrash Rabbah prediction that the temple will come from the sky. This is a possibility, he allows, but there's still the matter of how to sacrifice animals. "Do you bring a lamb hologram into the sky as well?" he asks. "And how do you throw lamb blood on a holographic altar that is floating in the sky? It gets complicated."

Jan van der Hoeven also worries that a virtual temple creates some very real religious problems. Van der Hoeven - a founder of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem and currently the director of the International Christian Zionist Center - is a Dutch minister who moved to Jerusalem in 1968 and has been pushing the Jewish people to construct the temple ever since. He represents the desire of European and American fundamentalist Christians who believe that building the temple will trigger the return of Jesus Christ.

His talk of an "army of Christians" ready to help Israel has resonated through to the highest levels of Israeli politics. As prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu had dinner at Van der Hoeven's home. Five of the last six prime ministers have spoken at the annual meeting of the International Christian Embassy and sought the kind of fundamentalist Christian support that Van der Hoeven can deliver. "Both the Old and the New Testaments say there is no possibility for Jesus to come except that there is a temple waiting for him," he says with uplifted eyebrows.

Van der Hoeven has spoken with Hayutman about the holographic temple and the Jerusalem Games System, and he cautiously supports the efforts. "The Jews have not come back from Auschwitz and 6 million dead to stand at a stupid piece of Wailing Wall," he adds. "Hayutman seems to realize that the Wall is not the climax of history."

Still, Van der Hoeven takes exception to Hayutman's designs for the temple. Like the Temple Guard, he wants the design to follow the dictates of Ezekiel, which are quite specific about the measurements of the structure. He, too, has a wooden scale model and proudly shows off pictures of it. "If it is true that the Third Temple will be the result of these holograms - fantastic," Van der Hoeven says with a sly grin. "But even if it is not, and the Islamic Trust will agree to it, it will set things in motion. The lie of Islam's exclusive claim to the Mount would be broken."

Van der Hoeven leans forward in his chair and sets down his teacup. "You see, you have to be very clever because the whole future of planet Earth and mankind will be fought here, over the Temple Mount."

Son of man, describe the temple to the people of Israel.
- Ezekiel 43:10

In October, Islamic Trust guards watched as Israeli police arrested Van der Hoeven for silently praying on the Temple Mount. The Dutch minister cursed the guards and denounced the police who booked him. When recounting the incident, his face tinges red and he spits his words. For the Islamic Trust, people like Van der Hoeven are easy to classify as extremists.

Hayutman is not. When we first set foot on the Temple Mount and he points to the sky above the Dome of the Rock to show me where the blimp will go, I can see the Islamic Trust guard trying to decide what type of radical he is. Their efforts are complicated by the glowing smile he displays when he sees them approaching. He wants to shake their hands and talk about how beautiful the Dome is in the afternoon light. He wants to find out what they think about the redemptive value of videogames and ask them about the sorts of symbols they would like to project over the Dome.

Before he has a chance to reach out and introduce himself, a group of 14 black-suited orthodox Jews enters the Mount through a nearby gate in the ancient wall. They shuffle in shoulder to shoulder like a chorus line, never allowing their backs to face the Dome, which marks for them the location of what was once the Holy of Holies - the temple's innermost sanctum.

It is a form of protest prayer that never fails to incite the Islamic Trust. The young protesters are essentially pretending that the Dome isn't there - they are imagining a future without this holy shrine. The Islamic Trust guards immediately forget about Hayutman and speed-walk toward the new visitors.

Hayutman and I quietly stroll off the Mount, and he hands me the floppy disk he has been carrying in his pocket. It contains a detailed description of the Jerusalem Games System - a kind of cheat sheet for what Hayutman thinks of as the most important videogame anyone will ever play. His eyes gleam in the half-light of the ancient, arched passageway leading out of the Mount. "The technology is ready," he says. "The time has come to take action."


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