Whose Jerusalem ?

Whose Jerusalem ?

Whose Land ?


by Gerald M. Steinberg

The Canadian Jewish News, Thursday, May 1, 1997, Nisan 24, 5757

To understand the events taking place in the Middle East today, one must understand the history and symbolic importance of Jerusalem to both Jews and Arabs. However, while the Arab perspective is presented in the media repeatedly and in detail, remarkably few people learn about the intense Jewish attachment to this ancient city. The result is a one-sided view, which cannot account for the Israeli insistence on maintaining sovereign control of an undivided city.

The Jewish involvement began 3,000 years ago when King David founded Jerusalem as his capital. For most of the first thousand years, the Holy City was the centre of Jewish life and culture. The First and Second Temples were the focus of religious and political activity for generations, and prophets and other leaders, including Jesus, came to Jerusalem to preach.

The destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE marked the end of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem, but for the next 2,000 years, Jews prayed for the restoration of Jerusalem three times daily. On Passover, Jews around the world ended their seders with the hope for "next year in Jerusalem."

Throughout the centuries of exile and persecution, Jews trickled steadily back to Jerusalem, always maintaining a presence and often constituting the majority of the city's population.

With the end of Ottoman rule and the establishment of the League of nations' mandate over Palestine, the ancient Jewish dream of a return to the "city of peace" seemed to have been answered, but this proved short lived. The Jews accepted the November 1947 UN plan to treat Jerusalem as a corpus seperatum (essentially an international city), but the Arab rejection of partition and the invasion of Israel made this irrelevant. Shortly after Israel became independent in 1948, the Jordan Legion conquered all of the Old City of Jerusalem. The city was divided and survivors in the Jewish Quarter were forced into exile again.

Although the ceasefire agreement with Jordan provided for free access to Jerusalem's holy places, this was never honored. Jews were blocked from crossing the armistice line and going to the Western Wall, the 2,000 year-old remnant of the Second Temple and the holiest site in Judaism. Israelis could only get as far as Mt. Zion beyond the city walls and climb the tower to glimpse past the barbed wire and gun emplacements and into the Old City and the Jewish Quarter.

What they witnessed from this vantage point caused them tremendous anguish. The Arab occupiers permitted the systematic destruction of the Jewish Quarter. Every house, synagogue and Jewish institution was ruined. A road was plowed through the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. Some 38,000 graves were defiled and the tombstones used to line a road to the new Intercontinental Hotel nearby. The area near the Western Wall was desecrated. All of this was documented, but the silence of the international community was deafening.

As a result, after the war, some Israelis urged military action to liberate the Jewish Quarter, but prime minister David Ben-Gurion rejected this option to avoid a wider conflict. However, in June 1967, after the war had started and the Jordanian army began firing on Israeli positions, Israel captured the Old City and reunited Jerusalem. The Arab residents expected the Israelis to exact revenge by destroying their homes and religious sites. However, defence minister Moshe Dayan sought to put an end to the conflict and even refrained from placing the Israeli flag over the Dome of the Rock (built on the site of the Temples) and Al Aksa Mosque.

Dayan allowed the Islamic religious authorities to control the area, and to avoid friction, Jews are still prevented from praying on the Temple Mount. Churches and related holy sites are under full control of Christian authorities, and for the first time in 2,000 years, the followers of all three monotheistic religions are allowed free access to their holy places in an around Jerusalem.

Now, 30 years after its reunification, the political battle for Jerusalem has resumed. Yasser Arafat has called Israel's efforts to repair some of the damage and rebuild the synagogues and houses in the Jewish Quarter " the Judaization of Jerusalem" and "an affront to Islam."

Arafat's vision of Jerusalem's future is at complete variance with the national consensus among Jewish Israelis, which favours continued Israeli sovereignty over the unified city. Since 1967, the objective of Israeli policy has been first and foremost the prevention of the redivision of Jerusalem and another assault on the holiest sites of Judaism.

Prof. Steinberg is a senior research associate at the BESA Centre for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University.

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