All Writings
May 11, 1989

Jerusalem in The Fabric of Jewish History

The historic act of unifying East and West Jerusalem and making the united city Israel's capital 22 years ago symbolized unambiguously and unequivocally the end of an era and the beginning of a new one in Jewish life. The homecoming settled once and for all the emotional wandering of Jews; it put an end to millennia of religious intolerance, deprivation, and disdain. The unification of Jerusalem gave substance and full meaning to the concept of redemption–redemption of the soul, body, and spirit. How, however, does this irreversible act affect the relationship with the Arab states and, especially, the Palestinian people? And how can we reconcile the unification of Jerusalem with peace?

If Jewish survival is viewed as a phenomenon which has defied time, place, and reason, Jerusalem was and still is the very essence of that defiance. In times of great Jewish achievements and crushing failures, in times of high hope and exhausting despair, and in times of great yearning and total fulfillment, Jerusalem remained at the emotional center of Jewish life.

It is only fitting, therefore, that Jerusalem resume its proper place in the heart and soul of every Jew. Whenever a Jew thinks of "defiance" in Jewish history, Jerusalem immediately comes to mind. Indeed, Jerusalem has defied time, man, and all natural and social forces. For Jews, Jerusalem is the beginning and the end, the means and the purpose, the foundation on which the Jewish faith and hopes have rested through ages. Currently, Jerusalem is still a key element in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Israel's position, however, has never been open to misinterpretation. Jerusalem will remain Israel's capital forever, indivisible, a city unified by its hopes and dreams and where Jews, Arabs, and Christians can live together in peace and enjoy absolute freedom of worship.

To better understand the Israeli position and why Israelis, regardless of their political affiliations, stand united on the question of Jerusalem, a brief historical survey is warranted.

Jewish presence in Jerusalem was first recorded during the Canaanite period (3000-1200 BCE). The king of Canaan complained in a letter to the Pharaoh about the Haibiru (Hebrew) invaders and noted that he and other kings who were loyal to the Pharaoh were attempting to resist them. In the book of Joshua (10: Iff), it is recorded that the Amorite king of Jerusalem led a coalition of Amorite leaders who fought against Joshua at Gibeon. When Canaan was separated into tribal divisions, Jerusalem was assigned to Benjamin (Josh. 15:8:18-16). It remained, however, a Jebusite city under David's rule. This early period of Jerusalem left its mark on the Jews. By the time of David's rule, the Jews could not conceive a statehood without Jerusalem.

Recent archeological excavations and passages from the Old Testament (II Samuel 5:6ff and I Chronicles 1 l:4ff) provide clear evidence that the Jews inhabited Jerusalem before and during the First Temple period (1200-586 BCE). David captured Jerusalem and transformed it into the national Jewish capital. By moving the ark of God from Kiriath Jearim to Jerusalem, David established Jerusalem as the City of God and the religious and political heart of Israel.

King Solomon built the First Temple and a royal palace, thereby transforming Jerusalem into both a holy city and a secular center. The kings of Judah ruled after Solomon's death, during which time Jerusalem served as the capital of the smaller kingdom of Judah. After the Babylonian army seized Jerusalem, the ruler Nebuzaradan expelled most of its citizens and set fire to the Temple and to their homes (587 BCE). The Jews, however, remained in Jerusalem, despite the royal edict. By now, Jerusalem had become indispensible to normative Jewish religion and psychology.

The Second Temple period (586 BCE-70 CE) began after the fall of Babylon. King Cyrus of Persia issued a decree permitting those who wished to return to Zion and rebuild their Temple to do so. Consequently, many Jews returned to build the Second Temple. Jerusalem was clearly recognized by King Cyrus as the religious center of the Jews.

During the Hasmonean era of the second Temple period, Judah Maccabee led the insurrection that resulted in the recapture of Jerusalem. The Jews regained the Temple Mount and eliminated pagan objects from the Temple. The successors to King Antiochus IV gave the Jews religious freedom. For many inhabitants of the land of Israel who were not previously exposed to Judaism, the Temple in Jerusalem became the new center of religious life. In 70 CE, Titus destroyed the Second Temple.

During much of the Roman period (70-324 CE), most of Jerusalem lay in ruins. However, the Jews had as many as seven synagogues in or within the periphery of Jerusalem. After the second Roman-Jewish war, the Jews recaptured Jerusalem and established a provisional Temple. The Jews temporarily ruled from 132 to 135 CE, when the Romans reoccupied the city. Although the Emperor Hadrian declared that any circumcised male found in Jerusalem would be killed, the Jews continued to inhabit the city in defiance of the Roman decree.

During the Byzantine period (324-637), Jews were still prohibited from entering Jerusalem. Only on the ninth of Av were they allowed to pray on the Temple Mount. Even though the Jews were prohibited from residing in Jerusalem, their religious rights were recognized. The Emperor Julian rebuilt the Temple, and the Empress Eudicua terminated the edict forbidding the Jews from residing in Jerusalem. Jewish inhabitants of the city assisted the Persians in defeating the Byzantines in the Byzantine-Persian War of 614. In return for their cooperation, the Persians allowed the Jews to rule the city. Nehemiah governed Jerusalem until the return of the city to the Byzantines (629), at which time most of the Jews were again exiled. Some, however, remained in Jerusalem.

The Byzantines ruled Jerusalem until 638, when they finally surrendered to the Caliph Omar. During the Arab period (638-1099) the Jews were still officially prohibited from living in Jerusalem. Yet many sources confirm that the Umayyad Caliph Omar had Jewish advisers, who were responsible for maintaining local order. However, he transformed the Temple into a place of Moslem worship. A document found in the Cairo Genizah leaves no doubt that Jews inhabited Jerusalem during the Persian conquest (614-628) and that they requested permission from Omar for 200 more families to immigrate to Jerusalem. Omar allowed 70 more Jewish settlers to enter the city.

A twelfth century source, Abraham ben Hiyya, reveals that at this time there were seven synagogues and a midrash (religious college) near the Temple. During the Umayyad period of Arab rule, Jews enjoyed religious freedom. Abd al-Malik even appointed some Jews as guardians of the harem and exempted them from the poll tax. Moreover, Jews were free to practice their religion during the reign of the Abbasid caliphs. Moslem fanaticism, however, increased during Fatimid rule (969-1071), and particularly under the Caliph al- Hakim. The Jews were persecuted and the conditions of relative religious freedom were terminated. Genizah sources record that the Jews had poor living conditions and were forced to pay high taxes and duties.

Yet despite these adversities, Jewish religious and cultural life remained rich. On holidays, Jewish pilgrims gathered on the Mount of Olives. The Karaites, who began to immigrate to Jerusalem during the 9th century, had many authors, scholars, and spiritual leaders among them, such as Salmon ben Jeroham and Sahl ben Mazliah, who did notable research in the Hebrew language and wrote commentaries on the Bible.

The Crusader period (1099-1260) commenced when the Crusaders attacked Jerusalem and massacred many Jews. Many of those killed were praying in synagogues set on fire by the Crusaders. Although the Jews were officially prohibited once again from dwelling in Jerusalem, some inhabited an area near the Citadel. Benjamin of Tudela wrote that he encountered Jewish dyers when visiting Jerusalem. After Saladin conquered Jerusalem in the Battle of Hattin in 1187, he invited more Jews to settle in the city. Jews from Maghreb, Yemen, and Europe soon immigrated to Jerusalem.

The Mameluke period (1260-1516) began with the capture of Jerusalem from the Ayyubids in 1250. Italian Jews, who immigrated to Jerusalem in the fifteenth century, complained bitterly in letters about the lack of security measures taken by the Mamelukes to protect them from attacks by Bedouin tribes. Moreover, they were frequently persecuted by the Mameluke rulers; for example, the desecration of a temple in 1474. In the fifteenth century, approximately 200 Jewish families inhabited Jerusalem. The attachment of the Jews to Jerusalem, thus, has transcended time and reason. Throughout this period, Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life, and as such, it was destined to play an even greater role after it fell into Ottoman hands.

The Ottomans governed Jerusalem from 1517 to 1917. In the early 16th century, many renowned Kab-balists such as Abraham ben Eliezer Yehuda ha-Levi settled in Jerusalem, which was clearly the spiritual center of Judaism. Jews from Turkey, North Africa, and Western Europe immigrated to Jerusalem during this period. In 1622, the distinguished author Isaiah Horowitz founded a Jewish community in Jerusalem which was composed of Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Italians, Maghrabis, and Karaites. In 1625, Governor Muhammad ibn Farrauck began to persecute the Jews, an account of which was later detailed in the pamphlet, Horvot Yerushalayim.

There is no doubt that the establishment of the Zionist movement in 1893 was an historic turning point in the life of the Jews. The name of the movement itself was coined by Nathan Birnbaum after the word "Zion," which was another biblical name for Jerusalem. The return to Zion became the cornerstone of the movement, which has experienced many trials and tribulations before it could materialize its dream.

Although some of the Zionist leaders, including Theodor Herzl, were not cognizant either of the name or its implication, they soon came to realize that no location other than the land of Israel, with Jerusalem at its center, could fulfill Jewish yearning, hopes, and dreams. Religious Zionism, thus, was incorporated into a political ideology of which Jerusalem was the core.

The British governed Jerusalem during the years 1917-1948. After the battle near Sheikh Jarrah, the Turks conceded defeat. Sir Herbert Samuel served as high commissioner of Jerusalem, whose population of 62,578 was over half Jewish. Jews served on Jerusalem's Municipal Council. Headquarters for the Zionist Executive, the Keren Hayesod, the Jewish National Fund, the National Council of the Yishuv, and the Chief Rabbinate were established in Jerusalem. The British rule of Jerusalem, however, was no more benevolent than that of its predecessors. During Yom Kippur Services at the Western Wall in 1928, the British police angered Jewish worshippers by removing a religious screen separating the men from the women. Shortly thereafter, the British began constructing buildings near the city wall, which the Jews considered an intentional intrusion on their prayer. After the British withdrew from Jerusalem in May 1948 following Israeli statehood, Jordanian and Palestinian Arabs attacked the Jewish quarters of the Old City. Fighting continued until the Jews surrendered. East Jerusalem and the West Bank were captured by the Jordanians, while the Jews held West Jerusalem. The remaining Jews in the Old City were expelled by the Jordanians.

The city remained divided from 1948 to 1967. The Arabs destroyed the ancient Jewish quarter of East Jerusalem, including 34 of the 35 synagogues (Hurvah, Nisan, Bak, etc.) and the Jewish schools. Moreover, they also desecrated the ancient and beloved Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. Hostile Arabs surrounded the Jewish sector of Jerusalem from the north, east, and south. Jordan formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1951–also in defiance of its international obligations, though only Pakistan and Britain recognized that claim.

For 19 years, Jews were forbidden to worship at the Western Wall, and indeed Moslems and Christians coming from Israeli Jerusalem were severely restricted in their access to holy places. During the Jordanian occupation of East Jerusalem, constant efforts were made by both Israel and such international organizations as the U.N. to find an amicable solution that would allow Jews freedom to worship at the Western Wall. However, the Jordanian officials, in defiance of the U.N. ceasefire agreement of 1948 and of international law which guarantees freedom of worship, consistently refused to allow any Jews access to any sector of East Jerusalem.

In the Six-Day War of June, 1967 when the war against Syria and Egypt was almost won, the late Prime Minister Levi Eshkol pleaded with King Hussein of Jordan to refrain from entering the conflict. At no time had Eshkol's government contemplated the recapture of East Jerusalem by force or any other means. Although a Jewish return to East Jerusalem was seen as a necessary, sacred act, the Israeli government hoped that Jewish rights would ultimately be restored through negotiation.

However, against the advice of his generals, King Hussein decided to enter the Six-Day War. Within three days of the outbreak of hostilities against West Jerusalem, East Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Israelis, who were determined to avoid any damage to any part of the city, even at the expense of increased Israeli casualties. No Arab holy shrines were touched by the advancing Israeli army. Now that East Jerusalem was finally under Jewish rule, the Israeli government and people were determined never again to allow the desecration of Jewish holy places and the division of East and West Jerusalem.

The decision to reunite Jerusalem was thus based not only on a psychological and emotional affinity, but also on hopes and perhaps most important–on religious and historical rights that were not subject to dispute. The recapture and the annexation of Jerusalem were based on conditions determined by the course of events.

The city that had been time and again usurped from the Jews was finally united. Since 1967, the reunification of Jerusalem has given tangible expression to all values which are cherished by man and were so befitting the uniqueness of the city. The Israeli authorities opened the city to freedom of worship, freedom of movement, and freedom of expression. For the first time in 19 years, the holy places were opened to visitors of all three faiths, and it has remained that way since 1967. In fact, no guardians of the holy places have ever before been so permissive in granting access to worshippers.

Immediately following the annexation of the Old City, all residents of Jerusalem became eligible for Israeli citizenship. Israel was particularly sensitive to avoiding any socio-economic and political measures that might adversely affect any segment of the population. The concept of human rights, equality, and mutual respect were the order of the day, and they have been translated in every action that the authorities have taken.

It is most unfortunate that because of political and economic expediency, the international community has not as yet demonstrated the ability to understand and accept the Israeli position. Those countries, especially the U.S., which enjoy considerable political leverage in the Middle East and are directly and indirectly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, could render a far greater service to the cause of peace by accepting the Israeli position on Jerusalem. In all likelihood, Israel would be more flexible on the Palestinian issue–including a dialogue with the PLO–if the U.S. were to recognize, in principle, the inviolability of a united Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

At a minimum, the U.S. could begin, through quiet diplomacy, to persuade the Arab mainstream, especially Saudi Arabia, that Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem is unequivocal and unshakable. Israel will not relinquish its control over East Jerusalem voluntarily or through negotiations. To be sure, if the British would consider negotiating the status of London, the French the status of Paris, and finally, if the U.S. will accept the internationalization of New York, Boston, or Los Angeles, then Israel might be willing to reconsider its position on Jerusalem.

In short, Jerusalem is an integral part not only of Israel as a nation, but of every Jewish soul. Jerusalem is the very essence of every Jew. It is his being, his present, his past, without which he has no future. Jerusalem is all that a Jew wants to feel, touch, dream of, pray for, reach out, reach in, live in, and die for. Jerusalem, the hope for return to Jerusalem, were the main sources of strength and force that have guided and guarded the Jews throughout their dispersion. In this sense, Jerusalem is unique; it is the rock upon which the world's oldest nationalism was built.

History, as we have seen, reveals no other people so completely and irrevocably fused to a single place, and no centuries of exile, persecution, or any ruler's edict has been able to sever that attachment. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,…," sang the Psalmist, and the Jews have never forgotten. Nor have they forgotten nor should anyone else forget that long before Jerusalem became sacred to Christianity, it was holy to the Jews; that before Jerusalem was identified as the mystical destination of Mohammed's Night Journey and his visit to God's Presence, it was consecrated by the People of Israel.

Indeed, had it not been so, Jerusalem could not have played such a key role in the histories of either Islam or Christianity. Without Jerusalem, there can be no state of Israel, and Israel's enemies know this only too well. To consign Jerusalem to Arab rule again, or to place it under some vague "international" regime, is to invite a replay of the malicious destruction and wholesale desecration of Jewish holy places that took place under the 19 years of Jordanian rule.

It is perhaps worth asking what the world would have said had Israel in 1948 captured East Jerusalem, destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the mosques of Omar and El Aksa, then denied Christians and Moslems access to their holy places. Yet for 19 years the world remained aloof and uninterested while the Arabs made East Jerusalem judenrein and destroyed, looted, and desecrated synagogues and cemeteries.

In the context of peace negotiations, the eventual status of Jerusalem may turn out to be much easier to deal with than many political observers of the Arab-Israeli scene have thought. Although from the Israeli viewpoint, the status of united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is not negotiable, the juridical status of non-Jews, particularly Palestinians residing in Jerusalem, is open to discussion, as is the institutional framework within which that status is exercised in united Jerusalem.

As stated by Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek (in Foreign Affairs, winter 1988-1989), "There is room for functional divisions of authority, for internal autonomy of each community and for functional sovereignty." The Israelis understand that the permanent unification of East and West Jerusalem must not jeopardize the Arabs' absolute right to direct their cultural and religious affairs without Israeli interference.

The issue of Jerusalem and its final status, thus, transcends both the Israelis' and the Palestinians' political positions. World Jewry, and most certainly the Arab-Moslem world, will not relinquish its right to worship freely and administer its own holy shrines. In this respect, Israel has made itself very clear both in words and in deeds. The right of free access to and worship at the holy places sacred to Jews, Moslems, Christians, and other religious communities is inviolable whether these places are located in Jerusalem and other Israeli locations, or in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. What has been the practice in Israel for the last 22 years will become a part of the peace agreement between the two sides.

Any present-day visitor to Jerusalem's holy places can attest to the fact that Moslems, as well as any other religious group, have total and completejurisdiction over their holy places. Of course, consistent with the requirement of public safety, Israel has taken every precaution to insure that no individual or group can ever interfere with worship at or in the administration of the holy shrines. The Israelis will go to any lengths to demonstrate that the status of united Jerusalem, as Israel's capital, will be consistent with the Arab right to administer Moslem shrines.

Thus, the Palestinians living in Jerusalem might opt for any political status consistent with these aims: for example, some might choose: a) Israeli citizenship, as many have done already; b) citizenship in the Palestinian entity when one is established, or c) some other status provided under the terms of the settlement, including Jordanian citizenship or even some kind of dual citizenship (e.g. Palestinian-Israeli, Palestinian-Jordanian, etc.).

The pages of history are filled with pain, misery, and the hardship of the Jewish people who perished defending Jerusalem. The years of suffering, despair, persecution, and death, however, have not broken Jewish resistence, weakened their will, or compromised their resolve to rebuild Jerusalem and make it both the symbol and real tenet of Jewish redemption. Perhaps for these reasons, no ruler of Jerusalem throughout its long and sometimes gloomy or glorious history has ever treated Jerusalem and its residents with such benevolence as the Israelis currently treat the denizens of the city, be they Arab, Jew, or Christian.

Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem is not negotiable. While Israelis may differ politically on every other issue, regarding concessions for peace they are firmly and unequivocally united in their stand on Jerusalem. To be sure, Israelis would rather perish than be denied Jerusalem again. Whether Jerusalem was saved by the Jews or the Jews were saved by Jerusalem is hardly relevant. The fact remains that both have withstood the test of time and have defied all adversities to reunite again.

These sentiments have been expressed in countless ways throughout the centuries. To those unimpeachable voices I would like to add my own:


Was I meant to be
or the one who was supposed to be
and yet never was?
If I am who I am
and not who I could be –
then where am I? and
where should I be?
With you, Jerusalem, I am
who I was meant to be.
Without you, I am

When I hear the music of peace
I hear the melodies of Jerusalem.
When I search for a place of comfort,
all roads take me to Jerusalem.
And when beauty saturates my soul
I know it is the unique beauty of Jerusalem.
When grief and desolation engulf me,
Jerusalem is there to console me.
When I teach or preach,
I pursue the knowledge of Jerusalem.
And when I reach for God
I reach for the God of Jerusalem.

Usurp or divide Jerusalem again,
and you might as well
kill my soul,
dismember my body,
cut off my arms,
behead me;
for I will be nothing,
I will sense nothing,
I will decay and die,
For Jerusalem is I.

I have seen
my brothers and sisters
dying, despairing, asking
Children cowering in fear and terror
not knowing what struck them
and why?
Yes, fathers and mothers
died in vain and hopelessness,
wondering, Why?
Why, in the name of God
they ever lived!

Remove your bloody masks,
you hypocritical creatures.
What do you know
about Jerusalem and me?
I lived there a millennia
before you arose
and I will survive millennia
after you fall.
I am the victim.
Suffering pain and agony,
misery, fear and tyranny,
torture, persecution and death.
But Jerusalem lives,
has lived through the ugly pages
and infamous chapters of history
that you have written and played.

Remove your dirty disguise,
for Jerusalem and I
have a bond,
unshakable, unstained,
never to be broken;
a bond
stronger than your most ominous arsenals,
mightier than your deadliest weapons;
a bond
profound, pervading and pure.
And thus
never again
would I capitulate or desert,
never again would I abandon or surrender.
For I am Jerusalem
and Jerusalem is I.