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Fact Sheets: Jerusalem

(Updated May 2005)

In 1947, the Jewish Agency agreed to accept the UN plan to internationalize Jerusalem in the hope that in the short-run it would protect the city from bloodshed and the new state from conflict. Since the partition resolution called for a referendum on the city's status after 10 years, and Jews comprised a substantial majority, the expectation was that the city would later be incorporated into Israel. The Arab states were as bitterly opposed to the internationalization of Jerusalem as they were to the rest of the partition plan.

In May 1948, Jordan invaded and occupied East Jerusalem, dividing the city for the first time in its history, and driving thousands of Jews — whose families had lived in the city for centuries — into exile.

Jordan denied Israelis access to the Western Wall and to the cemetery on the Mount of Olives. The gravestones, honoring the memory of rabbis and sages, were used as pavement and latrines in army camps. The ancient Jewish Quarter of the Old City was ravaged, 58 Jerusalem synagogues — some centuries old — were destroyed or ruined.

Under Jordanian rule, only limited numbers of Israeli Christians were permitted to briefly visit the Old City and Bethlehem at Christmas and Easter. Jordan placed restrictions on Christian schools and required that the Koran be taught. Christians emigrated from Jerusalem in droves, their numbers declining from 25,000 in 1949 to less than 13,000 in June 1967.

In 1967, Jordan ignored Israeli pleas to stay out of the Six-Day War and attacked the western part of the city. The Jordanians were routed by Israeli forces and driven out of East Jerusalem, allowing the city's unity to be restored.

After the 1967 war, Israel abolished all the discriminatory laws promulgated by Jordan and guaranteed freedom of access to the holy places of all faiths. Israel also entrusted administration of the holy places to their respective religious authorities.

Muslim rights on the Temple Mount have not been infringed. Although it is the holiest site in Judaism, Israel has left the Temple Mount under the control of Muslim religious authorities (the Waqf). The Waqf has subsequently prevented Israeli inspectors from overseeing work done on the Mount that is believed to be causing irreparable damage to archaeological remains from the First and Second Temple periods.

Since 1967, hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Christians — many from Arab countries that remain in a state of war with Israel — have come to Jerusalem to see their holy places. Arab leaders are free to visit Jerusalem to pray if they wish to, just as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did at the al-Aqsa mosque.

The only times Israel has prevented any Muslims from going to the Temple Mount were during periods of high tension when the threat of violence necessitated restrictions on the entrance into the area. These measures were taken to protect worshipers of all faiths and the shrines in the Old City. They usually have lasted only for a day or two and other mosques remain accessible.

Along with religious freedom, Palestinian Arabs in Jerusalem have unprecedented political rights. Arab residents were given the choice of whether to become Israeli citizens. Most chose to retain their Jordanian citizenship. Moreover, regardless of whether they are citizens, Jerusalem Arabs are permitted to vote in municipal elections and play a role in the administration of the city.

The only time that the eastern part of Jerusalem was exclusively Arab was between 1949 and 1967, and that was because Jordan occupied the area and forcibly expelled all the Jews. This area of the city also contains many sites of importance to the Jewish religion, including the City of David, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. In addition, major institutions like Hebrew University and the original Hadassah hospital are on Mount Scopus — in eastern Jerusalem.

In its quest for peace, Israel has offered dramatic and risky compromises to satisfy Palestinian interests in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to withdraw from 95% of the West Bank and to create a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, but Yasser Arafat rejected the deal.

During the 2000 Camp David Summit, Arafat said that no Jewish Temple ever existed on the Temple Mount. The Jewish connection to the Temple Mount dates back more than 3,000 years and is rooted in tradition and history. When Abraham bound his son Isaac upon an altar as a sacrifice to God, he is believed to have done so atop Mount Moriah, today's Temple Mount. The First Temple's Holy of Holies contained the original Ark of the Covenant, and both the First and Second Temples were the centers of Jewish religious and social life until the Second Temple's destruction by the Romans.

The Oslo agreements leave open the status of Jerusalem. The agreement also says that the final status will be based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, neither of which mentions Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 declared that Jerusalem should be recognized as the undivided, eternal capital of Israel and required that the U.S. embassy in Israel be established in Jerusalem no later than May 1999. The law also included a waiver that allowed the President to essentially ignore the legislation if he deemed doing so to be in the best interest of the United States.

During the 2000 presidential campaign George W. Bush promised that as President he would immediately "begin the process of moving the United States ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital." In June 2001, however, Bush followed Clinton's precedent and used the presidential waiver to prevent the embassy from being moved.

While critics of Congressional efforts to force the administration to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital insist that such a move would harm the peace process, supporters of the legislation argue the opposite is true. By making clear the United States position that Jerusalem should remain unified under Israeli sovereignty, they say, unrealistic Palestinian expectations regarding the city can be moderated and thereby enhance the prospects for a final agreement.

Ever since King David made Jerusalem the capital of Israel more than 3,000 years ago, the city has played a central role in Jewish existence. The Western Wall in the Old City — the last remaining wall of the ancient Jewish Temple, the holiest site in Judaism — is the object of Jewish veneration and the focus of Jewish prayer. Three times a day, for thousands of years, Jews have prayed "To Jerusalem, thy city, shall we return with joy," and have repeated the Psalmist's oath: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning."

Jews have been living in Jerusalem continuously for nearly two millennia. They have constituted the largest single group of inhabitants there since the 1840's.

Jerusalem was never the capital of any Arab entity. Jerusalem never served as a provincial capital under Muslim rule nor was it ever a Muslim cultural center. For Jews, the entire city is sacred, but Muslims revere a site — the Dome of the Rock — not the city.