Jerusalem: An Introduction
by Mitchell Bard
Since King David made Jerusalem the capital of Israel some 3,000 years ago, the city has played a central role in Jewish existence. The Western (Wailing) Wall - the last remaining vestige of Judaism’s holiest site, the ancient Temple – is the object of Jewish veneration and the focus of Jewish prayer. For thousands of years, Jews have prayed, “To Jerusalem, thy city, shall we return with joy,” and have repeated the oath: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.”
By contrast, Jerusalem was never the central city of any Arab entity. It was considered a backwater for most of Arab history and never served as a provincial capital under Muslim rule, nor was it ever a Muslim cultural center. While the entirety of Jerusalem is holy to Jews, Muslims only revere one site – the al-Aqsa Mosque. “To a Muslim,” observed British writer Christopher Sykes, “there is a profound difference between Jerusalem and Mecca or Medina. The latter are holy places containing holy sites.”
A City Divided
Jerusalem is Unified
Freedom of Religion
Jewish East Jerusalem?
Arabs in Jerusalem
Final Status of Jerusalem
U.S. Position on Jerusalem
Jews have been living in Jerusalem continuously for nearly two millennia. They have constituted the largest single group of inhabitants there since the 1840s. Jerusalem has the largest Jewish population in Israel, the largest ultra-Orthodox population (approximately 224,000 in 2018, almost one-quarter of all ultra-Orthodox in Israel), and the largest Arab population (approximately 350,000 in 2018, 20 percent of all Arabs in Israel, 96 percent of whom were Muslims, and 4 percent Christians).
*Total as of January 2021 and percentage based on 2019 Jewish population and 2021 total.
A City Divided
When the United Nations took up the Palestine question in 1947, it recommended that all of Jerusalem be internationalized. The Vatican and many predominantly Catholic delegations pushed for this status, but a key reason for the UN decision was the Soviet Bloc’s desire to embarrass Transjordan’s King Abdullah and his British patrons.
The Jewish Agency, after much soul-searching, agreed to accept internationalization 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 ten years, and Jews comprised a substantial majority, the expectation was that the city would be incorporated into Israel later. The Arab states were as bitterly opposed to the internationalization of Jerusalem as they were to the rest of the partition plan. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion subsequently declared that Israel would no longer accept the internationalization of Jerusalem.
In May 1948, Jordan invaded and captured the Old City on May 28. For the next 19 years, Jordan 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. Israel subsequently established its capital in western Jerusalem. Because Jordan — like all the Arab states at the time — maintained a state of war with Israel, the city became, in essence, two armed camps, replete with concrete walls and bunkers, barbed-wire fences, minefields, and other military fortifications.
The Arab refusal to accept partition “played a role in the juridical definition of Jerusalem’s status,” according to former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. After the Arab states’ rejection of UN Resolution 181 and, on December 11, 1948, UN Resolution 194, establishing the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion declared that Israel would no longer accept the internationalization of Jerusalem. The UN passed one more resolution on the subject in 1949 and tried but failed to adopt resolutions in 1950 and 1952, and then did not address Jerusalem again until Israel captured it in the 1967 War.
On December 27, 1949, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, convened for the first time in Jerusalem. The current building was completed in 1966, with new wings added in 1992 and 2007. Most other government offices moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the 1950s.
In 1950, Jordan annexed all the territory it occupied west of the Jordan River, including east Jerusalem. The other Arab countries denied formal recognition of the Jordanian move, and the Arab League considered expelling Jordan from membership. Eventually, a compromise was worked out by which the other Arab governments agreed to view all the West Bank and East Jerusalem as held “in trust” by Jordan for the Palestinians.
In violation of the 1949 Armistice Agreement, Jordan denied Israelis access to the Temple Wall and to the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, where Jews have been burying their dead for 2,500 years. Jordan went further and desecrated Jewish holy places. King Hussein permitted the construction of a road to the Intercontinental Hotel across the Mount of Olives cemetery. A highway that could have easily been built elsewhere destroyed hundreds of Jewish graves. The gravestones, honoring the memory of rabbis and sages, were used by the engineer corps of the Jordanian Arab Legion as pavement and latrines in army camps (inscriptions on the stones were still visible when Israel liberated the city). The ancient Jewish Quarter of the Old City was ravaged, 58 Jerusalem synagogues — some centuries old-were destroyed or ruined, others were turned into stables and chicken coops. Slum dwellings were built abutting the Western Wall.
Jews were not the only ones who found their freedom impeded. Under Jordanian rule, Israeli Christians were subjected to various restrictions, with only limited numbers allowed to visit the Old City and Bethlehem at Christmas and Easter. Jordan also passed laws imposing strict government control on Christian schools, including restrictions on opening new schools, state controls over school finances, the appointment of teachers, and requirements that the Koran be taught. Christian religious and charitable institutions were also barred from purchasing real estate in Jerusalem. Because of these repressive policies, many Christians emigrated from Jerusalem, dwindling their numbers from 25,000 in 1949 to less than 13,000 in June 1967.
Jerusalem is Unified
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. Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s mayor for 28 years, called the city's reunification “the practical realization of the Zionist movement’s goals.”
Before 1967, Israeli Jerusalem was 9,500 acres. Israel captured and annexed 1,500 acres held by Jordan and another 16,000 acres from 28 villages surrounding the city. In the 1990s, additional territory in the western part of the city was also annexed. Today Jerusalem is Israel’s largest city. It is approximately 49 square miles (31,500 acres) compared to Tel Aviv, which is 20 square miles.
The Old City population numbered 23,700 in 1967. In 2006, the total had grown to 36,000 — 73% of the inhabitants were Muslim, 18% Christian, and 8% Jewish.
A committee headed by Israeli General Rehavam Ze’evi defined the new borders of “unified Jerusalem.” Approved by the Knesset, they included the Old City, its surrounding residential neighborhoods, and parts of Bethlehem and Beit Jala.
As had been the case under previous Islamic rulers, King Hussein had neglected Jerusalem. The scope of his disregard became clear when Israel discovered that much of the city lacked even the most basic municipal services-a steady water supply, plumbing, and electricity. As a result of reunification, these and other badly needed municipal services were extended to Arab homes and businesses in east Jerusalem.
Listen to Naomi Shemer play her composition – Yerushalaim Shel Zahav (“Jerusalem of Gold”) – which she wrote in 1967 for the Israeli Music Festival. Following the city's unification, she added an additional verse celebrating the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem and the road to Jericho.
Freedom of Religion
After the war, Israel abolished all the discriminatory laws promulgated by Jordan and adopted its own tough standard for safeguarding access to religious shrines. “Whoever does anything that is likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the various religions to the places sacred to them,” Israeli law stipulates, is “liable to imprisonment for a term of five years.” Israel also entrusted administration of the holy places to their respective religious authorities. Thus, for example, the Muslim Waqf is responsible for the Temple Mount mosques.
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-Aksa mosque.
According to Islam, the prophet Muhammad was miraculously transported from Mecca to Jerusalem, and it was from there that he made his ascent to heaven. The Dome of the Rock and the al-Aksa Mosque, built in the seventh century, identified Jerusalem as the “Remote Place” mentioned in the Koran and thus a holy place after Mecca and Medina. Muslim rights on the Temple Mount, the site of the two mosques, 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.
For Christians, Jerusalem is where Jesus lived, preached, died, and was resurrected. While it is the heavenly rather than the earthly Jerusalem that the Church emphasizes, places mentioned in the New Testament as the sites of his ministry and passion have drawn pilgrims and devoted worshipers for centuries. Among these sites are the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Garden of Gethsemane, the location of the Last Supper, and the Via Dolorosa with the fourteen stations of the Cross.
The rights of the various Christian churches to the custody of the Christian holy places in Jerusalem were defined in the nineteenth century when Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire. Known as the “status quo arrangement for the Christian holy places in Jerusalem,” these rights remained in force during the British Mandate period and are still upheld today in Israel.
Ironically, Jews have greater restrictions on their freedom to worship. While most people believe the Western Wall is the holiest place in Judaism, the Temple Mount where the Temple stood is considered most sacred to Jews.
Over the centuries, Jews have prayed on the Temple Mount. Some rabbinical authorities, including Maimonides, decreed that Jews should not go there because it had been the site of the Holy of Holies of the Temple (though no one knew exactly where that part of the Temple had been), and Jews could no longer achieve the level of ritual purity required to step on this holy ground. Other Jewish scholars disputed this position. Consequently, some Jews ignored the prohibition while most Orthodox Jews complied.
After Israel unified the city, it was especially conscious of Muslim sensibilities. Israeli law does not preclude Jews from praying on the site, but for decades the government prohibited Jews from doing so out of fear that it would provoke violence by Muslims who deny the holiness of the area to Jews, rewrite history to erase the existence of the first and second temples that stood on the Temple Mount, insist that Jews have no right to pray at an Islamic holy place, and refuse to accept Israeli or Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem or any other part of “Palestine.”
As the Times of Israel noted, “Palestinian media outlets, including those of Hamas, publish almost daily videos of ‘Jewish settlers storming the al-Aqsa Mosque.’ Many Arab and Muslim leaders don’t acknowledge that the site is holy to Jews and refer to any Jew who enters it as an ‘extremist.’”
The Temple Mount is more than 30 acres, and the only area of significance to Islam besides the mosque is the Dome of the Rock. The Palestinians want to redefine the entire Temple Mount as holy and associate it with their identity. “Many Palestinians consider the Aqsa compound the embodiment of Palestinian identity, the animating force behind the aspiration for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem,” according to the Times. The Temple Mount has an association with Islam but has nothing to do with Palestinian identity, which is one reason why the Palestinians raised no objections to the Jordanian occupation of the area or its continuing administrative oversight.
As early as 2012, the government began to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount openly. Typically, only a small number do so in a secluded area away from the mosque at specified times when non-Jews are allowed to enter. In October 2021, a Jerusalem judge said Jews had the right to say silent prayers on the Temple Mount, the first time a court has endorsed Jewish prayer on the holy site since authorities quietly began rescinding their de facto ban on all non-Muslim prayers. That decision was reversed, however, by a higher court and supported by the Public Security Minister, who said: “a change in the status quo will endanger public security and could cause a flare-up.”
Contrary to fears of upheaval, giving Jews freedom to worship at their holiest place has not caused a Muslim revolt.
In the academic year (2018/2019), approximately 175,500 students were enrolled in the Hebrew education system, 66,500 in secular and religious public education, and 110,000 in ultra-Orthodox education. About 93,000 Arab students were in public education and nearly 17,400 private schools.
That year, 37,000 students studied in higher education institutions (16 percent of all students in Israel). Most (53 percent) studied at the Hebrew University, 32 percent at seven academic colleges, and 15 percent at four colleges for education.
Jewish East Jerusalem?
Before 1865, the entire population of Jerusalem lived behind the Old City walls (what today would be considered part of the eastern part of the city). Later, the city began to expand beyond the walls because of population growth, and Jews and Arabs began to build in new areas of the city.
By the time of partition, a thriving Jewish community was living in the eastern part of Jerusalem, including the Old City's Jewish Quarter. This city area 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.
The only time that the eastern part of Jerusalem was exclusively Arab was between 1949-1967, and that was because Jordan occupied the area and forcibly expelled all the Jews.
About 220,000 Jews currently live in “East Jerusalem.” The percentage of Jews in this city area has declined from 46% in 1996 to 39%.
Arabs in Jerusalem
Roughly 360,000 Arabs live in Jerusalem, mainly in the city's eastern part. More than 90 percent have chosen not to become Israeli citizens. Instead, they are considered
permanent residents who can vote in local elections and receive national insurance and health coverage but cannot vote in national or parliamentary elections or be issued an Israeli passport.
In 2014, the government adopted a plan to address problems in the predominantly Arab parts of Jerusalem with a budget of more than $80 million. The goal was “to bring about a significant decline in violence by means of integrated activity to reduce gaps in infrastructure, employment, education, and social welfare and by boosting enforcement and personal security.”
In 2018, a new five-year plan was adopted to reduce socioeconomic gaps in East Jerusalem. Nir Hasson says this was a “watershed.” The program funds education, employment, transportation, planning and land registration, various services, and “improvement of the quality of life in general.” He noted some of the improvements included the construction of new schools, a public park, a highway for the use of the Arab communities in the southern part of the city, and a master plan for the village of Isawiyah.
Hasson quotes Amnon Ramon, who said decisions to improve the situation were made for political and economic reasons. “From the point of view of right-wing decision makers, the emphasis has been on the issue of applying sovereignty, governance, and supervision,” Ramon said. “In their view, the State of Israel must be present on the ground in the realms of policing and Jewish settlement, but also in improving the quality of life of the residents of East Jerusalem in areas like transportation and the health maintenance organizations – they don’t see this as a contradiction.” Meanwhile, he added, “The treasury people emphasized the economic dimension: the need to integrate East Jerusalem into the economy of the city and the state, as it tries to do with Israel’s Arab citizens.”
Many problems remain, such as issues of citizenship, housing availability, and the final status of the area in peace talks, but Ramon said, “We don’t know where it will lead, but still, a change is taking place before our eyes. Today, dozens of people involved in the Israeli establishment are dealing with ways to improve life in East Jerusalem.”
According to a 1968 amendment to the Citizenship Law, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem aged 18 to 21 who are not citizens of any other country and have not committed any serious offense are eligible to have expedited applications for Israeli citizenship. The Interior Ministry blocked the implementation of the law until 2020, when it was ordered by an Israeli court to issue guidelines for these residents to become citizens. The decision was expected to clear the path for 20,000 Palestinians to become citizens and some 7,000 to apply annually. Other Palestinians must go through a much longer process, including proving they live in Jerusalem, own no property in the Palestinian territories, pass a Hebrew test, and take a loyalty oath to Israel. Though the numbers have grown, relatively few apply.
The Final Status of Jerusalem
The Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles (DoP), signed on September 13, 1993, leaves the status of Jerusalem open. Article V says that Jerusalem is one of the issues to be discussed in the permanent status negotiations. The agreed minutes also mention Jerusalem, stipulating that the Palestinian Council’s jurisdiction does not extend to the city. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said that Jerusalem would “not be included in any sphere of the prerogatives of whatever body will conduct Palestinian affairs in the territories. Jerusalem will remain under Israeli sovereignty.”
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 U.S. Ambassador who helped draft Resolution 242, Arthur Goldberg, said it “in no way refers to Jerusalem, and this omission was deliberate...Jerusalem was a discrete matter, not linked to the West Bank.”
Besides this agreement to discuss Jerusalem during the final negotiating period, Israel conceded nothing else regarding the city’s status during the interim period. Israel retains the right to build anywhere it chooses in Jerusalem and continues to exercise sovereignty over the undivided city.
The two sides agreed on interim autonomy for the Palestinians, the creation of a Palestinian Authority, the election of a Palestinian Council, and the redeployment of Israeli military forces in the West Bank and Gaza. Jerusalem, however, was explicitly excluded from all these arrangements. It was also decided that during the interim period, the Palestinian Council would have no jurisdiction over issues to be determined in the final status negotiations, including Jerusalem. It was explicitly agreed that the authority of the Palestinian Authority would extend only over those parts of the West Bank and Gaza that were transferred to its jurisdiction, excluding those areas to be discussed in the permanent status negotiations, including Jerusalem and Israeli settlements.
The Palestinians maintain that Jerusalem should be the capital of an independent Palestinian state. “Anyone who relinquishes a single inch of Jerusalem is neither an Arab nor a Muslim,” Yasser Arafat said just before the agreement with Israel was signed (Voice of Palestine, Algiers, September 2, 1993). And the day of the signing, Arafat declared that the Palestinian flag “will fly over the walls of Jerusalem, the churches of Jerusalem and the mosques of Jerusalem” (Jordanian television, September 13, 1993).
In response to talk of altering Jerusalem’s status, former Mayor Teddy Kollek, whose reputation for tolerance and efforts to promote coexistence in the city was respected by all sides, wrote: “The Palestinians’ demand for the establishment of two capitals or two municipalities cannot be accepted within the framework of united Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem is one issue on which the views of Israelis are unanimous: The city must remain the undivided capital of Israel. Still, efforts have been made to find some compromise that could satisfy Palestinian interests. For example, during the tenure of Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Yossi Beilin reached a tentative agreement that would allow the Palestinians to claim the city as their capital without Israel sacrificing sovereignty over its capital. Beilin’s idea was to allow the Palestinians to set up their capital in a West Bank suburb of Jerusalem — Abu Dis. The idea was considered but never formally adopted by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
During negotiations between Prime Minister Ehud Barak, President Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat in 2000, Barak proposed dividing the city, allowing some neighborhoods to become part of a Palestinian state, and granting the Palestinians over the Temple Mount. Arafat rejected the offer. Similarly, when he was minister of Industry, Trade, and Labor in 2004, Ehud Olmert said he envisioned ceding control over six East Jerusalem villages (Isawiya, Shuafat, Anata, Kfar Akab, Sur Bahir, and Umm Tuba) to a Palestinian state. Later, as prime minister in 2008, Olmert reportedly proposed a form of international (Arab states plus Israel and Palestine) control of the Holy Basin (the Old City) and a joint committee to administer East Jerusalem until permanent arrangements were settled. PA President Mahmoud Abbas would not or could not consummate the deal, which would have created a Palestinian state in 94 percent of the West Bank (and included other land swaps). Olmert’s successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, has publicly opposed any city division.
The U.S. Position on Jerusalem
For many years only two countries kept embassies in Jerusalem — Costa Rica and El Salvador. In 2006, both announced plans to move their missions to Tel Aviv.
Of the 184 nations with which America has diplomatic relations, Israel was, until 2018, the only one where the United States did not recognize the capital or have its embassy in that city. The U.S. embassy, like all others, was in Tel Aviv, 40 miles from Jerusalem. The United States maintained a consulate in East Jerusalem to deal with Palestinians in the territories and worked independently of the embassy, reporting directly to Washington. Paradoxically, American diplomats refused to meet Israeli officials in their capital because Jerusalem’s status is negotiable, but interacted with Palestinians in the city.
In 1990, Congress passed a resolution declaring that “Jerusalem is and should remain the capital of the State of Israel” and “must remain an undivided city in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected.” During the 1992 Presidential campaign, Bill Clinton said: “I recognize Jerusalem as an undivided city, the eternal capital of Israel, and I believe in the principle of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.” He has not reiterated this view as President; consequently, official U.S. policy remains that the status of Jerusalem is a matter for negotiations.
To change this policy, Congress overwhelmingly passed The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. This landmark bill declared that, as a statement of official U.S. policy, 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 legislation also included a waiver that allowed the President to essentially ignore the legislation every six months if he deemed doing so to be in the best interest of the United States. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama exercised that option. During the 2016 election campaign, however, Donald Trump placed moving the embassy at the forefront of his foreign policy platform.
While critics of Congressional efforts to force the administration to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital argued such a move would harm the peace process, supporters of the legislation insisted the opposite is true. By making explicit the United States’ position that Jerusalem should remain unified under Israeli sovereignty, they say, unrealistic Palestinian expectations regarding the city can be moderated, thereby enhancing the prospects for a final agreement.
On December 6, 2017, President Donald Trump announced the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there from Tel Aviv. The decision sparked protests from the Palestinians and condemnation from many world leaders and commentators, but apocalyptic predictions of violence breaking out throughout the region in protest did not occur. The administration subsequently said it would move the embassy on May 14, 2018, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence. On that date, the consular building in the Amona neighborhood of Jerusalem was designated as the temporary embassy until a new building could be constructed. Most embassy staff will continue to work out of the Tel Aviv office.
In August 2019, Honduras and the island nation of Nauru in Micronesia joined the United States, Guatemala, and the Republic of Vanuatu in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Faroe Islands recognized Jerusalem in November 2019.
In May 2018, Guatemala became the second country to open an embassy in Jerusalem. It was followed by Kosovo (March 2021) and Honduras (June 2021). The Czech Republic and Hungary opened diplomatic offices in Jerusalem.
In 2018, the Australian government under conservative Scott Morrison recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In 2022, however, the Labor government of Anthony Albanese reversed the policy.
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