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Jerusalem: An Introduction

by Mitchell Bard

Ever 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. In fact, 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.”

Population History
A City Divided
Jerusalem is Unified
Freedom of Religion

Jewish East Jerusalem?
Final Status of Jerusalem
U.S. Position on Jerusalem

Population History

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 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).

% Jewish
3,390 5,000 7,120 15,510
5,470 7,560 12,000 25,030
8,748 8,560 28,112 45,420
4,699 13,411 33,971 52,081
19,335 19,894 51,222 90,451
25,000 40,000 100,000 165,000
12,646 54,963 195,700 263,309
14,000 121,000 340,000 475,000
14,400 125,200 353,800 493,500
14,400 131,800 378,200 524,500
13,500 165,800 420,900 602,700
14,200 196,900 439,600 657,500
14,400 209,900 447,900 680,400
14,500 216,700 453,700 693,200
14,700 224,800 458,400 706,400
14,900 232,300 464,300 719,900
15,000 239,800 469,900 733,300
15,200 247,800 476,100 747,600
15,400 256,700 484,000 763,600
14,500 264,300 484,700 773,000
14,600 272,200 491,800 788,100
14,700 281,100 499,400 804,400
14,800 288,200 502,800 815,300
15,000 295,500 509,600 829,900
15,600 303,400 520,700 849,800
15,600 311,100 528,700 865,700
15,700 319,800 536,600 882,700
13,984 335,616 555,800 919,400
2019 12,900 346,000 559,500 951,974* 59%*

*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 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. 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 David 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 it was caputred by Israel in the 1967 War.

On Decenber 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 actually 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. Hundreds of Jewish graves were destroyed by a highway that could have easily been built elsewhere. 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 the opening of new schools; state controls over school finances and 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, leading their numbers to dwindle 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 reunification of the city “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 are Muslim, 18% Christian and 8% are 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 and 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 unification of the city, 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 has responsibility for the mosques on the Temple Mount.

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, both built in the seventh century, made definitive the identification of Jerusalem as the “Remote Place” that is 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 the place where Jesus lived, preached, died, and was resurrected. While it is the heavenly rather than the earthly Jerusalem that is emphasized by the Church, 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 is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Garden of Gethsemane, the site of the Last Supper, and the Via Dolorosa with the fourteen stations of the Cross.

The rights of the various Christian churches to custody of the Christian holy places in Jerusalem were defined in the course of 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 period of the British Mandate and are still upheld today in Israel.

Along with religious freedom, Palestinian Arabs in Jerusalem have unprecedented political rights. They were given permanent residency status with the option to become full Israeli citizens. Most chose to retain their Jordanian citizenship. 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.


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. Approximately 93,000 Arab students were in public education and about 17,400 students in 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 both 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, an area that included the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. 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.

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 area of the city has declined from 46 percent in 1996 stood at 46 percent and today, decreased to 39 percent.

The Final Status of Jerusalem

The Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed September 13, 1993, leaves open the status of Jerusalem. Article V says only 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 will “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. In fact, 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.”

Other than this agreement to discuss Jerusalem during the final negotiating period, Israel conceded nothing else regarding the status of the city during the interim period. Israel retains the right to build anywhere it chooses in Jerusalem and continues to exercise sovereignty over the undivided city. Nothing in the agreements that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have made so far changes those conditions.

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 specifically 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 authority, to the exclusion of 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 apparently 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 and 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 division of the city.

The U.S. Position on Jerusalem

For many years only two countries kept embassies in JerusalemCosta 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 is the only one where the United States does not recognize the capital or have its embassy located in that city. The U.S. embassy, like most others, is in Tel Aviv, 40 miles from Jerusalem. The United States maintains a consulate in east Jerusalem that deals with Palestinians in the territories and works independently of the embassy, reporting directly to Washington. Today, then, we have the anomaly that American diplomats refuse to meet with Israelis in their capital because Jerusalem’s status is negotiable, but make their contacts 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.

In an effort 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 legislations 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 all exercised that option, but during the 2016 election then-candidate 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 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.

On December 6, 2017, President Donald Trump announced the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move it’s 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 can 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.

Sources: John Oesterreicher and Anne Sinai, eds., Jerusalem, (NY: John Day, 1974), p. 1.
Israel Central Bureau of Statistics - Table III/9 - Population in Israel and in Jerusalem, by Religion, 1988 - 2016.
JTA, (May 20, 2009).
Tovah Lazaroff and Alon Einhorn, “Nauru, Honduras recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” Jerusalem Post, (August 29, 2019).
Marcy Oster, “Faroe Islands will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” JTA, (November 17, 2019).
“Israel Annexes East Jerusalem After June 1967 War,” CIE.
Nadav Shragai, “Jerusalem’s Changing Demographics: An Overview from the Jerusalem Statistical Yearbook,” JCPA, (June 7, 2020).
Lazar Berman, “Czech prime minister opens embassy office in Jerusalem,” Times of Israel, (March 11, 2021).
Daniel Uria, “Kosovo announces opening of embassy in Jerusalem,” AP, (March 14, 2021).
Lahav Harkov, “Honduran president dedicates embassy in Jerusalem with Bennett,” Jerusalem Post, (June 24, 2021).