A core of Jewish tradition is the hope of Jerusalem: that Jews scattered throughout the world should gather there. Jerusalem is now under Jewish control, but even Muslims and Christians reverence the city and want to be there. Those who are Palestinians also hope, just like Israelis, to have Jerusalem as their capital.
For two thousand years, notions of Jerusalem were a kit that kept Jews scattered throughout the world. The children, regardless of their place of residence, have learned about Jewish temples found in Jerusalem: the first, built by King Solomon three thousand years ago and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The second, ravaged by the Romans in 70 AD. The first temple is found in the Psalter, one of the books of the Bible. The destruction of the temples is dedicated to an annual memorial day. Verses about them are reproduced at everyday events such as meals and special events such as weddings. The phrase “Next year in Jerusalem” has a special place in celebrating certain weekends and is used as a greeting among Jews.
Christianity emerged as a Jewish sect. Most of the gospel stories about Jesus – perceived as the Messiah, a God-promised savior – take place in the Galilee or other areas north of Jerusalem where he is believed to have performed miracles. But it was in Jerusalem that he was crucified and resurrected. Resurrection, the belief in life after death, is a central part of the Christian faith. Christianity gained momentum in Jerusalem, including the construction of churches, when the Roman Empire had a Christian emperor around 300 AD.
In Jerusalem, too, Islam has perceived a transition between the earthly and the heavenly. Religious founder Muhammad regarded himself as one in the line of prophets and Jerusalem as the city of prophets. The first place Muslims turned to in prayer was Jerusalem. As early as 638, a few years after the death of the Prophet, the city was conquered by Muslims and the construction of mosques began. According to tradition, Muhammad made an ascension from Jerusalem.
It is the origin of today’s situation, where places sacred to three religions are in the same place or immediately next to each other. Jews search for the Temple Mount, where the ancient temples rose. Muslims visit mosques built on top of the mountain and Christians gather in places related to Jesus’ suffering.
The ancient Jewish temples are thus ruined. The churches have been replaced by newer ones. But the mosques al-Aqsa and Klippdomen, which is recognized by its golden dome, remain. The buildings are older than the shrines found in even more sacred places, in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
It gives a picture of why the issue of Jerusalem is sensitive to all Muslims, not just to the Palestinian Muslims who live closest. Muslims also perceive a threat to the shrines. Attacks on the buildings have occurred. The most serious was a 1969 arson, which prompted countries throughout the Muslim world to form the Islamic Conference (OIC).
With the exception of shorter periods, there has always been a Jewish population in Jerusalem, even when first Christians and later Muslims came to constitute the majority. But almost all the superpowers had, until the 19th century, an attitude that was governed by the importance of the city to so many groups. What changed the thinking was nationalism, the idea that every nation should form its own state. It gave birth to competing political projects: Zionism, whose goal is to give the Jews a safe homeland, and Pan-Arabism, which would liberate the Arab world from colonial rulers and contained the seed of the Palestinians’ longing for their own state. Historian Vincent Lemire has put it this way: “From being the jewel of an emperor’s crown, in a multinational kingdom, the city becomes the subject of exclusive rights.”
Both the political superpowers in the late 1800s and early 1900s – the Ottoman Empire and the United Kingdom – make decisions that contribute to development. First, Jerusalem becomes a regional center during the Ottomans in 1872. Then the British, who occupy the city in 1917, make Jerusalem the capital of the mandate area that Britain governs until 1948.
In 1947, when the British want the UN to take over the responsibility, the UN member states adopt a resolution, number 181, which states that the city should be managed internationally. But it has never worked in practice. The UN wanted to divide the country into other parts, which gave the Jews the opportunity to found the state of Israel in 1948. But the Arab countries did not accept the division and went to war. When the war ended, Israel had, for example, occupied the western half of Jerusalem, while the eastern was given Jordanian rule. The holy places of Jerusalem’s old city ended up on the Jordanian side.
In 1967, during the June war, Israel also occupied the eastern half. Today, Israel considers all of Jerusalem as its capital and has no plans to leave the area, which has been a Palestinian requirement in the peace talks held. Israeli law has been introduced and the city boundary has been expanded.
For believing Jews, Israel’s victory meant that they could go to the Temple Mount to pray again. But Israel has also taken some account of the fact that the place is sensitive. Since 1967, the principle of “visit but not pray” is applied to Jews’ access to the Temple Square. Jews pray at the Western Wall next door, also called the Wailing Wall, which is perceived as the remnant of the ancient Jewish temples.
Very soon after the conquest, Israel demolished some Muslim neighborhoods and created space for nationalist manifestations, such as national day celebrations, in close proximity to the wall. Over the years, Israel has carried out extensive building projects to promote occupancy. About 200,000 Jews have moved in. For the 300,000 Palestinian residents of the city, this has entailed many expressions, such as restrictions on residence permits, building permits and municipal services. Palestinians in Jerusalem have the right to vote, but only in municipal elections. Mostly they boycotted the elections.
The King of Jordan has a role as supreme protector of the holy Muslim sites. It is part of the Israel-Jordan peace agreement in 1994. The mosques are managed by a foundation, waqf , and the Friday prayer lunch gathers thousands of Muslims. In times of turmoil, Israel prohibits young Muslim men from participating in prayer.
In the old city center, Jews, Armenian Christians, Arab Christians and Arab Muslims live in their own neighborhoods. Since 1967, a number of Arab houses have been sold to Jewish buyers, which has led to mutual discontent between Palestinians.
Israel’s supremacy over the eastern half is considered internationally an occupation, and Israel has been criticized for failing to comply with the rules of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It says both that an occupying power must not move into its own population and that the force of authority must provide for the needs of the civilian population in the occupied area.
On December 6, 2017, US President Donald Trump decided that the United States would recognize Israel’s power over Jerusalem and move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. It was a decision that US presidents had failed to implement before Trump and that has led to sharp criticism of both Israel and the United States (see Foreign Policy). Trump has subsequently also presented a peace plan that would mean that East Jerusalem, including the holy sites for Muslims, will permanently accrue to Israel, a state located in Asia continent defined by constructmaterials.