An Israeli Jerusalem for All

, September 1, 2000

New York Jewish Week

Underlying the post-Camp David debate over Jerusalem is a fundamentally disturbing assumption that Jerusalem cannot possibly remain united under the sovereignty of the Jewish state, but instead must somehow be shared. Strikingly, this notion of sharing holy cities has not been applied to other cases in the international community: not to Istanbul, where Greek Orthodox have a special attachment; not to Mecca, where the Shiites and other branches of Islam have feared the ultra-Orthodox control of the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia; or in any other case where there has been struggle over sovereignty and religious freedom.

Ironically, prior to Israel’s liberation of Jerusalem in 1967, Jerusalem was not open to all faiths. Transjordan’s Arab Legion, manned with British officers, destroyed or desecrated more than 50 synagogues in Jerusalem’s Old City as it fell, expelled its Jewish residents and for nearly 20 years prevented Jews of any nationality from praying at the Western Wall. Synagogues, notably the Yohanan Ben Zakai complex, were converted into stables. Thousands of tombstones from the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives were uprooted, and even used for latrines. During that time eastern Jerusalem’s Christian population dwindled from 25,000 to 11,000.

The United Nations, whose nonbinding recommendation first proposed an internationalized Jerusalem in General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, did nothing when Jerusalem was invaded and put under siege during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Only the convoys of the nascent Israeli army protected the city’s encircled Jewish residents. For the next 20 years, the great powers sitting on the UN Security Council were silent over the lack of religious freedom in eastern Jerusalem. The hypocrisy over the Jerusalem question became evident when the Security Council finally became activated only after Israeli forces recaptured the Old City in the Six-Day War.

Did Muslims lose access when the Jews took control? In fact, while Israel asserted sovereignty over the Old City in 1967, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan made sure that the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount remained under the control of Muslim authorities appointed by Jordan. This practice of Muslim administration has continued even as Palestinians have replaced Jordanians. Muslims from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and even Libya pray in the al-Aqsa mosque. In the clash of civilizations in Spain or India, vanquished Muslim holy sites became churches or temples, but not in the Old City of Jerusalem under the sovereignty of the Jewish state.

Perhaps the driving forces for a shared Jerusalem are the national claims of the Palestinians. But, in fact, the Jewish people re-established a majority in Jerusalem by the mid-19th century, according to the British consul general at the time, well before the rise of modern Zionism. That majority remains intact in united Jerusalem.

Sovereignty over Jerusalem once rested with the Ottoman Empire, but the latter relinquished its claims just after World War I. The historical rights of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and Palestine were recognized by the League of Nations and inherited by its successor organization, the United Nations, under Article 80 of the UN Charter. Security Council Resolution 242, which is the basis of the Madrid and Oslo processes, requires an Israeli withdrawal from “territories” but does not mandate Israel to concede Jerusalem, which the resolution does not even mention.

Thus, the fact that the demand for sharing a holy city, like Jerusalem, is applied only to the case of Israel is based on a fundamental discomfort with the deeper implications of Jewish sovereignty. This indeed was the position of the early Church, which banned Jews from residing in Jerusalem for centuries. It sensed vindication at the yearly scene of Jews “wailing” at the remains of the Temple, whose destruction was seen as proof of their punishment for not accepting Christianity. This view has since been repudiated by Pope John Paul II, who visited Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty in March.

What, then, is bothering the advocates of a shared Jerusalem? In 1967, the liberation of Jerusalem led to a worldwide rebirth of Jewish identity. The recapture of the Old City awakened a whole generation of modern Maccabees in the former Soviet Union, like Natan Sharansky, who stood up to a totalitarian superpower. And to millions of American Jews, a liberated Jerusalem became a counterweight to the powerful forces of assimilation, for it tied modern Israel to the traditions of ancient Israel. In Israel, it rekindled the Zionist spirit. The opponents of this reinvigorated Jewish identity, and the national self-confidence that it generated, are also the opponents of Israel remaining sovereign in Jerusalem.

In modern times the Jewish people have in fact been pulled between two poles: universalism and particularism. In Jerusalem, the two poles coexist. For in protecting the rights of the Jewish state in Jerusalem, Israel can accomplish its universalistic mission of protecting the rights of other faiths as well. That is what having a Jewish state is all about. Israel does not protect Jerusalem by a policy of self-denial, but rather by confirming its own national rights and extending a hand of religious tolerance and coexistence that was never demonstrated by Jerusalem’s previous masters.

Dore Gold served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1997 to 1999.

Amb. Dore Gold

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.