Jerusalem: What’s the Deal?

Jerusalem is in the news again with US president Donald Trump’s recognition of the city as Israel’s capital. The announcement has set off violence in the region and caused international outcry. But why does it really matter?

What is the significance of the US recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving its embassy there from Tel Aviv? Why is this causing such an uproar?

Every six months for more than 20 years, each succeeding US administration has had to choose whether to make this move. It’s the result of a 1995 law passed by the US Congress requiring the embassy’s relocation. In order for it to take effect, the US president must agree or sign a six-month waiver. None of the three preceding presidents have been willing to forgo security concerns and order the move. But recently Donald Trump announced the transfer, albeit delayed for a couple of years.

Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is something that no other nation has done in the last 70 years, since the declaration of statehood. This really is the crux of the issue. Can the whole city be declared the capital of one side of the conflict without a peace accord?

Let’s consider what led to this.

Following the end of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British government stepped in to bring security to the region. But it would not be easy. Jerusalem was the capital of British-governed Palestine and often the center of activity. Over the next 20 years Britain’s commitment to her peacekeeping role changed, and she chose to relinquish power to the United Nations in 1947.

The UN proposed to divide the territory between the Jews and the Palestinians and make Jerusalem a separate internationalized city under UN trusteeship. Given this choice, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s future prime minister, was willing to give up on the whole of Jerusalem as the capital of the new state. Rather than having the city internationalized, he wanted to partition it. This, in fact, is what happened as a result of the ensuing war between invading Arab armies and the new state of Israel.

With the 1949 ceasefire, Jerusalem was divided by a green line on the armistice map. The western part of the city became Israel’s capital, later housing its parliament building, the Knesset. The eastern half, including the Old City with its holy sites, came under Jordanian control. Jews could no longer reach the Western Wall to pray. And that’s how things were until the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel captured East Jerusalem and the Old City.

Bernard Wasserstein is a noted scholar of modern Jewish history. He spoke with us a few years ago about when, exactly, Jerusalem took on such importance in Israeli thinking.

Wasserstein: “The centrality of Jerusalem in Zionism as an ideology probably really dates only from 1967. There was very little demand in Israel or in the Jewish world between 1948 and 1967 for any campaign to liberate Jerusalem or irredentist capture of the eastern part of the city. There were complaints, of course, about the Jordanian refusal to allow Jews to pray at the Western Wall or to visit the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, as had been laid down in the Israeli-Jordanian armistice agreement in 1949. But these were part of the general grievances to do with the continuing state of war between the two countries. They weren’t really central to Zionist demands or thinking at that time. From June 1967 onward, though, Jerusalem became very central.”

The phrase ‘Israel’s eternal and undivided capital,’ so often used today in the political sphere, has a long-term religious sound about it. But it’s really only a feature of the past 50 years.

Wasserstein: “This was a kind of religious moment even for secular Jews, and I think that has to do with what Zionism (particularly in the period between 1967 and perhaps the early 1980s) became, which was a kind of secular religion for many Jews in the Diaspora, who had shuffled off much of their religious devotion but were looking for some nonreligious form of connection to their heritage and found it in Zionism. And in the stones of the Western Wall—the very physical relics of Jewish history that were captured at that moment—they found a focus for those kinds of, as I call it, secular religious devotion.”

From the biblical point of view, Abraham, the father of both the Israelites and several of the Arab peoples, never had a capital. About 400 years later, following their exodus from Egypt, Abraham’s Israelite descendants centered their administration not at Jerusalem but first at Shiloh, in what later became Samaria. It was another three hundred years before Jerusalem, then a small hilltop Jebusite city, was captured by Israel’s King David and made his capital.

The time came, four hundred years on, when the people of Judah were taken captive by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. After an 18-month siege of Jerusalem, he burned the city and its temple, laying it waste for 70 years. Though some returned to rebuild the city, and a Jewish kingdom was established, the Romans destroyed the city and the temple again in 70 CE. Between then and 1917—that’s a span of more than 1,800 years—Jerusalem was not a Jewish city. And so we come to today, when it’s in Israeli hands but divided between Jews and Palestinians.

While there are biblical prophecies that speak about Jerusalem as the center of God’s future kingdom on the earth for all peoples, the time for that has not yet come. The prophet Isaiah says: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:2–3).

But this is simply not that time. The best that can be achieved in today’s world is a diplomatic, creative solution, which would allow all the current residents space to grow and develop in peace and security. And that is what most government leaders know to be the answer. Indeed, such a framework has already been put in place.

Wasserstein: “A draft agreement of this kind has already been reached. It was reached on the 31st of October, 1995, between two senior accredited negotiators of the Israeli and Palestinian governments. They reached an agreement which provided for essentially Arab control of Arab-inhabited areas and Jewish control of Jewish-inhabited areas. It wasn’t a complete agreement, but it remains on the table, and it formed the basis of the proposals that were made by [Ehud] Barak with the effective approval of President Clinton at Camp David in the summer of 2000.

My feeling is that that is going to be the basis of any agreement that is ever reached about Jerusalem, not because I happen to think it’s fair or just or sensible, but that is the only kind of agreement which brings the politics of Jerusalem into some form of harmony with its existing social geography. And that existing social geography is a fact which no amount of hot air about a united Jerusalem forever, and no amount of hot air about Jerusalem being more important to this religion or that religion—none of that—can change.”

Can Jerusalem become a city of peace, undivided in this era? With sufficient political will on both sides, eventually yes. Will it ever be eternally a city at peace? Yes, but as we’ve seen, that is for a future time.