President Donald Trump’s historic decision on December 6, 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city has elicited a torrent of negative and positive responses. The essential point in Trump’s statement is:
“Today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less than a recognition of reality.”
Lost in the debate are a number of questions: What constitutes a capital city; when did Jerusalem become Israel’s capital; what is the Jewish relationship to Jerusalem; how did Jerusalem assume such a significant position in Islam?
The National Geographic Society defines a capital as “a city where a region's government is located. This is where government buildings are and where government leaders work.” According to this definition, Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. The Knesset, Israel’s legislative branch of government, Supreme Court, and the official residences of the Prime Minister and the President are in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is Israel’s Eternal Capital
When King David established Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city circa 1000 BCE, Jerusalem became the center of the Jewish nation’s sovereignty. Throughout Jewish history, the city has remained Israel’s capital. The centrality of Jerusalem for Jews is mirrored in their daily prayers, holidays, rituals and fervent appeals to G-d for her restoration.
For Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Jerusalem never lost her eternal sanctity. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explained how Zionism was “born out of memory, out of ritual and prayer, out of faith in the promise, out of loyalty to the biblical command never to forget our origin, our link, never to relinquish hope for Zion and Jerusalem.”
At weddings, among the most joyous events in one’s life, Jews recite Psalm 127: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.”
How, When and Why did Jerusalem Evolve into an Important Muslim City
Historian Daniel Pipes points out that Jerusalem is not mentioned in Quran, in Muslim prayers, never became the capital of a sovereign Muslim state, or served as a center of Muslim culture or scholarship. Not much of political significance originated in Jerusalem either.
In contrast, Jerusalem appears in the Torah 669 times and Zion (which generally denotes Jerusalem or other times means the land of Israel) 154 times, or 823 times altogether.
How did Jerusalem’s status transform from being a neglected or an almost insignificant sacred city into considerable part of Arab-Muslim life asks historian Yitzak Reiter. In Islam, a site’s sanctity is not static. The hierarchy of the holiness during Islam’s formative years can change as a result of political and social conditions.
Historian Moshe Gil explains that in the early years of Islam, Jerusalem was called IIiya. Muslims used the name IIiya even in the tenth century. It was also known as Madinat Bayt al-Maqdis, City of the Temple. The Arabs began to use the name al-Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem, only in the eleventh century. The city did not become sacred to the Muslims until the Umayyad period (661-750). Until then, it was holy only to the Jews.
The transformation of Jerusalem into a Muslim holy city began after Caliph Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, completed in four years in 692 writes Gil. The al-Aqsa mosque, which was also built on the Temple Mount by Abd al-Malik’s sons, took about ten years to construct, from 706-717.
The Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque
Once completed, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque attracted thousands of Muslims on route to Mecca, conferring a religious and spiritual quality to them. In turn, traditions around this holy site were born, tied to the Koran and the hadith [Muslim tradition of pronouncements and decisions alleged to have originated from Muhammad himself]. According to the hadith, the angel Gabriel carried Muhammad to Jerusalem from where he ascended to heaven.
Eventually, the whole city of Jerusalem became sacred to Islam. An extensive literature of traditions ascribed
Jerusalem would be where all the mosques would gather at the End of the Days, and where the trumpet for the resurrection of the dead would be blown. Palestine also warranted praise because the Koran calls it the sanctified land.
Arab sources differ about the purpose of these magnificent buildings. Several objectives have been suggested: Abd al-Malik wanted to redirect attention from Mecca to Jerusalem where he reigned; to show the religious importance of Jerusalem to Muslims; to surpass the Christian churches and monasteries in beauty, and thus convey the superiority of Islam. One recent study avers the objective was to influence the Jews and Christians to become Muslims.
Reiter notes that three hundred years after the end of the Umayyad period, the Ayubbids (12th and 13th centuries) increased Jerusalem’s eminence while preparing Muslims for war with the Crusaders. At the time of the Crusaders, Jews and Christians were the dominant inhabitants in Palestine. The Arab tribes lived in the border areas.
After the British conquered Palestine in World War I, Hajj Amin-al Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, elevated the significance of the al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem in response to the perceived threat of Zionism.
At the end of the Six Day War in 1967, Reiter adds that Palestinian Arabs created new myths by restoring long -forgotten Islamic traditions, interpretations and beliefs about the mosque. These redefined myths helped ignite Muslim religious fervor to restore dominion over East Jerusalem and the holy sites.
'Al-Aqsa is in Danger'
This led to the “Al-Aqsa is in Danger” strategy, even though the Temple Mount is under Muslim Wakf control. Reiter adds that to highlight the need to protect the mosque there are: visits to the mosque as part of a political obligation as well as a religious responsibility; special conferences and numerous sermons to feature al-Aqsa and Jerusalem; and rallies and political protests.
Part of the attempt to deny the Jewish religious link to Jerusalem, the Kotel and especially the Temple Mount. Attempts to destroy all vestiges of the Temples is called Tams al-ma’alem, the Arabic for “erasing the signs” according to Mordechai Kedar, a leading expert on Arab Islamic groups.
Fabricating a historical past for the Palestinian Arabs
Fabricated history is another part of this scheme. The Egyptians identify with the Pharaohs and the Syrians and Lebanese with the Phoenicians, so the Palestinian Arabs, despite their being from the Arabian Peninsula, decided to claim to be part of the Jebusites, an extinct Canaanite tribe who lived in Jerusalem before being conquered by the Jews.
Palestinian Arabs are also claiming a connection with Saladin, founder of the Ayubbids dynasty, who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders. A future Saladin, they believe, will "free" Jerusalem from the “new Crusaders”—the Jews who govern Jerusalem.
One Final Note
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs is a religious war that has led to interminable commissions, conferences and agreements based on the delusional assumption one can negotiate with people who believe Jews are infidels who stole their land.
As Kedar explains, “The religious reason is rooted in Islam’s conception of itself as a faith whose mission is to bring both Judaism and Christianity to an end, and inherit all that was once Jewish or Christian: land, places of worship, and people.”
Jerusalem has been the Jewish People's holiest city for thousands of years. Happy Jerusalem Day!
Alex Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, has written a number of books on Israel including: BDS: The Movement to Destroy Israel; Erosion: Undermining Israel through Lies and Deception; Cultivating Canaan: Who Owns the Holy Land? and The Palestinian Right To Israel. He is the Senior Resident Scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).