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Jerusalem - The Focus of Jewish History

by Zvi Gabay

Israel Ambassador to the Irish Republic (Who has finished his tour of duty last August)


Jerusalem is unique. A city which has taken nine measures of the world's beauty, when mountain air is clear as wine, where the Shofar (Ram's horn) sounds mingle with the ringing of church bells and the call of the Muazzins (announcers of the hour of prayer) above the mosques creating heavenly music, where sanctity reflects eternity. Jerusalem occupies little geography, yet much history.

Throughout its long annals, Jerusalem has become the pivot of Middle Eastern and Western history. Christian and Moslem prophets followed Jewish ones and embodied the city with their faith. Conquerors who came from the far corners of the earth devastated her and vanished. Only the Jews have maintained an unbroken bond of aspiration, longing, anticipation and, ultimately, reclamation.

My ancestors, the exiled children of Israel, made in Mesopotamia (Iraq), the country of my birth, a commitment to Jerusalem:

"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.

If I do not remember thee, may my tongue, cleave to the roof of my mouth;

If I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy." (Psalms 137: 5-6).

This is maybe the first Jewish commitment in exile to the eternal capital.

Even before King David made the city the capital of his kingdom 3,000 years ago (1004 BCE). Jerusalem has been the focus of Jewish consciousness, religion and nationhood. Since King David, Jerusalem's destiny unfolded. From an isolated village, it grew into a centre for tradition, culture and learning. King Solomon complemented Jewish sovereignty over the city with spiritual centrality and built the Temple as a centre for worship. Subsequently, the city remained the capital of King David's dynasty for 400 years, until it was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. King Zedekiah, the last King in the Davidic dynasty, surrendered Jerusalem and "The King of Babylon exiled all of Jerusalem .... burned the Temple .... and tore down the walls of Jerusalem" (Kings II 24,25). When Babylon fell to Persia 50 years later, the Jews returned to the land of Israel, and rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple. Once again, Jerusalem as the centre of Jewish culture and religion; and this centrality continued for the next five and a half centuries. When the Seleucit-Hellenistic Empire violated the temple in Jerusalem, the Maccabean revolt broke out (167 BCE) and Jewish independence centred in Jerusalem was reclaimed by the Hasmonean Kings.

Upon the restoration of the Jewish Kingdom, Jerusalem entered a period of growth and development, until 70 CE, when a bitter struggle against Rome came to a catastrophic end. The second Temple was burned down, Jerusalem was destroyed and its inhabitants enslaved and deported once more. It was in Jerusalem under the Romans, that Jesus of Nazareth walked with his followers and died on the cross.

Throughout all the subsequent periods of foreign occupations over Jerusalem - Roman (until 324 CE), Byzantine (324-614), Persia (614-638), Moslem Arabs (638-1099), European Crusaders (1099-1291), Mamluk (1291-1516), Ottoman Turk (1516-1917) and the British Mandate (1917-1948), Jewish presence and attachment to Jerusalem remained constant and enduring, in spite of many periods of persecution. Jews always settled in Jerusalem and since 1844 (the first official public census) have constituted the largest ethnic group in the city.

For Jews, Jerusalem always played a predominant role - 'Jerusalem' is mentioned over 800 times in the Bible; Jews the world over pray three times a day in its direction and on holidays, bid one another the traditional farewell "next year in Jerusalem!"

The Christian and Moslem links with Jerusalem are essentially religious. The Christian rulers and the Moslem - Arab Caliphs did not make Jerusalem their capital. For the Romans, Caesaria was their capital, the Arabs ruled Jerusalem from their Capitals: Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo respectively. Acknowledgement of Jerusalem's centrality for the Jewish people was expressed by Pope John Paul II.

"For the Jews, Jerusalem is the object of a profound love, full of the footprints of many generations and a wealth of memories from the time of David, who chose it as his capital, and of Solomon, who built the Temple. Since then, their eyes have been set upon it .... day after day, they focus on it as a symbol of their nation."

(L'Osservatore Romano, Vatican Daily, 20 April 1984).

Soon after the termination of the British Mandate, a sad moment in Jerusalem's recent history occurred when the city was unnaturally divided. As a result of the ensuing war, on May 28, 1948, the Jordanian legion overran the Jewish Quarter in the eastern part of the city, while Israel held onto the western neighbourhoods of the Jerusalem. Soon afterwards, Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital, once again.

In 1950, Jordan formally annexed the Eastern part of Jerusalem which includes the Old City and West Bank; annexation was not recognised by any state including any Arab States, but for Pakistan. Thus the Holy City was divided, by barbed wire, mine fields, and Jordanian soldiers were stationed on its ancient walls.

Between 1949 and 1967, all Israelis - Jews, Moslems and Christians were barred from their holy places in the Old City, in flagrant violation of the Israel-Jordan Armistice Agreement signed in March 1949. Foreign tourists to Jerusalem were usually requested to present a certificate of baptism. During these years, any reminder of Jewish presence in the city were systematically erased. A road was built through the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, tombstones were used to pave floors in military camps and latrines. Fifty-eight synagogues, including the 700 year old Hurva Synagogue in the Old City, were for the most part, destroyed and desecrated. Free access for Jews to their holy places, particularly, the Western Wall, was denied. Israeli Moslems were also precluded from gaining access to the Mosques in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The nineteen years of separation ended when Israeli Defence Forces managed to repel the Arab invasion and re-took the Old City. Thus the city was reunited and returned to its natural State. This was certainly a cause of celebration for the well-wishers of Jerusalem. Shortly afterwards, the Government of Israel enacted the Law for the Protection of Holy Places, guaranteeing freedom of access and worship to the holy sites for all faiths and denominations; internal autonomy for various religious groups in administering their respective properties and holy places, and criminal penalties were imposed on anyone desecrating a religious site.

At the same time, the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) extended Israeli Law, jurisdiction and administration to the eastern part of Jerusalem, thus unifying the city under Israeli rule and putting an end to the discriminatory regulations which prevailed in the city. This legislation was re-affirmed in July 1980 by the enactment of the Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel, which restated Israeli's rights and obligations concerning the city.

Since its reunification, the Government of Israel has aimed to keep alive the unique heritage of Jerusalem. Historical sites are painstakingly preserved. These relics of the past, from its glorious era during the First and Second Temples, through the Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Arab, Seljuk, Crusade, Mamluk, Turk and British are being restored with dedication for all to enjoy. A great task Israel has undertaken. In a sense, the Jerusalemites are remembering 'The days of old' and considering 'The years of many generations'.

Fifty-one years ago, Jerusalem once again became the capital of Israel, and since its reunification, it has become a free city, visited every year by many tourists and pilgrims of all faiths and denominations, including Moslems and Christians from Arab and Islamic countries. Great care continues to be taken to cultivate Jerusalem's special character - its unique beauty, its universal spirit as a holy place for the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, while accommodating its growing population from 266,300 in 1967 to 690,000 today. The Palestinian Arabs have also grown from 25.8% in 1967, to 30% of Jerusalem's population, since its unification.

Historically, spiritually and politically, Jerusalem was and is the Capital of the Jewish people. However, the city has its share of problems in the turbulent situation of the Middle East, this is over and above its daily municipal administrative problems. Therefore, Israel has agreed to address the issues relating to Jerusalem in the permanent status negotiations of the Current Peace Process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Thirty-two years after its reunification no-one expects Moslems and Christians to give up their claims to their holy places, however neither should expect Jews to give up their ancient capital. Only recognition of the centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish people and the right of millions of believers of the monotheistic faiths to their holy sites, will foster co-existence and harmony in the city, and shoulder the challenge of the future, while using the words of King David, who made this city the capital of our nation:

"Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem, may those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your walls, and peace in your palaces." (Psalms 122: 2-3, 6-7).



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