With the recent discussion on the potential move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it is necessary to deepen our understanding of Israel’s capital and why it is significant for so many.
For centuries, Jerusalem has been important for three religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. As a result, it has seen continual struggles for its control. These struggles have been multifaceted, as war, diplomacy and intellectual debate have variously tried to define the city and to whom it belongs.
As the ancient capital, Jerusalem served as the political, economic and religious center of the Jewish world, beginning during the reigns of Kings Saul, David and Solomon in the 11th century B.C.E.
After the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. and the subsequent Babylonian exile, the Jewish people maintained their connection to the land and the city. This connection increased after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70, when rabbinic Judaism formally replaced sacrifice and the emerging liturgy was filled with prayers longing for a return to Jerusalem.
David Ben-Gurion best articulated the historic and religious connection to the city in December 1949 after a United Nations vote to internationalize the city: “Israel’s position on the question of Jerusalem found a clear and final expression in statements by the government. … Jerusalem is an inseparable part of Israel and her eternal capital.”
While most readers are familiar with Jerusalem’s significance to Jewish history and religious practice, understanding the city’s significance to other faiths is important in developing an appreciation of how it has become such a hot-button issue.
For Christians, Jerusalem’s significance derives from its connection to the life and death of Jesus. Jesus did most of his teaching and preaching there. It was in Jerusalem that Jesus was crucified and, according to Christian belief, was resurrected and ascended to heaven.
More than just its importance as a physical city connected to the life of Jesus, Jerusalem also exists as part of a theological idea. This heavenly Jerusalem is at the core of the Christian belief in the return of Jesus and the creation of a kingdom of G-d on Earth. The Book of Revelation, Chapter 21, Verse 2, states, “And I, John, saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from G-d out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
For Muslims, Jerusalem, which they call Al-Quds (meaning holy in Arabic), is considered to be the third-holiest city, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Soon after Islam’s birth, the prophet Muhammad and his followers left Mecca for Medina in search of adherents. At this time, for a short period, Muslim worshippers prayed facing north toward Jerusalem. Less than two years later, Mecca replaced Jerusalem as the direction of Muslim prayer.
The Muslim conquest of Jerusalem began in 636. While Muslims made their capital in Ramle, to the west, the city took on added importance because it was believed to be the site of Muhammad’s night journey from Mecca to the farthest mosque. It was during this journey that, according to Muslim belief, the prophet ascended to heaven and received instructions from Allah on prayer and practice.
Because Jerusalem is not named in the Quran, scholars debate whether the farthest mosque (al-Aqsa) was a reference to Jerusalem. The actual Al-Aqsa mosque was first built circa 690.
Since its reunification of the city in the June 1967 war, Israel has maintained free access for all to the city’s holy places while adhering to its core belief that the city is the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
In December 1969, Yigal Alon, then Israel’s deputy prime minister, emphasized both concepts when he addressed the Knesset, saying, “Without exaggeration, at no time in the history of Jerusalem were the holy places of all the faiths more secure and more open than under the enlightened rule of the state of Israel. … Jerusalem was united under a decision of Israel’s Knesset, as the sovereign institution, and it is hence a permanent fact. We must develop it for the good of all its inhabitants and regard it as the city where all faiths come together.”
Rich Walter is the associate director for Israel education at the Center for Israel Education (www.israeled.org).