Photo’s source: Wikipedia, Edmund Gall, A few of us climbed the bell tower of one of the churches in the Muslim Quarter to get outstanding views of the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock alongside the Jewish Quarter…
In the context of the 2023 war between Hamas and Israel, a catastrophic conflict, in which civilians were and still are killed or severely wounded on both sides, that reminds the world of past atrocities, Jerusalem remains a central point of contention in scholar, political and public discourse.
The dispute related to who and how should own, rule or inhabit the city represents probably one of the oldest unanswered set of questions and the odds to obtain definitive answers in the near future are not at the horizon yet. This article does not aim to provide such answers, but it will reassess the historical trajectory of this place and hardships it had to overcome despite being considered a holy city in the three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The preliminary assessment of major historical accounts and specialist literature on this topic, which is immense, indicates fundamentally different perspectives on this city, its history and particularly the meaning of various historical events. Furthermore, the invocation of religious texts – not accepted in nowadays scientific proceedings as historical accounts – with the purpose of asserting various rights or justifying grave, large-scale, armed aggressions that the world considers a problem of the past, becomes an ambiguous paradigm in the broadly accepted framework of modern international relations.
The preliminary assessment has also indicated that the dichotomy between Jerusalem as a geographical location, a concept obviously variable in time, and the religious concepts associated to Jerusalem that have been pursued by certain followers of one of the three monotheistic religions mentioned above has given birth to many conflicts among various groups throughout history.
Introduction and terminology
There are many definitions in dictionaries for the term “Jerusalem” (in English) and many explanations related to its religious significance in various contexts. For the purpose of this article, Jerusalem is a city on territory of Historical Palestine (parts of which became the Occupied Palestinian Territories) and nowadays State of Israel. The boundaries of this city shifted throughout history, and the city itself has been ruled by various political or administrative entities. Furthermore, the presence of religious groups (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and other) has had a direct or indirect relation with the ethnicity of political rulers throughout history. This determines clear distinctions between presence in Jerusalem and ruling or developing this city. As a matter of fact, it cannot be claimed that any single ethnical or religious group has exclusively developed the city of Jerusalem. The holy characteristic of Jerusalem has a religious background, but it does not necessarily mean that it is recognized as such only by religious persons: the story, the myth, the aim to worship and visit/live in Jerusalem are clear concepts recognised as part of religious thought and practice in more religions by researchers or non-religious persons as well. From a modern state perspective, this is reflected in freedom of each religion and all other religions, but given the history of different Judaic, Christian and Islamic groups, the holy characteristic of Jerusalem has consistently inspired the idea of carrying out wars and conquering the city. This was the case from the very beginnings of documented history until present day. Hence, the primary meaning of the term “Jerusalem” in this article is the variable geographical space, and the “holy” character is considered relevant particularly to religious contexts.
As hardships, this article considers disease, sieges, wars, other confrontations that led to population decrease through death or emigration, repeated destruction of cultural and religious landmarks, infrastructure, among other types of destruction. It is a matter of discussion whether changes in the rule or ethnical or religious character of the city can be considered a hardship, but up to a limited extent: on one hand many cities have thrived thought history especially due to such changes and the arrival of new cultures and ideas has been considered a blessing, while on the other hand history is a given: hypothetical assessment of the past have never changed previous history. Thus, from a real-politik perspective, the term hardship utilised in this article does not include changes in the character of Jerusalem as a city, but it does include the destructions associated with the changes.
The research will analyse in the following section major events and confrontations that Jerusalem experienced according to historical literature describing its beginnings. It must be noted that no single historical account tells the entire, complete and objective story of the city, but neither do the authors claim so. The sources have been chosen based on comparison with other accounts and among them, as considered necessary to identify and describe the hardships in a relatively satisfactory manner.
Major historical events in Jerusalem from ancient times until 2023 CE
The most extensive formulation with respect to the presence of peoples in the region of nowadays Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel, identified in literature, was that of Jonathan M. Golden: “The southern Levant has been more or less continuously occupied for more than a million years” (Golden, 2004, p. 3). This statement sets the stage for a better contextualization of understanding related to ancient places, events and groups. It also supports at conceptual level the claim that Mazin B. Qumsiyeh raises in his book: “The land of Canaan was never ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’, as some early Zionists claimed” (Qumsiyeh, 2004, p. 5). According to this latter source, between years 6000 and 5000 BCE, hunter-gatherer populations from the Fertile Crescent began to settle and raise crops, evolving towards city-states. Local populations spoke “Semitic” languages, the author explaining that in a strict sense that “Semitic” refers to a language group, not an ethnical or religious one, and that some Semitic languages are spoken to this day in the region. Among those, following are mentioned: Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew, Akkadian, Assyrian, etc. Qumsiyeh states that the variety of languages in this region 3 – 5 millennia ago is a testament of this region’s position at the intersection of ancient civilizations. He also introduces the Jebusites as the inhabitants of Jabus (city) approximately 3 millennia ago, a place that became known afterwards as Ur-Salem, from which Yerushalaym/Jerusalem was derived (Qumsiyeh, 2004, p. 8). Even though the existence may have been contested, the existence of Jebusites or other peoples in Canaan approximately 5 millenia ago or earlier is largely accepted among scholars. Jonatahn M. Golden calls them “Proto-Canaanites” and mentions that, between 3500 and 2200 BCE, these people established relations with their Egyptian and Syro-Mesopotamian neighbours (Golden, 2004, p. 5).
Among the first documented hardships in this region was the Egyptian series of military campaigns during pharaoh Thutmose III, 1479 – 1425 BCE, that led to transforming Canaanite political nuclei into vassals of Egypt. The same historical account mentions subsequently that during the Iron Age, the Israelites, Philistines and Phoenicians were living in the “southern Levant”. As such, the ancient Hebrew political structures emerged between 13th and 10th centuries BC (Golden, 2004, p. 7), a period in which the Exodus is considered to have occurred.
However, the political entity encompassing Hebrews that Moses released from Egyptian enslavement was not representing a state-like organization or a precursor at that time.
Subsequent hardships that Jabus/Jerusalem experienced included the war described in the Amarna Letters, according to which Abdi-Heba, the Canaanite ruler of Jabus (afterwards Jerusalem) around 1350 BCE, was asking help from the Egyptian pharaoh (Cline, 2004, p. 18).
Despite religious or non-religious narratives that claim either the fact that this land was “promised” to Hebrews or the building of a (new) Hebrew state in the “promised Land”, the broadly accepted begin of the Israelite state history with King David did not represent a start from scratch. After the war with the Jebusites and conquering the stronghold of Zion, David purchased land on the eastern ridge, in the region called Mount Moriah, from Araunah (or Ornan) the Jebusite (the last ruler of Jabus/Jerualem). The threshing floor that was present on the land purchased on Mount Moriah, became later the “Temple Mount” in Jewish religious tradition and subsequently “Haram al-Sharif” in Muslim religious tradition, i.e. the place on which Abraham’s rock was situated (Cline, 2004, p. 30). Cline mentions that the land on Mount Moriah may have already been a Jebusite holy site before being purchased by David, claiming that adopting holy sites from other religions is not uncommon in history. This concept is also presented by Qumsiyeh, who states that “the Temple of Solomon, like the Al-Aqsa mosque, was probably built on a sacred Jebusite site” (Qumsiyeh, 2004, p. 8). This data does not imply that the Jebusites were the founders of Jabus/Jerusalem either, they were just the precursors of Hebrew (city-state or) state founded by King David.
David’s attack on Jebus/Jerusalem took place in the 11th century BCE and culminated with the foundation of the United Monarchy around 1000 BCE. According to literature, King David was succeeded by his son King Solomon, who built the The First Temple. While textual evidence supports that these two kings ruled from Jerusalem, Golden states the archaeological evidence supporting this is “slim”. He mentions that “Stratum 14 in Areas D I and E and the eastern slope have yielded some remains dating to the 10th century B.C.E…”, and that the lack of archaeological evidence has led to two opposite interpretations in literature: Finkelstein and Silberman concluded that this demonstrates there was no Jerusalem-based monarchy, while the other camp countered the previous conclusion, calling it “negative-evidence” and mentioning that the lack of evidence does not mean the lack monarchy’s presence, as Herod supposedly razed the area in the first century BCE (Golden, 2004, p. 163).
The period that succeeded was one of prosperity for the Kingdom of Juddah and its capital Jerusalem reached allegedly 20000 inhabitants during the 8th and 7th centuries BCE (Golden, 2004, p. 164). However, in this period, the Assyrians began to influence politics in the Canaanite region, that led to the fall of capital-city Samaria in 721 BCE (Golden, 2004, p. 301) along with the Northern Kingdom. The dissolution of the Northern Kingdom resulted in large-scale migration towards the Southern Kingdom, including to Jerusalem. In the Southern Kingdom of Judah, Hezekiah’s political gains were cancelled by the Neo-Assyrian King Sennacherib’s rising power in the region. Subsequently, the falling influence of Assyrians in the region was replaced by that of Neo-Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar, whose military campaigns led to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 587 – 586 BCE (Golden, 2004, p. 267). This hardship in Jerusalem’s history was accentuated by the Babylonian Exile in the same year.
The Hebrews were liberated from the Babylonian captivity by the Persian King Cyrus the Great who conquered Babylon in the 6th century BCE and they managed to rebuild Solomon’s Temple as The Second Temple.
During a subsequent period of relative peace and prosperity, the entire region was under Persian rule. Besides allowing the Hebrews to return in the region from Babylon, the Persians granted all regional populations a relatively high degree of autonomy and maintenance of own religion. The political model initiated by Cyrus the Great, according to which the large Achaemenid Empire was divided in autonomous satrapies that governed themselves but paid tribute and consented to conscription (overtaken by the Greeks and Romans later), raises question on the connection between presence in Jerusalem and Canaan of various ethnical groups along with their religion, and historical or present claims for political control over the territory. Admitting the justness of the political system instated by Cyrus, a more fair one that inspired the entire globe, may also imply considering its core values as positive social norms: as Cyrus did not uproot populations or their cultural systems, neither should anyone else who observes or benefitted from this legendary gift to humanity. Hence, the Persian/Achaemenid rule over Jerusalem in this period cannot be assessed as a hardship, but rather as a blessing, at least from a human or human rights perspective.
The Jewish Virtual Library mentions that the last important event during the Persian rule of Jerusalem took place in 445 – 425 BCE, when the Walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt by Nehemiah, a Prophet in Judaism (Jewish Virtual Library, 2023). The same source indicates that this era is succeeded by the Hellenistic period (332 – 141 BCE), that began with Alexander the Great’s conquest of the region and Jerusalem. The Macedonian overtaking was a relatively peaceful one, but determined the polity from Jerusalem to change the oath to the Persian King Darius into submission to Alexander the Great.
Between 141 BCE and 63 BCE, the Hasmonean Jewish dynasty ruled over Jerusalem in another, relatively short, flourishing period for the city. But Rome’s power was growing simultaneously, and at the same time corruption among Hasmonean ruling dynasty weakened the ability of Jerusalem to bargain with the Romans (Jewish Virtual Library, 2023). This led to the conquest of Jerusalem by the Roman General Pompey in 63 BCE, when sources mention that approximately 12000 Jews were killed and the priests who refused to halt service were also killed (Gilbert, 1977, p. 7). This period of hardship for the Holy City, i.e. 63 BCE – 70 CE – which includes the Herodian Period in which the Second Temple was restructured and walls were added in a peaceful Roman-Jewish coexistence – encompassed successive confrontations between Jews and Romans as well, that led to the ultimate conquer of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE (Jewish Virtual Library, 2023). Displeased with the Revolt of (Jewish) Zealots that started in 66 CE and was contained in 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, destroyed much of Jerusalem and started to rebuild it as a Roman city. Aelia Capitolina, the city built on the ruins of Jerusalem starting with 135 CE by Emperor Hadrian, had a sanctury for worshipping Jupiter on the Temple Mount and statues of Roman deities in other parts of the city.
Gilbert’s historical account states that the dispersal of Jews around the world did not start with the year 70 AD, but actually with the 587 BC Babylonian conquest and destruction of the First Temple. The map that he presents indicates regions to which the Jews migrated between 587 BCE and 70 AD, these including among others: Volubilis, Corduba, Marsilia, Colonia, Byzantium, Rome, Aquincum, Kerman, Bukhara, Samarkand, etc. Gilbert also states that Jews’ revolts against the Romans led to recapturing of Jerusalem twice, but the 135 CE reconquest of the city by the Romans along with the decree according to which the Jews were banned to enter the city (punishment was death penalty) consolidated the exile of Jews from the Holy City (Gilbert, 1977, p. 9).
Global affairs in the Roman Period of Jerusalem were dominated by the imperial Rome. As the Christians were emerging despite a Roman ban on the cult, Mithraism – a Roman cult inspired by the Persian monotheistic cult Zoroastrianism – was making gains throughout the Roman Empire, besides the Roman polytheistic pantheon. The attempt of Emperor Diocletian to stabilize the Roman Empire by dividing it into Western and Eastern administrative units in 286 CE ended up with the definitive split between Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire in 395 CE. Simultaneously, the 313 Edict of Milan decriminalized Christianity in the empire and the Edict of Thessalonica from 380 transformed Christianity into state religion. The now Eastern Roman Empire ruled in Palestine and after Christianity emerged, Jerusalem regained its name (former Aelia Capitolina). The Christians built The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Christian footprint in the city will increase until the Arab-Muslim conquests.
The relatively peaceful development of Jerusalem under Byzantine rule was interrupted by the Sassanid (Persian) invasion of the city in 614 CE, leading to the death of 57000 – 66509 people (various sources provide different numbers) (Cline, 2004, pp. 143-144). These victims might have been mostly Christians, as Cline explains that the Jews seemed to have supported Persian invasion and even fought along them against the Byzantine Empire. Cline cites other researchers that support the idea of Jews allegedly fighting along Persians not as mercenaries, but as “as a nation with its own stake in the victory, since they regarded the war as a struggle for national liberation”(citation in Cline’s book: Cf. John 2:20 with Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.219–23), and perceived the Persian ruler Khosrau II as a new Cyrus that will liberate them from captivity again (Cline, 2004, p. 145).
The Byzantines recaptured Jerusalem in 629 CE and maintained it until Caliph Omar’s conquest in 638 CE (Jewish Virtual Library, 2023). The Umayyads started to build the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in 660 CE and the Dome Of The Rock 691 AD according to Gilbert (other records claim that the Al-Aqsa mosque was not built that early, but a precursor – a small prayer house was initially built). They supposedly appointed Jewish families as guardians of the Temple Mount (Gilbert, 1977, p. 15). Although these constructions appear in the city, the initial contacts between Jews and conquering Arabs do not appear to be marked by large conflicts. Subsequently, the confrontations between Byzantines and Arab-Muslims, and then the Crusades, transformed Palestine into a land of wars and clashes. The next period of relative peace started under the Ottoman rule, who conquered Jerusalem in 1517 and ruled officially until 1917.
During the Middle Ages, Europe was at war with the Arabs and then the Ottomans, but at the same time European states began to trade and establish colonies across the globe, as the religious landscape was very dynamic as well: the split between Orthodox Christians and Catholics was succeeded by subsequent splits. The Jews that migrated to Europe from Antiquity and later during the Christian – Arab-Muslim confrontations, began to be expelled from countries or cities. Gilbert mentions that between 1000 CE and 1600 CE, Jews from cities like Cologne, Mainz, Vienna, Prague, Cracow, Berlin, Budapest, Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Genoa, and from countries/regions like England, Spain, Portugal, Sicily, Crimea or Lithuania sought refuge in the more tolerant Ottoman North Africa, and contemplated returning to Jerusalem (Gilbert, 1977, p. 19). Gilbert mentions that a wave of returns took place in the period 1200 – 1841 and it was favoured by the defeat of the Crusaders and the Tatar invasion (of the Levant) from 1244 (Gilbert, 1977, p. 23).
However, ethnical Jewish communities remained or returned into important European cities, and by the 19th century, the question of a Jewish homeland became popular among European (and American) Jews. The most prominent movement that sought to establish a modern Jewish state at the end of 19th century and beginning of 20th century was the Zionist movement.
Qumsiyeh claims that Napoleon Bonaparte was among the first leaders to aim building “a network of Jews loyal to the French Empire throughout Europe” (Qumsiyeh, 2004, p. 67), but the British managed to work better towards this goal. Among the first expressions of the Zionist Movement, Qumsiyeh mentions the call of Moses Hess (1812 – 1875) to establish a Jewish state in Palestine and the foundation of Hibbat Zion – an early Zionist movement – by Judah Leib (Leon) Pinsker (1821 – 1891) and Moses Lilienblum (Qumsiyeh, 2004, p. 70).
The Zionist Movement sought to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, in a bid for Jews to return once again to the Promised Land. The name of this movement was coined later by Nathan Birnbaum (known also as Mathias Ascher) and the ideological conceptualization was carried out by Theodor Herzl. But the initial ideas of Pinsker had been already seeded and he did not stop there: as a leader of the movement he created, Pinsker received funds from the British philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild and developed the first Jewish agricultural settlements in Palestine: Rishon LeZiyyon in the south of Tel Aviv and Zikhron in the south of Haifa. The movement managed to relocate approximately 10,000 Jews to settlements in Palestine (Qumsiyeh, 2004, p. 71).
Tamar Mayer labels Zionism as a “revolutionary and utopian movement”, that “sought to create a new national subject – the New Jew…”, along with a new culture, language, and psychology (Mayer, 2008, p. 224). It must be taken into account that the 19th century was experiencing colonial expansion of empires like the British and French ones, and the Ottoman rule, not only in Palestine but across the entire imperial territories, was becoming weaker, but it prevented European empires from transforming the Levant into colonies until the beginning of the 20th century. The nationalist movements across Europe were following up on political advances like the Westphalian Peace and the French Revolution, among other emancipation steps, and the United States of America began to ascend to a global superpower. Hence, a colonial approach to occupying Palestine was still in line with that period’s European colonial stance towards external territories.
In 1917, Palestine became subject to a British Mandate and in 1948 the State of Israel was proclaimed while the Palestinian inhabitants of the regions occupied by the colonialists had to emigrate (An-Nakba). The Jewish Virtual Library calls Jerusalem a “divided city” between 1948 and 1967. After winning the Six Days War against its Arab neighbours with the help of the US, “Israel Captures Jerusalem’s Old City and Eastern Half; Reunites City” (Jewish Virtual Library, 2023).
The creation of Israel and subsequent conflicts led to millions of displaced Palestinians, many of whom still leave in refugee camps either in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or abroad. Furthermore, the conflict saw many victims among Palestinians and Israelis since 1948. If a large majority of states agreed with the creation of Israel and recognized its right to exist, the ongoing Israeli territorial expansion through settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been generally regarded as either controversial, or illegal move that has to be reversed. While many countries still ask for the full recognition of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, Israel is continuing to build settlements on Palestinian territories. The population of Jerusalem evolved from 15,510 (3,390 Christians, 5,000 Muslims and 7,120 Jews) in 1844 under the Ottomans to 165,000 (25,000 Christians, 40,000 Muslims and 100,000 Jews) in 1948 and to 966,210 (16,371 Christians – including Christian Arabs, 362,602 Muslims and 576,592 Jews) in 2021 (Jewish Virtual Library, 2023). As of 2021, the Jewish represented 60 % of Jerusalem’s population.
A perspective on contemporary Jerusalem’s hardships
Since 1948, Jerusalem’s hardships changed in nature. As many times in history, Jerusalem welcomed new political rulers, and as many times in history these were Jewish. This fact however does not underrate the fact that many times in history, these were also not Jewish. Unlike their predecessors, the British or the Ottomans, the Jewish immigrants from all over the world moved to make the modern Jerusalem their exclusive capital, with all the Christian and Muslim assets gathered here during millennia. The term “exclusive” has multiple implications in this context, but among the most important ones are the gradual expulsion, through eviction or in other manner, of Palestinians from relevant parts of the Holy City (United Nations, 2023) and the worrying attempts to change the very sensible status in Jerusalem’s Old City (The New Arab, 2023). The presumption that Israel wants to limit the universal character of Jerusalem, in which various international interests cannot be ignored since its inception, has been confirmed among others by the 2018 “The Nation State of the Jewish People” law, according to which the right to self-determination within Israel is unique to the Jewish people, Arab language was downgraded and Jewish settlements were proclaimed national value/interest among others. An important clause of this law proclaims the “undivided” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (Dichter, 2018).
Since 1948, a central hardship of Jerusalem is a continuous state of conflict, confrontation, that entails violent episodes like stabbings, shootings and bombings among others. These happened in both the initial Israeli part of the city but in the Occupied Jerusalem as well. Israel’s formation was initially challenged by its neighbours, but Israeli wins in conflicts changed the opinions and besides the recognition of Israel as a state, the relations with neighbours like Jordan or Egypt improved. The use of force was in self-defence and justifiable on the international scene. However, neither the intensive settlement building, nor the billions spent by European, American or Asian NGOs to Palestinian refugees managed to solve the inherently conflictual situation from the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Jerusalem. The relatively recent Abraham Accords appeared to have set a path for more peace in the region, but the clashes and violent incidents only intensified so far.
From a Palestinian perspective, the ideal of a recognized state with the capital in East Jerusalem is easily recognizable despite maximalist claims, aimed to improve negotiation positions, that still question the presence of Israel in this region. However, the Israeli position in this conflict is very complex and dynamic. First and foremost, the fact that Israel was founded in Palestine and not somewhere else was based on at least partial unilateral considerations related to Jewish rights, disconsidering local population, and increasingly the interest of other third parties with interests in this region. From this perspective, the narrative repeated insistently by various Israeli leaders according to which the Jews own exclusive rights on this region for millennia and there was nobody living in the region raises many questions.
The first one is whether presence of ancestors in a region, which was anyway inhabited by somebody else before, provide somebody with the exclusive right to claim exclusive (political) control of that region. This formulation does not question the rights or existence of Israel, it addresses only the exclusivity aspect of this matter and its justification. Then, the invocation of the old British Concept of Terra Nullius in order to impose political control over an inhabited territory is also questionable: the Australians still fight against injustices provoked by Terra Nullius British approach in their homeland (associating oneself with such bluntly colonial ideas creates risks) and the fact that people were present in Palestine before and in 1948 is confirmed even by Jewish documentary sources. One of the most repeated stories by, for example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is that of Mark Twain visiting Palestine in 1867 and not meeting anybody in the “barren land” from this region. This is a problematic argument: there were at least the two colonies near Tel Aviv and Haifa back then, and most important, the foundation of Israel and an-Nakba did not take place in 1867, but in 1948 when the population of Jerusalem alone was 165,000. Admitting such arguments has to be weighed against the concept of national sovereign territory, that every country expects all the others to respect. Finally, the issue related to the utopia of reoccupying the former homeland consists of the impossibility of other ethnical or religious groups to occupy territories their ancestors formerly governed or inhabited at the same time.
The other important consideration related to the Israeli position in this conflict is the role of Zionist core goals in regional developments. A precise territory in which the ancient Jews lived in this region is not defined. Pursuing to live in the former territories may imply to continue expanding Israel into Egypt, former Babylonian territories, Syria and Lebanon among others: there are no recognizable borders of the “Holy Land” except the river and the sea (in the main narrative), as there are no borders for Jerusalem, the latter certainly expanding since ancient times.
Finally, the dilemma of making peace with neighbours or continuing the tough military confrontation in the region may be a subject in which global powers have to take a clearer stance. While Israel needed force and determination to safeguard its existence, what will guarantee Israel the maintenance of the gains achieved on long term should they concede truce? The central goal of Zionism was to establish a Jewish national state in Palestine, which it did. The concept of “holy land” though, has two meanings in the Jewish collective imaginary according to an article published by Zali Gurevitch and Gideon Aran: the geographical place and an idea, voice, thought (the Place) (Gurevitch & Gideon, 1994). The article explains that complications of immigrating to Israel, in the sense that Russians, Poles, Algerians or Moroccans moved in an unknown place that was supposed to be more home than home and, furthermore, the “Land” and the “Book” “constitute potent and contradictory sites of the Jewish identity” (Gurevitch & Gideon, 1994, p. 196). The authors explain that Zionism reawakened an old paradox, that of the geographical place and the Place described in religious texts. The Zionist call was based on the Book description of the Place, and asked Jews to come to the real physical place, but fearing that they might lose the place again as it had happened throughout history, they did not abandon the religious message and did not allow the immigrants to fully immerse in the real experience within the real place. Keeping the people connected to the Book will allow the Jews to maintain themselves as a people outside of the Israeli land in case they lose this place again (Gurevitch & Gideon, 1994, pp. 196-197). Besides other relevant open questions related even to the founders of the Zionist Movement, the fact that the very immigrants that founded Israel and their heirs are not decided whether to fully embrace the already gained state or remain connected to the religious narrative on the “Holy Land” is indeed a complex paradox.
Hence, what is the most acute hardship of Jerusalem at the beginning of 21st century? Is it just the confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, or a sum of contradictory projections that exceeds the borders of this universal city in current century?
This article pursued the historical trajectory of Jebus/Jerusalem from the time of the Jebusites until present, despite the fact that there might have been other groups inhabiting it before, with the purpose of identifying hardships it faced throughout history. The usage of the term “it” implies that there was only one city, but unlike many other old cities, Jerusalem changed character and welcomed rulers from different ethnical or religious backgrounds very many times. The changes themselves do not appear to have been hardships, as the just occupation by the Persians under Cyrus the Great did not result in societal reconstruction. The character of the city has been impacted by Jewish, Roman, Christian, and Muslim governance, the latter being very long.
Jewish (and Christian) religious texts claim that Canaan was the land promised by God to the Jews. These sources, although not admitted as historical accounts, are often invoked by Israeli political leaders in order to claim legitimacy in a bid to exert exclusive governing rights over Jerusalem. They also claim that Jerusalem is the “eternal” capital of the Jewish State, i.e. Israel. Backed by exogenous powerful states, Israel is carrying out a systematic replacement of Palestinians in Jerusalem and Occupied Palestinian Territories, in an absurd denial of the obvious presence of Palestinians on these territories.
Despite gains, the Zionist founders of Israel were apparently not sure that the real, earthly, Jerusalem will remain under Israeli governance and maintain a presence in the region based on hard power. This double-edged sword represents an impossible choice for the Israelis: if they continued to use it they risk losing legitimacy and the entire international support and if they made peace with the Palestinians, they are afraid of beginning to lose ground, as it happened in the past. Hence, they might not be able to sort this out on their own.
During the last era of hardships for Jerusalem, that began in 1948, what appears to have started as a relatively conciliatory Israel begins to shift towards a more exclusive governance that pushes out not only Palestinians but other groups of interest in the Holy City as well.
The paradox between Jerusalem as a geographical place and as an ideal in Jewish religious texts does not appear to have a solution. Similarly, it is very difficult for any person to decide between trying to move to a holy place and working to make the place that he lives in holy, when holiness of places is an endeavour.
But what most of the people in Jerusalem and elsewhere probably aspire to is less hardships.
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About the author:
Prof. Ecaterina MAŢOI is Program Director at MEPEI.