Last spring Israel marked the 40th anniversary of the Israeli army’s capture of East Jerusalem and the Old City in the Six Day War (June 7, 1967). For the struggling young state and for Jews around the world, it was a momentous occasion. Their ancient capital, the symbol of their nation, where Jews pray every Passover to return, was now under Jewish control. The Jewish Quarter, the Western Wall of the Second Temple and other Jewish holy sites, closed during two decades of Jordanian dominance, were reopened to Jewish pilgrims and residents. To Palestinians, by contrast, it was al-Nakba, “the Catastrophe,” deepening the wounds of the defeat in 1948.
At the very beginning, Israel made an effort to accommodate the Muslim population. The victorious troops took possession of the Temple Mount, which Muslims call Haram al-Sharif, the Sacred Sanctuary, and Israelis Har Habayit. It is the site of the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam, and the ancient Al-Aqsa Mosque. Quickly comprehending the diplomatic and interreligious implications of Israeli control of the shrines, Moshe Dayan, the dashing, one-eyed Israeli military commander and in private life an accomplished amateur archeologist, opposed the erection of a synagogue on the site and forbade public prayers by Jews there as well. Arrangements were set up for operational control of the sanctuary by Muslim religious authorities, while Jews were permitted to repopulate the old Jewish Quarter from which they had been driven; the Western Wall, to Jews the most palpable reminder of their ancient religious heartland, was put under Israeli control.
While religiously Jerusalem is a symbol of eschatological peace, for the last 40 years it has remained contested ground. In 1967 Israel annexed East Jerusalem, the portion of the city under Jordanian control since 1948, with a majority Muslim population, thereby “unifying” the city. In 1980, the Knesset transferred the national capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move was not accepted by the international community, however, because Jerusalem was occupied territory, which under the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947 was to be under international control. To this day, most nations retain their embassies in Tel Aviv, Israel’s first capital. Palestinians persisted in claiming Jerusalem as theirs and hoped that it would become their future capital.
In the 1993 Oslo Accords, the future status of Jerusalem was placed on the agenda for final status talks set to open in 1996. Later preparations were begun for establishing a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis, a village on the outskirts of the city. But in 2000, at Camp David, the future of Jerusalem and particularly of the Old City and the Temple Mount were issues on which the talks foundered. That September Ariel Sharon’s provocative march onto the sanctuary with more than 1,000 police and soldiers to protect him ignited the second intifada.
Over the years the Israelis have steadily encroached on Arab East Jerusalem, while depriving Arab residents of fundamental services. Hard-line settlers have seized and occupied Arab homes in the Old City, Silwan, Ras al Amoud, Sheik Jarrah and other Arab neighborhoods. In 1990 settlers occupied the Greek Orthodox Saint John’s Hospice in the heart of the Old City. In 1999 ultra-Othodox Jews, or Heredim, declared a tomb in Sheik Jarrah, which experts claim is not Jewish, as a holy site, and it became the leading wedge of new Israeli settlement in that area. Just this spring some property owned by the Passionist Fathers at the edge of the city was confiscated for security purposes. When Jerusalem will become in fact the city of peace longed for by believers is increasingly hard to say.
On the 40th anniversary of the unification of the city, America offers several perspectives on Jerusalem, its history, recent life and future possibilities. Let us all pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem in the Jewish Consciousness by Gerald M. Meister
A Voice From East Jerusalem by Claudette Habesch
Place of Divine Encounter by Drew Christiansen
Dignity in Division by Daniel Levy
A Plan for a Workable Jerusalem by Ghaith al-Omari