This was a talk given by Joel Abramson at a public Middle East Forum at B'nai Israel Synagogue in Southbury, Connecticut on June 12, 2010.
What is so important about the city of Jerusalem that has captured the imaginations of millions of people over thousands of years?
Jerusalem enjoys none of the physical features that favor other important cities of the world. It stands at the head of no great river, overlooks no great harbor, and is off the main trade routes. But it is a city of beauty, and its hilly landscape offers some absolutely stunning vistas.
The origins of Jerusalem are shrouded in the mists of antiquity, with the history of the city going back some 5,000 years.
This is the city of David, who a thousand years before the birth of Christ, and 1,600 years before the birth of Mohammed, unified the country, and proclaimed Jerusalem its capital.
This ancient city has been holy to Jews for 3,000 years, to Christians for 2,000 years, and to Muslims for 1,300 years.
This is the city of King Solomon’s Temple; the city where giant Jewish prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, uttered thoughts that influenced the moral and religious attitudes of half the human race.
It is frequently pointed out that Jerusalem is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible 669 times, while not once in the Koran. And of course at Passover, arguably the most observed Jewish holiday, we always say, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
We often scoff at the Muslim claim that Abraham was a Muslim, pointing out a seeming anachronism. But remember: Muslims, too, are the children of Abraham, and Ishmael and Isaac were half-brothers. Remember that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are called the Abrahamic faiths. We have much in common. As for the importance of Jerusalem to Muslims, the Al Aqsa Mosque is where Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven on his magical winged steed, Barak.
Christian Gospel states that Jesus was of the House of David, yes, that David who made Jerusalem his capital. Jerusalem is the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion. The holiness of Jerusalem to Christians is unquestioned. Liberating Jerusalem from the control of the Muslims was the object of the Crusades, a word with terrible connotations for Muslims and Jews alike.
While it is not for me to defend the claims of others to Jerusalem, the fact is the United Nations partition plan of 1947, which the Jews accepted and the Arabs rejected, assigned Jerusalem to neither the Jews nor the Arabs. Instead, it made a non-binding recommendation that it be an international city. Although the United States immediately recognized Israel, it did not recognize Jerusalem as its capital. That was done by an act of Congress, The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which calls for us to move our embassy to Jerusalem. But the same act gives the President the right every six months, to order our embassy to stay in Tel Aviv, where it remains to this day.
The Palestinians want Jerusalem to be the capital of their as yet undeclared State. But Jerusalem is already the capital of Israel. How can two countries have the same capital? One way would be by dividing it. But the Jerusalem Embassy Act calls for Jerusalem to remain an undivided city.
Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world. In its thousands of years of existence it was divided for only 19 years, from 1948 to 1967. In 1948, immediately after Israel declared its acceptance of the United Nations partition plan and declared its independence, the Arab nations invaded, and Jordan seized part of Jerusalem. When a ceasefire was declared, the part of Jerusalem held by Jordan became known as east Jerusalem. Jordan strung barbed wire around the section it held, which included the historic Old City. All Jews were expelled. The ancient Western Wall, so holy to Jews, was off limits. Only Britain and Pakistan recognized Jordan’s seizure of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which is not part of the West Bank. No other country, nor the United Nations, recognized it.
In the Six Day War of 1967 Jordan invaded Israel and fired artillery shells into Jerusalem, despite Israel’s promise that if Jordan stayed out of the fighting, Israel would not attack. This is very significant, because the West Bank is actually Judea and Samaria, the historic homeland of the Jewish people. But Jordan did attack and Israel struck back. In the process, Israel captured all of Jerusalem and the West Bank, pushing Jordan back across to the east bank of the Jordan River.
What happened in Jerusalem was extremely emotional. You see, over the centuries, while Jews often could get to the Kotel (Hebrew for Wall) it was not without difficulty. Narrow alleys had to be negotiated. It was disrespected by the authorities. At times it was a dumping ground for garbage. Jews couldn’t even sit there. No tables were allowed. Most of all, the Shofar could not be blown. The Shofar, a ram’s horn used as a trumpet, was blown in ancient times as a call to arms, warning of an approaching enemy; it was blown to announce the sighting of the new moon, important to keep track of our lunar calendar; and it is blown to this day, during certain religious services as another sort of call to arms, a call reminding us to be true to the callings of our faith. So in June 1967, when the Old City and the Western Wall were once again under Jewish control it was a huge emotional event. Hardened veterans openly wept. And what was the first thing they did? They blew the shofar! It was electrifying. A very popular new song, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold, composed earlier in 1967 by Naomi Shemer, the song you heard as you came in this afternoon, was spontaneously being sung all over Israel, especially at the Wall. There was even a movement, unsuccessful, to make it Israel’s new national anthem.
So, to many Israelis, religiously observant or secular, the notion to give back east Jerusalem to Muslim control is anathema. And yet, it was offered to the Palestinians by both Ehud Barak and by Ehud Olmert. Those offers were rejected.
Talk of dividing Jerusalem calls to mind the biblical story of King Solomon, sword in hand, holding up a baby unable to decide which of two women is the real mother, and deciding in mock fairness to slice it in two to give half the baby to each claimant. Horrified, the real mother relinquishes her claim in order to save the infant’s life. Whereupon King Solomon immediately knows who is the real mother. Where, oh where, is King Solomon when we need him?
Just as dividing that baby would have destroyed it, so too there are many who feel that dividing Jerusalem would destroy it. Beware the Law of Unintended Consequences!
Dividing Jerusalem might create more problems than it would solve. Presently there are no marked borders or crossing points. But if so-called east Jerusalem becomes the capital of another country, there are such nightmares as boundaries and customs inspections and passport controls to contend with. Think of what that could do to the economic life of the city. Palestinians complain now about checkpoints and security checks, but not in Jerusalem.
Of far greater concern are questions about the infrastructure of the city. Who will manage and regulate the water supply? Who will manage the sewage system? Who will manage the electric grid? Who will manage the municipal ecology? Traffic safety? Public health? Will there be one management authority for all parts of the city? Or will there be duplicate agencies managing each half of the severed baby, each setting its own standards, with neither enjoying the economies of scale. Is any one in Jerusalem – or Washington -worrying about such stuff?
And, on the Palestinian side, who will be in charge, the weak Palestinian Authority, or HAMAS? Need anyone be reminded that HAMAS clings to its ideological vow to destroy Israel, and kill Jews? More on this in a minute.
These are big questions. The commerce of the city could be crippled. Tourism, a huge part of Jerusalem’s commerce would be badly hurt. One of Jerusalem’s big attractions is the Western Wall the only remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple. Guess where the Western Wall is? East Jerusalem. So if Jerusalem is to be divided, where will be the boundaries? No Arab or Muslim country in the Middle East allows Christians or Jews to freely operate their own religious institutions. Sadly, in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, the Christian population has been dramatically reduced. In Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity was defiled by terrorists. Under Israeli sovereignty, the holy places of Jerusalem are managed by their own religious authorities, and access is guaranteed by the Israeli government. There is no reason to expect that policy to continue under Palestinian control. In fact, history suggests the exact opposite.
It is Israeli security that keeps Jerusalem safe. Because of Israeli security, Arabs are buying up homes in a number of predominantly Jewish neighborhoods like French Hill, Pisgat Ze’ev and Talpiot. A good example of voting with your feet. Contrary to what some may think, an Arab can live anywhere in Jerusalem. Why should the United States, of all countries, with our own laws against discrimination, want to restrict where Jews can live in their own capital? Our country wants parts of Jerusalem to be Judenrein? This is an improvement over Israeli practice?
Israel is by definition a Jewish State, but Israeli law absolutely guarantees freedom of religion to all. Israel guarantees free access to all the holy sites. Israel assiduously protects the right of each religious organization to manage its own affairs. In the Old City, go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Within this sprawling edifice are the churches of several Christian denominations. You are free to wander. You will feel absolutely safe.
And now let’s talk about the elephant in the room… Palestinian anti-Semitism. We are all familiar, or should be, with what Hamas says about the Jews. How many here have read the Hamas Charter? Well, I highly recommend it. You won’t like it, but it’s remarkably clear. You’ll find it easily enough on Google. But what about the so-called moderates in the Palestinian Authority? We can judge their true intentions by what they teach their children. Don’t we try to teach our kids what we want them to believe, how we want them to behave? Well, so do they, and we should be paying attention.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an outrageous forgery written in Czarist Russia more than 100 years ago. It purports to be a master plan for a Jewish takeover of the world. Full of blatant lies, this evil book is a perennial best seller in the Middle East. In the Palestinian Authority, the evil Protocols are presented as authentic by the Ministry of Education in its schoolbooks.
HYPERLINK "http://palwatch.org/pages/news_archive.aspx?doc_id=2069"Dr. Ahmed Bahar, Deputy Speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, stated: "The killing of children, women and men is promoted by their false Talmud, and by their false Bible, and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
Since the Palestinian Authority was established, it has systematically indoctrinated its people to hate Israelis and Jews. Using the media, education, and the cultural infrastructure that it controls, the PA has actively promoted religious hatred, demonization, and conspiracy libels.
The PA presents Jews as possessing inherently evil traits. Jews are said to be treacherous, corrupt, deceitful and unfaithful by nature. These Jewish “attributes” and traditions are presented as the unchangeable nature of Jews. Forgeries and fiction masquerading as history are used to document and support the libel that Judaism is in its essence racist and evil. Jews are said to be planning and executing heinous crimes, including burning Palestinians in ovens, murder, using prisons for Nazi-like experiments, and more. They teach that Jews are a threat not just to them, but to all of humanity. If this isn’t anti-Semitism, I don’t know what is.
Vicious libels about Israel and the Jews are an integral part of the Palestinian Authority’s strategy to infuse hate in the Palestinian population. Fabrications assert that Israel intentionally pursues children, poisoning candy and planting bombs inside toys to kill them, murders Palestinians in cold blood, and mutilates dead bodies. These and many other libels add to the ongoing demonization of the Jews, paving the way for acceptance of terrorism against Israel as legitimate self-defense and even as an ideal in itself.
Under Jordanian rule, from 1948 to 1967, dozens of Jerusalem synagogues were destroyed or vandalized, and the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was desecrated, its tombstones used for the construction of roads and Jordanian army latrines. The rights of Christians as well as Jews were abused.
But what the world doesn’t remember is what the Israelis will never forget: When Jordan controlled the eastern part of the city, including the Old City and the ancient Western Wall, the Jews were denied access.
So why in the world should anyone expect Israelis to accept the idea of sharing their beloved Jerusalem with people who have shown them fundamental animus; who teach their kids to hate them, who glorify those who have murdered them?
You may wonder why I dwell on this. Well, there is a peace process going on. It is OK to complain about Israel’s deeds. Right or wrong, there is much to debate. But to hate Jews qua Jews, that is, because they are Jews, not because of what they do, but because of what they are, is out of bounds. The kids they have brainwashed to hate us are the future adults our kids will have to negotiate with. Itamar Marcus, who runs Palestinian Media Watch, put it this way, “Borders can be redrawn with one political decision, but hatred is embedded. It can only be changed if there is a courageous Palestinian leader who will receive world support only if he replaces the hate promotion with peace education. If this happens it can be turned around. It will take time and that is all the more reason to start ASAP.”
So there’s your obstacle to peace… not housing permits in a Jewish neighborhood of East Jerusalem. And there’s your way out: education for peace, and it isn’t happening.
I will never tar all Muslims with the same brush. But in the Middle East, including Turkey, Iran, and Egypt, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s Mein Kampf are perennial best sellers.
OK, let’s move to another issue, a Big Lie. We all know about the “Big Lie,” first developed by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. A lie repeated often enough becomes the accepted truth. The Palestinians have mastered this technique with regard to Jerusalem. We tend to laugh off their assertions that the Jews have no connection with the Temple Mount; that King Solomon’s Temple never existed; that the Israelis are trying to undermine the foundations of the Al Aqsa Mosque; that we didn’t live in Jerusalem in the time of King David and are invaders from Europe who only arrived after the Holocaust, which, of course, never happened, or if it did happen, was perpetrated by the Jews themselves.
There is ample documentary evidence of our existence in the region from contemporaneous non-Jewish sources. They have been found in Iraq in the Babylonian Chronicles; in Egypt in the Elephantine Papyri; in the writings of Greek and Roman historians going back to the 4th century BCE; and in Josephus Flavius’s classic, the “Antiquities and Wars of the Jews.”
To claim that Jews only arrived in significant numbers after the Holocaust contradicts Jerusalem’s census records that go back to 1844. In the ten censuses taken from 1844 to 2009, Jews outnumbered both Muslims and Christians by a wide margin. In the 1896 and 1922 censuses, the Jewish population of Jerusalem exceeded 60%.
Israel’s Department of Antiquities does archeological research in the area of the Temple Mount. We regularly hear claims from the Palestinians that Israel is undermining the foundations of Al Aqsa and is attempting to destroy this Muslim sacred site. Nobody really believes that. Israel is not that stupid and neither are the Palestinians. What is behind their protests is their realization that the more Israel digs, the more evidence is uncovered that proves the ancient presence of Jews in the area, thus demonstrating the legitimacy of our claim to be returning to the land of our forefathers, and undercutting the Palestinian assertion that Israel has no right to exist.
I mentioned there is a peace process going on. It is in that context that I want to place all my remarks today. Because everything I’ve said has to do with Israel’s right to exist. Every attempt to delegitimize Israel has a bearing on the peace process. My topic is Jerusalem, but any attempt to delegitimize Israel’s rights in its capital obviously bears on the peace process. It is complicated and convoluted and emotional, and for that reason might best be deferred to final status talks. But many on both sides want final status talks now. Obama himself said he wants a peace deal by the end of his first term of office. With all due respect, I suggest it is better to get it right later than to get it wrong sooner.
Herb Keinon, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, says the administration is locked into a land-for-peace mindset that Israel believes, after 17 years of pursuing the Oslo formula, no longer works. The Oslo accords, signed on the White house lawn in 1993, with lots of fanfare and the famous handshake by Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, were based on a land-for–peace formula, never worked and are now in total disarray.
Israel feels it tried land for peace in Gaza in 2005 and in Lebanon in 2006 and instead of peace it got rockets. Keinon says “Israel got mugged by reality.” Washington believes in resolving the conflict, but Israelis, with a nod to reality, now talk about managing the conflict.
The Obama administration seems convinced that solving the Israeli Palestinian conflict is the key to peace in the broader Middle East. This is a view called “Linkage,” a view Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, in their recent book, call a dangerous myth and illusion. The Palestinian issue had nothing to do with the long Iraq-Iran war; nothing to do with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. It had nothing to do with Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds, or with Hafez el Assad’s massacre of thousands of his own people in Hama in 1982. Can anyone seriously believe Iran would change its behavior or abandon its nuclear quest if there were a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians?
Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, doesn’t agree with President Obama that it is a “vital national security interest of the United States to resolve the Middle East conflict.” He says sure it would be of value, but it is wrong to exaggerate its importance in terms of the rest of the region. It wouldn’t help us in Afghanistan, for example.
He says a Palestinian state can materialize only from compromise. There will not be a return to the 1967 borders; at most, there might be some territorial swaps. There will be nothing more than a token right of return for Palestinians to Israel. He predicts Jerusalem will remain undivided or at most shared. Terrorists would see all this as a sell-out, and they would target not just Israel but those Palestinians and Arab states who made peace with it.
The danger of exaggerating the benefits of solving the Palestinian conflict is that it runs the risk of distorting American foreign policy. The US has more influence over Israel than over the Palestinians. So we demand more of Israel, and we adopt policies that are overly ambitious and more likely to fail. We need to remember that Israel is a sovereign nation and not some US satrapy. There are signs the administration recognizes this and is backing away from the very hard tactics it was taking last March and April.
The reality is that so-called moderate Mahmoud Abbas, whose PhD earned in Moscow was on Holocaust denial, who was Arafat’s right hand man for decades, is a prisoner of the Palestinian promotion of hatred. It is impossible for him to make peace and survive politically. It is in his best interest to let the US do his dirty work for him, and that’s what we often seem to be doing.
The most important issue facing our two countries is Iran. That’s what we need to focus on. It is essential the U.S. and Israel develop more trust if we are to manage the inevitable differences over what to do about Iran's nuclear program, a challenge that promises to be the most significant strategic threat of this decade. A nuclear Iran would pose a threat, literally, to Israel’s very existence, and a dire threat to the entire region and the Western World. Iran lavishes sophisticated weaponry on Hamas and Hezbollah, and now also on Al Queda. What makes anyone think it wouldn’t sneak them nuclear weaponry as well? We can hope they wouldn’t, but as is often said, “Hope is not a policy.” A protracted publicized disagreement over Jerusalem or settlements or boundaries is a very dangerous distraction that benefits no one but Iran. And time is not on our side.
I have never wanted to be one of those who, living safely in leafy Southbury, feel entitled to tell Israel what it should do. But, if you ask me to recommend any books to read to help you understand the situation, the top two on my list are Alice In Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels.
I don’t want to leave you thoroughly demoralized, so let me end by reading to you parts of an ad recently placed by Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor. Here are his words:
“It was inevitable: Jerusalem once again is at the center of political debates and international storms. New and old tensions surface at a disturbing pace. Seventeen times destroyed and seventeen times rebuilt, it is still in the middle of diplomatic confrontations that could lead to armed conflict.
“For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture -- and not a single time in the Koran. Its presence in Jewish history is overwhelming. There is no more moving prayer in Jewish history than the one expressing our yearning to return to Jerusalem. To many theologians, it IS Jewish history, to many poets, a source of inspiration. It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming.
“Since King David took Jerusalem as his capital, Jews have dwelled inside its walls with only two interruptions; when Roman invaders forbade them access to the city and again, when under Jordanian occupation, Jews, regardless of nationality, were refused entry into the old Jewish quarter to meditate and pray at the Wall, the last vestige of Solomon's temple. It is important to remember: had Jordan not joined Egypt and Syria in the war against Israel, the old city of Jerusalem would still be Arab. Clearly, while Jews were ready to die for Jerusalem they would not kill for Jerusalem.
“Today, for the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines. And, contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city. The anguish over Jerusalem is not about real estate but about memory.
“What is the solution? Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be. Why tackle the most complex and sensitive problem prematurely? Why not first take steps which will allow the Israeli and Palestinian communities to find ways to live together in an atmosphere of security. Why not leave the most difficult, the most sensitive issue, for such a time?
“Jerusalem must remain the world's Jewish spiritual capital, not a symbol of anguish and bitterness, but a symbol of trust and hope.
“Jerusalem is the heart of our heart, the soul of our soul.”
And may I add this final word, from Psalm 122, verse 6,
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” Thank you.