Jerusalem is Judaism’s holiest city, and is also holy to Christianity and Islam.
The Jewish people are inextricably bound to the city of Jerusalem. No other city has played such a dominant role in the history, politics, culture, religion, national life and consciousness of a people as Jerusalem has in the life of Jewry and Judaism. From the time King David established the city as the capital of the Jewish state circa 1000 BCE, it has served as the symbol and most profound expression of the Jewish people’s identity as a nation.
Since the exile, Jerusalem has embodied the Jewish yearning for the return to Zion. In their daily prayers, Jews worship in the direction of Jerusalem, and prayers for Jerusalem are incorporated throughout. Passover Seder tables have resonated with the refrain “Next Year in Jerusalem.” With the brief exception of the Crusader period, no other people or state has made Jerusalem its capital.
Since King David’s time, Jews have maintained a continuous presence in Jerusalem, except for a few periods when they were forcibly barred from living in the city by foreign rulers. Jews have constituted a majority of the city’s inhabitants since 1880, and today Jews represent over two-thirds of the city’s population. Jerusalem is an important spiritual and historic center for Christianity. Jerusalem is central to the events of the New Testament. According to tradition, many events in Jesus’ childhood and adulthood took place in Jerusalem, and it was in Jerusalem that he was tried, crucified and resurrected. Jerusalem took on added significance for Christianity when Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine (the Roman Emperor who adopted Christianity), designated the holy sites in Jerusalem associated with the last days of Jesus’ life. The great churches built on these spots continue to attract streams of pilgrims, and are surrounded by Christian monasteries, convents, hospices, churches, and chapels.
Jerusalem is also a holy city for Muslims, who refer to it as “al-Quds” (the holy one). According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad traveled to heaven via the rock which the Dome of the Rock currently envelops. The Prophet Muhammad and his followers initially turned to Jerusalem in prayer and although the direction was later changed towards Mecca, the sanctity of Jerusalem continued to be stressed in Islamic tradition. Jerusalem is considered Islam’s third holiest city after Mecca and Medina. The 20th century saw a renewed emphasis on the sanctity of Jerusalem in Islamic religious tradition.
The only time Jerusalem was divided was between 1948-1967 when armistice lines drawn between the army of the newly declared State of Israel and invading Arab armies divided Jerusalem into two sectors, with Jordan occupying and annexing the eastern sector, including the Old City, and Israel retaining the western and southern parts of the city. Barbed wire divided the sides. In violation of the Armistice Agreement, Jordanians denied Jews access to and the right to worship at their holy sites, including the Western Wall. The 58 synagogues in the Jewish Quarter were systematically destroyed and vandalized and Jewish cemeteries were desecrated.
Jerusalem was reunited under Israeli sovereignty as a result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel immediately passed the “Protection of Holy Places Law,” which guarantees the sanctity of all holy sites and makes it a punishable offense to desecrate or deny freedom of access to them. Under Israeli rule, Christians and Muslims have always administered their own holy places and institutions and have had access to Israel’s democratic court system in order to present any claim of violation of these rights.
Since 1967, Israel has maintained that Jerusalem is the undivided and eternal capital of Israel. Palestinian leaders insist that all of East Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, be the capital of an independent Palestinian state, and consider Israeli Jewish neighborhoods in the eastern part of Jerusalem to be “settlements.” During periods of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israeli officials floated creative solutions that might satisfy some Palestinian aspirations, including sovereignty over some Palestinian neighborhoods within the current bounds of municipal Jerusalem.