If Jerusalem Weren’t Israeli, Would Muslims Want It?

Here are some of the weekend headlines on the reaction to President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Muslims, it would appear, can barely contain their outrage over Trump’s acknowledgement that the capital of the Jewish state is, as it always has been, Jerusalem. But why should locating an embassy in any country’s capital be controversial? There isn’t a member of the Arab League or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation whose right to designate its own capital city is challenged by anyone. In every nation governed by Arabs or Muslims — or, for that matter, by Scandinavians or Africans or Christians or Latin Americans — foreign embassies are located in the capital. Every one, without exception.

Only Israel has been treated differently.

Arabs riot over US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital

What accounts for this insulting legal anomaly? Often a quasi-legal explanation is proffered. In 1948, a UN General Assembly resolution decreed that Jerusalem should be an international city, ruled neither by Jews nor by Arabs but “under effective United Nations control.” That resolution was a dead letter from the start: When the first Israel-Arab war ended in 1949, Jerusalem was divided. Jordan’s Arab Legion had seized the eastern part of the city; West Jerusalem was in Israeli hands. At no point was Jerusalem governed by the UN.

During the Six-Day War 19 years later, Israel — defending itself against land and air attack by its neighbors — conquered East Jerusalem, tore down the barbed wire and concrete wall dividing the city, and annexed the territory that Jordan surrendered. Since then, all of Jerusalem has been under Israeli rule. One of the few issues on which nearly all Israelis agree is that the city must never again be divided. Some Israeli leaders, bending over backward in the quest for peace with the Palestinian Authority, have suggested that parts of East Jerusalem could become the capital of a future Palestinian state. But that would require Palestinians to make peace with Israel, something they have never yet been willing to do.

By far the most common explanation for the Arab/Muslim hard line on Jerusalem is that the city is supremely sacred in Islam, and so it’s unthinkable to recognize it as the capital of a Jewish state. Journalists routinely describe Jerusalem as Islam's “third-holiest city,” and identify the Temple Mount as “sacred to both Jews and Muslims.”

In reality, the Jewish and Muslim connections to Jerusalem are not remotely comparable.

The bonds of loyalty and love that bind Jews to Jerusalem are without historical parallel. For more than 3,000 years, Jerusalem has been central to Jewish self-awareness. Jews have been turning toward Jerusalem in prayer and petitioning for the city’s welfare since the reigns of David and Solomon, 16 centuries before the birth of Mohammed. In the Hebrew Bible, Jerusalem is mentioned more than 650 times; in the Koran it is not mentioned even once.

Jews have always lived in Jerusalem, except when they have been massacred or driven out. There has been a nearly unbroken Jewish presence in the city for the past 1,600 years. In modern times — meaning since at least the mid-19th century — the population of Jerusalem has been predominantly Jewish.

Jerusalem is much less important in Islam, and for a logical reason. Mohammed never saw the city or walked its streets; indeed, his Arab followers didn't conquer Jerusalem until six years after his death. During the centuries when various Islamic dynasties controlled Jerusalem, none established Jerusalem as its capital, or treated it as a significant cultural or economic metropolis. Often they neglected it outright, allowing it to sink into squalor. (Mark Twain, on a tour of the Holy Land in 1867, described Jerusalem — then under Ottoman rule — in The Innocents Abroad: “Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village.”)

During the post-1948 years when East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were under Muslim rule, they were ignored by the Arab and Muslim powers. No foreign Arab leader ever paid a visit, not even to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque. Palestinians placed so low a priority on Jerusalem that the Palestinian National Covenant of 1964, the PLO's founding charter, makes no reference to it. Only when the Jews returned after the Six Day War did the Arabs grow passionate about Jerusalem.

As the scholar Daniel Pipes has shown, this has been the pattern since medieval times. “Muslims take religious interest in Jerusalem when it serves practical interests,” Pipes wrote in 2000 . “When those concerns lapse, so does the standing of Jerusalem.”

For instance, Jerusalem was regarded by Muslims as a near-obscure backwater when Crusaders conquered the city in 1099. But as a Muslim counter-crusade developed, Pipes explains, there sprang up “a whole literature extolling the virtues of Jerusalem.” It was only then that Jerusalem came to be described as Islam's “third-holiest” city. But once Jerusalem was “safely back in Moslem hands in 1187, the city lapsed into its usual obscurity. The population declined. Even the defensive walls fell.”

For the next seven centuries, Jerusalem was largely ignored by the Islamic world. It stayed that way until the British conquest in World War I.

More Pipes:

Only when British troops reached Jerusalem in 1917 did Muslims reawaken to the city's importance. Palestinian leaders made Jerusalem a centerpiece of their campaign against Zionism.

When the Jordanians won the old city in 1948, Moslems predictably lost interest again in Jerusalem. It reverted to a provincial backwater, deliberately degraded by the Jordanians in favor of Amman, their capital.

Taking out a bank loan, subscribing to telephone service, or registering a postal package required a trip to Amman. Jordanian radio transmitted the Friday sermon not from Al-Aqsa but from a minor mosque in Amman.

Once again, the Muslim passion for Jerusalem was all but nonexistent — until the Jews won the Six Day War.

When Israel captured the city in June 1967, Muslim interest in Jerusalem again surged. The [revised] 1968 PLO covenant mentioned Jerusalem by name. Revolutionary Iran created a Jerusalem Day and placed the city on bank notes. Money flooded into the city to build it up.

Thus have politics, more than religious sentiments, driven Moslem interest in Jerusalem through history.

In short, the Muslim world grows passionate about Jerusalem only when there is political value in doing so. Were there no passionate Israeli commitment to Jerusalem today, we would hear much less about how important the city is to Muslim believers.

For 70 years, Jerusalem has been the capital of the modern state of Israel. For 3,000 years, it has been the city of supreme religious importance. What Paris is to the French, what Mecca is to Muslims, so Jerusalem is to the Jews: their eternal and central city, venerated above all others. Of course Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. All that has changed is that the United States has stopped pretending otherwise. It’s about time.

[ Jeff Jacoby ]