Jerusalem, wrote historian Martin Gilbert, is not a 'mere' city. "It holds the central spiritual and physical place in the history of the Jews as a people."
For more than 3,000 years, the Jewish people have looked to Jerusalem as their spiritual, political, and historical capital, even when they did not physically rule over the city. Throughout its long history, Jerusalem has served, and still serves, as the political capital of only one nation - the one belonging to the Jews. Its prominence in Jewish history began in 1004 BCE, when King David declared the city the capital of the first Jewish kingdom. David's successor and son, King Solomon, built the First Temple there, according to the Bible, as a holy place to worship the Almighty. Unfortunately, history would not be kind to the Jewish people. Four hundred and ten years after King Solomon completed construction of Jerusalem, the Babylonians (early ancestors to today's Iraqis) seized and destroyed the city, forcing the Jews into exile.
Fifty years later, the Jews, or Israelites as they were called, were permitted to return after Persia (present-day Iran) conquered Babylon. The Jews' first order of business was to reclaim Jerusalem as their capital and rebuild the Holy Temple, recorded in history as the Second Temple.
Jerusalem was more than the Jewish kingdom's political capital - it was a spiritual beacon. During the First and Second Temple periods, Jews throughout the kingdom would travel to Jerusalem three times yearly for the pilgrimages of the Jewish holy days of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, until the Roman Empire destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE and ended Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem for the next 2,000 years. Despite that fate, Jews never relinquished their bond to Jerusalem or, for that matter, to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.
No matter where Jews lived throughout the world for those two millennia, their thoughts and prayers were directed toward Jerusalem. Even today, whether in Israel, the United States or anywhere else, Jewish ritual practice, holiday celebration and lifecycle events include recognition of Jerusalem as a core element of the Jewish experience. Consider that:
- Jews in prayer always turn toward Jerusalem.
- Arks (the sacred chests) that hold Torah scrolls in synagogues throughout the world face Jerusalem.
- Jews end Passover Seders each year with the words: "Next year in Jerusalem"; the same words are pronounced at the end of Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish year.
- A three-week moratorium on weddings in the summer recalls the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 586 BCE. That period culminates in a special day of mourning - Tisha B'Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av) - commemorating the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.
- Jewish wedding ceremonies - joyous occasions, are marked by sorrow over the loss of Jerusalem. The groom recites a biblical verse from the Babylonian Exile: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning," and breaks a glass in commemoration of the destruction of the Temples.
Even body language, often said to tell volumes about a person, reflects the importance of Jerusalem to Jews as a people and, arguably, the lower priority the city holds for Muslims:
- When Jews pray they face Jerusalem; in Jerusalem Israelis pray facing the Temple Mount.
- When Muslims pray, they face Mecca; in Jerusalem Muslims pray with their backs to the city.
- Even at burial, a Muslim face, is turned toward Mecca. Finally, consider the number of times 'Jerusalem' is mentioned in the two religions' holy books:
- The Old Testament mentions 'Jerusalem' 349 times. Zion, another name for 'Jerusalem,' is mentioned 108 times.
- The Quran never mentions Jerusalem - not even once.
Even when others controlled Jerusalem, Jews maintained a physical presence in the city, despite being persecuted and impoverished. Before the advent of modern Zionism in the 1880s, Jews were moved by a form of religious Zionism to live in the Holy Land, settling particularly in four holy cities: Safed, Tiberias, Hebron, and most importantly - Jerusalem. Consequently, Jews constituted a majority of the city's population for generations. In 1898, "In this City of the Jews, where the Jewish population outnumbers all others three to one
" Jews constituted 75 percent of the Old City population in what Secretary-General Kofi Annan called 'East Jerusalem.' In 1914, when the Ottoman Turks ruled the city, 45,000 Jews made up a majority of the 65,000 residents. And at the time of Israeli statehood in 1948, 100,000 Jews lived in the city, compared to only 65,000 Arabs. Prior to unification, Jordanian-controlled 'East Jerusalem' was a mere 6 squar e kilometers, compared to 38 square kilometers on the 'Jewish side.'
For more on this subject, including footnotes - click here.