Home Opinions Ideas Why does the world care so much about Jerusalem’s fate?

Why does the world care so much about Jerusalem’s fate?

Jerusalem street
A Jerusalem street

On Jan. 10, 2011, the Rabbinical Assembly, the highest authority in Conservative Judaism, published a Resolution on Jerusalem. Among other things, the resolution called on the Israeli government to ensure that Jerusalem remains the capital of Israel in any future peace agreement and that the State of Israel should retain control over Jewish holy places in the city. It called on the United Nations “to recognize the uniquely deep connection of Israel and the Jewish People to Jerusalem, and to affirm Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

Alas, the United Nations has not heeded the advice of our learned rabbis. On May 2, the executive board of UNESCO declared Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem null and void, with 22 members voting in favour, 10 opposed and 23 abstaining. This is one of many resolutions pushed by UN bodies that have promoted the idea that Israel is an occupying power in its capital city.

The Rabbinical Assembly also called on its members to celebrate the holiday of Yom Yerushalayim, the day when east Jerusalem was liberated from 19 years of Jordanian occupation and brought under Israeli control. Jews mark this day as a religious holiday, equivalent to Purim or Chanukah, praising God by reciting the festive prayers of Hallel.


This year we celebrate 50 years since that day, June 7, 1967, (Iyar 28, 5727), when the Israel Defence Forces captured the Old City of Jerusalem. On that day, Moshe Dayan, the Israeli minister of defence, said:

“This morning, the Israel Defence Forces liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again. To our Arab neighbours, we extend … our hand in peace. And to our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights. We did not come to Jerusalem for the sake of other peoples’ holy places, and not to interfere with the adherents of other faiths, but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others, in unity.”

So what are we to make of the fact that this joyous day for Jews is treated by others as an occasion for protest? Why do UNESCO and other world bodies repeatedly call on Israel to cease archeological excavations, and condemn public improvements, such as the building of the light rail transit line, which benefit all the residents of the city?

We know that many Palestinians have resisted the re-establishment of Israel from the beginning and that, since Israel’s founding, the governments of the surrounding states have supported their campaign to roll back Jewish independence. They consider the Jews to be invaders and have done their best to defeat the Jewish state and remove the Jewish People from our traditional lands.

It’s clear that, for Arabs and Jews, Jerusalem is disputed territory. But why does the rest of the world take such a keen interest in the city’s status? One reason is that much of the world feels the great importance of Jerusalem. The city has great religious significance for Christians. The Byzantine Empire originally included the land of Israel.  Muslim conquerors took the city from the Byzantines. Crusaders captured it from the Muslims and the Muslims drove them out. The Dome of the Rock was constructed on the Temple Mount, the site where Abraham was called upon to sacrifice his son. The Al-Aqsa Mosque was built on the site of the Jewish Temple.

In 1947, the Jewish residents of Jerusalem were attacked by their Arab neighbours and driven from the Old City by the Jordanian armed forces. In the 19 years that followed, the synagogues were demolished and Jews were denied access to their holiest site.

Since 1967, Jerusalem has been open to people of all faiths and nationalities. Christians, Muslims and Jews are free to worship as they choose. True to Dayan’s promise, Israel has ensured that members of all faiths continue to have access to their holy sites. In this respect, Israel has proven to be a reliable steward of the city in the five decades since its liberation.


Still, we must acknowledge that during the intervening decades, there has been much debate about what should be done to achieve peace with Israel’s neighbours. The Palestinians insist that Jerusalem must be their capital, and they are willing to spill blood in the streets of the holy city in order to achieve that goal.

So should Jerusalem be divided again? This is the hard question that we’ll have to grapple with, should Israel ever receive a sincere offer of peace from the Palestinians. For a true and enduring peace, we might choose to share our capital and our holy city.

Until that day, let us pray for peace.  Let us also acknowledge the miracle that is a united and rebuilt Jerusalem. Let us celebrate this momentous anniversary with all our hearts. Let us recognize the extraordinary blessing of living in an era, in which the Jewish People have returned to Zion and Jerusalem. In the words we pray three times daily, Baruch Ata Adonai, Boneh Yerushalayim (Blessed are You O Lord, Who rebuilds Jerusalem).

David Roytenberg lives in Ottawa with his wife and two children. He has been an active volunteer in the Ottawa Jewish community for a number of years.