In advance of President Trump’s official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, The New York Times engaged in historical revisionism about Jerusalem with the publication of a lengthy background essay that minimizes historic Jewish ties to the city (“The Conflict in Jerusalem Is Distinctly Modern: Here’s the History“). The article was filled with erroneous assertions, misleading quotes and belittling aspersions about Jewish belief.
The article’s historical departure point is “1917-48: British Mandate,” and it begins with a quote, devoid of context, to imply that Jerusalem was relatively unimportant to Jews both before and during that time:
“It was for the British that Jerusalem was so important – they are the ones who established Jerusalem as a capital,” said Prof. Yeshoshua Ben-Arieh, a historical geographer at Hebrew University. “Before, it was not anyone’s capital since the times of the First and Second Temples.”
Not mentioned in the article is that the same professor noted in his book, Jerusalem in the Nineteenth Century, that under the Ottoman empire, in the 19th century, “Jerusalem became the principal town of Eretz Israel (or Palestine, as it was then known).” He wrote that the Jewish population comprised a majority in Jerusalem’s Old City, which prompted construction of new Jewish neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City to accommodate the population growth. “By the start of the First World War,” Ben-Arieh wrote, “the Jewish community in Jerusalem numbered about 45,000, out of a population of 70,000 (with 12,000 Muslims and 13,000 Christians).”
Why would so many Jews want to live in Jerusalem, if it was unimportant to them? As the author explained in his book:
The basis for the great increase in the Jewish population of Jerusalem was the intense yearning for the eternal city and the flow of immigrants into it, which began, for religious motives, in the 1840’s. Jews continued to come to Jerusalem in the periods of the First and Second Aliyah as well.
During the period of early Zionism, Ben-Arieh acknowledged, Jews flocked more to Jerusalem than to the agricultural settlements outside the city because “many Jews preferred to come and settle in Jerusalem.”
Contrary to the article’s implication, Jerusalem remained the central focus of tradition, prayer, and yearning for the nearly two millenia after the destruction of the second Jewish Temple in 70 CE. Daily prayers (said while facing Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site) and grace after meals include multiple supplications for the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. Jews observe the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the date on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, as a day of mourning. The Jewish wedding ceremony concludes with the chanting of the biblical phrase, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning,” and the breaking of a glass by the groom to commemorate the destruction of the Temples. And Yom Kippur services and the Passover Seder conclude each year with the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
While ignoring the inconvenient facts mentioned in Ben Arieh’s book, the article continues to offer quotes from those identified as experts to suggest that early Zionists did not care for Jerusalem.
“Zionism recoiled from Jerusalem, particularly the Old City…Jerusalem was regarded as a symbol of the diaspora…”
“Jerusalem was something of a backwater, a regression to a conservative culture that they were trying to move away from…”
The early Israeli state was hesitant to focus too much on Jerusalem, given pressure from the United Nations and from the European powers, according to Issam Nassar, a historian at Illinois State University.
Having accepted the idea of international control of Jerusalem, the early Israeli leadership sought alternatives for a capital, perhaps Herzliya or somewhere in the south. They also realized that not having control of Jerusalem’s holy sites might have some advantages, according to Dr. Ramon.
These quotes and paraphrases, however, are completely belied by the direct statements of Israel’s early leaders. Although they accepted the temporary exclusion of Jerusalem as part of the partition proposal, they did so very reluctantly, with the hope and belief that the status of the city would change in the intended referendum following the planned 10-year-period of internationalization. Below are excerpts from their statements, ignored by the article, which eloquently articulate Jerusalem’s place in pre- and early-state Zionist thinking:
(Statement to Jerusalem’s Advisory Council, December 1, 1948):
Jerusalem holds a unique place in the heart of every Jew. Jerusalem is to us the quintessence of the Palestine idea. Its restoration symbolizes the redemption of Israel. Rome was to the Italians the emblem of their military conquests and political organization. Athens embodies for the Greeks the noblest their genius had wrought in art and thought. To us, Jerusalem has both a spiritual and a temporal significance. It is the City of God, the seat of our ancient sanctuary. But it is also the capital of David and Solomon, the City of the Great King, the metropolis of our ancient commonwealth.
To the followers of the two other great monotheistic religions, Jerusalem is a site of sacred associations and holy memories. To us it is that and more than that. It is the centre of our ancient national glory. It was our lodestar in all our wanderings. It embodies all that is noblest in our hopes for the future. Jerusalem is the eternal mother of the Jewish people, precious and beloved even its desolation. When David made Jerusalem the capital of Judea, on that day there began the Jewish Commonwealth. When Titus destroyed it on the 9th of Av, on that day, there ended the Jewish Commonwealth. But even though our Commonwealth was destroyed, we never gave up Jerusalem….
…An almost unbroken chain of Jewish settlement connects the Jerusalem of our day with the Holy City of antiquity. To countless generations of Jews in every land of their dispersion the ascent to Jerusalem was the highest that life could offer. In every generation, new groups of Jews from one part or another of our far-flung Diaspora came to settle here. For over a hundred years, we have formed the majority of
its population. And now that, by the will of God, a Jewish Commonwealth has been re-established, is it to be conceived that Jerusalem – Jerusalem of all places – should be out of it?
David Ben Gurion
(Statement to Knesset, December 5, 1949):
…Jewish Jerusalem is an organic and inseparable part of the state of Israel, as it is an inseparable part of the history and religion of Israel and of the soul of our people. Jerusalem is the very heart of the State of Israel. We feel pride in that Jerusalem is sanctified – also in the eyes of adherents of other faiths, and we freely and willingly are ready to make all the necessary arrangements to enable the adherents of the other faiths to enjoy their religious needs in Jerusalem. Moreover, we will give to the United Nations all our assistance to assure this. But we cannot conceive that the United Nations will try to tear Jerusalem form Israel or to impair the sovereignty of Israel in its eternal capital.
David Ben Gurion
(Statement to Knesset, December 13, 1949):
From the establishment of the Provisional Government we made the peace, the security and the economic consolidation of Jerusalem our principal care. In the stress of war, when Jerusalem was under siege, we were compelled to establish the seat of Government in Ha’Kirya at Tel Aviv. But for the State of Israel there has always been and always will be one capital only – Jerusalem the Eternal. Thus it was 3,000 years ago – and thus it will be, we believe, until the end of time.
The article further deceives by suggesting that Jewish attachment to the city is an invention of recent decades, following Israel’s victory in the Six-Day-War. The article deceptively talks of a “new emphasis on Jerusalem as integral to Israel’s identity.”
This is obviously false. The newspaper’s current journalists authors and editors would be well-served by acquainting themselves with the history they purport to write about, perhaps even by reading archived editions of their own newspaper. Nearly seventy years ago, the New York Times, reporting on the expulsion of Jews from eastern Jerusalem, wrote:
Because it was important to religious Jews and also to many non-religious Zionists that Jews should live in the “City of David” at the spiritual center of Zion beside the Wailing [Western] Wall, which they consider to be part of the western wall of King Solomon’s Temple, the army of Israel was willing to pay a high price to defend this quarter. (May 30, 1948)
But apparently, the current crop of journalists at the New York Times prefer to rely on Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American propagandist and PLO associate under Yasir Arafat who is quoted in support of their false assertion:
“[After 1967] Jerusalem became the center of a cult-like devotion that had not really existed previously,” said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University. “This has now been fetishized to an extraordinary degree as hard-line religious nationalism has come to predominate in Israeli politics, with the Western Wall as its focus.”
“Cult-like?” “Fetishized?” “Not existed previously?” Not only is this quote outrageously dishonest, it diminishes and deprecates the reverence for Judaism’s holiest sites. It is hard to imagine the Times relying on similar slurs about Muslim devotion to Mecca, Medina or even the Al Aqsa Mosque.