(The following letter was written by Dr. Denis MacEeoin and sent separately to William Hague, Alistair Burt and Simon Fraser at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It concerns the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city. MacEoin is editor of Middle East Quarterly and blogs at ‘A Liberal Defence of Israel‘ – A.L.)
Dear Mr Hague:
I write in support of a petition I have recently signed, asking the British Foreign Office to alter its position on what has become an unnecessarily vexed question concerning the capital of Israel. As you know, Israelis are unanimous in regarding Jerusalem as their capital, not Tel Aviv (where the British embassy is currently located), nor Haifa nor Jaffa nor Petah Tikva nor anywhere else in the country.
It is not hard to understand why the first Israeli parliament chose Jerusalem as its seat, even before it had built an edifice suitable to the needs of the men and women who sat in its chamber. For many centuries, Jews in the Diaspora had clung to a hope, not only of a return to the Holy Land, but to Jerusalem in particular, the erstwhile home of its holiest Temple and the scene of so many primary events in Jewish and Christian history. This might be dismissed on the grounds that religious belief should not determine a city’s status, but many cities derive their significance from their role as religious centres, from Mecca and Medina (the latter having been the first capital of Islam), to Karbala’ and Mashhad, to Varanasi (Benares) and the Vatican City. This original attachment, intensified by daily prayers while facing Jerusalem and repeated wishes to return there, was later supplanted by the governmental, educational, trading, defensive, legal and bureaucratic concerns of the capital of a secular state.
As a people who have been deeply wronged in the past, Jews have tried to build their own state along lines of equal citizenship, a single legal system, human rights, and the protection of all holy places. But when Jordan occupied East Jerusalem from 1949 to 1967, Muslim holy places were renovated while 58 synagogues were destroyed and 38,000 Jewish graves were demolished. In addition, Jews were not allowed to set foot in their own holy places, notably on the Temple Mount. By contrast, when Israel retook Jerusalem in 1967, the Temple Mount was handed to a Muslim authority on account of two Islamic structures built on top of it, the al-Aqsa mosque and the Qubbat al-Sakhra or Dome of the Rock.
Such depredations and a lack of reciprocity have made Israelis wary of a Muslim takeover of East Jerusalem, where the holiest sites are located: the Temple Mount, the Western Wall (the Kotel), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives, and the famous Jewish graveyards, still vandalized horribly by Arab criminals.
But the Palestinians have made it their business to turn Jerusalem into a bastion of Islamic holiness, not just because the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock are there, but because they now claim that there has never been any Jewish connection to the city or to the land of Israel. There was, they boast, no Jewish Temple there. All Biblical references to the Temple and to Jerusalem as a city built by King David are summarily and ahistorically dismissed.
Given that Muslims have demolished the holy places of more than one religion, the Jews are rightly concerned lest Jerusalem fall under Islamic control. In Saudi Arabia for decades now, the government has been engaged in the destruction of Islamic holy places in Mecca and Medina. Lest you think me in the grip of some obscure fantasy, I should explain that the Wahhabi form of Islam, which governs Saudi Arabia, is utterly ruthless in its condemnation of anything that may be worshipped instead of God. They have demolished over 200 historical sites to prevent pilgrims praying at them. In Mali, a similar form of Islam – Salafism – has recently demolished dozens of shrines belonging to the Sufi form of Islam. And in Iran, the government has demolished all the holy places and cemeteries of the persecuted Baha’i religion. Israel, by way of contrast, protects and nourishes the large international headquarters and two holiest shrines of the Baha’is, places now recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Is it surprising that the Israelis, backed by Jews and others like myself round the world, are desperate to maintain the integrity of the city, knowing as they do that Muslim Arab rule would carry a greatly heightened risk to the Old City and its environs? Israel has been generous towards Muslims and their holy places, but they fear that if increased pressure were to come from Saudi Arabia or Iran or, nearer to hand from Hamas, everything Jewish might be eliminated. Palestinians have taken control of the Jewish Tomb of Rachel, the third holiest site for Jews. They have commandeered most of the Ma’arat Ha-Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and made access for Jews to a tiny space very difficult, as I can personally attest. This is the second holiest site for Jews, containing as it does the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah.
In the earliest days of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad adopted from his Jewish neighbours the practice of turning towards Jerusalem during the five daily prayers. But in the year 622, a few months after his arrival in Medina, he did an about turn during one prayer session and from then on directed his followers to pray towards his home city of Medina. He severed all direct ties with Jerusalem, and in the centuries that followed Jerusalem was never a provincial capital, nor the heart of a Muslim country or empire. Medina in the first years, then Damascus, Baghdad, Istanbul and other cities became the capitals of Islam. Cairo was the major city in North Africa, Fez and Rabat capitals of the west, Esfahan, Tabriz, Tehran and others the royal cities of Iranian dynasties. And so on. But Jerusalem was never given such signal importance. This is significant. Palestinian wishes to make Jerusalem defy centuries of insignificance would lock us into a dispute that could last one thousand years.
For this reason, Jews everywhere will refuse to relinquish a city that was theirs from the beginning, and they will not reward people who have tried to take what was never theirs, who have tried to deny the historical record concerning the Jewish presence in a city that has been Jewish for 3000 years. To confirm the place of Jerusalem at the heart of Jewish life and prayers and as the eternal capital of their only homeland, Jews and Israelis appeal to honest governments to do the right thing and recognize that Jerusalem is the city where all the key aspects of Israeli life converge. No Israeli regards Tel Aviv as his or her capital. It is demeaning to treat Israelis as children by telling them this or that foreign government knows better than they and their government when it comes to designating Jerusalem their capital. I do not think you treat any other capital city in this way. You do not call Cork the capital of Ireland, nor Glasgow the capital of Scotland, nor the cathedral city of St. David’s the capital of Wales, nor Marseilles the capital of France. I do not believe the Foreign Office means to be insulting in this matter; but if foreigners called Birmingham the capital of England and the UK, would you not feel aggrieved?
Israel’s enemies call in all seriousness for the destruction of the country. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called on all Islamic nations to ‘exterminate Israel’ (my translation). The Arabs, faced by their repeated failure to achieve this by military means or terrorism, have turned to secondary means, saying that there never any Jews in Israel, that they themselves were there first, an impossible 9000 years ago, and that Jerusalem was always an Arab city (a claim that directly contradicts the accounts of Arab historians like al-Tabari). It is a cheap and dishonest attempt to rewrite history itself and to introduce confusion into a simple narrative. Denying the historicity and modern reality of Israel, of Jerusalem, and of Israelis by refusing to liberate the city from the string of fictions that has tied so many in knots, allows falsehood and deceit to rule in international affairs. Britain is still a great country that is admired the world round for its probity. I do not doubt that you, like myself, wish to see that image remain untarnished. But I have to say that it is in some measure tarnished when you try to steal the Israeli capital from the Israelis themselves.
Dr. Denis MacEoin