Alan Silverstein

An Open Letter For The Trump Team: Overcoming Propaganda About Jerusalem

Anticipating the initial visit to Israel by President Donald Trump, the issue of Jerusalem’s future governance has re-emerged. Members of the Trump advance team alarmed their Israeli hosts by asserting that the Kotel is “part of the West Bank” and does not belong to Israel. An immediate rebuttal was offered by the White House. Nevertheless, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer returned to a lack of clarity. He commented that the Western Wall “is in Jerusalem,” i.e. disputed territory awaiting negotiations. The transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has been put on hold. Gradually Jerusalem discussions with the Trump Administration will intensify. The relevant facts must be made clear

First, contrary to anti-Israel propaganda, Jews did not suddenly appear in Jerusalem in 1967 for the first time in 2,000 years. Quite the contrary, Jews have been present in the Holy City throughout the millennia. Prior to 1840 barely a few thousand souls braved unstable living conditions. During the next 20 years, the Ottoman overlords improved security and Jews quickly became Jerusalem’s largest element within the population. By 1896, more than 60% of Jerusalemites were Jewish: 28,112 Jews compared to 8,560 Muslims and 8,748 Christians. IN 1925, out of 65,578 Jerusalem residents, 33,971 were Jews, 14,699 were Muslim and 13,413 were Christian. On the eve of Israel’s War of Independence in May 1948, the City of David’s combined population in its eastern and western sections had increased to 165,000: 100,000 Jews, 40,000 Muslims and 25,000 Christians.

In sum, prior to the 1948 Jordanian conquest of the Old City and of eastern portions outside the city walls, there were two and one half times as many Jews as Muslims. Only the Hashemite military invasion changed the demographic facts. Jordan artificially created “traditional Arab East Jerusalem.” To make certain that Arabs predominated, the Jordanians destroyed or ruined all 58 synagogues inside Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. The few structural remnants were turned into chicken coups or stables. Slum dwellings were built adjacent to the Kotel. The Mount of Olives Jewish cemetery was desecrated. Many tombstones became pavement on roads or floors of latrines. Jordanian Jerusalem expelled every Jewish man, woman and child.

Second, at the conclusion of the 6-Day war of June 1967, the United Nations Security Council issued a framework for peace, UN Resolution 242. it is not true that Resolution 242 requires complete Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. Former U.S. undersecretary of state and a framer of the resolution, Eugene Rostow has explained that 242’s territorial formula intentionally was left vague. 242 affirmed that the Jordan-Israel armistice line, the “green line,” was not an internationally recognized border. It was the position held by opposing troops at the moment a 1949 cease-fire was implemented. Resolution 242 stipulates that in a final peace agreement, Israel should withdraw from some but not necessarily “all” of the land of the West Bank, etc. The goal is to achieve “secure and recognized boundaries free of threats or acts of force.” In the interim, the land acquired by Israel in 1967 legally remained as “disputed territory.” It is noteworthy that according to 1967 US Ambassador to the UN and an author of the Resolution, Arthur Goldberg, “[242] in no way refers to Jerusalem, and this omission was deliberate… Jerusalem was a discrete matter, not linked to the West Bank.”

Third, it is false to claim that Israeli-controlled post 1967 Jerusalem has suppressed Arab demographic growth. In fact while under Jordanian rule, from 1948 through 1967, Jerusalem’s Arab population remained stagnant, 65,000 in 1948 and 66,000 19 years later. In contrast, the Jewish population skyrocketed, doubling from 100,000 to 199,000. Why? Jerusalem was a high priority to Jews. Clearly, it was not as special to the Arabs as long as it remained in Arab hands. From 1948-67, Jordan encouraged the Arab elite of Jerusalem to move to its burgeoning capital city of Amman. Jerusalem was reduced into being an administrative center for the West Bank. Once the onset of Israeli rule spawned Arab ire, moving to Jerusalem became a priority to Arabs. A rapid pace of growth ensued within Jerusalem’s Arab sector. Since 1967, Jerusalem’s Arab growth rate not only has not been suppressed, it has exceeded that of the Jewish community.

Fourth, it is bogus to claim that religious rights had been protected by the Jordanians and then became suppressed by the Israelis. Under Jordanian control, long-standing Jewish rights were terminated. Both Israeli and Diaspora Jewish pilgrims were excluded from residing near or even visiting Jerusalem’s holy places. The practice of Judaism inside Jerusalem’s Jordanian sector was forbidden. Christian groups, too, faced severe restrictions. In 1958 Jerusalem’s Christian schools were compelled to close on Fridays, the Moslem day of rest, and to include the teaching of the Koran. Jordanian officials limited the opening of additional schools for Christians. They also supervised appointments of teachers. Many previous privileges accorded to Christian religious institutions were abolished. In 1965 the Jordanian legislature also passed a law cancelling the right of Christian institutions to acquire land in or near Jerusalem. Under mounting pressure, Jerusalem’s Christians fled to Beirut or to the West. The Christian population of 25,000 in 1948 declined to a core group of 12,000 religious activists by 1967.

In contrast to Jordanian suppression, once Jerusalem came under Israeli rule, religious rights became safeguarded. in June 1967, Israel placed shrines respectively into the hands of Muslim and Christian authorities. As noted by General Moshe Dayan, commander of the Israeli troops who had gained control of the city: “Now that we were in control, it was up to us to grant what we had demanded of others and to allow members of all faiths absolute freedom to visit and worship at their holy places.” Dayan even enhanced the religious freedom practiced by Jerusalem’s Moslems. “I said I had no wish or intention of continuing the practice which the Jordanians had instituted of censoring Friday sermons which were broadcast over the radio…”

As Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch noted ten months later, “the Holy Places… were given full respect and protection by the Israelis, before the war, during the war, and afterwards.” (April 12, 1968). The National Coalition of American Nuns similarly later commented that “never before have the holy places been so protected and maintained.” (September 10, 1971). Twelve years after the implementation of this policy of tolerance, C. Witton-Davies, Archdeacon of Christ Church in Oxford, England was motivated to conclude,” From my own personal conversations and observations, I testify that Jerusalem has never been so fairly administered, or made so accessible to adherents of all three monotheisms.” (September 30, 1979).

The Trump Administration will be crafting its vision for a long-awaited peace accord between Israel and the Arab World. The disposition of Jerusalem remains at the core of challenge. A successful policy must take the relevant facts not the falsehoods into careful account.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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