The Awkward Question of Jerusalem

After surviving the crusaders, Palestine and especially Jerusalem were able to lead their own lives for a long time—or rather, become desolate—without international attention. During the Ottoman (in other words, Turkish) rule, Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in reasonable harmony. Coming up to the 1800s, only about 9,000 people lived in Jerusalem, of which approximately 4,000 were Muslims, 3,000 Christians and 2,000 Jews.

Despite the immigration restrictions set by the Ottomans, Jews kept arriving in Palestine in increasingly large numbers, and their financial activity inspired also Arabs and Muslims to move to Jerusalem. By 1838, the population of the city was already about 16,000, of which 6,000 were Jews, 5,000 Muslims and 4,000 Arab Christians. In addition, 800 Turkish soldiers and about a hundred European missionaries and merchants lived in the city. By the end of the century, in 1896, the population was already about 45,000, of which as much as two thirds were Jews.

Jerusalem developed in the 19th century from a backward, forgotten city into one of the biggest attractions of its time drawing merchants, priests, painters, pilgrims, diplomats and rulers. Alongside the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy also established their representatives in the city.

In his book JerusalemThe Biography, British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore writes that the Jews had already become the majority in Jerusalem around 1880, and from then onward, at the latest, Jews have been the largest population in that ancient city. Some statistics indicate Jews formed the majority in Jerusalem already by 1844, but demographic information from that time is often contradictory, for instance the Turkish population census included only the people of the Ottoman Empire living in Palestine.

The first reliable population census was done by Britain, and according to the statistics, the population of Jerusalem in 1922 was 52,578 inhabitants, of which 33,971 were Jews, 14,669 Christians and 13,413 Muslims. The Jewish majority of Jerusalem was divergent in comparison to the Palestinian mandate’s total population of 760,000, of which Jews accounted for only 11 percent while Arabs constituted a 78 % majority.

After failing to administer its mandate, the British government announced on February 14, 1947 that it would shove the future of Palestine into the hands of the UN, which then set UNSCOP, United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, to resolve the future of the area. In September the same year, the committee made a proposition according to which the UN General Assembly decided on November 29,1947; to divide Palestine into two states—Jewish and Arab. With the same Resolution number 181, Jerusalem was to be formed into an international separate administrative area (in Latin, corpus separatum) led by a trusteeship council and a governor who was not to be a citizen of either new state.

As a matter of fact, that UN partition decision meant in practice a two-state model, but it was not acceptable to the Arabs who instead accelerated their plans and actions to destroy the Jewish State before it was even born. Jewish leaders accepted the UN plan in spite of the fact that they did not get Jerusalem, and immediately began to build their future state and its defense.

In the Explanatory Memorandum of the UNSCOP proposal, the population of the city of Jerusalem was no less than 205,000, of which 105,000 Arabs and 100,000 Jews. At first glance, this seems a contradiction to the Jerusalem population censuses done by the British Mandate Administration, but a closer inspection of the UN Resolution and its map attachments reveals that what was defined as the City of Jerusalem, in fact, included alongside the actual city of Jerusalem, several cities and villages populated mainly by Arabs, situated within 15 kilometers of the boundaries of the city of Jerusalem. These included Bethlehem.

The key reason for the establishment of a special administrative area in Jerusalem had to do with Jerusalem’s role as a holy place for three religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, so the UN would see to it that the city remained open to practitioners of all religions.

It is perplexing, however, with regard to Jerusalem’s demographic development, how the Arabs, and among them, Muslims in particular, began to appropriate the city for themselves at the beginning of the 1900s, and how they became active during the UNSCOP process, even though they had shown no interest in the city for centuries—even though Palestine had been under the Islamic Ottoman Empire for over 400 years from 1516 to 1917. On the other hand, Jews, driven to different corners of the world, had prayed and hoped throughout their 1800-year diaspora to return to Jerusalem next year, at the latest.

As we know from history, Jerusalem never became the separate administrative area the UN planned, but instead, it ended up in the middle of an Arab-initiated conflict immediately after Israel became independent on May 14, 1948 when the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq attacked the newborn Jewish State. Secretary General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha announced the goal of the war was the total destruction of Israel.

Despite the total disproportion of the armed forces, Israel, contrary to all preconceptions, managed to beat the attackers and conquer the Western part of Jerusalem as well as several Arab areas.

In May 1967, the Arab armies once again grouped together to attack Israel. Egypt had ordered the UN troops to withdraw from Sinai, to which they immediately agreed and on May 22 they closed the Strait of Tiran, the only seaway from the Eilat Harbor to the Red Sea. Israel saw the blocking of a sea lane as an act of aggression justifying war based on international law (casus belli), and in the morning of July 5 she made a surprise attack on 19 Egyptian air force bases, destroying 309 of Egypt’s 340 fighter planes. In the next few days, Israel destroyed also the Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi air forces, mainly at their bases. The war ended just six days later, and this time the entire Eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank transferred over to Israel from Jordan, which had occupied them since 1948. The Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip also were transferred from Egypt to Israel.

In the light of today’s discussions, it is a paradoxical truth that Jerusalem was annexed to Israel due to military attacks initiated by Arab countries, not as a result of Israeli aggressions, as the prevailing view sees it. Of course, it is pure speculation how the Palestinian area would have developed had the Arabs accepted the two-state model offered by the UN in 1947, but at least a lot of bloodshed could have been spared.

According to the second chapter of the Book of Isaiah, Jerusalem will be a key stage at the end of world history when the representatives of all peoples arrive there. It is interesting that part of those verses are inscribed on the wall in front of the United Nations Headquarters in New York, at the corner of 1st Avenue and 43rd Street: they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (KJV).

The same theme from the verse in Isaiah appears on the bronze statue Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares sculpted by Evgeniy Vuchetich and donated by the Soviet Union to the UN in 1959. The statue is situated in the UN garden along the Hudson River. It is surprising that the atheist Soviet Union took hold of a theme connected to the Bible.

What is sad, however, is that the preceding verses in Isaiah chapter 2 and verses 1–4 are not inscribed on the wall or the statue, and that the UN has not taken them into account either. Those verses make known the role of Jerusalem and the significance of our Lord in the future of every nation:

This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.

Many peoples will come and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”

The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

The Prophet Zechariah continues with the same theme, concerning the nations (Zech. 8:20–23):

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the Lord and seek the Lord Almighty. I myself am going.’ And many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord Almighty and to entreat him.”

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’

These verses proclaim God’s overall plan to all nations of the United Nations, their leaders and citizens. If the UN and the leaders of nations believed in the Bible as a whole, the treatment of Israel and the question of Jerusalem would be discussed in the UN in a very different way than what we have been used to seeing in the past decades.

The above text is an excerpt from my book The Miracle of Israel and President Truman.

About the Author
Risto Huvila, a public speaker, pianist and writer from Finland, observes European and American Middle East policies and antisemitism through evangelical lenses. As chairman of the Federation of Finland-Israel Associations and vice-chair of the Finnish Holocaust Remembrance Association, he is an active advocate for Israel. Risto has authored the book The Miracle of Israel and President Truman and he appears frequently in media.
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