Who Owns Jerusalem?

Since Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem in 1967, the issue of “ownership” of the city has been a bitter conflict between the Palestinian and Israeli communities. It has major political, religious, social and legal consequences.

Jerusalem in the centre of the mosaic of St. George’s Church in Madaba, Jordan, the oldest cartographic representation of the city (6th century)
Berthold Werner/Wikimedia Commons

In recent decades, many Israeli governments and Zionist organizations have launched a worldwide crusade to assure that Israel’s political control of Jerusalem translates into exclusive physical and legal possession of the city by specific Jewish groups, such as the control of worship at the Western Wall (Haʾit al-Buraq in Arabic, and ha-Kotel ha-Ma’aravi in Hebrew). Similar efforts—with overwhelming financial and political support from evangelical organizations in the US—exist for the takeover of the Haram al-Sharif (known in English as the Temple Mount, and in Hebrew as Har ha-Bayt).

Full support from the United States

It is in this light that we should see the law signed on 6 December 2017 by Donald Trump to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is a major phase in this effort to make Jerusalem belong exclusively to some Jews. Trump was simply enacting a decision adopted by the US Congress in 1995 (known as the Jerusalem Embassy Act), and it does not, therefore, represent a departure from previous US strategy. It showcases the overwhelming support Israel has received from the political and civil establishments in the US, with more than 130 billion US dollars in military and non-military aid (1948–2018) and billions more in indirect aid, such as funding countless satellite and exchange university programs in Israel, sponsoring members of the Israeli army and police to train US law enforcement, etc. Add to this the enormous US diplomatic cover that has allowed Israeli governments to evade political and legal accountability on the world stage for their utter disregard of international conventions and agreements and their apartheid system treatment of the Palestinians. There is no doubt that many powerful western European countries, and even some Arab states as well, have supported, covertly or openly, this Israeli effort to turn political control of Jerusalem into an exclusive possession.

Might does not make right. History also tells us that might does not always produce lasting solutions or realities. In 587 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and exiled the ancient Israelites, but their act only created stronger attachments to the city, as we read in the Psalm (137.5): “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!” When the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, it created a strong desire to rebuild it. It can be said that the Christians and the Muslims, as heirs of biblical history, were inspired by that desire in the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dome of the Rock, both of which were partly meant as different fulfillments of the rebuilding of the “Temple.” Additionally, there are Jewish and Protestant groups today who seek to rebuild the ancient Jewish Temple, and their efforts have serious political consequences on the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Today, Israel is playing the role of Babylon and Rome, and the Palestinians, like the ancient Israelites in 587 BCE and the Jews in 70 CE, are the victims.

Saladin and Richard Lionheart

Jerusalem is a place that belongs to everyone and no one. It does not belong to any specific group because it belongs to all monotheists. Therefore, control over it should accept this simple reality, and those blinded by their current might should learn from history. They should admit that Jerusalem is a heritage, and whoever controls it must serve as its custodian. This is how countless Muslim rulers treated the city, even when it was tempting to possess it and their power could have allowed for that. An example of this attitude towards Jerusalem comes from the career of Sultan Saladin. In 1192, he and King Richard the Lionheart concluded a peace treaty that ended the war between the two camps. The peace allowed the Franks to resume their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which did not please the king. He wrote to Saladin that only those carrying a laissez-passer from him should be permitted while those who do not have one should be turned away by the Muslims. Saladin responded that he could not ban any Frank seeking to visit Jerusalem because such an act violates his duties as a host.

One might think this was a public relation stunt, to use a modern expression, on the part of Saladin. A stunt it was not. Saladin’s reply to Richard was informed by a historical understanding on the part of Muslim rulers and scholars that the Muslims are not the owners of Jerusalem. They are the city’s custodians, and their responsibility requires that they protect and guarantee the rights of all pilgrims (be they Muslims, Christians, or Jews) to come and worship at their sacred spots, some of which—such as the Dome of the Rock—are shared by all three monotheistic religions.

This was not the only time Saladin showed that his role as custodian limits what he could and could not do in the city, even if his might would have allowed him. In October 1187, following the capture of Jerusalem from the Franks, who had occupied it since 1099, Saladin convened an assembly of senior army officers, administrators and religious scholars to discuss the fate of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The majority of those in attendance advised him not to touch the Church because it was the Muslims’ legal obligation to protect it and defend the Christians’ right to come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They argued that these rights were enshrined into law by the second caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab who came to Jerusalem—supposedly in 638—and concluded a pact with the Christians—known as the Pact of Umar or al-uhda al-umariyya in Arabic. The notion of custodianship explains why by the time of the British occupation of Palestine in 1917, and despite Muslim rule of close to 1300 years, the main property owners in Jerusalem were the Christians.

Every religion has marked the city

Jerusalem occupies a central position in the religious universe of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and the three religions share the same foundational biblical narrative that made the city the religious center of monotheism. Each community also added its own unique marks and exclusive narratives in the city. That the Muslims felt obliged to defend and protect the Christian and Jewish places of worship in Jerusalem and access to them does not mean that the city was not important to them. Their religious and political attachments to it date to the first century of Islam (seventh century CE), and was shaped by the common biblical heritage that they share with the Jews and Christians. They also added, over the years, their own experiences in the city, which became part of Jerusalem’s Islamic heritage. The development of the Haram al-Sharif by the Umayyad caliphs (the Dome of the Rock and Aqsa Mosque) as well as many other religious and stately structures stand as timeless testimonies that Jerusalem was very important to the Muslims. It is important because they believe creation started there, because countless divine interventions and prophetic experiences unfolded in and around the city, and because the end of time will take place in it. As such, many Muslims throughout the centuries came on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or stopped in the city on their way to Mecca (a stop in Jerusalem on the way to the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca was very popular throughout Islamic history (it only ceased due to the violence that preceded and followed the creation of the state of Israel). Jerusalem was also a celebrated place for spiritual retreat, especially for Sufis and many other Muslims, given the belief that the prophet Muhammad journeyed from it to Heaven where he had his audience with God [known in Islam as al-Miʿraj or the heavenly ascent]. Some Muslims were also eager to visit Jerusalem to familiarize themselves with it in preparation for the Day of Judgment.

As noted earlier, the Muslims historically understood that the duty of custodianship conditioned their rule of the city and determined the choices they could do. They were even willing to share political control over the city, or even turn it to other groups, in return for peace provided such a peace would assure the Muslims access and worship in the city. An example of this comes from the time of Saladin. In 1191, Richard the Lionheart met with Saladin’s brother al-Adil [who essentially became sultan after him] with an offer of peace. He proposed that al-Adil marries his sister Joan. Al-Adil discussed the proposal with some key members of Saladin’s court who liked it and presented it to the sultan. Saladin gave it his blessings. The proposed deal stipulated that the royal couple [al-Adil and Joan] take Jerusalem as their capital and rule together over Palestine. The deal ultimately fell apart because of the rejection of Rome; at the time, the Popes were adamant on fighting the Muslims and sabotaging any peace some Crusader leaders tried to make with the Muslims.

Muslim pilgrims at the Nativity Church

This deal was not completely dead. It was partly resurrected 38 years after when Saladin’s nephew sultan al-Kamil and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen concluded a peace to share Jerusalem. In my opinion, it was this peace that ultimately ended the Crusades in the sense that it made many leaders in Europe reluctant to fight the Muslims. The alliance al-Kamil and Frederick negotiated in 1228–1229 assured the Muslims their rights to run the affairs in the Muslim quarter [including the Haram al-Sharif], and the Christians their rights to manage the affairs in the Christian quarters which also extended to Bethlehem. It also protected each group’s rights to visit and worship at sacred shrines in each other’s areas, such as Christian pilgrims coming to the Dome of the Rock, or Muslim pilgrims visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Similarly, the notion of custodianship defined and shaped the Muslims’ attitude towards Jewish rights in Jerusalem. A case in point is the historical rights that the Jewish communities had to worship at the Western Wall. Another example is an incident which unfolded in November 1473 and lasted until August 1475 between the local Muslim and Jewish communities. It gives us a clear idea about the way Muslim rulers felt obliged to protect Jewish rights in Jerusalem, even at times when they could have easily succumbed to popular calls to confiscate Jewish property and the Jews were defenseless and lacked any political power. The incident in question emerged following a heavy rainstorm in November 1473, which caused the collapse of a Jewish-owned building in the Jewish quarter of the city.

Local Muslims thought to confiscate the lot to use it as an entryway to a mosque next door. This led to a fiasco between some local leaders and jurists, on the one hand, and the Mamluk Sultan Qaʾitbay in Cairo and official Mamluk jurists, on the other hand. Infuriated by the rejection of the sultan to give them the Jewish lot, a group of Muslim mobs in Jerusalem destroyed the Jewish synagogue. The Jewish community wrote to Qaʾitbay for help. He convened a council of religious jurists who ruled that the Jews have a right to their synagogue and their lot, and they should be allowed to rebuild them. The locals refused to apply the sultan’s decision. Qaʾitbay was infuriated at this disobedience and ordered some jurists from Jerusalem brought to Cairo where they were flogged and fired from their posts. The incident ended in August 1475 and the synagogue was allowed to be reconstructed.

An affront to historical Judaism

This case, like the other ones discussed in this paper, shows how the notion of custodianship sustained its dominance among Muslim political and religious elites for centuries, and were not restricted to a particular ruler. This medieval notion of custodianship guided the Muslim rulers’ attitude towards Jerusalem. They felt obliged to protect the rights of Christians and Jews, even at times when they could have easily succumbed to popular demands or historical opportunities to confiscate them. In contrast, today we see the government of Benjamin Netanyahu emboldened by the US, European and Arab governments, and using its military advantage to confiscate Jerusalem and make it an exclusive property for some Jews, which is an affront against historical Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

It is rather ironic that the period we call the Middle Ages—which, because of its euro-centricity, evokes notions of barbarism and religious fanaticism—can offer lessons about statesmanship that are dangerously lacking in the world of today. Trump, Netanyahu, and many similarly crass world leaders behave like the Babylonians or the Romans, as if their powers will endure and their say is the law. The peace between al-Kamil and Frederick II is a perfect model to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over Jerusalem. However, it will never work if Israeli governments insist on stripping the Palestinians of any rights in Jerusalem and Palestine. For it to work, we need to go back to the concept of custodianship, where the political ruler of Jerusalem is obliged to be a host, a generous host.