Jerusalem: Political Significance of a Holy Site

“Ten measures of beauty gave God to the world: nine to Jerusalem and one to the remainder.

Ten measures of sorrow gave God to the world: nine to Jerusalem and one to the remainder.” -Talmud


As the above quotation from the Talmud (a collection of interpretations of the Jewish Torah) succinctly notes, throughout history the city of Jerusalem has been the source of both immeasurable beauty and tragic sorrow, peaceful coexistence and violent bloodshed, holy prayer and brutal destruction. A sacred place for the world’s three largest Abrahamic religions, a crucial city in the histories of numerous empires, and a capital claimed by two separate peoples, Jerusalem is unique, both for its profoundly significant role in human history and its continued modern day importance. Jerusalem is at the center of the ongoing peace process between Israel and Palestine, and it has served not only as a beacon of hope for people around the globe, but also as political and spiritual sticking point that has led to the collapse of multiple talks and summits.

This paper does not attempt to recount the entire history or unravel the complex legal status of this city upon a hill; such an effort would be too ambitious for this space, and similar efforts have been undertaken by a number of scholars in the past. Rather, it seeks first to provide enough background information to position Jerusalem as a case study for a plethora of issues plaguing today’s international scene, and then to offer a potential solution to this quandary based upon Jerusalem’s historical, religious and political significance.


Religious Significance

“Jews, Christians and Muslims have been drawn to Jerusalem precisely because they believe it to be a sacred center—the ‘touching point between the divine and the earthly, the place where heaven and earth meet.” [1]

            Jerusalem is a holy site for each of the world’s three primary Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Though the details of its sanctity differ from faith to faith, there exists a common thread among these three religions in their spiritual attachment to Jerusalem, and their intense desire to protect and defend their holy places.


Jerusalem in Judaism

Judaism is the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, and its exclusive geographic focus is Jerusalem. In fact, Jerusalem is so important to the Jewish tradition that the city is given 70 names in the Mishnah (the Jewish oral corpus) ranging from “Peace” to “Faithful City” to “City of Righteousness” to “Doorway to the World’s Peoples.”[2] According to sacred Jewish texts, Jerusalem first gained its political importance when King David established it as the united capital of the twelve tribes of Israel in 1000 BCE. Yet its religious significance was sealed centuries earlier, when Abraham ascended Mount Moriah in Jerusalem in the famous story of the Binding of Isaac, as recounted in Genesis 22.

For hundreds of years, the focal point of Jewish religious life was the Temple in Jerusalem, which was located on the rock upon which the city was originally founded. The First Temple was constructed under King Solomon in 957 BCE, and stood until it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Second Temple was constructed a few decades later, was renovated following years of plundering and looting under King Herod in the first century CE, and was ultimately destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.[3] Before its destruction, the Temple had an elaborate layout centered on the “holy of holies.” where the Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments and the shekhina (God’s Divine Presence), was located. Only the Western Wall, which still stands in Jerusalem today, survived the final Roman destruction.

Even in the current era, many Jewish practices are still focused around the Temple and, consequently, Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the holiest site in Judaism, and pious Jews pray there on a daily basis. Around the world, Jews face toward Jerusalem while praying, and much of the liturgy contains passages of mourning for the Temple’s destruction as well as songs of hope for its rebuilding. Jerusalem moreover plays an essential eschatological function in the Jewish religion: it is believed that when the “end of days” arrives, the Temple will be rebuilt and Jerusalem will be the final destination for all of mankind. As a result, many Jews today “see control of the Temple Mount or Har HaBayit as central to the Messianic Age.”[4]


Jerusalem in Christianity

Jerusalem is a crucial component of the Christian narrative as well, serving as an important center of Christian pilgrimage due in part to its revered role in the account of Jesus’ death and eventual resurrection. It is believed that in the year 29 CE, Jesus went to Jerusalem for one of the traditional Jewish pilgrimages (in this case, the Pesakh journey), and was in the city at the time of his death; he was then crucified on a hillock called Golgotha just outside the city’s first century walls. Moreover, the Holy Sepulcher—the tomb in which Jesus was buried—is located in Jerusalem, and is the site for the “most important single sanctuary in Christian culture”. As it does in Judaism, Jerusalem also plays a role in Christianity eschatology as the setting of the Day of Last Judgment. In Paul’s time, Christians believed that, at the end of days, Jerusalem would become heaven itself, in that “a heavenly Jerusalem would physically descend from the clouds and God would establish a divine kingdom on earth there.”[5]

Today, as Breger writes, “members of the Christian community in Jerusalem have at least two concerns regarding the holy places in Jerusalem. First, they are concerned to have their ‘rights’ in the holy places and the city in some way confirmed (or reconfirmed) in international law. And second, they are concerned with ensuring rights of access, freedom of religious activity, and freedom of pilgrimage to the holy places and the Holy City.” These worries are undoubtedly rooted in the demographic trends within Jerusalem’s Christian community—its population has dropped from 30,000 in 1948 to a mere 10,000 today.[6] Moreover, the “Christian community” is in no way monolithic, and there exist strong tensions between the many Christian factions in the city. Furthermore, the majority of lay Christians living in Jerusalem today are Palestinians, who are hesitant to distance themselves too much from broader Palestinian concerns.


Jerusalem in Islam

Jerusalem is also remarkably significant in Islam, the most populous faith tradition in the Middle East today. When Muhammad took his Night Journey to heaven in the year 620, it is told that he went through Jerusalem—as Zwi Werblowsky succintly articulated, “there are no direct flights from Mecca to heaven; you have to make a stopover in Jerusalem.”[7] It is told that during this Night Journey, Muhammad stopped at the al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount, which remains a holy place in Islam today. Jerusalem contains a second particularly sacred site for Muslims: the famous Dome of the Rock. The Muslim tradition holds that this was the very place from which Muhammad ascended to heaven with the angel Gabriel, and that the Dome of the Rock is where the Day of Judgment will occur. Originally, Jerusalem was deemed the location to face during Muslim prayer services; while this decision was ultimately reversed, it nevertheless underscores the importance of Jerusalem—and the Temple Mount in particular—in the Muslim faith.


The Temple Mount

On the eastern edge of the Old City lies the Temple Mount, the location of the Western Wall, the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock. As the previous section elucidated, these sites are among the holiest in the world for Judaism and Islam,, making the Temple Mount important in the various peace talks that have occurred (the Holy Sepulcher—the most important Christian holy site—lies 400 yards to the West of the Temple Mount). The Temple Mount has a complicated history, which will be more fully recounted in subsequent sections. In brief, despite changes in sovereignty, the Temple Mount has been ruled continuously by an Islamic waqf, or council, since 1187. Even when Israel regained control of Eastern Jerusalem in 1967, Israeli officials declared that “the Temple Mount area was off limits for Jewish worship and that Muslim religious officials were free to organize and administer worship at the mosques as before.” This declaration was partly political, yet had religious undertones—halakha (Jewish law) prohibits Jews from walking on the Temple Mount so that they do not accidentally tread upon and therefore desecrate the holy ground upon which the Holy of Holies originally stood, and where it is believed God’s Divine Presence still resides. Nonetheless, the laws concerning the Temple Mount remain complicated and confusing: “Israel claims sovereignty over the Temple Mount, but has chosen de facto to allow the waqf to control day-to-day activity on the Mount absent any breakdown of public order.”[8] Moreover, should Jerusalem be divided as a capital for two different states, both groups have expressed their desire to maintain control over the Temple Mount and their holy sites.


History of Jerusalem

Jerusalem has had one of the most complicated histories of any city in world history. It has changed hands more than twenty times, and “it is possible that more blood has been shed for Jerusalem than for any other city on the face of the earth.”[9]


King David Through Islamic Rule: 993 BCE-1517 CE

Jerusalem was first established as the political center of the Jewish people under King David in the 10th Century BCE. From 993 BCE to 933 BCE, the city was ruled by King David and his successor King Solomon, whose descendants continued to maintain control for the next several centuries. Even when the kingdom split into the Kingdom of Israel in the North and the Kingdom of Judah in the South, Jerusalem remained the capital of Judah under the House of David and Solomon. The city survived the Assyrian siege in 701 BCE that decimated the Northern Kingdom, but was unable to withstand the Babylonian siege in 597 BCE.

Once Nebuchdnezzar and the Babylonians took over, they burnt the first temple and destroyed the walls of the city. The majority of the Jewish inhabitants were forced into exile until Cyrus II of Persia conquered the city decades later and allowed the original settlers to return. The Persian rule proved beneficial for the Jews, who were allowed under Darius the Great in 516 BCE to finish the construction of the second temple. Alexander the Great defeated the Persians, however, and Jerusalem fell under Greek control. Many Jews assimilated and were Hellenized, yet a valiant few—under the Maccabees—mobilized and organized a revolt which, in 168 BCE, succeeded. For almost 200 years, Jerusalem was ruled by Jews as the capital of the independent Hasmonean Kingdom.

Throughout the Hasmonean rule, however, the Jews slowly ceded more and more control over to the Romans, who viewed Jerusalem first as an autonomous province, then ultimately as a participating part of their vast empire. In 19 BCE, the Romans installed Herod as a Jewish client king, upon whose death Judea and Jerusalem truly came under direct Roman control. The Jewish population attempted numerous rebellions under the Roman empire, including the “Great Revolt” in 66 CE that eventually led to the destruction of the Second Temple by Roman legions in 70 CE, and the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 CE which was briefly successful yet ultimately concluded with Roman suppression and a ban on Jews entering Jerusalem that lasted into the 4th century. Roman rule and its eastern Byzantine counterpart remained in tact until the seventh century, with a brief punctuation of Persian domination from 614 to 629 before the return to Byzantine control.

The next major shift in the history of Jerusalem and its surrounding areas occurred in 638 CE, when the Islamic caliphate gained control of the city. Islamic rule was very inclusive, and Jews were allowed back into the city. Various Islamic dynasties ruled for the next four hundred years, beginning with the Umayyads, continuing with the Abbasids and Fatimids, and concluding with a brief rule by the Seljuqs. In 1099, however, crusaders gained control of the city and established the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The crusaders were ruthless warriors who massacred Jews and Muslims before expelling any non-Christians who remained in the city. Yet in 1187, Saladin recaptured Palestine, and established a policy of religious tolerance that enabled Jews and Muslims to reenter and populate the city. From 1197 to 1244, the Ayyubids remained in power, but 1244 saw a conquest by the Tartars, who decimated Christian populations and drove out the Jews. The Ayyubids succeeded in driving out the Tartars in 1247, but were sufficiently weakened by the episode that they fell to the Mamluks in 1250, who continued to rule until 1517.


Jerusalem under the Ottoman Empire: 1517-1917

From 1517 to 1917, Jerusalem was a key part of the vast Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were an Islamic power, and thus “had no need to legislate concerning Islamic holy places because those places were administered by a waqf (religious foundation) recognized in shari’a [Islamic law].”[10] Under the Ottomans, Jews and Christians had a secure but decidedly secondary status. They were considered dhimmis, or “people of the book” and therefore were not excessively persecuted, but they were subject to extraordinarily excessive taxes and bouts of maltreatment. Particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “Jerusalem’s Jews, powerless and poor, experienced indignities directed at them by Muslims as Jews conducted their worship at the Wall—indignities such as stoning, herding animals in the narrow alley before the Wall, and befouling the sacred Wall with animal excrement.” Similarly, “Christians in Jerusalem complained that during periods of military conflict, Muslims made a practice of defacing the figures of saints in churches.”[11] As the Ottoman Empire declined, Jerusalem and the land of Palestine became increasingly neglected by the central government in Constantinople, and other European powers began to assert their influence in the region. In 1917, the Ottomans lost control of Jerusalem, a sign of the empire’s imminent collapse.


British Rule: 1917-1948

The secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France stipulated that Jerusalem and the majority of Palestine fall under international control with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. On December 9, 1917, however, Britain violated this agreement with their successful conquest of Jerusalem. British officials claimed that under their rule, “every sacred building, monument, holy spot, traditional shrine, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions, will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faiths they are sacred.”[12] The League of Nations confirmed this open and pluralistic viewpoint, and Britain continued to promote principles of religious access and self-governance of religious sites. In the early 1920s, “to meet Muslim concerns for autonomy in their religious affairs, the British…created a Supreme Muslim Council (SMC) thus giving the SMC ‘unqualified,’ if de facto, control of Islamic waqfs in Palestine.” However, “a turning point in Jerusalem’s Arab politics came around 1920 when the Mandatory government made several decisions that enhanced the power of the Jerusalem Muslim aristocracy led by the Husayni clan, the least moderate of the Muslim family elites.”[13] In the fifteen years that Amin of the Husayni clan held power, he furthered many extremist politics that led to Jewish riots and ultimately an Arab rebellion in 1936.

In the 1930s, “from the riots of 1929 to the outbreak of the Arab rebellion in 1936, Mandatory officials found themselves caught in the middle of increasingly violent hostilities between Arabs and Jews,” leading to a policy reassessment that called for a partition of Palestine in 1937 to allow for the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states.[14] Under this Royal Commission Report, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee was to be a corpus separatum detached from both states. Though this plan was never enacted due to Britain’s preoccupation with World War II, it remains an important theoretical solution to the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

After World War II, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee “sought a way to extricate Britain from a situation that was costing Britain heavily in lives, money, and moral prestige. In early 1947, the decision was reached to resign the Mandate and to ask the United Nations to address itself to the future disposition of Palestine.” In November of 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish states. The status of Jerusalem was “guided by the recommendation of the earlier Royal Commission, [which decreed that] the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area (with a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea) was designated a corpus separatum to be administered by the UN itself.” The UN Partition Plan was made obsolete by the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, but like the Royal Commission report, “proved to be an influential document for support of holy places being secured only under an international regime.”[15]


Divided Jerusalem: 1948-1967

In 1948, the Jews successfully declared independence, and established the modern state of Israel. But in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, while Israel gained the New City, it lost control of the Old City and the Jewish Quarter to Jordan. Under Jordanian rule, “the Jewish quarter was so thoroughly destroyed, according to news reporters, that it had the look of Stalingrad or Berlin in World War II. The quarter, emptied of its Jews, was turned over to squatters, mostly Arabs from the Hebron area.” Arab soldiers “looted synagogues, schools, and homes and made a fire of religious articles.”[16] Moreover, scholars have noted that “there is little doubt that the Jordanians flagrantly violated the provision of the truce agreement that allowed for free access of peoples between the two parts of the city when they erected a wall of concrete and barbed wire to keep Jews from re-entering eastern Jerusalem and the Old City.”[17] Jordan maintained its supremacy in Eastern Jerusalem for two decades after the War of Independence in 1948.


Jerusalem Under Israeli Control: 1967-Present

In June of 1967, Israel and many of its Arab neighbors engaged in the Six Day War. As a result of this war, “Israel gained control of…eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City. Israel moved swiftly to capitalize on this ‘miracle.’ One of the first acts of the Jewish government was to tear down the wall that had divided Arab-populated eastern Jerusalem and the Old City from the Jewish New City.”[18] Within a month, the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) expanded the boundaries of Jerusalem Municipality, and ordered application of Israeli law, jurisdiction and administration in eastern Jerusalem. In Israeli discourse, Jerusalem was finally “united.” Some international critics were wary of the declaration, and “spoke of annexation and questioned the legitimacy of Israel’s policy. Israelis responded by arguing that eastern Jerusalem and the Old City were not annexed, but rather the laws of Israel were extended to eastern Jerusalem and the Old City.” In part, the sovereignty issue was dependent on “whether Jordan’s claim of sovereignty over Jerusalem was accepted under international law. If this was the case, the Israelis could be described as ‘occupiers.’…Yet, many scholars have argued that Jordan’s title to Jerusalem was itself flawed…As Jordan had no legal claim, Israel had no need to ‘return’ conquered territory to Jordan or to the Palestinians.”[19]

The larger and more important question to the city’s inhabitants, however, is not the legal or technical notion of sovereignty, but how the city and holy places are run and controlled on a day-to-day basis. Through the passage of the Protection of Holy Places law, Israel assured its Christian and Muslim residents that their monuments were “safe under Jewish government.” As was previously alluded, despite technically gaining sovereignty over the area, Israel allowed the Islamic waqf to continue its control and maintenance of the Temple Mount, and “Israel reversed the earlier Jordanian law that forbade Christian denominations from acquiring land or homes in Jerusalem.”[20]

From 1967 until the Yom Kippur War in 1973, “Israel presided over the administration of the holy places without great criticism from within the country or from abroad.” This tranquility, however, quickly dissipated after October 1973’s Yom Kippur attacks and subsequent warfare. For “whereas Israel was the clear victor, the Palestinians experienced a renewed nationalistic consciousness, which led in subsequent years to strikes, shutdowns, demonstrations and bloody riots. This unrest exploded in 1987 with the intifada, the Palestinian ‘revolt’ against Israeli occupation. Although the intifada was less strong in Jerusalem, it served to divide the city and to underscore the separation of the religious and ethnic groups.”[21] Today, the situation is as charged and tenuous as ever. Though Jerusalem has been discussed in multiple peace talks, there has yet to be a long-term resolution to this century-old problem, and Jerusalem remains a city that, though technically under Israeli sovereignty, is claimed as a capital by two different peoples.


Jerusalem in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

Oslo Accords

In the last twenty years, there have been multiple attempts to secure a lasting peace resolution between Israelis and Palestinians. President Bill Clinton’s 1993 Oslo Accords attempted to set a groundwork for negotiations. The agreement reached included “mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO” and the “introduction of an ‘interim phase’…that consisted of Israeli withdrawal from most of the Gaza Strip and a small percentage of the West Bank.”[22] At these talks, Israel agreed—at least in theory—to the framework of a Palestinian state in accordance with UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 (which ended the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars, respectively) calling for Israel to relinquish their conquered territories. However, the Oslo Accords were intended as a first step, not a complete solution; they decided to postpone discussions of the controversial “final status issues,” of which Jerusalem is one (along with borders, security, water, settlements and refugees), until a later point in time.[23] Unfortunately, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 ended all talks, and the Oslo Accords became obsolete.


Camp David Summit

Between 1993 and 2000, little progress was made towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Vatican-Israel Fundamental Agreement of 1994 and the comparable Vatican-PLO Basic Agreement of 2000 set the stage for Catholic recognition of Israel and the PLO, thereby introducing the potential for Christian involvement in the peace process. Moreover, the Washington Declaration and Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty of 1994 contained clauses that included Israel’s recognition of Jordan’s special status regarding the Muslim holy places. However, the peace process, while promising, did not experience any true leaps forward until the Camp David Summit in 2000.

The principal piece of negotiation often discussed with respect to the 2000 Camp David meeting is the territory exchange proposed by Ehud Barak, in which the Israeli Prime Minister offered Yasser Arafat 95% of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip. With regard to Jerusalem, Israel would relinquish control over Palestinian-dominated suburbs and dissolve administration in central areas of East Jerusalem to Palestinian bodies but would, in exchange, retain sovereignty and security over East Jerusalem including the Old City. Barak suggested that the Palestinians receive the Muslim and Christian Quarters, while Israel would keep the Jewish and Armenian quarters. However, “the Israeli proposal to partition the Old City, at least administratively, caused great dismay, not only in Palestinian Arab circles but also in the Christian communities,” and Arafat ultimately declined Barak’s offer. The Palestinians demanded complete sovereignty over East Jerusalem and holy sites (particularly the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock) as well as the dismantling of all Israeli neighborhoods in those areas, terms that Israel was unwilling to accept. In retrospect, it certainly seems as if “a particular sticking point in the Camp David summit seems to have been the fate of the Old City”[24] for Arafat’s refusal to accept Barak’s proposal led to the devolution of the summit and the stalling of the peace process yet again.


Taba Summit

The 2001 Taba Summit is still considered the closest the Israelis and the Palestinians ever came to reaching a final settlement; the two sides compromised on a return to Israel’s pre-1967 borders in accordance with UNSC resolution 242, and both Israel and Palestine accepted Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods and Israeli sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods. Israel even proposed that Jerusalem be considered a “Holy Basin” with separate and distinct international status. However, the Taba Summit ultimately failed, not because of any disagreement among the parties but because of domestic shakeups. Israel and the United States were both experiencing political changeovers, and the new Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was a staunch opponent of the Oslo Accords; he subsequently ended talks on final status issues.



In 2010, under United States President Barack Obama, Israel and Palestine resumed direct talks for the first time in a number of years. These discussions, however, were remarkably short lived; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend the expiring 10-month freeze for settlements in the West Bank, drawing intense criticism from many in the international community, including the United States. Israel offered a renewed settlement freeze in return for the recognition of a Jewish state but the Palestinians, failing to see a connection between the two issues, refused. As a result, negotiations stalled indefinitely.

The most striking development of the recent year however was not the resumption or subsequent halting of direct peace talks, but rather a leak of sensitive information to the general public by al-Jazeera. In these top-secret government documents, it was revealed that the Palestinians had in fact been prepared to cede much more than anyone had previously thought, including Jerusalem neighborhoods.[25] The Palestinian leadership was even “willing to abdicate sole autonomy in the Old City of Jerusalem and keep it under special rule.” As of yet, it is unclear what impact the release of these documents will have on the peace process and on the future of Jerusalem. It is apparent, however, that Israel is not—as it had previously claimed—lacking a partner for peace, and that both sides seem to be willing to resume negotiations and compromise to achieve lasting stability.


Future Proposals

In his book “The Jerusalem Problem: The Struggle for Permanent Status,” former adviser to the Barak government Menachem Klein offers five criteria for successful peace. First, the protagonists must be prepared to negotiate in good faith. Key actors must be included in the process, negotiations must address the central issues in dispute, and negotiators must not use force to achieve their objectives. Finally, negotiators must be committed to a sustained process. Klein then notes that “except for the third item in the list, all other criteria were missing or deformed in the Israeli-Palestinian permanent status talks.”[26] While some of these categories are more ambiguous than others (Who are the “key actors?” What are the “central issues” in the dispute?), Klein’s guidelines touch upon the most important qualification for a successful negotiation: participants who truly want and are committed to following through to achieve lasting peace.

With this prerequisite in mind, current literature and theoretical solutions surrounding Jerusalem and the peace process align themselves with five main categories of solutions.[27] The first proposition places Jerusalem as an undivided capital under Israeli sovereignty with full autonomy to Palestinians and “provisions necessitated by the city’s unique character.”[28] Next, there is a line of thought that advocates the division of the city in one way or another. There are a few variations on this theme, some of which involve physically partitioning the city into two separate capitals (although the exact borders of this solution remain unaddressed and would undoubtedly be difficult to agree upon), while others include physically undivided but politically separated cities in which Israel and Palestine govern their respective sections.[29] A similar solution proposes joint sovereignty and the creation of one municipality with parity and equality, geographically and demographically, between Palestinians and Israelis, while a fourth position mixes the previous two and recommends two separate municipalities working under the umbrella of a balanced super-municipality.[30] Finally, the fifth solution is the one first mentioned in the Royal Commission Report almost a century ago: an internationally governed and distinct entity under neither Palestinian nor Israeli sovereignty. The approaches to governance of the holy places follow a similar pattern. Three plans have been suggested: transferring power to an interfaith committee, giving each religion control over its holy sites, or leaving matters to international guarantees like UNESCO or Hague Conventions.

Only one of the aforementioned solutions has the potential to succeed: Both Israel and Palestine should relinquish control over Jerusalem, and governance should be delegated to an international body. An undivided capital under Israeli sovereignty has proved problematic, as Muslims feel just as much of a right and claim to the Old City as Jews do, and the mutual perception of oppression—even if it is simply a legal semantic question of sovereignty—is too strong to allow bad feelings to fade. Shared, mixed and joint governance are good solutions in theory, but past peace processes have proven that the details are difficult to negotiate, and even slight disagreements can cause talks to fall apart. The first two “holy places” solutions are similarly faulty—an interfaith committee is untenable because religions don’t have a monolithic opinion, and it would be impossible to select just one representative to serve such complex and diverse groups. Furthermore, allowing each religion to govern its own sites would parse up the city in a way that would destroy any sort of continuity and make practical administration impossible.

Therefore, power should be ceded to an international body. History teaches that an international institution is only as effective as the people on the ground will permit so a committee comprised of multiple representatives from Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities should be a part of the power structure. That committee would be able, at least symbolically, to stand behind the decisions of the international body and help convince their constituents of the legitimacy of international rule. This dynamic would be essential to the success of this particular prescription.

This solution was best articulated in a report by scholars Michael Bell and Daniel Kurtzer, in which the authors proposed the creation of an “Old City Special Regime” (OCSR) to oversee the city. This report emphasized the importance of moving away from technical questions of sovereignty and dealt instead with practical concerns: “the most promising alternative to a street-by-street, site-by-site division of the Old City is to construct a special regime that defers the issue of sovereignty and instead focuses on how to administer and manage the Old City with strong third-party participation”. Recognizing that “the key is addressing the needs of all the Old City’s stakeholders,” including not just residents but also the larger international communities and followers of both faiths, Bell and Kurtzer declared that “the involvement of an impartial third-party administrator—chosen by the Israelis and Palestinians together—is essential, as it would build confidence between the two sides and reinforce it over time.” Importantly, the question of sovereignty would be deferred until a more stable relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians was in place. The details of Bell and Kurtzer’s suggestion are well and intelligently elucidated: “the two parties would create an Old City board, consisting of senior Israeli and Palestinian representatives and a limited number of international participants selected by both sides.” This board would select a chief administrator who would oversee issues such as “the protection of holy sites, the preservation of heritage structures, archaeological excavation, the allotment of residency and construction permits, and the provision of utilities and infrastructure.”[31] The administrator would similarly establish an internationally staffed police force, which would in turn be responsible for maintaining order in the Old City.

Bell and Kurtzer’s nuanced suggestion addresses and solves many of the most important points of tension in negotiations over Jerusalem. It recognizes the need to focus on practical, on-the-ground issues rather than technical legal discussions. Moreover, it admits to the necessity of a third party as an unbiased participant, yet balances this with the recognition that Israeli and Palestinian leaders must be involved in governance as well, so that their constituencies feel comfortable with and support the solution.


Jerusalem as a Case Study

Jerusalem is a remarkable example of the confluence of religion and politics, and serves as an excellent case study for many of the issues plaguing parts of today’s world. In particular, the case of Jerusalem serves as a superb study of the role of outside decisions and the extreme difficulty involved in imposing external guidelines on peoples that do not accept them. In the period of Jordanian control of East Jerusalem, for example, “both Israel and Jordan ignored outsiders’ complaints about their actions and concentrated on governing their respective halves of Jerusalem.”[32] This realization—the fact that a solution must come from inside and won’t work without the support of the affected peoples—has immense implications for the role that the United States and other countries should play in the peace process. History has repeatedly shown that “events overwhelm diplomacy”—the Royal Commission Report and UN Partition Plan were not implemented because the situation in the region precluded implementation. Therefore, the United States can—and must—learn that, while it can certainly help facilitate discussion and provide a forum for the peace process, it cannot successfully attempt to impose its own solutions on the Israelis and Palestinians.

Additionally, Jerusalem and its residents epitomize some of the most difficult issues afflicting religious communities today. Both Muslims and Jews face the struggle of compromising between what the city’s inhabitants want, and what world Islam and Jewry respectively demand. It has been stated that “from an Islamist perspective, the role of Jerusalem defines the centrality of Palestine to the Arab Islamic world,” and analogous comments have been made by Jews as well. But whether or not diaspora Jews and Muslims have the right to dictate a situation that they are not directly experiencing remains unclear. Similarly, talks about Jerusalem have brought to light the immense internal divisions between individual religions, and have shattered the illusion that Christianity, Islam and Judaism are monolithic entities. Though these realizations are not “problems” that need to be—or can be—solved, they are important points that policy-makers must recognize. For when diplomats make suggestions such as an “interfaith council” with a representative from each faith, they must understand the varying forces, within both the local and international religious communities, pulling in different directions.



At the opening of a conference on religious freedom and political sovereignty in Jerusalem, Dr. Geries Khoury called upon “all Jews, Christians, and Muslims to make use of their religions for the sake of peace.”[33] The implication in Dr. Khoury’s words is one that is too often ignored: the realization that religion can serve as a force of good in solving Middle East peace. The above analyses of Jerusalem have sought to highlight some of the difficulties associated with balancing religious and political goals.  Breger writes, “…in Jerusalem, politics cannot be separated from religion…Jerusalem is not a western European or American city that has experienced the separation of secular functions from sacred practices”; it is a simple fact that “[the] government, administration, and laws of Jerusalem are so intertwined with religious interests and parties as to render porous the traditional distinction between the secular and the sacred.”[34] Despite this, many have attempted to tackle each of these issues in a vacuum; church (or mosque, or synagogue) and state should, in the eyes of these critics, be treated separately. This approach is wrongheaded. The true message of the study of Jerusalem and its complex history is not simply the impossibility of trying to separate religion and politics, but moreover the potential benefits of the intermingling of the two. Rarely in human history has a single city excited such passion, and rather than frame this emotion negatively, diplomats should embrace the immense love that Jerusalem elicits and use it to inspire peace and coexistence, if only for the sake of the city and its security.




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“Jerusalem Revelations Irk Residents – Middle East – Al Jazeera English.” AJE – Al Jazeera English. Web. 25 Feb. 2011. <>.


Klein, Menachem. The Jerusalem Problem: the Struggle for Permanent Status. Gainesville: University of Florida, 2003. Print.


Mohammad, Shtayyeh. Scenarios on the Future of Jerusalem. Al-Bireh: Palestinian Center for Regional Studies, 1998.


Proc. of Jerusalem Between Religious Freedom and Political Sovereignty: A Day of Reflection. Jerusalem, Israel: Center for Religious and Heritage Studies in the Holy Land Publications, 1995. Print.


[1] Janin Hunt. Four Paths to Jerusalem: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Secular Pilgrimages, 1000 BCE to 2001 CE. (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2002) 16.

[2] Hunt 24

[3] Kamil Jamil Asali. Jerusalem in History. (Buckhurst Hill: Scorpion, 1989).

[4] Marshall J. Breger and Thomas A. Idinopulos. Jerusalem’s Holy Places & The Peace Process. (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998) 53.

[5] Hunt 25

[6] Breger 27-29

[7] Hunt 29

[8] Breger 42-44

[9] Hunt 41

[10] Hunt 4

[11] Breger 5

[12] General Edmund Allenby, as quoted in: Breger 7.

[13] Breger 7-8

[14] Breger 10

[15] Breger 10-11

[16] Breger 12

[17] Breger 6

[18] Breger 17

[19] Breger 18

[20] Breger 23

[21] Breger 24-25

[22] Michael Dumper. The Politics of Sacred Space: the Old City of Jerusalem in the Middle East Conflict. (Boulder, CO: L. Rienner, 2002) 31.

[23] Menachem Klein. The Jerusalem Problem: the Struggle for Permanent Status. (Gainesville: University of Florida, 2003).

[24] Dumper 164

[25] Akiva Eldar. “The Palestine Papers: Al-Jazeera Trumps WikiLeaks.” Haaretz. 24 Jan. 2011. Web. 25 Feb. 2011. <>.

[26] Klein 4

[27] Mohammad Shtayyeh. Scenarios on the Future of Jerusalem. (Al-Bireh: Palestinian Center for Regional Studies, 1998).

[28] Shtayyeh

[29] Breger

[30] Dumper

[31] Michael D. Bell and Daniel C. Kurtzer. “The Missing Peaces.” 2009. Foreign Affairs 2009: 88.2. Web.

[32] Breger

[33] Khoury as quoted in Proc. of Jerusalem Between Religious Freedom and Political Sovereignty: A Day of Reflection. (Jerusalem, Israel: Center for Religious and Heritage Studies in the Holy Land Publications, 1995) 5.

[34] Breger 3