Yom Yerushalayim: Significance for Freedom of ReligionWednesday 09/05/2018

On May 13, Israelis and Jews will celebrate Jerusalem Day, commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty during the Six Day War of 1967. For some, the day is a celebration of renewed access to the Western Wall and the rest of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. For others, it is a more general celebration of success in the face of overwhelming odds.

However, one of the most underappreciated outcomes of a united Jerusalem relates to freedom of religion. Throughout the historical periods of Jewish, Christian and Muslim rule, the great faiths erected monuments and places of worship unrivalled by other cities. The Hurva and Ohel Yitzhak Synagogues are a window into the city’s Jewish history, in the same way that the Churches of the Holy Sepulchre and St. Anne are to the city’s Christian heritage. Similarly, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are revered by Muslims worldwide and are a core component of the city’s Islamic heritage.

It is for this reason that the 1947 UN Partition Plan originally designated Jerusalem as corpus separatum (separated body), to be an international city that guaranteed access to adherents of the three Abrahamic faiths.

However, the cosmopolitan nature of the city today is very different to the atmosphere between 1948-1967.

Prior to 1967, Jordanian authorities severely limited freedom of religion in the city. Upon capturing the Jewish Quarter in 1948’s War of Independence, Transjordanian Arab Legion Major Abdullah el-Tell is said to have told his superiors: ‘For the first time in 1,000 years not a single Jew remains in the Jewish Quarter. Not a single building remains intact. This makes the Jews’ return here impossible[1].’

Contrast this to the pronouncements of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion in 1948. When it appeared the Jewish forces were on the cusp of capturing the Old City of Jerusalem, he famously ordered the commander of Jerusalem, David Shaltiel, to ‘prepare a special force – loyal and obedient – …that will mercilessly use machine guns against every Jew – and especially against every Jewish soldier – who will attempt to rob or desecrate a Christian or Muslim holy place[2]’.

Between 1948 and 1967, the city was characterized by the repression of religious freedom and the destruction of minorities’ places of worship. All but two of the Old City’s 58 synagogues were destroyed under Jordanian rule[3]. Furthermore, Jordan’s King Hussein permitted the uprooting of thousands of tombstones at the Mount of Olives Cemetery for the construction of roads through the complex and even latrines for the Jordanian soldiers stationed there.

Even in recent decades, we can again see questionable respect for religious sites. The Solomon’s Stables structure existed under the Southeast corner of the Temple Mount and contained artefacts from eras as the First and Second Temple, Roman, Byzantine and Muslim periods[4]. However, the Israeli Islamic Movement decided in 1995-1996 to renovate the complex with the aim of converting it to a mosque[5]. With careless demolition procedures and without the official approval from relevant authorities, substantial irreversible damage was done to the Southern Wall of the city. As early as 2001, the Antiquities Authority discovered considerable swelling on the Wall, leading to the possibility that, along with the Eastern Wall, it could collapse[6].

The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is another area that relies heavily on the guarantee of freedom of religion. Currently administered by the Jordanian funded waqf (Islamic trust), the complex is important in both historical and religious terms. Rather than infringe upon the right of access to Muslim adherents, the status quo agreement guarantees their access at the expense of Jewish adherents. While Jews have the right to enter the compound, they are forbidden from praying or carrying religious artefacts such as siddurim or kippot out of sensitivity for the Muslim sites there.

These Jerusalem-specific arrangements complement an extensive legislative regime aimed at protecting freedom of religion. The Protection of Holy Places Law of 1967 guarantees freedom of access to sacred places, protection against their desecration and even protection against violations of adherents’ feelings toward these places[7]. Furthermore, Israeli law does not prohibit changing one’s religion nor does it prohibit proselytizing (missionizing).

Thus, in celebrating Jerusalem Day, focus should not only be upon the unexpected victory of Israel’s military in 1967. It should be on the underlying heritage that unites the three Abrahamic religions, and the way in which Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem has safeguarded religious freedom.


[1] Zilhka, A. (1992), ‘History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’ in E. W. Fernea and M. E. Hocking (eds.), The Struggle for Peace: Israelis and Palestinians, University of Texas Press, United States, p. 53

[2] Ankori, G. (2006), Palestinian Art, Reaktion Books, London, p. 26

[3] Jewish Telegraphic Agency Daily News Bulletin (1967), ‘Cabinet Report Says Jordan Destroyed 56 Old City Synagogues, Desecrated Cemetery’, November 2, p. 2, accessed March 7 2017, http://pdfs.jta.org/1967/1967-11-02_212.pdf

[4] Gonen, R. (2003), Contested Holiness: Jewish, Muslim and Christian Perspectives on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, KTAV Publishing, United States, p. 167-169

[5] Shragai, N. (2012), ‘The Danger to Al-Aksa from Muslim Building Activity in Solomon’s Stables’, in Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, The “Al-Aksa Is in Danger” Libel: The History of a Lie, accessed March 7 2017, http://jcpa.org/danger-to-al-aksa-from-muslim-building-in-solomons-stables/

[6] ibid

[7] The Israeli Knesset, Protection of Holy Places Law 5727 (1967), accessed March 7 2017, https://www.knesset.gov.il/laws/special/eng/HolyPlaces.htm

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