Ever since King David made Jerusalem the capital of Israel over 3,000 years ago, the city has played a central role in Jewish existence. The Western Wall in the Old City, the last remaining wall of the ancient Jewish Temple, the holiest site in Judaism, is the object of Jewish veneration and the focus of Jewish prayer.
Three times a day for thousands of years Jews have prayed "To Jerusalem, thy city, shall we return with joy," and have repeated the Psalmist's oath: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning." By contrast, Jerusalem never served as a provincial capital under Muslim rule nor was it ever a Muslim cultural center.
Meanwhile, Jews have been living in Jerusalem continuously for nearly two millennia. They have constituted the largest single group of inhabitants there since the 1840's. Today, the total population of Jerusalem is over 660,000. The Jewish population in areas formerly controlled by Jordan exceeds 160,000, outnumbering Arabs in "East" Jerusalem.
Because Jordan, like all the Arab states at the time, maintained a state of war with Israel, the city became, in essence, two armed camps, replete with concrete walls and bunkers, barbed-wire fences, minefields and other military fortifications.
In violation of the 1949 Armistice Agreement, Jordan denied Israelis access to the Temple Wall and to the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, where Jews have been burying their dead for 2,500 years. Jordan actually went further and desecrated Jewish holy places. King Hussein permitted the construction of a road to the Intercontinental Hotel across the Mount of Olives cemetery. Hundreds of Jewish graves were destroyed by a highway that could have easily been built elsewhere. The gravestones, honoring the memory of rabbis and sages, were used by the engineer corps of the Jordanian Arab Legion as pavement and latrines in army camps (inscriptions on the stones were still visible when Israel liberated the city). The ancient Jewish Quarter of the Old City was ravaged, 58 Jerusalem synagogues, some centuries old-were destroyed or ruined, others were turned into stables and chicken coops. Slum dwellings were built abutting the Western Wall.
Jews were not the only ones who found their freedom impeded. Under Jordanian rule, Israeli Christians were subjected to various restrictions, with only limited numbers allowed to visit the Old City and Bethlehem at Christmas and Easter. Jordan also passed laws imposing strict government control on Christian schools, including restrictions on the opening of new schools; state controls over school finances and appointment of teachers and requirements that the Koran be taught. Christian religious and charitable institutions were also barred from purchasing real estate in Jerusalem. Because of these repressive policies, many Christians emigrated from Jerusalem, leading their numbers to dwindle from 25,000 in 1949 to less than 13,000 in June 1967.
As had been the case under previous Islamic rulers, King Hussein had neglected Jerusalem. The scope of his disregard became clear when Israel discovered that much of the city lacked even the most basic municipal services-a steady water supply, plumbing and electricity. As a result of reunification, these and other badly needed municipal services were extended to Arab homes and businesses in east Jerusalem.
Since 1967, hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Christians, many from Arab countries that remain in a state of war with Israel, have come to Jerusalem to see their holy places. Arab leaders are free to visit Jerusalem to pray if they wish to, just as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did at the Al-Aksa mosque. Although it is the holiest site in Judaism, Israel has left the Temple Mount under the control of Muslim religious authorities. The rights of the various Christian churches to custody of the Christian holy places in Jerusalem are protected in Israel.
Along with religious freedom, Arabs in Jerusalem have unprecedented political rights. Arab residents were given the choice of whether to become Israeli citizens. Most chose to retain their Jordanian citizenship. Moreover, regardless of whether they are citizens, Jerusalem Arabs are permitted to vote in municipal elections and play a role in the administration of the city.
By the time of partition, a thriving Jewish community was living in the eastern part of Jerusalem, an area that included the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. This area of the city also contains many sites of importance to the Jewish religion, including the city of David, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. In addition, major institutions like Hebrew University and the original Hadassah hospital are on Mount Scopus, in eastern Jerusalem.
The only time that the eastern part of Jerusalem was exclusively Arab was between 1949-1967, and that was because Jordan occupied the area and forcibly expelled all the Jews. Jerusalem is one issue on which the views of Israelis are unanimous: The city must remain the undivided capital of Israel.
During the more than one thousand years Jerusalem was under Muslim rule, the Arabs often used the Wall as a garbage dump, so as to humiliate the Jews who visited it. For nineteen years, from 1948 to 1967, the Kotel was under Jordanian rule. Although the Jordanians had signed an armistice agreement in 1949 guaranteeing Jews the right to visit the Wall, not one Israeli Jew was ever permitted to do so.
The custom of inserting written prayers into the Kotel's cracks is so widespread that some American-Jewish newspapers carry advertisements for services that insert such prayers on behalf of sick Jews.
In addition to the large crowds that come to pray at the Kotel on Shabbat, it is also a common gathering place on all Jewish holidays, particularly on the fast of Tisha Be-Av, which commemorates the destruction of both Temples. Today the Wall is a national symbol, and the opening or closing ceremonies of many Jewish events, including secular ones, are conducted there.