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Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2001 / 10 Teves, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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THEY NEVER FORGOT THEE, O JERUSALEM -- PRESIDENT CLINTON proposed last week that Israel surrender the eastern half of Jerusalem, including most of the Old City and the Temple Mount, as part of a final peace plan with the Palestinians. To the dismay of Israel's friends the world over, Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to accept Clinton's scheme as the basis for new talks. Barak has spent his brief tenure as prime minister trying to appease Israel's enemies, but even for him this was a shocking departure.

"Only one who does not understand the depth of the total emotional bond between the Jewish nation and Jerusalem," Barak had avowed just seven months ago on the 33nd anniversary of Jerusalem's reunification, "only one who is totally estranged from the legacy of Jewish history ... could possibly entertain the thought that Israel would concede even a part of Jerusalem. Only one who does not understand that Jerusalem has been intertwined with the souls of our ancestors for 3,000 years ... could demand that we turn our backs on it."

Perhaps Barak has truly had a change of heart. Perhaps this is just a cynical political ploy. It doesn't much matter. Israel's parliament will never agree to carve out the heart of Jerusalem and hand it to Yasser Arafat. Polls show Israelis rejecting the Clinton proposal by a margin of nearly 20 points. And if the rest of the world's Jews, in whose name Barak spoke so emphatically last May, could be surveyed, the results would be even more lopsided.

Slicing up Jerusalem will no more lead to Arab-Israeli peace than slicing up Cairo or Damascus would. Arafat's object is not sovereignty in a state next to Israel with East Jerusalem as its capital. It is sovereignty in a state that used to be Israel with all of Jerusalem as its capital. And as the last seven years have made clear, territory ceded to the Palestinians soon becomes a staging area for new attacks on Israel. "Land for peace" has proven a deadly hoax; the more land Israel has yielded to the Palestinian Authority, the more violence and bloodshed it has reaped.

To whom should Jerusalem belong? Arafat speaks of al-Quds, as it is called in Arabic, as if the Islamic attachment to the city is ancient, overwhelming, and self-evident. "Al-Quds is in the innermost of our feeling, the feeling of ... all Arabs, Muslims, and Christians in the world," he said in August. "It is the essence of the Palestinian issue." Journalists routinely describe Jerusalem as Islam's "third-holiest city," and identify the Temple Mount as "sacred to both Jews and Muslims."

But the Jewish and Muslim claims to Jerusalem are not remotely comparable.

The bonds of loyalty and love that bind the Jews to Jerusalem are without parallel. For three millennia, Jerusalem has been central to Jewish self-awareness. Since the time of King Solomon, Jews have turned toward Jerusalem in prayer -- and Jewish prayer is replete with remembrances of the holy city.

"And to Jerusalem Your city," religious Jews have implored the Almighty three times daily for the past 20 centuries, "may You return with compassion." Jerusalem is remembered in the grace after every meal, at the conclusion of every Passover seder, at the end of the Yom Kippur fast. The saddest date on the Jewish calendar is the 9th of Av, the day when both the First and Second Temples were destroyed and on which observant Jews sit in mourning to this day. Jerusalem is mentioned by name 657 times in the Hebrew Bible, nowhere more hauntingly, perhaps, than in the 137th Psalm:

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither,
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.

Jews have always lived in Jerusalem, except when they have been massacred or driven out. There has been a nearly unbroken Jewish presence in the city for the past 1,600 years, and at least since the early 1800s, the population of Jerusalem has been predominantly Jewish.

To Muslims, by contrast, Jerusalem is far less important. Mohammed never walked its streets, for the Arabs didn't conquer Jerusalem until six years after his death. Over the centuries, various Islamic dynasties controlled the city, but none ever made Jerusalem its capital or treated it as a vital cultural center. Often they neglected it outright, allowing it to sink into stagnation and decay.

From 1948 to 1967, when East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were under Muslim rule, they were ignored by the Arab world: No foreign Arab leader ever paid a visit, not even to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque. Palestinians placed so low a priority on Jerusalem that the PLO's founding charter, the Palestinian National Covenant of 1964, makes no reference to it. Only when the Jews returned after the Six Day War did the Arabs grow passionate about Jerusalem. Throughout Islamic history, that has been the pattern. "Jerusalem has mattered to Muslims only intermittently over the past 13 centuries," the Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes has written, "and when it has mattered, as it does today, it has done so because of politics. Conversely, when the utility of Jerusalem expires, the passions abate and its status declines."

Nowhere in the Koran is there anything like the 137th Psalm with its aching love of Jerusalem. Indeed, nowhere in the Koran is Jerusalem even mentioned. For it is Mecca, not Jerusalem, that Islam venerates above all other places; Mecca, not Jerusalem, to which Muslims turn in prayer. Not for all the world would Muslims agree to divide Mecca -- least of all with their enemies. Nor would the world ever think of demanding such a thing of them. To call upon the Jews to sacrifice part of their eternal city is no less outrageous, and should be just as unthinkable.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment on this column by clicking here.

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