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Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2001 / 14 Teves, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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When Jerusalem was divided -- IN PROPOSING that eastern Jerusalem become part of a sovereign Arab state, President Clinton is urging not just a bad idea, but one that has already been tried -- with disastrous results.

Jerusalem was always one city before May of 1948, the month British rule in Palestine came to an end. It was supposed to remain one thereafter. Under the terms of a UN resolution, Palestine was to be partitioned into two states -- one Jewish, one Arab -- with Jerusalem belonging to neither. "The City of Jerusalem," Resolution 181 had ordained, "shall be established as a corpus separatum under a special international regime and shall be administered by the United Nations."

The Jews of Palestine accepted the partition plan, reluctantly agreeing to the internationalization of Jerusalem as the price of statehood. But the Arabs flatly rejected partition. There would be no Jewish state, they said, and no UN supervision of Jerusalem. To keep Resolution 181 from taking effect, they vowed to fight the Jews. "This will be," exulted Azzam Pasha, the secretary-general of the Arab League, "a war of extermination and a momentous massacre."

By May 15, the day Israel was born, Jerusalem was a battleground. Within days, the Jordanian Arab Legion, spurred by King Abdullah to capture Jerusalem, was bombarding the Old City's Jewish quarter.

Badly outnumbered, poorly armed, the Jews of East Jerusalem didn't have a prayer. When the United Nations called for a cease-fire, writes the renowned historian Sir Martin Gilbert, Jordan, "poised to overrun the Jewish Quarter," ignored it. "That day an Arab-language broadcast from Ramallah described in lurid detail the first stage of the long-drawn out destruction of the Hurva Synagogue."

The Hurva, first built in 1705, had been one of Jerusalem's great landmarks. Its destruction was a grim taste of what lay in store for the Jewish holy sites of the Old City.

By May 28, the conquest of Jewish East Jerusalem was complete. The remaining Jews -- some from families that had lived there for centuries -- were expelled. "As they left," Martin writes, "they could see columns of smoke rising from the quarter behind them. The Hadassah welfare station had been set on fire and despite [a] curfew, the looting and burning of Jewish property was in full swing."

For the next 19 years, Jerusalem was divided. West Jerusalem became Israel's capital. East Jerusalem, its Jewish Quarter now judenrein, was annexed by Jordan, which proceeded to erase the evidence that Jews had ever been there. In an orgy of desecration, 58 synagogues -- the oldest dated to the 13th century -- were ravaged. Those that weren't razed were ransacked, turned into stables and chicken coops, used as garbage dumps. The city's foremost Jewish shrine, the Western Wall, became a slum.

The ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, where the oldest tombs date from 1st century BCE, was devastated. Some 38,000 tombstones were ripped out and used to build military bunkers and pave latrines. An asphalt road was cut through the cemetery; a hotel was constructed at the top. When the Jews returned in 1967, they found graves gaping open and bones strewn on the ground.

Under Article VIII of the armistice agreement signed by Israel and Jordan in 1949, the Arabs guaranteed "free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives." But that proved to be a lie. For 19 years, no Jew was allowed to visit the Western Wall, the cemetery, or any other site in East Jerusalem. Israeli Arabs were likewise barred from the Old City's Muslim shrines. For 19 years, no Arab from Israel prayed at the al-Aqsa Mosque or set foot on the Temple Mount.

Of course today's Palestinian Authority cannot be blamed for outrages committed during the Jordanian occupation. But reasonable people must wonder what would happen to the Jews' holy places if the Old City were placed under Arab rule again. For the Palestinians have a record too.

Time and again Yasser Arafat and his aides have insisted that the Western Wall and the Temple Mount are purely Muslim shrines with no Jewish significance. Time and again they have claimed, as the Palestinian Ministry of Information puts it, that "the archeology of Jerusalem" reveals "nothing Jewish . . . no tangible evidence of any Jewish traces or remains." When Palestinian officials assert, "Jerusalem is not a Jewish city, despite the biblical myth implanted in some minds," it is hard not to worry about how they would treat Jewish sites if they ruled East Jerusalem, or whether they would permit Jews to visit them.

Nor is that all.

When the Palestinians signed the Oslo II agreement in 1995, they promised to "ensure free access to, respect the ways of worship in, and not make any changes to, the Jewish holy sites" on land given up by Israel. They made the same promise in the Gaza-Jericho accord in 1994 and the Hebron accord in 1997. Among the listed sites: the venerable "Peace Upon Israel" (shalom al yisrael) synagogue in Jericho and the yeshiva at Joseph's Tomb in Nablus. Today, neither exists. In October, Palestinians burned down the synagogue. They smashed Joseph's Tomb to rubble and trampled its holy books, and announced that a mosque would be built on the site.

If this is how Israel's peace partners act in Jericho and Nablus, how would they behave in Jerusalem?

The sacred places of Jerusalem have never been safer, or open to more people, than in the 33 years since it was reunified. There is no reason to redivide it, and every reason not to.

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

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