Jerusalem, a city holy to three religions, has had a tumultuous past, changing hands through numerous invasions that each transformed the city.
“The history of Jerusalem is the history of conquest,” said Jonathan Marc Gribetz, “and that past has demonstrated that it is a place where religion and politics are almost inextricable.”
Gribetz, assistant professor of Jewish studies and history at Rutgers University, spoke May 6 about the conflicting identities of Jerusalem during a program at Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth.
The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70, eventually banning Jews in 135 and placing idols of Roman gods where the Temple stood, Gribetz said. Since then, Christians, Muslims, and Jews have staked conflicting claims to the city and its holy sites.
“The Crusaders come and converted the Dome of Rock to the Temple of the Lord and stuck a cross on top of it,” said Gribetz. “Then the Muslims returned and removed the cross. They cleansed the rock and resanctified and reconsecrated the Dome.”
Meanwhile, the Dome sits on the Temple Mount, considered the holiest site in Judaism.
Since 1967, the area has been in Israeli hands, in a fraught arrangement that gives management of Muslim sites to an Islamic waqf, or religious committee, and the Western Wall and security to Israel.
While the 1967 Israeli victory in the Six-Day War was understood by many Jews to be of “messianic significance,” said Gribetz, the “reunification” of Jerusalem was also part of a long string of strategic, military conquests. Even King David had a military goal in mind — unifying his kingdom on both sides of the Jordan River — when he captured Jerusalem.
The Crusades were launched by Pope Urban II in 1095 for what Gribetz called “religious and humanitarian reasons.” From their perspective, he said, the Crusaders “were saving Christians from persecution at the hands of those they regarded as ‘vicious’ Muslims.”
In turn, Muslim powers retook Jerusalem from the Christian “infidels,” until the British seized it during World War I from the Ottoman Empire, which had held it for four centuries.
That conquest paved the way for the Balfour Declaration, which pledged British support for a Jewish homeland in the region — “Here the British, a Christian power, conquered the land with the idea of giving it to someone else.”
While the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem fit a broader historical pattern, it differed from other conquests in that the Israelis let followers of other religions have full access to their holy sites, said Gribetz, even as religious strife continues to embroil it.
“What is the key to holding the city forever?” he asked. “Is holding the city ever more tightly the answer, or is sharing the key to permanence…? Is permanence really attainable in a city like Jerusalem?”