A Brief History of Jerusalem

“Eternal, Undivided Jewish Capital”?

The most recent Zionist reiterations of the claim to “eternal” Jewish ownership of East Jerusalem—as part of an “undivided, eternal capital of Israel” as specified by a “Basic Law” passed by the Israeli Knesset in 1980–make me want to review the Bible tales about Israel and specifically the city of Jerusalem.

I find those stories of more than mere literary and religious interest; they carry profound contemporary political meanings. And having first encountered them as a child, and having sincerely believed them (as I was taught to do at the time), they still retain for me a childlike charm. I revisit them regularly.

So here goes. Our story begins with the “call of Abraham” (originally Abram), a key figure not only in Judaism but also in Christianity and Islam. He hails from the land of “Ur of the Chaldeans”–somewhere in what’s now Iraq.  In around the year 2000 (if we follow the rough biblical chronology), God (Yahweh, or “Jehovah” in the King James Bible) instructs him to leave Ur. The text suggests that the communication between Yahweh and Abraham was verbal.

“Now the Lord said to Abram: ‘Go from your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1).” (By the way, this command from God follows the death of  Abram’s father Terah, whom the Bible tells us had lived to the ripe old age of 205.)
At age 75, Abraham leaves Ur with his wife Sarai (later Sarah) for a place called Haran in what is now Syria, where he acquires possessions (including “persons”) before God leads him on into Canaan. There were at that time “Canaanites” in the land (Genesis 6:6-7), but their presence notwithstanding, God promises to give Canaan to Abraham’s offspring. (This is the inception of the “Chosen People” and “Promised Land” concepts in the Hebrew Scriptures, so fraught with ramifications for world history.)

When famine strikes the land, Abram leaves for Egypt for a time, but then returns to the land of Canaan, which God again tells him will be his, and that of his descendants forever (Genesis 13:14-16; 15:8).
Sarah has an Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, by whom Abraham (whom apparently enjoys wide license in these matters) sires a child, called Ishmael. Thereafter (when Abraham is 99) Sarah becomes miraculously pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. (The postmenopausal Sarah understandably finds the whole situation quite amusing; see Genesis 18:11-15). After giving birth to Isaac, Sarah requests that her rival Hagar be cast out into the desert along with her little boy Ishmael.

Abraham after some hesitation does indeed expel them into the wilderness of Beersheba, God having assured him that, since Ishmael is his son, he will make of him “a great nation” too. (Thus Arabs have traditionally claimed descent from this figure, who appears in the Qur’an as Ismail, a prophet and ancestor of the Prophet Muhammad.)

When Sarah dies, Abraham purchases from the local people (Hittites) what is now termed the “Tomb of the Patriarchs” at Hebron. He thus acquires the right to govern the area (Genesis 23:1-16), and establishes Isaac as his heir. (Isaac later marries a kinswoman and his inbred descendants inherit Abraham’s covenant with God.)
         (I will omit the episodes in which God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah and turns Abraham’s nephew’s wife into a pillar of salt [Genesis 19:1-24] and the one in which he asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac alive as a burnt offering, sparing him at just the last minute [Genesis 22:14]. These tales while extremely interesting aren’t necessarily relevant to the topic at hand.)
Anyway, Isaac has twin sons, Esau and Jacob. The latter, who cunningly cheats Esau out of his birthright (Genesis 27:18-29), is later renamed “Israel” by God. He has 12 sons by four wives, including the famous Joseph, whom Jacob/Israel favors over the others. (Recall the story of the “coat of many colors” in Genesis 37:3-4). Jealous, the brothers sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt (Genesis 37:19-28), where after various trials and tribulations be becomes a powerful official esteemed by the pharaoh himself. Indeed, due to his brilliance, he becomes “governor of the whole land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:43).
During a drought in Canaan, Israel and his others sons come to Egypt to purchase grain. Joseph receives them (probably, you’d think, still annoyed with them for selling him into slavery), initially concealing his identity. He finally reveals himself, and forgives his brothers, who settle in Egypt where their descendants thrive. Referred to as “Hebrews” or “Israelites,” they become a significant, affluent minority, but are eventually enslaved due to a pharaoh’s allegation that “the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we” (Exodus 1:14).

One year the pharaoh orders that all newborn Israelite boys be killed; the mother of the infant Moses hides him and he’s eventually adopted by an Egyptian princess. Raised as an Egyptian nobleman, he eventually learns of his Hebrew parentage. He flees to the land of Midian on the Arabian Peninsula, and encounters the “angel of the Lord” in the form of a burning bush (Exodus 3:2). Through the angel, God tells him to lead his people out of slavery. Moses does so, famously demanding of the pharaoh, “Let my people go” (Exodus 8:1).

When the pharaoh refuses, God sends plagues and pestilences on the Egyptians; after many such miracles, the Egyptian ruler relents and allows the Hebrews to leave. But as the former slaves approach the Red Sea, the pharaoh sends his troops after them. God causes the sea to part; Moses leads his people through it on dry land, and the pursuing Egyptians are drowned as the waters gush back over them (Exodus 14:41-43) The Israelites proceed into the Sinai, where God causes them to wander around for 40 years (Numbers 32:13).

(This long peregrination seems odd, since the Sinai is a relatively small—23,000 sq. mile—triangular peninsula, and Joseph’s brothers had apparently crossed it rather quickly. Today it’s a three-hour drive from Egypt to Israel across Sinai’s Mediterranean coast. But I digress.) During this period of confusion, including a lapse into idol-worship, God appears to Moses on Mt. Sinai. There he gives him the Ten Commandments and the massive body of religious law (the model for the Muslim Sharia) that one finds in the Old Testament, especially the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Jerusalem Conquered (as the Sun Stands Still)
Sometime around 1200, then, Joshua leads the Hebrews into the land of Canaan, now inhabited by a welter of peoples including Amorites, Jebusites, Philistines, Edomites, Perizzites, Hittites etc. God instructs Joshua to exterminate almost all of them. (See for example Joshua 8:1-25.) The conquest is achieved through various miraculous events, such as the parting of the River Jordan (Joshua 3:14-16) and the Battle of Jericho, during which the city’s walls fell when the Hebrews blow their trumpets. Afterwards on God’s command the victors slaughter every man, woman and child in the city (Joshua 6:21).

In the Battle of Gibeon Joshua defeats the “king of Jerusalem” (Joshua 10:5). This is the first appearance of Jerusalem in the biblical narrative. In this decisive engagement that brings Jerusalem under Hebrew control, Joshua asks God to cause the sun to stand still, so that the fighting might be concluded in daylight. God indeed makes the sun and moon remain stationary for as long as it takes for the victory (Joshua 10:12).
(I can’t help mentioning here that Thomas Jefferson, in a famous letter to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787, mentioned this passage. He noted that “millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis as the earth does, should have stopped…” He advocated a skeptical approach to scripture and urged the seventeen-year-old to “question with boldness even the existence of God.” But again I digress.)
To continue: having conquered the Promised Land, including the previously pagan city of Jerusalem, the Hebrews spend generations under the governance of “judges” such as Deborah, Gideon, Samson and Samuel. They then decide to appoint a king. (This is a controversial move, as 1 Samuel indicates, since some interpret it as an affront to God–and his direct rule over them via these divinely inspired judges, whom we might define as shamans).

But a man named Saul becomes king, governing according to the biblical chronology from around 1082 to 1010 BCE. His son-in-law, David succeeds him, governing first from Hebron, for seven years, then from Jerusalem for 43 years (2 Samuel 5:5). Under David’s son Solomon (who supposedly reigns ca. 970-931) the kingdom of Israel reaches its height and the great temple in Jerusalem is built. (This is referred to as the “First Temple” since it was later destroyed and then rebuilt.)

After Solomon’s reign, his domain splits into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The northern kingdom, Israel, is attacked by the Assyrian Empire in 732 and again in 720, its population (according to the Bible) entirely dispersed. Ten (of the twelve) tribes of Israel are thereby “lost.” (This tale has produced numerous theories and outright bunk about “lost tribes of Israel” in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Japan, the Americas and pretty much any place you can imagine.)

Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem, fares better: its king, Hezekiah, negotiates peace with the Assyrians. But Judah falls to the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 597. The conquerors destroy the First Temple, and deport much of the population, who spend decades in exile (“the Babylonian Captivity”).  (During this period, the Judeans likely became exposed to Zoroastrian concepts such as heaven, an afterlife, and a messianic savior. What we now call “Judaism” was enriched by this cross-cultural encounter.)

Also during this time, someone composed Psalm 137, which begins by referring to how the exiles sat and wept “by the rivers of Babylon,” remembering Jerusalem. “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither!”

May my tongue remain stuck to my palate
if I do not keep you in mind,
if I do not count Jerusalem
the greatest of my joys.

The poem alludes to how the Edomites (supposedly descendents of Esau), allies of the Chaldeans (Babylonians), had urged the leveling of the Temple following the conquest of 597. It concludes:

a blessing on anyone
who treats you as you treated us
a blessing on anyone who seizes your babies
and shatters them against a rock!

Jerusalem had obviously by that time already become a very emotional issue.

Only at around this point do we actually arrive on relatively firm historical ground. The existence of King Hezekiah (r. ca. 715-686 BCE) is attested in non-Biblical (Assyrian) sources. The Bible depicts him as a king who established the worship of the one god (Yahweh) and banned the worship of pagan deities from the Temple (2 Chronicles, chapter 29-31).

Josiah, Hezekiah’s great-grandson and king of Judah from ca. 640 to ca. 610 BCE, is thought by many scholars to have codified the Hebrew scriptures (see 2 Chronicles 34:14-16).  In any case, most Old Testament texts are thought to date from the seventh century at the earliest. Quite likely, Judaism itself, in something like its modern form, dates from this period.
So, note that the composition or compilation of these scriptures occurs about 1400 years after the (supposed) life of the patriarch Abraham, and around 600 years after the putative Exodus and conquest of Canaan. The oldest fragments in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet itself only date from the tenth century BCE. There is some (thin) evidence for a “House of David”  ca. 800 BCE, but very little evidence for a monarchy based in Jerusalem prior to that point. The archeological record suggests that Jerusalem was a pagan Phoenician Canaanite city for over a thousand years before Hebrews appeared. (The Canaanites fortified it with massive walls by around 1700 BCE.)  And it is likely that the Hebrews themselves congealed from a mix of Semitic tribes with ancestral legends about their Egyptian, Arabian and Mesopotamian connections.
It seems (to me) that over centuries an emerging priestly class settled on a narrative that drew on Sumerian and later Mesopotamian myths (including the myth of the Great Flood), and segued into the familiar mythic genealogy of Abraham, and grand stories about a national experience of bondage in Egypt, miraculous exodus, parting of the Red Sea, and the heroic genocidal conquest of Canaan.

But as Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles has gently explained, the idea that that there was a substantial Israelite presence in ancient Egypt–or that the Israelites threatened the Egyptian ruling class, or ever became enslaved, or departed en masse after a series of plagues and disasters–has no historical foundation.

Those who give credit to the Biblical account have no idea when the “Exodus” actually occurred; dates vary from the fifteenth to thirteenth centuries, and the pharaoh in power at the time cannot be identified. Egyptian records make no mention at all of these dramatic events.

The Israelite Joseph was never “governor of the whole of Egypt.” The Israelites never became “more powerful” than Egyptians in Egypt. There is no evidence that Israelite infant boys were ever mass-murdered by a pharaoh. This is all fiction.

Some Real, Actual History

Turning to some actual history: in 539 BCE the Persian king Cyrus, having conquered Babylonia, allowed the exiled Judeans to return home and to rebuild their temple. (Not all accepted the offer; many stayed and throve in their adopted country.) The land we can now call “Judea” fell under Persian rule (to 332 BCE) when Alexander the Great conquered it; it then remained under the Greeks to 167 BCE. There was a temple (the “Second Temple”) in Jerusalem, center of an evolving Jewish religion, but no independent “Jewish state” until the advent of the Hasmonean Kingdom that lasted a mere century (140-37 BCE), followed by the Herodian line. This dynasty accepted Roman over-lordship in 63 BCE and gave way to full Roman rule in 92 CE.
Meanwhile, huge Judean communities flourished from Mesopotamia (where perhaps a million Jews lived by 100 CE) to the Egyptian metropolis Alexandria (where maybe a quarter of the population was Judean at that time) to Cyrenaica (Libya) and beyond. There were around 7000 Judeans in the city of Rome at the time of Julius Caesar. There was apparently even a Judean community in Spain. When St. Paul (a Judean born in Tarsus, in what is now Turkey) undertakes his missionary journeys in the 40s and 50s CE, he visits synagogues in what is now northern Turkey and in Greece and possibly beyond. He dreams of visiting Spain (Romans 15:24). This is before the Diaspora. Judeans were already dispersed, in large part due to voluntary migration and trade, or previous deportations as were so common and affecting so many nationalities in the ancient world.
In Jerusalem itself there lived a very international crowd of Jews and non-Jews (“Gentiles”). According to the New Testament Book of Acts, there were in Jerusalem at the time of the Pentecost (immediately after Jesus’ death), Jews who were “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asis, Phrygia and Pamphlyia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs…” (Acts 2:8-11). Acts 8:26 mentions an Ethiopian on pilgrimage in Jerusalem.  It was already a diverse, multicultural city at the time this text was written.
The First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE)–a massive Judean revolt against Roman rule–resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple,  and the forced exile or enslavement of tens of thousands. It was a major diaspora–some see it as the Diaspora–but not yet a wholesale expulsion. The Kitos War (115-117) and Bar Kokhba Revolt (132) produced more expulsions. Judeans (including Christians, considered a sect of the Judeans’ religion) were banned from living in Jerusalem (which thereafter became a fully pagan city). Judeans became a minority in a Roman province with a highly diverse population of Syrians, Greeks, Romans and many others.
So to recap: Jerusalem was (maybe) the capital of a “Jewish” state–or at least tribal confederation–from ca. 1000 BCE to ca. 597 BCE. Thereafter, from 539 BCE, it was the site of the Second Temple to the disaster of 70 CE. For all but two centuries after the time of the Persian king Cyrus it was under Persian, Hellenistic, or Roman administrative control. Then it was under Byzantine, Arab, Egyptian, Ottoman and British control until 1948 when the western part was won by force by the Israelis.

Thus to call Jerusalem–at this point in history–the “eternal capital” of “Israel” or any sort of Jewish state is more than a stretch. It’s simply erroneous.

Post-Diaspora Jerusalem

Who were the people living in Jerusalem during these many centuries, following the Roman Diaspora? Surely by the fourth century CE, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, many Judeans had embraced the new faith. That is, while ethnically Judean, they lost their identity as the “Chosen People,” the progeny of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, entitled by God to a Promised Land.  They accepted St. Paul’s notion that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek” (Galatians 3:28).

Jerusalem became a thoroughly Christian city, marked by such monuments as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built in the fourth century; the Greek Orthodox Church of St. John the Baptist, and the sixth century Church of St. Mary built by the emperor Justinian. Some of these Jewish Christians converted to Islam after the Arab conquest in the 630s. Quite likely, many modern Palestinian Arabs share more DNA with the ancient Judeans than do many European Jews.
After the Arab conquest Jerusalem became a quintessential Muslim city, indeed after Mecca and Medina the third most sacred city in the Islamic world. The magnificent al-Aqsa mosque, built on the Temple Mount in the eighth century and the third holiest Muslim site, is the most powerful symbol of the long period of Muslim rule over Jerusalem, which lasted over twelve centuries.

(It was interrupted by the mainly Frankish Christian Crusaders’ occupation of the city as part of their “Kingdom of Jerusalem” from 1099-1187, which Friedrich Engels considered “the most classic expression of the feudal order.” In this interval, as conflicting Frankish factions aligned with the Vatican, Armenians, the Holy Roman Empire and Byzantium made a huge mess of everything, the population of Jerusalem became once again mainly Christian. The gallant Saladin, a Muslim Kurd celebrated even in European literature, by William of Tyre [1130-1138)] as an unusually pious and honorable man, ended this interlude. He allowed the Crusaders a dignified retreat. He confirmed the Christians’ rights to visit Jerusalem on pilgrimage, restored the rights of the Greek Orthodox community that had been suppressed by the Roman Catholics, and received a message from the Byzantine emperor thanking him for his protection of Orthodox churches.)

During the Muslim period the rulers consistently protected Jewish and Christian holy sites in the city and generally allowed pilgrims of these faiths to visit Jerusalem. While European monarchs were encouraging anti-Jewish pogroms and expelling Jews, the Muslim world was by comparison religiously tolerant. The Ottoman Empire happily accepted Jews expelled from Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain in 1492. Ottoman sultans positively encouraged Jews to settle throughout their empire.
The Palestinian Jewish population probably never really disappeared. According to the online Jewish Virtual Library, there were 5000 Jews in what is now the state of Israel in 1517, out of a population of about 300,000. An Ottoman taxation register of 1553 lists 1,958 Jews in the city of Jerusalem.  In 1851, when the region was under Ottoman Turkish role, a census showed 13,000 Jews out of a total population of 327,000 (4%). Thereafter a wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Yemen (the First Aliyah) brought around 30,000 more. Jewish population rose to 47,000 out of 522,000 in 1895 (8%).
Thus even before Theodor Herzl initiated the modern Zionist movement in 1896, by publishing his book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), there was already a significant Jewish community in what had once been Judea. There had been a Jewish minority with recognized rights in Jerusalem for many centuries.

Jews Outside Judea (and the “Birthright” Issue)

And what was going on in the long interval, in the global history of Jewry, as Jews concluded their Passover Seders with the words, “Next Year in Jerusalem”?

It is widely believed that Jews dispersed in Europe and elsewhere during the Diaspora of the Roman period comprise a cohesive, identifiable population thrown out of their homeland by the oppressive Romans, doomed to roam the earth, harassed at every turn by bigoted religious majorities. Some Jewish and Christian theologians cite Deuteronomy 25:28, a passage in the Laws of Moses in which Yahweh states that his people do not obey his voice they will flee in all directions to “all the kingdoms of the world.” Thus the diasporas are viewed as God’s punishment on his people for their sins.
Many people who don’t necessarily accept such religious ideas assume that the Jewish people concentrated in Roman Judea were expelled suddenly, violently soon after the time of Christ, and then were widely scattered. But able to maintain their “pure” bloodline, dating back to Abraham and Isaac, and by avoiding intermarriage, and preserving their unique culture against all odds, they were able, after untold horrors, able to return home.  
This concept of “returning,” one must observe, is quite special. My own ancestral homelands include Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Scotland and Ukraine. I might harbor some sentimental feelings about some of these places, and imagine that in visiting them I reconnect with my genetic history. But I don’t feel entitled–by anyone–to be in any of those places, or settle down in them. This concept of “return” is rather a religious concept. It ultimately rests on belief in God’s promise to Abraham.

There are of course atheistic Zionists. Many, in fact! One study puts atheists at 15% of the Israeli Jewish population, and agnostics at 37%. Their allegiance to, and justification for, the Jewish state is not based on belief in Bible stories. They instead espouse a secular spirit of nationalism, and perhaps the belief that only the establishment of modern Israel can guarantee the survival of the Jewish people in the face of globally rampant anti-Semitism, and prevent a second Holocaust. Still, belief in the Bible stories energizes the settlers’ projects, steers Israeli politics, and fires the crucial U.S. political support for Israel including its claims on Jerusalem.

Without a belief in a divine entitlement, how can one justify as a “return” to a land of people whose (possible) ancestors left it two thousand years ago?

 It is one thing for a Palestinian in a Jordanian refugee camp, perhaps with land title documents, to insist on a right to return to his or her parents’ home village (even if it has been leveled as part of the Israelis’ effort to erase inconvenient history).   It is another for a U.S. college student to visit Israel, all expenses paid, convinced that this is just his or her right in this life as a Jew.
But this is the concept behind the “not-for profit educational” project, “Birthright Israel,” which sponsors free ten-day visits to Israel by Jewish students in the U.S. and many other countries. It encourages them to immigrate and endeavors to persuade them that they indeed were born with the God-given right to “return” to the land promised to Abraham. (Quite a number of my own students have accepted the offer, and I can’t blame them. But some return appalled at what they’ve seen.)
In fact, of course, Jewish history is much more complicated than the “birthright” narrative suggests. The notion of a horrible eviction 2000 years ago, followed by centuries in painful exile, followed by a “return” (and reassertion of birthright) does not square with the facts.


Jews were already widely dispersed as of the early first century CE, in both the Roman and Parthian empires. There were also likely Jewish merchants at that time in Ethiopia, southern Arabia, and India. (By the seventh century there were even Jews in China.) Some were born and raised outside of Judea; some were of part non-Jewish descent or  married Gentiles. Meanwhile Gentiles not so infrequently converted to Judaism, strange though that might seem to some today, when Jewish religious authorities tend to discourage intermarriage and conversion.

Jews as of the time of St. Paul (as his epistles and the New Testament Book of Acts make clear) welcomed interested, sympathetic Gentiles into their midst, referred to as “God-fearers.” (See Acts 10:22, 13:16, 13:26, 13:43, etc.) These were allowed to attend synagogue services, and sometimes became converts (proselytes). They were valuable, since they could serve as liaisons between the synagogue community and surrounding society.

A Jew in the early first century CE, in Corinth (a great Greek city that Paul visited repeatedly to preach his version of the gospel) might have had no Middle Eastern blood at all. Quite likely he or she, as part of the Jewish community, would contribute some DNA to someone was in fact of Judean extraction. Thus that person’s descendants might say, “I’m a Jew, and my ethnic origins lie, in part, between the Mediterranean coast and the Jordan River.”  

But I suspect that in the case of many self-identifying Jews, the DNA trail leads to Poland most readily, or to the region around the Black Sea, and that the links to ancient Judea are quite negligible. Between the seventh and tenth centuries the Khazars, a people of Central Asian origin–a Turkic people with no relationship to Semites–established an empire around the Black and Caspian seas, covering most of the Caucasus region. In the eighth century its ruling elite converted to Judaism. (They did not claim to be descended from Abraham, but positioned themselves as the progeny of the biblical Noah’s son Japheth.) They invited Jews from Byzantium (where they were intermittently persecuted) to trade and settle in their empire, and they freely intermarried with them.
The Khazar empire, beset by attacks from Kievan Rus (the first Russian state) and then the Mongols, collapsed by the early thirteenth century. Many of its Jewish subjects are thought to have fled west into what is now Poland. (Otherwise it is hard to understand why the Jewish population of that region expanded so dramatically in the Middle Ages.) A significant percentage of Ashkenazi Jews are likely to share Central Asian Turkic and Slavic blood. It’s likely that some have negligible DNA connections to anyone ever living in Palestine. If lineage determines “birthright” (not that I think it should!) they have no more right to settle in that region than I do.

The Modern Jewish Population in Jerusalem

But let’s return to the modern demographic history of Palestine. From the 1890s to 1918 the Jewish population in Palestine hovered around 8-9%. The surge came in the 1920s—an increase from 10 to 20%.  Anti-Semitism in Poland was a factor (or, some contend, calculated alarmism and far-mongering by Zionist proponents of Palestine settlement), and exclusionary U.S. immigration laws. By this time Palestine had passed from Ottoman to British imperialist rule, and the British authorities influenced by powerful Jewish figures in England (such as Baron Walter Rothschild) were willing to facilitate immigration organized by the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Balfour Declaration of November 1917, authored by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour and addressed to Rothschild (as a representative of the British Jewish community) vaguely expressed the British government’s support of “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people… it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…” This became internationally recognized as a British policy statement.

Between 1930 and 1940 the Jewish population in the British Mandate of Palestine doubled from 200,000 to 400,000. By 1940, 29% of the population of Palestine was Jewish. The figure was still around 30% when the state of Israel was established by force in 1948.
No credible historian will these days quarrel with the well-documented fact that as the Zionists created their future living-space that year, around 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled their homes in fear for their lives. Palestinians call it al-Nakba, the Catastrophe. It was a clear, effective instance of ethnic cleansing.  The UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (Dec. 11, 1948) recognized the “right of return” to their homes of those forced to flee at that time, and also the right of their descendants to do so. The Israeli government rejects this, pointing out (rationally enough) that such a return would alter the demographics and threaten the Jewish character of the state.

One can of course ask, Why should there be a specifically “Jewish state,” built on settlement, and the dispossession and ongoing suffering, oppression and occupation of non-Jews? What would be wrong with a secular, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural state?

But even as one raises that (forbidden) question–can’t you hear, rising in the background, the sound of the trumpets bringing down the walls of Jericho as Joshua’s troops slaughter all the inhabitants of the city? (Let me reference again Joshua 6:21.) And can’t you hear the sound of those Edomite babies’ heads smashing against the rocks, as referenced in Psalm 137?

After all–in the minds of many powerful people at least–God made Israel, and God justifies Israel, and however many non-Jews the Israelis kill (2,200 Palestinians in this year’s attack on Gaza, over 70% civilians, including 513 children–supposedly to avenge the deaths of three Israelis), the very godly U.S. Congress can be counted upon to produce a near-unanimous resolution re-confirming the “eternal friendship” between that Promised Land and this one.
Today, in the Israel of the 1967 borders, Jews constitute 75% of the total population, while Arabs comprise 21%. But when you look at what some Zionists call “Greater Israel” (including the occupied West Bank and the Golan Heights, plus the vast concentration camp which is Gaza), Jews are currently just 50%, and Arabs 47% of the population. The Palestinian population is growing at a more rapid rate than the Jewish. If there were to be a “single state solution” to the Israel-Palestine problem, the “Jewish state” would be doomed by demographics. (Palestinian women give birth on average to 2.6 children, Jewish Israeli women to 1.7. Immigration is down, and many Jewish Israelis are emigrating to safer, more affluent, more hospitable countries.)
In 1967 Israel seized the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. In the “united” city of Jerusalem, Jews are now around 62% of the population, Arabs around 45%. In the tensely occupied East, where the Israelis thumbing their noses at the world relentlessly build new, illegal Jewish-settler housing projects, the figures are about 43% (200,000 illegal settlers) versus 57%. The Zionists want to reduce the Palestinian majority. This year, 25% of new homes Israeli built in Jerusalem were constructed in the eastern, occupied portion of the city.

Some Jewish settlers now live in property in East Jerusalem confiscated from Palestinian Arabs, like the properties of the al-Hanoun and al-Ghawi families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. These are now occupied by Israeli Jews following a far-right driven Israeli Supreme Court decision condemned by the United Nations and (even) the U.S. State Department. There is no end of horror stories of Zionists armed with legal documents evicting people from East Jerusalem homes and tossing their belongings out onto the street.
 The U.S. and most of the world have never recognized Jerusalem including the occupied east as the Israeli capital; they continue to accord Tel Aviv that status and maintain their diplomatic missions there. But in deference to the powerful Israel Lobby–and anyone who denies its intimidating, destructive power is just not paying attention–U.S. politicians routinely tow the Israeli line about the “united, eternal capital.”
The Israeli claim is simply illogical. It would make more sense to state that the ancient city has been intermittently, and at most, the capital of a Hebrew/Judean/Jewish state or dependency of some sort for at most 1100 years out of the last 4000, and a mainly pagan, Christian or Muslim city for the other 2900. (It was divided from 1948 to 1967, during which time–perhaps for the first time since the first century CE–the Jewish population in the western part came to exceed the combined non-Jewish populations.) In short, let us all acknowledge that Jerusalem has a complicated history.

  U.S. Politicians and Biblical Mythology

While campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama gave the (mandatory) talk to the American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In an address–probably authored by his senior advisor Rahm Emanuel who (as a dual U.S.-Israeli national) served in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1991, and whose father was born in Jerusalem–Obama declared his support for Jerusalem as “Israel’s undivided capital.”

It was a naked appeal for votes. His staff later clarified that Obama actually supported the U.S. State Department’s longstanding position that the status of Jerusalem was an issue to be decided through negotiations. (In other words, give him a break; he was just reading a script.) But then in 2012, the Democratic Party platform included the language, “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel… It should remain an undivided city.” Even though an obvious majority at the party convention voted this down in a clamorous voice-vote, it was hammered through. It was an extraordinary display of Israel Lobby impunity, stunning many delegates present.
         How to explain this? How to explain this decision to ignore the universal recognition that Jerusalem is in fact divided? And how to explain the fact that, despite the longstanding position of the U.S. State Department (and practically every other foreign ministry everywhere) that the 1967 Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem was illegal and Jewish settlements there also illegal–and despite the universal understanding that a final peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians hinges on East Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian  state–U.S. politicians vie with one another to endorse this concept of Jerusalem as the united, eternal capital of the Jewish state?
I don’t want to say it’s a religious decision. It’s a political decision, a mercenary decision. But it’s rooted in the indebtedness that both Democratic and Republican parties feel to the large section of the electorate that literally believes in the Bible stories.  Such people truly believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews, and that the establishment of the modern state in 1948 came in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Some Christian politicians are thus obliged to support Israel–and will frankly confess they do–on a specifically religious basis, just as they oppose abortion or gay marriage on the grounds of faith.
As Karl Marx (a German Jew and descendent of rabbis) famously put it, “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” The desire of the Christian to believe in the End Times, a triumphant return of Jesus, is at least as appealing as the attractions of crack or crystal meth. And Jerusalem is at the heart of his or her apocalyptic yearnings.
 The Book of Revelation specifies that Jesus, when he returns, will appear in Jerusalem. Building on ambiguous prophesies in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, it posits a “New Jerusalem” from which the Messiah will first preside over a very bloody punishment of sinners and then a long rule of heaven-on-earth. It is a beautiful, horrible vision that exercises an appeal on a certain sort of religious mind. The scenario posits Jewish control over Jerusalem prior to the Second Coming and the “Rapture.” 

The bottom line: U.S. support for Israel–virtually unconditional, vowed by every politician allowed high office in this country–is rooted in a mythical-religious narrative.

Biblical Myth and Zionist Racism

It’s understandable that the myths retain their power. As Marx put it (referring to Greek mythology, although he might have been alluding to the Hebrew folklore): “A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naïvité, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? …Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm?”

It is delightful to engage stories about awesome events in a distant past when people talked directly to gods, lived hundreds of years, and got pregnant in ways defying modern biological understanding. It’s moving to read about Jesus’ “triumphal” entry” into Jerusalem on donkey back, his meditations on the Mount of Olives and ascent into heaven from there (Acts 1:9).

Myths about Jerusalem have boundless appeal in this country. Jerusalem figures prominently in Negro spirituals, as in “I Want to Be Ready” (“to walk in Jerusalem, just like John”). But I especially love Joan Baez’s version of that 1970s Delaney and Bonnie song “Ghetto” that ends:

Well if there is such a thing as revolution
And there will be if we rise to the call
When we build–we build, we build, we build–a New Jerusalem
There won’t be no more ghetto–ghetto at all
No there won’t be no more ghetto–ghetto at all.

Like Bruce Springsteen’s deployment of the “Promised Land” trope, this usage dissociates the symbol from any real history. Jerusalem simply means, like the Obama campaign in 2008, “change and hope.” But here, in that period in the early seventies, it meant real change and hope. Actual revolution.

Unfortunately, when these colorful Bible stories motivate powerful people in this county–including irreligious, secularist politicians or policy-makers who don’t honestly even believe this stuff but need political and financial support from those who do–to support, at every turn, the Israelis versus the Palestinians they’ve displaced, abused, provoked and slaughtered (as though they’re trying to rival the genocidal fury of the mythical Joshua or Samson), one has to re-tell tell them as I’ve tried to do here. And hope that their charming irrationality–and the horrible danger of literal belief in them–is self-evident.

The Biblical Jerusalem storyline is a tall tale, currently in the service of Israeli brutality and impunity. The Zionist inclination to humiliate the indigenous Arab population is limitless, even extending to an insistence that all new applicants for Israeli citizenship pledge allegiance to the definition of the presently multinational, multicultural construct as a “Jewish state.” (This is basically a demand that all citizens of whatever nationality or religion accept any future measures to insure Jewish hegemony, regardless of demographic shifts. It is a deliberate humiliation of the would-be citizen, a demand for abject submission to an ethnocentric concept of the state.)

It is like U.S. immigration officials demanding that all immigrants into this country accept the definition of he U.S.A. as ultimately a “white Christian country” whatever its future evolving structure. Former Israeli Justice Minister and current Knesset member Tzipi Livni has condemned this new law, and some members of parliament have condemned it as “fascist.” But there’s a good chance it will pass.

From 1975 to 1991, the United Nations upheld Resolution 3379, declaring Zionism a form of racism. It passed by a vote of 72 to 35, with 32 abstentions. It was revoked in 1991, following the U.S. triumph against Iraq in the first Gulf War, and as the Soviet Union was falling apart. Geopolitically, the U.S. (temporarily) held all the cards. Through unprecedented arm-twisting and threats the U.S. forced the UN to revoke the resolution (111 to 25, with 13 abstentions.) The new resolution provided no explanation for itself; it just stated: “The General Assembly decides to revoke” the earlier, fairly lengthy and detailed, statement.

At this point in history, brute force and threats determine these things. And they powerfully shape what people believe about history. The brute force, ranging from the Israeli missiles deployed to kill Gaza children, or the U.S. drones used to kill Pakistanis, or the militarized cops who have descended on Ferguson, Missouri, are all in the service of capitalist imperialism. There is no way that the corporate media in this country in the service of that system—which provided such expert propaganda support in the build-up to the war on Iraq based on lies—is ever going to challenge the AIPAC talking-points on Israel. Belief in it, and the system in general, is just another indulgence in myth-based religious faith.


I have a colorful (green, red, black and white) Palestinian keffiyah with an image of the al-Quds mosque. As winter comes I will wear it around my neck, a statement to anyone who notices of my own minority opinion—in this “free” country that generally bars debate on such matters—that Jerusalem is surely not united, and not eternally “Jewish.” And that we need an intifada here, against the neocon-led, AIPAC-driven warmongers who tirelessly work to remold the Middle East, slaughtering hundreds of thousands in real life as mercilessly as any forces in biblical myth.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.