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How Jews and Arabs Use (and Misuse) the History of Jerusalem to Score Points

Today the struggle for Jerusalem and for all of Israel continues without respite, perpetuating 4,000 years of confrontation in the heart of the land once called Canaan. Where once the ancient weapons were bronze swords, lances, and battleaxes, they are now stun grenades, helicopter gun ships, remotely-detonated car bombs, and suicidal young men and women armed with explosives. Although the individuals and their weapons may have changed, the underlying tensions and desires have not. And the end is not yet in sight. Meron Benvenisti, the former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, has described the rival Jewish and Moslem claims to the Temple Mount as "a time bomb...of apocalyptic dimensions."

Jerusalem—a city central to three major religions and held sacred by hundreds of millions of people throughout the world—has been under siege, off and on, for four millennia. No other city in the world has been more bitterly fought over throughout its history. Although frequently called the "City of Peace," this is likely a mistranslation and certainly a misnomer, for the city’s existence has been anything but peaceful.

There have been at least 118 separate conflicts in and for Jerusalem during the past four millennia—conflicts which ranged from local religious struggles to strategic military campaigns which embraced everything in between. Jerusalem has been destroyed completely at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked an additional 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, been the scene of 20 revolts and innumerable riots, had at least five separate periods of violent terrorist attacks during the past century, and has only changed hands completely peacefully twice in the past 4,000 years.

Strabo, the famous geographer writing in the first century CE, described Jerusalem as being in a spot which "was not such as to excite jealousy, nor for which there could be any fierce contention" (Strabo 16.2.36). How wrong he was! Battles for control of the city began as early as the second millennium BCE, but their relevance to the modern world begins in earnest when the Israelites, led by the young warrior-king David, engaged in an epic battle with the Jebusites for control of Jerusalem sometime around 1000 BCE. In the three millennia that have passed since David captured the city and made it his capital, Jerusalem has been fought over again and again.

Why is this? Why have dozens of armies—from minor tribes as well as great civilizations—fought to conquer and rule Jerusalem? It lay far from major ports and did not dominate any historically important trade routes. It sat on the edge of a barren and forbidding desert poorly suited for the building of an important commercial center or strategic military base. The answer may lie on a hill called the Temple Mount—known in Arabic as the Haram al-Sherif (the "Noble Sanctuary")—that looks down upon the surrounding city; Gershom Gorenberg has called it "the most contested piece of real estate on earth."

On this Mount stands a great rock which is central to the story of the struggles for Jerusalem. It has seen kingdoms rise and fall, great empires come and go. It once lay within the Temple of King Solomon and later inside Herod’s Temple. Today, this great stone still has a commanding presence on the Temple Mount. It now lies beneath the golden-roofed Dome of the Rock and is a vital part of the third most sacred site of the Islamic world. According to Moslem tradition, the Prophet Mohammed ascended to the furthest reaches of heaven from this rock. According to Jewish tradition, this is the rock upon which Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. It was here that David brought the sacred Ark of his people.

Legend has it that the Israelites toiled by the rock to build the great temple for Solomon, that it was bathed with the tears of Judaeans bound for exile in the fields of Babylon, and stained with the blood of Crusaders and Saracens engaged in holy warfare. This is the rock that has outlasted all those who came to besiege Jerusalem—David and Shishak, Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar, Vespasian and Titus, Crusaders and Saracens, Moslems and Mamlukes, Ottomans and British.

If the story of the rock is the story of the Temple Mount, it is also the story of the city of Jerusalem. Most of the battles that have raged over Jerusalem during the past four millennia were inspired by the desire of one or another group to establish cultural and religious hegemony over the region, whose focal point has always been the Temple Mount and the rock that stands upon it. Thus the battles for control of Jerusalem were usually fought because the city was an important political and religious center rather than because of any inherent military or commercial value it had.

Many of these conflicts have reverberated down through the pages of history to the present time. In this ancient city, the battles of yesterday have frequently become part of the propaganda of today, and so events that took place eight hundred or even three thousand years ago still exert a dramatic and significant influence. Israeli officials celebrate David’s conquest of Jerusalem from the Jebusites about 1000 BCE as marking the city’s beginnings under Jewish rule. But such prominent Palestinians as Yasser Arafat, describing themselves as descendants of the original Jebusites who fought against the Israelites, see the conquest of the city by David as the first skirmish in a three-thousand-year-long battle between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Similarly, Saddam Hussein hailed the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and its recapture from the Crusaders by Saladin in 1187 CE as precedents for his own actions and intentions. In Iraq, laser shows, billboards, and statuary depicted Hussein as the modern successor to these ancient warriors. Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and other Zionists intent on founding the modern state of Israel invoked stirring images of heroic Maccabean warriors from 167 BCE and of Bar Kokhba facing the legions of the Roman Empire in 135 CE. Osama bin Laden styled himself on grainy videotapes as a latter-day Saladin, battling western Crusaders in the Middle East a thousand years after the fact and proclaiming his determination to bring Jerusalem under Moslem sovereignty once again.

And so military occupations and religious conflicts continue in Jerusalem, as they have done unrelentingly for four thousand years, with no end in sight. It seems that not much has changed in the nearly 3,400 years since Abdi-Heba, the beleaguered Canaanite ruler of Urusalim, exclaimed to the Egyptian pharaoh, "I am situated like a ship in the midst of the sea!" The modern state of Israel, which only recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, has been described as a besieged island surrounded by a sea of hostile Arab forces. Will it last even as long as did the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem? The future of the new state of Palestine, whose birthing pangs are still being felt, is even less certain; its twin outposts in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank can similarly be depicted as islands surrounded by a sea of increasingly hostile Israeli forces.

It is interesting, and a bit disquieting, to see how the biblical and other ancient conflicts have frequently been used (and, more frequently, misused) as propaganda by modern military and political leaders. A few examples, given below, will suffice to show how some are still reflected in the social and political environment of the Middle East today.[1]

The biblical account of David’s battle against the Jebusites and his capture of their city of Jerusalem is a dramatic tale of skill and courage. It is also the subject of much scholarly debate, but it is clear that one day or night some three thousand years ago, one of the pivotal battles of history began. The victory described set the stage for the predominance of the Israelites in the region for the next four hundred years, until they in turn were conquered by the Babylonians. It is a tale that still reverberates today in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Our forefathers, the Canaanites and Jebusites," declared Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian Authority, "built the cities and planted the land; they built the monumental city of Bir Salim [Jerusalem] . . ." His trusted confidant and advisor, Faisal Husseini, agreed. "First of all," he said, "I am a Palestinian. I am a descendant of the Jebusites, the ones who came before King David. This [Jerusalem] was one of the most important Jebusite cities in the area. . . . Yes, it’s true. We are the descendants of the Jebusites." Husseini, well-known in the Arab world as the son of a war hero, a member of a respected Jerusalem family, and a distant cousin of Yasser Arafat, was the Palestinian Authority minister for Jerusalem affairs before he suffered a fatal heart attack while visiting Kuwait in May 2001. He was especially fond of referring to himself as a descendant of the ancient Jebusites, the "original landlords of Jerusalem."

Arafat and Husseini were using a new tactic in the attempt, begun by the Palestinian Authority a decade or more earlier, to gain control of modern Jerusalem. Their initial targets were the notepads and tape recorders of news reporters. Their ultimate targets were especially Americans and also the peoples of Europe and the Middle East. By claiming descent from the ancient Jebusites, they were effectively avowing that the Palestinian people can trace their lineage to a people who held an already ancient Jerusalem when the Israelites conquered the city and made it the capital of their fledgling kingdom. They were implying that King David’s capture of the city from the Jebusites about 1000 BCE was simply the first time that the Jews took Jerusalem from its rightful Palestinian owners.

Not to be outdone in the propaganda campaign, Israeli politicians opened fire with a media onslaught of their own. They gave top billing to King David in the "Jerusalem 3000" advertising campaign for celebrations that began in 1995, and they identified David’s conquest of the city in about 1000 BCE as marking the foundation of Jerusalem. To their Palestinian opponents, this was political propaganda that conveniently ignored the earlier Canaanite and Jebusite occupations of Jerusalem that extend the history of the city back an additional two thousand years. David’s capture of Jerusalem three thousand years ago is thus relevant—or claimed to be relevant—to the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel today. The modern contestants are stretching and embroidering the faded cloth of history. The ancient conflict between the Israelites and Jebusites is now being recast as the original battle between Jews and Palestinians for control of Jerusalem.

In February 2001, Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister of Israel. The next day Saddam Hussein announced the formation of a "Jerusalem Army" to be made up of seven million Iraqis who had "volunteered to liberate Palestine" from Israeli rule. At first many analysts dismissed this as propaganda "in the fantasy drama staged by Saddam." However, in August 2001 the Associated Press reported that thousands of Iraqis had taken to the streets, waving guns and calling for the "liberation of Palestine" under the leadership of Hussein. The banners of the demonstrators read "Here we come Saddam ... here we come Jerusalem." By February 2003, as members of the "Jerusalem Army" marched again in Mosul, official Iraqi sources claimed that two and a half million recruits had completed their training in the previous two years.

This was not a new theme for the President of Iraq. In 1979, Saddam Hussein was quoted in an interview with Fuad Matar, his semi-official biographer:

Nebuchadnezzar stirs in me everything relating to pre-Islamic ancient history. And what is most important to me about Nebuchadnezzar is the link between the Arabs’ abilities and the liberation of Palestine. Nebuchadnezzar was, after all, an Arab from Iraq, albeit ancient Iraq. Nebuchadnezzar was the one who brought the bound Jewish slaves from Palestine. That is why whenever I remember Nebuchadnezzar I like to remind the Arabs, Iraqis in particular, of their historical responsibilities. It is a burden that should not stop them from action, but rather spur them into action because of their history. So many have liberated Palestine throughout history, before and after the advent of Islam.

Although Nebuchadnezzar was neither Arab nor Moslem, Saddam Hussein’s "Nebuchadnezzar Imperial Complex," as psychologist Erwin R. Parson called it, was remarkably consistent. In the late 1980s, he promoted the Iraqi Arts Festival called "From Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Hussein." He also had a replica of Nebuchadnezzar's war chariot built and had himself photographed standing in it. He ordered images of himself and Nebuchadnezzar beamed, side by side, into the night sky over Baghdad as part of a laser light show. He spent millions rebuilding the ancient site of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar's capital city, provoking excited anticipation among Christian fundamentalists who saw this as one of the signs of the End Times and the imminent approach of Armageddon.

In forming his so-called "Jerusalem Army" to "liberate Palestine," Saddam Hussein appeared to be positioning himself not only as the successor to Nebuchadnezzar but also as a successor to Cyrus the Great. Just as Cyrus ended the Babylonian Exile of the Jews in 538 BCE, so Saddam boasted that he would end the exile of the Palestinian refugees.

Although analysts frequently dismissed Saddam Hussein’s actions as mere propaganda in a "fantasy drama," some who remember the past recalled that Nebuchadnezzar successfully laid waste to Jerusalem 2500 years ago. Even if Saddam Hussein’s "Jerusalem Army" was more wishful thinking than serious threat, his stated intention to "liberate" Jerusalem was hard to ignore. Was he planning to make history repeat itself? To many people around the world, it certainly seemed a distinct possibility, but the capture of Saddam Hussein by U.S. forces in December 2003 ensured that he, at least, would not be repeating Nebuchadnezzar’s destructions of Jerusalem.

[1]The examples given here cover only the period from David’s capture of Jerusalem in ca. 1000 BCE through the Bar Kokhba Rebellion in 132-135 CE. For additional examples, including those derived from the Crusader capture of Jerusalem in 1099 CE and the Moslem recapture of the city in 1187 CE, and additional references to the earlier conflicts, readers are referred to the full account in Jerusalem Besieged.

This article is excerpted from the Introduction and the opening/closing paragraphs from various chapters in the author’s new book, Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), which is a detailed military history of 4,000 years of conflict in the so-called “City of Peace.” Footnotes and full bibliographic references can be found there. This excerpt appears by permission of the University of Michigan Press and the website, The Bible and Interpretation, where this article first appeared.