On Dec. 6th, President Trump made the following announcement, “Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital… This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done.” Over 20 days later many of us still have more questions than answers. I’m guessing some of the more common questions are: isn’t Jerusalem already the capital? Shouldn’t we support Israel? Why is this a big deal? So here are five things that you might need to know about Jerusalem. (Warning: This is a heavy history post)
1. Jerusalem is one of the most important cities in three major world religions.
And this is why Jerusalem is such a fought over area. The three major religions are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three of these religions trace their roots back to Abraham, and from Abraham to King David who first captured the city between 1005-999 BCE. For the Jews, this is where the temple was built, where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, and where most religious festivals are centered. For Christians, in addition to the Jewish significance, it is the place where Jesus spent a lot of his time teaching and healing people in the temple courts, performed miracles, had the last supper, prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, was crucified, resurrected and ascended into Heaven. For Muslims, Jerusalem, more specifically the Dome of the Rock, is where Muhammad ascended to Heaven and received the second pillar of Islam (praying five times a day). And since Abraham, David, Solomon, and Jesus are also prophets in Islam, the city carries significance for many of the same reasons that Christians hold it significant.
2. Jerusalem has rarely belonged just to the Jews.
To say Jerusalem has seen some hardship is an understatement. When David first took Jerusalem 3000 years ago, it belonged to the Jebusites, and therefore wasn’t part of the land allotted among the 12 tribes. This meant that David could set it up as the capital city to signify a united Israel and not show favoritism to one tribe over another. When the kingdom divided in 930 BCE after Solomon’s death, Jerusalem became the capital of the Kingdom of Judea. Judah was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and many Jews were exiled. Enough Jews returned to Jerusalem between 538-515 BCE that they were able to rebuild the temple. Alexander the Great conquered Jerusalem again 332 BCE, and it remained under Greek rule until the Romans captured it in 63 BCE. Israel remained under Roman rule, and then Byzantine rule until 614 CE. It was mainly under Arab rule until the Crusades where Christians and Muslims fought for hundreds of years over religiously significant sites. The Mamluks controlled Jerusalem from about 1291-1516 (if you’ve never heard of the Mamluk it’s ok, I hadn’t either). The Ottoman Empire took control for the next 400 years before losing it to the British during World War One.
This is where we come to the crux of the current conflict. In 1947 the United Nations came up with a plan for the British Mandate to be terminated and for Jerusalem to become an international state, or “corpus separated.” Basically, the plan was for Jerusalem to not be owned or controlled by any one group of people. This would allow all three religions to have access to their holy sites and have some benefits for the Palestinians and Jews. The Jewish Agency for Palestine accepted the plan, but Arab leaders refused to sign anything that had any form of territorial division. This started the Arab-Israeli wars, which saw Jerusalem declared the capital of Israel in 1949, and the final Arab-Israeli war was a six-day war in 1967 in which Israel declares Jerusalem unified and gets us pretty close to today’s current state of affairs. All in All, Jerusalem has been “destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked an additional 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times," according to Eric H. Cline’s tally in Jerusalem Besieged.
3. There is a difference in the nation of Israel and the decedents of Israel.
This might seem obvious, but I think this is an important distinction to make. During all of the conflicts, exiles, and conquests (not to mention marriages) very few people can tell you which of the 12 tribes they descended from. Even before Jesus’ time, several people converted to Judaism (Esther 8:17 gives us one of those instances) and what we call the Old Testament was translated into Greek which leads to many Greeks becoming converts who were later called Gentiles. GotQuestions.org has this to say:
Even today, about a quarter or Israel’s population is non-Jewish. I bring this up to try to accentuate the difference between a people group and a political state. Support for Israel is not synonymous with support of God’s people.
4. The word you are looking for is Zionist.
It’s a pretty common belief among Christians that Israel belongs to the Jews. This hasn’t always been the case though, and it has gained a lot of popularity in America since the formation of the Moral Majority the 1970’s and a famous televangelist saying in 1980 that “I firmly believe God has blessed America because America has blessed the Jew. If this nation wants her fields to remain white with grain, her scientific achievements to remain notable, and her freedom to remain intact, America must continue to stand with Israel.” A Zionist wants Jewish people to return to Israel to claim their homeland according to the Bible. A Christian Zionist sees this as one of the steps required for Jesus to return to Earth.
Another term you might hear in this conversation is Dispensationalist Christian, which is a view that Christianity has restored lost elements of Judaism. Again, Jews returning to Jerusalem is a big step to the end of the world. However, in this scenario, two thirds of the Jews will die, and the other third will convert to Christianity. Both Zionists and Dispensationalist Christians have ulterior motives for their support of Israel. Whether it comes from a gratitude for being part of the Christian story, hopes in speeding up the coming of Jesus, or hoping to eventually convert the Jews to Christianity, their support of the nation of Israel has very little to do with the country of Israel itself, and in fact their political stances are usually very different (Jews leaning more liberal while Zionists and Dispensationalist are more conservative).
If you are looking for more information or things to look into yourself, another major view is Supersessionism, or Replacement Theology, in which Christians have “replaced” the Jews as God’s chosen people.
5. The Methodist church has made an official statement concerning Jerusalem.
The full statement can be found here. However, this is an excerpt: