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Importance of Jerusalem in Judaism and Israeli History

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The Importance of Jerusalem in Judaism and Israeli History

Jerusalem is important to three faiths - Christianity, Islam and Judaism. However, Jerusalem is of unique political importance only to Judaism. Jerusalem is important to Jews and Israel:

According to Jewish tradition, Jerusalem has been the center of Jewish national life for about 3,000 years since its conquest by King David. It was the capital city of Judea under the descendants of David and after the return from Babylonian exile. In the Jewish religion, Jerusalem is revered as the site of the ancient temples built by King Solomon and rebuilt after the Persian exile and greatly renovated by Herod, but destroyed by Trajan about 70 AD. In ancient times, Jews would come to Jerusalem 3 times a year for key holidays.

After destroying Jerusalem, Trajan returned to Rome in triumph and constructed a triumphal arch, with the inscription "Judea Capta" and bearing on it the booty he had captured from the Jewish temple. These treasures  were in turn looted by barbarians and carried off to North Africa, where they were subsequently lost.

Importance of Jerusalem in pre-Zionist Judaism

Jerusalem remained a center of Jewish attention and thought throughout the entire history of the dispersion.

Jews pray in the direction of Jerusalem, and Jewish prayers call for the rebuilding of Jerusalem as a symbol of the renewal of national life. The Passover Seder meal service concludes with the words;

This year we are here. Next year in Jerusalem.

"Jerusalem" and "Zion" were often synonymous in Jewish thought from the days of the prophet, as for example:

"And the Torah shall be disseminated from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." (Isaiah 2:3)

The chief locus of Jewish worship in Jerusalem after the destruction of Jerusalem was the Western retaining wall of the temple, which was not destroyed, and which became, in its exposed portions, "the wailing wall" (in Hebrew, "The Western Wall" - identical with the entire Western Wall retaining wall of the temple, and not a part of it, as Muslims sometimes claim).

The Roman Christian emperors forbade Jews to live in Jerusalem, and this provision was renewed during the Crusades. At other times, there was a Jewish community of varying size in Jerusalem. Yehuda Halevi, the "Zionist" poet of the Middle Ages. is said to have met his death upon arrival in Jerusalem, as he was praying by the wailing wall.

Pious Jews often came to settle in Jerusalem or to die there, and a Jewish community was maintained during all of the Ottoman Turkish rule, in the Jewish quarter of the Old city. Beginning about 1840, the Jews were certainly the largest single group in the city, and may have been the majority according to the Turkish census.

Importance of Jerusalem in the Modern History of Zionism and  Israel

Jerusalem became the symbolic focus of Zionism, though much of the work of Zionist reconstruction was done in the countryside and in the new city of Tel Aviv and other towns.  The Hadassah hospital and the Hebrew University were established in Jerusalem, and a great settlement project was undertaken outside the walls of the old city, since Jews could not do any productive work within the confines of the Jewish quarter. Under the impetus of Jewish development, Arabs moved into the Western part of Jerusalem as well.

Jerusalem, the wailing wall and Al-Aqsa mosques  became symbols of contention between Arabs and Jews. Deadly Arab riots erupted there in 1921 and larger riots and massacres in 1929 and during the Arab revolt of 1936-1939. Over  half of the old city  Jewish quarter community of 5,000 were ethnically cleansed from Jerusalem during the Palestine Arab revolt.

UN General Assembly resolution 181, which partitioned the Palestine mandate into  Jewish and Arab states, declared that Jerusalem should be an international city, including all of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This would ensure the rights of all religions to their holy places. The Zionist organization accepted the internationalization of Jerusalem, though the revisionist faction charged that Ben-Gurion and the Israeli left were willing to "divide Jerusalem," a charge that was renewed over half a century later. The Arabs did not accept the internationalization of Jerusalem. They began a blockade of Jewish Jerusalem, enforced by attacking supply convoys on the lone road to Jerusalem from the coast, and by cutting off the water supply, which originated north of Jerusalem. Convoys were attacked in particular near Ramleh and Lod, near Qoloniyeh and nearby villages, and at  Bab El Wad -(Sha'ar Hagay in Hebrew), and after the British withdrawal, they were shelled from the Transjordan Legion positions in nearby Latrun. Groups of villagers organized by the Grand Mufti's Arab irregulars would gather in faza attacks - village levees, killing the convoy personnel and taking the supplies as booty. The British forces were totally indifferent to the fact that Jews were dying of starvation in Jerusalem. They were charged only with keeping the road open to British personnel, which they did by sending a nominal patrol down the road twice a day.  They resented the attempts of the Haganah to bring succor to the Jews of Jerusalem, and saw them as interfering with the natural order of things and the mission of the British Army.

David Ben-Gurion  perceived the symbolic importance of Jerusalem. He felt that if Jerusalem were to fall, the Jewish cause in Palestine would be lost. He devoted a great proportion of the meager defense resources of the Jewish community to relieving the blockade and defending Jerusalem. This policy met with variable success, leaving many scars and unsettled scores. Defense of outlying areas such as Gush Etzion was a failure that was costly in lives, equipment and morale. The most heart breaking failure was the defense of the Jewish quarter of the old city. The few hundred Haganah personnel sent to defend the mostly non-Zionist Jews of the Old City were finally unable to resist the concerted attack of the British officered Transjordan Legion, and the Jewish quarter of the old city fell on May 28, 1948. The remainder of the Jews of the old city of Jerusalem, numbering over 2000, were ethnically cleansed by the Transjordan Legion on May 28 1948. The Legion  illegally occupied the old city of Jerusalem in violation of the UN internationalization decision, with the aid of its British officers and the tacit support of the British government. Jerusalem: Fall of the Jewish Quarter in May 1948
May 28, 1948. Fall of the Jewish quarter of the old city of Jerusalem to the Transjordan legion. Nissan Beck synagogue is visible in the background.

The UN made no serious attempt at any time to enforce the internationalization of Jerusalem against Arab attack, though it subsequently passed numerous resolutions condemning Israeli violations of the international status of Jerusalem, which was in fact a still-born concept and a dead letter.

These humiliating injustices, from the Jewish point of view, reminded Israelis of their failed efforts for nearly 20 years.

However, the Jewish forces and Jewish population also achieved a notable success in Jerusalem in 1948,  as Jewish Jerusalem was able to successfully withstand the blockade. The blockade was beaten by a combination of  strategies:

Palestine war - war crimes - Israel war of independence: convoy is attacked

Attack on a convoy

1. Convoys - Convoys of home-made "armored trucks"- ordinary closed pickup trucks protected by thin layers of tin sheeting and plywood, sometimes escorted by actual armored vehicles as well as regular civilian trucks, tried to make their way to Jerusalem. The people running the convoys were called "Furmanim," after the name of an official of the Jewish agency whose office was used as the center for coordinating them.    Eventually, Arab forces had complete control of the road and no vehicles could get through. The burnt out and wrecked  armored vehicles were left by the side of the road as a monument to the heroes who sacrificed their lives for Jerusalem, and they remained a constant reminder of what had happened in 1948. (see Bab El Wad)

2. Rationing - Dov Yosef was put in charge of rationing in Jerusalem, and instituted a draconic but carefully calculated system that spared the scarce resources of the city, particularly water, fuel, and food. Nonetheless, people were reduced to eating different sorts of roots, and occasionally survived owing to the beneficence of Palestinian Arab neighbors.

3. Military force:

Operation Nachshon - In order to free Jerusalem from blocked while the British were still in Palestine, the Haganah mounted the largest attack it had ever planned, involving, for the first time, a brigade force (the Harel Brigade) of about 1500, coordinated operations and a great concentration of equipment relative to what was available. This was known as Operation Nachshon, launched in early April 1948. Operation Nachshon was the first operation conceived as part of the revised Plan D, that had been formulated originally as a plan for defense after the British left Palestine. Operation Nachshon was successful in driving Arab irregulars from Motza, Quluniyah and Qastel. Notably, the Haganah succeeded in killing the commander of the Palestine irregular forces, Abdel Kader El Husseini, However, toward the end of April, the blockade was restored.

Attacks on Latrun - The principle obstacle to supply of Jerusalem following the evacuation of Palestine by the British, was the fortress of Latrun, overlooking the Latrun monastery and the road to Jerusalem, which the Jordan Legion occupied about May 15, 1948. Under the direction of British officers and using British-supplied 25 pound cannon, armored cars, mortars and heavy machine guns, the Legion made the road impassable and the fortifications of Latrun impregnable. Three costly attempts were made by the Haganah and IDF to capture Latrun, but all ended in failure.

Burma Road - Col "Mickey Marcus" (nom de guerre of an American volunteer) and others studied the terrain surrounding Latrun, and concluded that it would be possible to build a road that would avoid the Jordanian fortifications. This road, which became known as the Burma road, after the allied supply route to Burma, was completed June 11, 1948 after several weeks of intensive labor by Jewish soldiers and civilians, and Arabs from the friendly village of Abu Ghosh.  With the completion and eventual enlargement of this bypass road, the siege of Jerusalem was effectively ended.

Some letters and biographies and incidents that give the flavor of what it was like to be in Jerusalem in those days: Esther Cailingold, Palestine Partition - November 29, 1949, Palestine: Ben Yehuda St. Bombing 1948-Fierce Determination Palestine: Ben Yehuda Street Bombing  Israel: This is my home - 1948, Ben Yehuda Street Bombing


Divided City of Jerusalem

For nearly 20 years, barbed wire separated the Eastern, Jordanian and the Western Israeli halves of Jerusalem, a reminder to Israelis of the failure of 1948 and of the cost of that failure. From the Mandelbaum gate or the roof of Notre Dame, one could view the walls of the old city, an old burned out armored car left by the wall since 1948, and other sites, but one could not approach them.

The illegal Jordanian occupation of Jerusalem and of the West Bank, constituting acquisition of territory by force,  was nonetheless given international recognition by acceptance of the terms of the 1949 armistice agreement, supposed to be a temporary measure. Virtually every vestige of Jewish life was erased from the Old City. Fifty eight of the 59 synagogues that had stood there for hundreds of years were destroyed. The cemetery in the Mt of Olives was desecrated systematically. Gravestones were turned into paving stones for paths to Jordan Legion latrines. In violation of the armistice agreement, Jews were not allowed to worship in the old city of Jerusalem. Hadassah hospital was in Jordanian territory and lost to the Jews. The Mt Scopus campus of the Hebrew University was likewise closed, but periodic access was allowed to maintain the records of students that were stored there.

Jerusalem in 1967 - Despite repeated warnings, Jordanian forces continued to shell Jerusalem, initiating the Israeli military response that resulted in conquest of all of Jerusalem and all the land West of the Jordan river. The city was nominally reunited, and unified Jerusalem became a triumphant symbol of the Israeli government,  especially after the Likud came to power in 1977. However city authorities made little provision for the Arab population of Jerusalem. Despite Israeli government efforts to settle Jerusalem with Jews, the economic development attracted Palestinian Arabs, who built myriads of illegal structures, maintaining the approximate demographic balance of the city as 25-30% Arab and 70-75% Jewish. The government of Ehud Barak offered to divide Jerusalem in a peace settlement in December and January of 2001. However, this offer was turned down by the Palestinians. The violence that broke out, which included Palestinian machine gun fire on neighborhoods in Jerusalem as well as suicide bombers, was reminiscent of the events of 1948, and made division of Jerusalem even more unpopular among Israeli Jews.

Rebuilding the Temple

Mainstream Judaism does not contemplate rebuilding the temple as a practical project. It would entail animal sacrifice, as well as devoting  all those who are identified as Levites and Cohanim to the service of the temple. According to Rabbinical authorities, Jewish law stipulated a series of sacrifices which must all be done perfectly or not at all. The meanings of these sacrifices and the procedures to be followed are now lost. Orthodox Jews are enjoined by most rabbis from ascending to the Temple Mount, because the precise place of the Holy of Holies of the ancient temples is not known, and may be trod upon by mistake. However, small groups of extremists, especially the Faithful of the Temple Mount, do want to rebuild the temple, and occasionally create provocations by insisting on their right to visit the Temple Mount.

Jerusalem - City of David - This award winning Web site tells the story of the City of David, outside the walled city of Jerusalem, and through it, it tells the history of Jerusalem  in a stunning interactive display.  


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