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Politics and Propaganda:1
The Use and Abuse of Ancient Conflicts in the Modern Battle for Jerusalem

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.

In 1896, Theodor Herzl—the father of modern Zionism—published an influential pamphlet entitled The Jewish State. In its conclusion, he wrote: "Therefore I believe that a wondrous breed of Jews will spring up from the earth. The Maccabees will rise again." Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the more controversial figures within the Zionist movement, added an epilogue: "Yes, they have arisen—‘the children of those whose ancestor was Judah, lion of the Maccabees.’ They have indeed arisen and washed away with their own blood the shame which previously stained and humbled dying Jews."

The historical significance of the Maccabean rebellion is not as great as either David’s conquest of Canaan or the Babylonian conquest of Judah. However, certain elements of the rebellion reverberated in later history, informing both religious celebrations and parts of the political ideology that underpinned the establishment of the modern state of Israel.

In particular, the Maccabean rebellion and the subsequent brief flowering of an independent Jewish state in the Near East during the first century BCE had two important repercussions—one purely religious and the other a complex mixture of the political and religious. The purely religious consequence is that the story of the Maccabees and their rebellion against the Greek overlords is still celebrated each year during the religious holiday of Hanukkah.

Politically, the Maccabean rebellion against the Seleucid Empire was important to the development of Zionism and to the founders of modern Israel. Zionism is defined by the 1967 Random House Dictionary of the English language as "A world–wide Jewish movement for the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jews." The modern movement had ancient and medieval roots but began to grow most vigorously late in the 19th century. The early Zionist leaders, Herzl, Jabotinsky, and Max Nordau, frequently invoked the Maccabean rebellion against oppressive Hellenistic overlords and the later revolt of Bar Kokhba against the Romans as examples of Jews fighting successfully against oppressive authoritarian regimes to establish their own independent state. Those historical examples struck a responsive chord with the leaders of the Zionist movement. After all, their objective was to establish an independent Jewish nation in the very region where the Maccabees had lived and ruled more than 2,000 years earlier.

Scholars have pointed out that with the beginnings of the Zionist movement, the Maccabean rebellion began to be used as a propaganda device in support of the movement’s objectives. Those objectives were more political than religious. In this, they may not have differed greatly from those of the Jewish rebellion 2,000 years earlier, for although the Maccabean revolt began as a religious struggle, it also evolved into a nationalistic struggle for independence. The Zionist movement also used two additional rebellions—the First and Second Jewish Revolts against the Romans—as political fodder for their fledgling movement.

The early Zionists had as their primary objective the return of Jews to their ancient homeland. The movement was ultimately successful in establishing the modern state of Israel, which has attempted to serve as a haven for many from those Jewish populations first dispersed nearly two millennia ago. At the end of the 19th century, a young poet named Yaakov Cahan wrote Ha-biryonim ("The Hooligans"), which reads in part:

"We arose, returned, we, the biryonim!
We came to redeem our oppressed land
With a strong hand, we demand our right!
In blood and fire did Judaea fall;
In blood and fire shall Judaea rise

The last two lines were adopted as a motto by Bar-Giora and its offshoot HaShomer ("The Guard"), two secret Zionist organizations whose primary purpose was to provide labor and armed guards for the new Jewish settlements being established in Palestine during the early years of the 20th century. The poet’s portrayal of the new Zionist movement as a phoenix rising from the 2,000-year-old ashes of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem was also a motif at the core of speeches given by leaders of the movement.

Theodor Herzl stressed the First Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE in an address in Vienna in 1896:

"You know that our history, the history of the Diaspora, began in the year 70 after the birth of Christ. The military campaign of Titus…which ended with the Jews being carried off as captive slaves, is the actual beginning of that part of Jewish history which concerns us closely, for we are still suffering from the consequences of those events. The enslavement born of that war affected not only those who were living at that time, not only those who shared the actual responsibility for the war: The effects of this captivity have been felt for 60 generations."

Max Nordau, on the other hand, emphasized the Second Jewish Revolt of 132-135 CE, saying: "Bar Kokhba was a hero who refused to suffer any defeat. When victory was denied him, he knew how to die. Bar Kokhba was the last embodiment in world history of a battle-hardened and bellicose Jewry."

The two Jewish rebellions against the Romans had lasting effects. When Titus suppressed the First Revolt in 70 CE, he destroyed the Second Temple. That single act has had repercussions on Jewish religious life over the centuries. Without a central temple of worship, smaller synagogues were built in the many places in which Jews found themselves. But it was the Second Revolt—Bar Kokhba’s rebellion—that has had the more profound effect on world events. When Hadrian expelled the Jews from Jerusalem in 135 CE, he initiated a Diaspora that spread the Jews across the world into countless countries and into contact with scores of different cultures. There was no Jewish homeland for nearly 2,000 years—from 135 CE until the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

That there is a link between Bar Kokhba’s rebellion and the modern world has not been lost on politicians. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared in 1948, just after the establishment of the state of Israel, "The chain that was broken in the days of Shimon Bar Kokhba and Akiba ben Yosef was reinforced in our days, and the Israeli army is again ready for the battle in its own land, to fight for the freedom of the nation and the homeland." But some scholars and politicians have taken issue with this glorification of Bar Kokhba and the Second Jewish Revolt, arguing that it should be seen for what it truly was—a disastrous undertaking with the foregone conclusion of defeat and exile at the hands of the Romans.

One critic in particular is an Israeli former Chief of Military Intelligence turned university professor named Yehoshafat Harkabi. He sparked a national debate in Israel in 1980 when he published a book entitled in its subsequent English translation The Bar Kokhba Syndrome: Risk and Realism in International Politics. Harkabi argued that Bar Kokhba’s defeat was one of the three greatest disasters of the Jews in antiquity—the other two being the destructions of the First and Second Temples—and should be identified as such, rather than held up as an event to be revered. He also portrayed Bar Kokhba as an irresponsible zealot, rather than a glorious national defender, and charged him with dragging the Judaeans into "national suicide."

Wherever their wisdom, it is clear that the rebellions of the Jews against the Romans still resonate today, even after two millennia. As the New York Times once said, "For Israelis, Bar Kokhba isn’t ancient history." The noted author and historian Neil Asher Silberman wrote recently that the First Jewish Revolt in particular is "a searing human nightmare that has—despite time, social transformation, historical distance, and coldly dispassionate scholarship—simply refused to fade away." As for the Second Jewish Revolt, Yehoshafat Harkabi put it bluntly, "The catastrophe of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion is not merely an appendix to the Temple destruction, but a separate calamity in its own right, parallel to, and to my mind, an even greater tragedy than the earlier event."

The recent trend towards citing ancient conflicts and ancient history in support of modern propaganda has led to some remarkable, not to say extraordinary, calls upon, and distortions of, the history of Jerusalem. For instance, at the failed Camp David peace summit in July 2000, Yasser Arafat announced that "The Temple didn't exist in Jerusalem, it existed in Nablus…There is nothing there [i.e., no trace of a temple on the Temple Mount]." Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak, and Dennis Ross—the former President of the United States, Prime Minister of Israel, and U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East respectively—have all recalled Arafat’s statement with varying degrees of astonishment. Arafat repeated his claims to the French president, Jacques Chirac, on September 20th, 2000, saying "But the ruins of the Temple don’t exist! Our studies show that these are actually Greek and Roman ruins."

Similarly, in January 2001, Ekrima Sabri, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem—the chief Moslem cleric at the Haram al-Sherif (Temple Mount) and thus the highest-ranking religious figure within the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem—was quoted in The Jerusalem Post as saying: "There are no historical artifacts that belong to the Jews on the Temple Mount." He was also quoted that same month in the German periodical Die Welt and by the Itim news agency as saying: "There is not [even] the smallest indication of the existence of a Jewish temple on this place [the Temple Mount] in the past. In the whole city, there is not a single stone indicating Jewish history."

A few months later, Adnan Husseini, Director of the Islamic Waqf in Jerusalem, said of the Haram al-Sherif, "it is God's will that it is a mosque. It is not for me to go against Him. There is no compromise, from the Islamic side. This place is a mosque. It is a place for Moslems to pray and no one else." The Islamic Waqf in Jerusalem is the Trust that has been responsible for overseeing the Haram al-Sherif ever since Moshe Dayan signed an agreement granting them that authority immediately after the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967.

At the heart of these denials lie the rival religious claims to the Temple Mount or, as Moslems have it, the Haram al-Sherif. It is an intriguing confluence and a definitive example of continuity of religion that the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located—however emphatic the denials of Arafat, Sabri, and Husseini—just where most archaeologists and ancient historians believe that the Temples of Solomon and Herod once stood. Built more than 1,200 years ago, within a century of the Moslem conquest of the city in 638 CE, these two Islamic houses of worship are physical reminders of the fact that Jerusalem is not only holy to Jews and Christians, but is also one of the three most sacred places in Islam.

Not surprisingly, the centuries-long Moslem inhabitation of Jerusalem has had repercussions that are being felt to the present day, when the city is once again in contention between Moslems and non-Moslems. This time, of course, Moslems and Jews are both laying claim to the city’s holiest place—the Haram al-Sherif to the Moslems and the Temple Mount to the Jews. This contest has led to some interesting revisions of the history of Jerusalem, such as Yasser Arafat’s contention that "The Temple didn't exist in Jerusalem, it existed in Nablus."

When Ekrima Sabri—the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem—echoed Yasser Arafat’s assertion that the Temple had never existed in Jerusalem and was quoted in The Jerusalem Post as saying: "There are no historical artifacts that belong to the Jews on the Temple Mount," it was quickly pointed out to him that a booklet published in 1930 in Jerusalem by the Supreme Moslem Council had declared that a link between the Haram al-Sherif and Solomon’s Temple was "beyond dispute." The precise wording used in the booklet is "The site is one of the oldest in the world. Its sanctity dates from the earliest times. Its identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute."

When this wording from the 1930 booklet was republished in The Jerusalem Post and shown to the Mufti, he denied that the booklet had meant to imply any such link between the Haram al-Sherif and Solomon’s Temple. Two months later, the Mufti reiterated his original statement, telling The Boston Globe in March 2001: "The Temple Mount was never there…There is not one bit of proof to establish that. We do not recognize that the Jews have any right to the wall or to one inch of the sanctuary…Jews are greedy to control our mosque…If they ever try to, it will be the end of Israel."

However, these recent disingenuous statements denying that Solomon’s Temple was located in Jerusalem or even specifically on the Temple Mount are directly contradicted by Islam’s own early names for Jerusalem. The earliest Moslem rulers appear to have called the city Iliya, a variation on its Roman name of Aelia. Over the centuries the name gradually changed to Madinat Bayt al-Maqdis ("City of the Holy House") or simply Bayt al-Maqdis (the "Holy House"), similar to the Hebrew designation of the Temple (and sometimes the city and indeed the whole country) as Beit ha-Miqdash (the "House of the Sanctuary"). As Professor Moshe Gil has pointed out, the Arabic name Bayt al-Maqdis "was applied to the Temple Mount, to the city [of Jerusalem] as a whole, and—frequently—to all of Palestine." Eventually the name for Jerusalem was further shortened to al-Maqdis and then finally became simply al-Quds ("the Holy," probably borrowed from or related to the similar Hebrew ha-Qodesh), by which name the city is still known in the Arabic-speaking world today.

The stakes are large and the import of the revisionist statements issued by Yasser Arafat and Ekrima Sabri should not be underestimated. Benny Morris, of Ben Gurion University, puts it bluntly: "Arafat denies that any Jewish temple has ever stood there [on the Temple Mount]—and this is a microcosm of his denial of the Jews' historical connection and claim to the Land of Israel/Palestine." Needless to say, however, the situation is far more complex than any of these modern leaders care to acknowledge, for the histories of Jews, Christians, and Moslems in Jerusalem are inextricably intertwined, and no one of them can be denied without doing violence to the whole nexus.

In the continuing cycles of "Jerusalem Violence" that have lasted nearly 4,000 years, one constant stands out clearly: the vast majority of the serious conflicts in or about the Holy City were inspired by a desire to control its holiest site—the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sherif and the rock that stands upon it. Throughout Jerusalem’s history, the names, nationalities, and religious inclinations of the combatants have changed, but this driving force has remained.

All three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—view Jerusalem as their Holy City. Each claims membership in the Abrahamic covenant and each cites scriptural authority to justify their sacred designation for the city. If history is an indication, any "conquest" of the city by one of these groups at the expense of the others is doomed to be temporary because the others will not rest—indeed, some would argue that their respective faiths do not permit them to rest—until they can make Jerusalem a center for uninhibited worship. Arafat said as much to President Clinton at Camp David in July 2000: "As I’ve told you, Jerusalem will be liberated, if not now then later: in five, ten, or a hundred years…" Arafat’s supporters feel the same way; upon his return to Gaza after the failed Accords, one banner waved by a Palestinian marcher read: "Jerusalem is before our eyes; tomorrow it will be in our hands."

Both Palestinians and Israelis have some sort of legitimate claim to the same small pieces of real estate—first the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sherif surmounted by its sacred rock, then Jerusalem, and finally all of Israel/Palestine. Both have claimed Jerusalem as the capital city of their nation—the Israelis in 1948 and the Palestinians in 1988. No negotiator, on either side, can offer to give up their claim to the city without appearing as a traitor to their people. At Camp David, Arafat told Clinton: "I can't betray my people. Do you want to come to my funeral? I'd rather die than agree to Israeli sovereignty over the Haram al-Sherif. ... I won't go down in Arab history as a traitor." A month later Ehud Barak said essentially the same thing: "No Israeli prime minister will ever confer exclusive sovereignty over the Temple Mount [on the Palestinians]. It's been the cradle and the heart of the identity of the Jewish people for 3,000 years."

Like the Israelis and Palestinians of the current struggle, many, and perhaps most, of those who fought for Jerusalem down through the ages thought that they alone had a God-given right to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sherif and the surrounding city. But to say that one or another people have an "historical" or religious right of ownership of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sherif and of all Jerusalem is to deny the equally valid claims of other peoples and other religions. Even those who controlled Jerusalem for a few hundred or even a thousand years should acknowledge that other peoples may also have claims and that ownership at one point in time is not a valid argument for an inalienable right to ownership in either the present or the future. As Saeb Erekat, one of the chief Palestinian negotiators of the 1993 Oslo Agreement as well as a participant at the Camp David Accords in 2000, has said: "We're dealing with realities. There's no such thing as sovereignty over history. History is in our books, in our memories."

Nevertheless, it is likely that the ancient history of Jerusalem will continue to be used by political and military leaders in the propaganda of present and future conflicts. Meron Benvenisti, the former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, describes it as "the habit of...always returning to the quarry of history to dig up arguments to aid them in their present-day quarrels…"

At the opening of the 16th Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium on July 16th, 2001, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon—whom some have dubbed "the modern Judah Maccabee"—declared:

"Approximately 2,100 years ago, the Maccabees lit the torch in Modi'in and carried it to the gates of Jerusalem, in the Jewish people's struggle for freedom in its homeland. The same fire of freedom and faith, which was not extinguished during 2,000 years, is, today, passed on to you. … You represent the spirit of the Maccabees who fought for Jerusalem and for Jewish rights and independence 2,167 years ago."

Earlier that morning, at 1:30 a.m. in an open field located about a kilometer from the stadium, two Palestinians accidentally blew themselves up when the bomb they were preparing detonated prematurely. The resulting explosion could be heard throughout much of the city. Authorities speculated that the two men, one of whom belonged to the terrorist group Fatah and the other to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were planning to set off the bomb during the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah Games. And so, although the names of the combatants have changed, the fight for control of Jerusalem continues, more than two millennia after the Maccabees disappeared from the face of the earth.

Six months after Ariel Sharon opened the 16th Maccabiah Games in the midst of the second Intifada by invoking the memory of the Maccabees, Yasser Arafat sanctioned continued violence in the Holy City. In a speech on January 26th, 2002, Arafat called for "jihad [holy war] and martyrdom." Including himself as an active participant in the ongoing struggle for control of Jerusalem, Arafat beseeched Allah: "Please God, give me the honor of being one of the martyrs for holy Jerusalem." Twenty months later, when threatened with expulsion by Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Café Hillel suicide bombing in early September 2003, Arafat declared to a crowd of cheering supporters: "[our] people will not capitulate and will not kneel down until one of our boys or one of our girls raises the Palestinian flag on the domes and churches of Jerusalem." The crowd responded instantly, "To Jerusalem we are marching, martyrs in the millions!"

And so Jerusalem continues as a city besieged. Once again peoples of differing beliefs and national aspirations are contending for the same small piece of ground. Someday it may be possible to proclaim these words from the Book of Isaiah: "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended…" (Isaiah 40:2). For now, however, in Jerusalem, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, "There is no present or future—only the past, happening over and over again..."

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(back)1 The following 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.

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