A recent day in the Old City of Jerusalem. An Arab laborer works at the South Wall archeological site. To his north stand the Jewish Temple Mount, the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock; to his south, hundreds of miles away, the Muslim shrine of Mecca. As the time for Muslim prayer arrives, the Arab laborer unfolds his prayer mat. He turns his back on the two mosques previously before him and prostrates himself in prayer to the south. The picture is striking.
As the Camp David postmortems continue, while Arab disinformation campaigns work overtime to generate perceptions of moral and historical equivalence between the Palestinian and Jewish perspectives of Jerusalem, and as the U.S. administration blithely apologizes for the Palestinian negotiating position by suggesting that Jerusalem is "at the core of what it means to be a Palestinian," a candid moment like this is particularly telling. It vividly demonstrates just where Jerusalem truly ranks in daily Arab practice, thought and prayer. Certainly this scene - practiced repeatedly throughout the region - is not itself reason to dismiss all Palestinian claims. Yet, such life experiences underscore the distinct Jewish and Muslim views of Jerusalem. That distinction is critical to the debate.
While Jerusalem has been the central focus of Jewish life, song, literature, prayer and scriptures for millennia, it is not once mentioned by name in the Koran or in Muslim prayers. Indeed, since Islam has always had its Mecca and Medina, the two cities where its greatest events occurred, Jerusalem never was a cultural center or capital of a sovereign Muslim state. The Arab laborer knows this, Yasser Arafat knows it, and the Palestinian people know it, too. Jerusalem is not essential to a Palestinian state.
In stark contrast, the centrality of Jerusalem in the life of a Jew has been a constant, and the Jewish legacy of Jerusalem is firmly established.
Jerusalem represents the cradle of Judaism and has always been its most hallowed site. The Jewish presence in Jerusalem began with Abraham, in approximately 1,700 B.C.E. According to Jewish tradition, the very site upon which Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son to God was divinely ordained to become the site of Judaism's holy Temples and capital. Recently discovered archaeological remains provide tangible and irrefutable evidence of the Jewish settlement that thrived in Jerusalem at the time of King David and the First Temple. Palestinians and the media prefer to characterize that area as historically Arab East Jerusalem.
The Western Wall is an authentic remnant of the Second Temple that existed for 400 years until 70 C.E. Additional portions of the Western Wall revealed in nearby excavations - and laid open to the public by the now infamous Herodian Tunnel - span well into the boundaries of today's Muslim quarter, demonstrating prior Jewish settlement of that area. Adjacent excavations in other areas now claimed by Palestinians show more remnants of the glorious Second Temple edifice that previously graced this site.
It is not surprising, therefore, that these excavations have struck a raw collective Palestinian nerve. Thus, the true reason Palestinians rioted to prevent Israel from opening the Herodian Tunnel for the world to see. Hence the frantic "construction" by the Muslim Wakf on the Temple Mount, to eradicate even more valuable Jewish archeological history. And it is not surprising that the official Palestinian National Authority Web site purveys the shameless assertion that all historic studies and archaeological excavations have failed to find any proof for the "claim" that the Western Wall is part of the Jewish Temple. This may be Palestinian wishful thinking, but it is demonstrably false.
Given this history, the Jew's relationship to Jerusalem is one that transcends time, space and other physical constraints. The attachment remains constant in the psyche, spirit and practices of the Jewish people wherever they may be. The 12th century Jewish scholar and poet, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, perhaps most poignantly expressed this concept in his lament that "my heart is in the east [in Jerusalem], even as I remain mired in the west."
To this day, Jewish synagogues are built facing Jerusalem. Within the city of Jerusalem, synagogues face the Temple Mount. Three times each day observant Jews turn toward the Temple Mount in prayer, longing for a return of the divine presence to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple. Jews were biblically urged to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem at least "three times a year" to celebrate the Festivals. Much as Arafat rails about the need to incorporate Jerusalem into a future Palestinian state, there is little doubt that, given the financial ability, the practicing Muslims of that state would regularly choose to leave Jerusalem for Mecca and the Haj.
The Jewish summer months of Tammuz and Av bring a three-week period of Jewish mourning to commemorate the destruction of the Temples during these months centuries ago. (It is said that Napoleon arrived in Jerusalem on the 9th of Av to find the Jewish people fasting and in mourning. He left with a newfound respect for this nation and its heritage upon learning that this palpable grief was for the long-destroyed Temples.) Even in the midst of a wedding ceremony, Jewish tradition prescribes that a glass be broken during this moment of great personal joy to serve as a reminder of the destruction of Jerusalem. Thus, never do a Jew's thoughts wander far from the holy city.
Following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people in 70 C.E., the Jews faithfully re-established their community in Jerusalem, preserving their legacy and maintaining daily prayer vigils before the Western Wall. That steadfast Jewish presence continued virtually uninterrupted until the sadistic, wanton and indiscriminate destruction of the Jewish quarter inflicted by Jordan in May 1948.
Immediately upon their occupation of the Jewish quarter, the Arabs demolished synagogues and other buildings there. Remaining sites were used as stables and garbage dumps. The concept of an Arab East Jerusalem was founded upon that destruction. Jews were barred from the entire Old City, and thus from Judaism's holiest sites. They were left to gaze longingly, across the morose no man's land, past Jordanian snipers, at the city of their dreams. For 19 years they could do no more than pray "next year in Jerusalem!"
Israel's liberation of the Old City in 1967 brought an answer to those prayers. Few Jews will ever forget the emotional report from Israeli paratroopers liberating the Old City: "The Western Wall is again in our hands!"
The unification of Jerusalem brought with it for the first time in centuries a guaranty that peace-loving people of all religions can freely access all of Jerusalem's holy sites. Jerusalem now gives life not only to the prayers and dreams of the Jewish people, but stands open to all who truly love it.
For more than 30 centuries, no believing Jew has ever turned his back on this holy city or its holy sites. Certainly no Israeli government should be expected to do so now.
Aron U. Raskas, a former Jerusalem resident, is a Baltimore attorney. He is a frequent commentator on Middle East affairs on Baltimore public radio station WJHU-FM.