One-Sided Stories

The philosopher John Stuart Mill said that to understand an issue it is necessary to learn the arguments on both sides equally well. This comports with the idea we all are taught that there are two sides to every story. Notice, however, that Mill did not say the arguments themselves are equal, only that an informed judgment requires knowledge of all points of view. Put another way, flypaper may have two sides, but it matters a great deal to the fly which one he lands on.

This little philosophy lesson is a primer for studying the Middle East because our basic sense of fairness leads us to listen to both Arabs and Israelis and to often accept that each side’s arguments are equally valid and equally just. They are not. At times, one side or the other takes a position that is not completely accurate or sometimes even an outright fabrication. As an example, let’s examine perhaps the most controversial issue in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, the question of Jerusalem.

Israel says Jerusalem is its capital and must remain undivided whereas the Palestinians insist that they should be allowed to control part of the city and make that its capital. Both people live there, why not share?

Consider some facts. Jews have been living in Jerusalem continuously for nearly two millennia. They have constituted the largest single group of inhabitants there since the 1840's. By contrast, Jerusalem was never the capital of any Arab entity. In fact, it was a backwater for most of Arab history. Jerusalem never served as a provincial capital under Muslim rule nor was it ever a Muslim cultural center. During the 19 years Jordan ruled the city, no one insisted that it become the capital of a Palestinian state.

One reason why Israel is asked to give up control of its capital is that the city is holy to Muslims as well as Jews. The two religions do not see Jerusalem in the same way, however, because Jews consider the entire city sacred, whereas Muslims revere a site —— the Dome of the Rock —— not the city. "To a Muslim," observed British writer Christopher Sykes, "there is a profound difference between Jerusalem and Mecca or Medina. The latter are holy places containing holy sites." Besides the Dome of the Rock, he noted, Jerusalem has no major Islamic significance. In fact, far more Christian shrines are in Jerusalem than Muslim ones.

Jerusalem contains the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, but the city’s centrality to the Jewish people goes beyond reverence for this place. Ever since King David made Jerusalem the capital of Israel 3,000 years ago, the city has played a central role in Jewish existence. Three times a day for thousands of years Jews have prayed, "To Jerusalem, thy city, shall we return with joy," and have repeated the Psalmist's oath: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning." Jews around the world face Jerusalem when they pray and each year they conclude their Passover seders by singing the song, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Another holiday, Tisha B’Av, commemorates the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. And, at Jewish weddings, the groom breaks a glass in memory of the destruction of the Temple.

Recently, much of the debate has focused on whether Israel should relinquish sovereignty over the Temple Mount. According to the Palestinian Mufti, Ikrima Sabri, "There is not [even] the smallest indication of the existence of a Jewish temple on this place in the past.” This is an outright lie. The Jewish connection to the Temple Mount dates back more than 3,000 years and is rooted in tradition and history.

Sometimes a position on Jerusalem is made more subtly. For example, you might here someone say that freedom of access to the holy places must be guaranteed. The implication is that Israel denies Muslims and/or Christians the right to visit their shrines. The truth is that Israeli law guarantees freedom of access and any Arab, Christian or Muslim, is free to pray as they like. In fact, responsibility for the shrines of each religion is given to their own authorities. Thus, for example, the Muslim Waqf now controls the day-to-day activities on the Temple Mount.

Freedom of access is also a sensitive issue for Jews because they were denied access to the Western Wall and their holy places in the Old City by the Jordanians for the 19 years they controlled the city. Israel also has reason to suspect Palestinians will not respect Jewish shrines given their destruction of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus and the Shalom al Yisrael synagogue in Jericho last year.

To stake a claim to the city, Palestinians (and the media goes along) often refer to “Arab East Jerusalem.” While Palestinians in the city may be concentrated in the eastern region, this does not mean they are entitled to control the area. Before 1865, the entire population of Jerusalem lived in the Old City. Later, the city began to expand beyond the walls because of population growth, and both Jews and Arabs began to build in new areas of the city. By 1948, a thriving Jewish community was living in the eastern part of Jerusalem, an area that included religious sites such as the City of David, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall and major institutions like Hebrew University and the original Hadassah hospital. The only time that the eastern part of Jerusalem was exclusively Arab was between 1949-1967, and that was because Jordan occupied the area and forcibly expelled all the Jews.

In the interest of peace, it may be necessary to negotiate a compromise on Jerusalem, but it is important to separate fact from fiction when assessing the positions of the parties. Israel and the Palestinians make claims to the city, but that does not make them equally valid.