A Palestinian-American Perspective on the Holy City of Jerusalem.
Dr. Mohamed K. Ghumrawi**
*Published in Saliba Sarsar and Carole Monica Burnett, What Jerusalem Means to Us: Muslim Perspectives and Reflections (North Bethesda, Md: Holy Land Books/Noble Book Publishing Inc., 2021).
**Adjunct Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University.
Jerusalem is considered one of the most religiously important cities in the world. It is a city of peace, love, tranquility, and historical significance. Conversely, it is also a city that has been riddled with violence, bloodshed, and war for centuries. Nonetheless, one’s view of Jerusalem is influenced by the perspective in which it is viewed. In this essay, I reflect on my personal perspective on Jerusalem and how central it is not only to me, but also to young Palestinian Americans and Muslims around the world.
As an American born citizen with Palestinian roots (my grandparents along with the childhood version of my mother left Palestine in 1967), Palestine in general and Jerusalem specifically have always been a focal point in my household. As you enter our home, you are greeted with photos on the wall of Palestinian women dressed in thobes (traditional Palestinian women’s clothing) and a large portrait of the Dome of the Rock hanging on the wall in the living room. This setting is all too familiar in many Palestinian homes in the United States. However, what is less recognizable is how this connection to Palestine and Jerusalem develops and matures within individuals over time or how the city is intimately interconnected with Palestinian-American identity.
A Brief History of Jerusalem
Since the days of the earliest prophets, the city of Jerusalem has been and remains a holy city for all three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Although all three share the same basic foundational principles – the belief in one God – each one has its own religious, historical, and personal attachment to Jerusalem. It is the city where the Jewish Temple once stood and was destroyed twice, the location where Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected, and the location where Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey and Ascension took place. Jerusalem houses many holy sites, including the Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. With so many important religious references, it is no wonder the history of Jerusalem is both one of splendor and magnificence, but also of violence and war, of bloodshed and pain.
In 722 BCE, the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Ancient Israel. The Assyrians had a policy of deporting locals who lived in a land that they conquered. They moved the Israelites out and replaced them with Assyrian settlers as well as members of other ethnic groups – all of them polytheists. It was not until 586 BCE that the Assyrians fell to the Babylonians and King Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Southern Kingdom, including the city of Jerusalem. He destroyed the first Jewish Temple and exiled the Jews from Jerusalem. Soon after, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and, in 538 BCE, Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Palestine. The Jews would rebuild the Second Temple in 515 BCE, and it would remain until 70 CE, at which time it would be destroyed by the Romans. The Romans then exiled the Jews once again from living in Jerusalem. This was the response from the Romans after the First and Second Revolts (66-73 CE and 132-135 CE, respectively).
During this history, we have the time of Jesus, whose early followers were also persecuted. It was not until 312 CE when Emperor Constantine took power that he converted to Christianity, becoming the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire. He ended the persecution of Christianity in the empire; however, while Constantine proclaimed himself Christian, he did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire. Additionally, church architecture and many of the earliest churches in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas go back to Emperor Constantine’s reign.
Sometime later, we have the introduction of Islam into the city. Prophet Muhammad was given the divine revelations of the Quran, or “The word of God,” through the Archangel Gabriel. Muhammad received his first revelation in 610 CE, and these revelations would continue to be delivered to him over a period of 22 years, culminating in a total of 114 surahs or chapters in the Quran. Before his death in 632 CE, Prophet Muhammad was able to unite the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of Islam.
One of the most critical events in the Muslim tradition relating to the city of Jerusalem would be the Night Journey and Ascension into heaven by Prophet Muhammad, also known as Lailat al-Miraj. The story tells that the prophet traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem in a single night, where he would lead the previous prophets in prayer. He then ascended into heaven, where Allah (God) would instruct Muslims to pray five times a day.
After the death of Prophet Muhammad, the Muslim Umma (community) would initially be led by four Rashidun or “Rightly-Guided” caliphs: Abu Bakr (632-634 CE), ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (634-644 CE), ‘Uthman (644-656 CE), and Ali (656-661 CE). The second Caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, would eventually conquer the city of Jerusalem putting it under Muslim rule. As the Muslim armies approached the walls of Jerusalem, Patriarch Sophronius organized the defense of the city with the help of the Byzantine garrison. However, they were no match for the Muslim armies. Although there is some disagreement amongst scholars as to the exact date, between 637 and 638 CE, the Muslim armies conquered Jerusalem after a siege was laid to the city. “Tradition has it that the patriarch refused to deliver the Holy City to anybody but Caliph ‘Umar”.
‘Umar traveled from Damascus to Jerusalem for this momentous occasion and to accept the surrender of the city. According to Armstrong, ‘Umar “expressed the monotheistic ideal of compassion more than any previous conqueror of Jerusalem, with the possible exception of King David. He presided over the most peaceful and bloodless conquest that the city had yet seen in its long and often tragic history. Once the city surrendered, there was no killing, no destruction of property, no burning of rival religious symbols, no expulsions or expropriations, and no attempt to force the inhabitants to embrace Islam”.
As one account details, it is said that as ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, “made his way to Jerusalem, the Jews asked for permission to live in the city. ‘Umar gave these Jewish families their own area in Jerusalem, located in what is now the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. There, they were allowed to build a religious college and a synagogue to pray in the neighborhood of the Temple Mount, once the site of Solomon’s Temple”. After centuries of being barred from living in Jerusalem, under Muslim rule Jews were once again allowed to return. Additionally, supported by Quranic injunctions, any non-Muslims living under Muslim rule, especially Jews and Christians (considered “People of the Book” in Islam), could not be persecuted, killed, expelled, or forced to convert to Islam. Although relations were not perfect, for the first time Muslims were able to establish a system in Jerusalem that allowed Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live together in relative peace.
Reflecting on Jerusalem
For a Palestinian-American born in the diaspora, identity can sometimes be complicated. Words such as tragedy, exile, dispossession, and struggle, and conversely, words such as resistance, defiance, enduring, innovative, and prideful have become associated with Palestinian identity. Even as Palestinians live in places outside of Palestine, their identity and connection to the homeland continue in numerous ways. Speaking Arabic, having Palestinian or Arab friends, cooking Arabic food, images of Jerusalem or the Dome of the Rock in family living rooms, embroidered dresses or thobes, mother-of-pearl decorated Qurans and plates, Palestinian flags, dancing dabka and other national and cultural representations are common within Palestinian households. However, none of these embody as much a “connection to the homeland” for young Palestinian Americans like me as does visiting Palestine (and Jerusalem) for the first time.
The reason I have emphasized the history of Jerusalem is because one believes this history is critical to its future. Some may argue that this belief is idealistic, but I highlight the conflict, the persecution, and the eventual coexistence between faiths because I believe that these events are the embodiment of the true meaning of Jerusalem. The first time I walked through the Old City of Jerusalem, prayed at the Dome of the Rock, walked up to the Western Wall, and sat in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it became evident why this city is vital to the three major Abrahamic faiths. If it were not for religious identifiers such as hijabs, kippahs, and, crosses, one would not be able to tell a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian apart. Jerusalem is the essence of interfaith existence. In it, all people move harmoniously in sync and work together to live and provide the religious experience of a lifetime to visiting tourists.
The Old City of Jerusalem is rich in history, culture, and religion. Walking through its pathways is an experience like no other. To tread where some of the world’s main prophets once walked is indescribable. It was a humbling experience the first time I set eyes on the beautiful golden dome that lay at the center of the Al-Aqsa compound. I recall the last time I was in the Old City, as I bought souvenirs from local merchants and drank qahwah (coffee) while snacking on a piece of kanafe (traditional Middle Eastern dessert), I pondered how a city so central to the three monotheistic religions that preach peace at their core had caused so much conflict among the adherents of these religions. In fact, it is less a religious issue and more a political one. Israel’s establishment in 1948 (and the resultant Nakba or catastrophe), as well as Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, constitute the genesis of the contemporary conflict within the city. Unfortunately, in modern times, Jerusalem has become a city infused with dirty politics and institutionalized systemic and systematic discrimination.
Moreover, as Palestinian Americans, we are sometimes afforded privileges over our Palestinian brothers and sisters living in Palestine. Being an American passport holder, I have the privilege of being able to travel to Jerusalem from the West Bank. However, many Palestinians living in the West Bank (including my own relatives in El-Bireh and Ramallah) are not afforded that same privilege. They must obtain a permit from Israel to be able to travel into Jerusalem (permits that are rarely issued to Palestinians). While Israel claims Jerusalem is its “eternal and undivided” capital, the divisions are clear once you are in the city. West Jerusalem (mostly Jewish) has improved infrastructure and better schools and receives a lot of monetary allocations from the Jerusalem Municipality or Israeli government. By contrast, East Jerusalem (mostly Arab) has a crumbling infrastructure and receives less funding, and building permits are rarely approved. Furthermore, Arabs in East Jerusalem are not allowed to vote in Israeli national elections even though their lives are influenced by the everyday decisions of politicians who win those elections. These unjust and discriminatory policies have transformed the city from one of potential harmony and peace to one of despair and political viciousness.
As world leaders make unilateral and ambiguous claims to Jerusalem, claiming who the city does and does not belong to, the true owners of Jerusalem have been and always will be the people. O how I long to see the day when Jerusalem returns to its true essence as a city of peace where Muslims, Christians, and Jews can worship freely, live together, and work together under a government that administers the city with equality for all, regardless of background, ethnic make-up, or religion. The idea of making Jerusalem a city specific to a particular religious group is both disrespectful and unacceptable. Jerusalem will truly be free only when politicians realize that the city belongs to no single religious group while simultaneously belonging to all religious groups.
Religions were not created to incite hate, although they have become a tool used by some to pursue their own personal agendas. In this regard, we must highlight the examples in history where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam coexisted in a creative and mutually enriching manner in the region. Bearing this history in mind, one can only hope that the future of Jerusalem will be bolder and brighter, working to bring communities together rather than pitting them against one another. Only then can we build a more prosperous future for Jerusalem, returning the Holy City to its true essence of love, peace, and harmony.
 For a detailed account of the history of Jerusalem and the three monotheistic religions, see Karen Armstrong. Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (New York: Random House Inc., 2005).
 Ibid., 227-228.
 Ibid., 228.
 Martin Gilbert, In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
 For a good overview of the Palestinian diaspora and the concept of “connection to the homeland,” see Helena Lindholm Schulz and Juliane Hammer. The Palestinian Diaspora: Formation of Identities and Politics of Homeland (England: Psychology Press, 2003). For readings on Palestinian identity and the question of Palestine, see Rashid Khalidi. Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) and Edward Said. The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage, 1979).