It’s time to end the propaganda myth that Jerusalem is a holy city to Muslims.
The Muslim fixation and clamor on Jerusalem is actually a very recent historical development, a product of political conflict, not historical truth.
Jerusalem rates not a single mention in the Quran and Muslims face Mecca in prayer.
In the seventh century, the Damascus-based Umayyad rulers built up Jerusalem as a counter-weight to Mecca. This is when the important Muslim shrines, the Dome of the Rock (691 CE) and, later, the Al-Aqsa mosque (705 CE), were intentionally built on the site of the destroyed biblical Jewish temples — a time-honored practice to physically signal the predominance of Islam.
However, references in the Quran and hadith to Muhammad’s night journey to heaven on his steed Buraq from the “farthest mosque” couldn’t mean Jerusalem because the Quran refers to Palestine as the “nearest” place. And it couldn’t have been a reference to the Al-Aqsa (“Furtherest”) mosque, for the simple reason that the Al-Aqsa mosque didn’t exist in Muhammad’s day.
With the demise of the Umayyad dynasty and the shift of the caliphate to Baghdad, Jerusalem fell into a long decline, scarcely interrupted by occasional bursts of Muslim interest in the city during the Crusader period and the Ottoman conquest. Mark Twain, visiting in 1867, described it as a “pauper village.”
It did, however, become a majority Jewish city during the nineteenth century. The 1907 Baedeker’s Travel Guide lists Jerusalem with a population of 40,000 Jews, 13,000 Muslims and 7,000 Christians.
So little did Jerusalem mean to the Ottomans that, during the First World War, they abandoned it to the British without a fight and even contemplated entirely destroying the city before pulling out.
Only upon the Arab confrontation with Zionism in the twentieth century did Jerusalem become a passionate Islamic issue.
It was Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, a vociferous antisemite and later Nazi collaborator, who expended enormous energy to focus Islamic attention on Jerusalem. Seeking to foment a Muslim war on Palestine’s Jews, he fabricated a tradition that the wall to which Muhammad was held to have tethered his steed Buraq was not the southern or eastern walls, as Muslims had asserted for centuries, but the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site but for the Temple Mount itself, turning the site into a flashpoint.
The massive Arab assault on Jews across British Palestine in 1929, in which 133 Jews were murdered and hundreds more maimed, was triggered by orchestrated, false rumors that Jews had attacked, or were intending to attack, the mosques atop the Temple Mount.
Strangely, even under the mufti, the Temple Mount was still recognized by Muslims as the site of the biblical Jewish temples. Thus, the Jerusalem Muslim Supreme Council’s publication, A Brief Guide to the Haram Al-Sharif, states, on page 4, regarding Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: “Its identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute.” (After 1954, all such references to the biblical temples were excised from this publication).
During Jordan’s illegal occupation and annexation of the eastern half of Jerusalem (1948-67) Amman remained Jordan’s country’s capital, not Jerusalem, which became a backwater. Infrastructure, like water, electricity and sewerage, were scanty or non-existent. No Arab ruler, other than Jordan’s kings, ever visited. As Israeli elder statesman Abba Eban quipped, “the secular delights of Beirut held more attraction.”
Significantly, neither the PLO’s National Charter nor the Fatah Constitution, the latter drafted during Jordanian rule, even mention Jerusalem, let alone call for its establishment as a Palestinian capital.
Today, however, Palestinian Authority (PA) officials issue flat-earth denials that Jerusalem was the site of the Jewish temples, or indeed that there is any Jewish connection to the city. Muhammad Hussein, the PA mufti, sneers at the Jews’ “alleged Temple” and insists that “Palestinians have an exclusive right…which they share with no one” to the Temple Mount. Sheikh Tayseer Al-Tamimi, the former chief justice of the PA’s Religious Court, insists, “I don’t know of any Jewish holy sites in [Jerusalem]” and dismisses Jewish claims as “fictitious Jewish history.”
Today, the PA uses Jerusalem as a propaganda instrument, at once inciting violence and orchestrating anti-Israel campaigns. In 1996, Yasser Arafat used Israel’s opening of an archeological tunnel near the Mount to incite riots on the basis of the lie that the tunnel threatened the stability of the Al-Aqsa mosque. Twenty-five Israelis soldiers and a hundred Palestinian rioters were killed in the ensuing violence.
In 2015, Mahmoud Abbas urged violence over Jews visiting Temple Mount, borrowing from Haj Amin’s playbook fabricated claims of Jewish assaults on the mosques to instigate it. Over 30 Israelis were murdered and over two hundred Palestinians, the vast majority terrorists or rioters, were killed in subsequent attacks and clashes.
Far from aiding the cause of peace, according deference to the fabrication of Jerusalem’s importance to Islam and centrality to Palestinians actively impedes it and enables the instigation of bloodshed. As long as Palestinians have good reason to believe that violence over Jerusalem will reap rewards, like President Donald Trump recently reneging on his pre-election promise to transfer the US embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, expect no change.
Morton A. Klein is the national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Dr. Daniel Mandel is the director of the ZOA’ s Center for Middle East Policy and author of H.V. Evatt & the Establishment of Israel (Routledge, London, 2004).