In December 1917 — 100 years ago this month — the British general Edmund Allenby seized control of Jerusalem from its Ottoman Turkish defenders. Dismounting his horse, he entered the Old City on foot, through Jaffa Gate, out of respect for its holy status.
In the century since, Jerusalem has been fought over in varying ways, not only by Jews, Christians and Muslims but also by external powers and, of course, modern-day Israelis and Palestinians.
It is perhaps fitting that President Trump appears to have chosen this week to announce that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, despite concerns from leaders of Arab countries, Turkey and even close allies like France.
Conflicts over Jerusalem go back thousands of years — including biblical times, the Roman Empire and the Crusades — but the current one is a distinctly 20th-century story, with roots in colonialism, nationalism and anti-Semitism. The New York Times asked several experts to walk readers through pivotal moments of the past century.
“It was for the British that Jerusalem was so important — they are the ones who established Jerusalem as a capital,” said Prof. Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, a historical geographer at Hebrew University. “Before, it was not anyone’s capital since the times of the First and Second Temples.”
The three decades of British rule that followed Allenby’s march on Jerusalem saw an influx of Jewish settlers drawn by the Zionist vision of a Jewish homeland, while the local Arab population adjusted to the reality of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the city since 1517.
“Paradoxically, Zionism recoiled from Jerusalem, particularly the Old City,” said Amnon Ramon, senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research. “First because Jerusalem was regarded as a symbol of the diaspora, and second because the holy sites to Christianity and Islam were seen as complications that would not enable the creation of a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital.”
Many early Zionists were secular European socialists, motivated more by concerns about nationalism, self-determination and escape from persecution than by religious visions.
“Jerusalem was something of a backwater, a regression to a conservative culture that they were trying to move away from,” according to Michael Dumper, professor in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter in England. “Tel Aviv was the bright new city on a hill, the encapsulation of modernity.”
For Arabs, he said: “There was still something of the shock at not being in the Ottoman Empire. There was a reordering of their society. The local Palestinian aristocracy, the big families of Jerusalem, emerged as leaders of the Palestinian national movement, which was suddenly being confronted by Jewish migration.”
Opposition to that migration fueled several deadly riots by Palestinians, while Jews chafed at British rule and at immigration restrictions imposed in 1939 — restrictions that blocked many Jews fleeing the Holocaust from entering. After the war, in 1947, the United Nations approved a partition plan that provided for two states — one Jewish, one Arab — with Jerusalem governed by a “special international regime” owing to its unique status.
The Arabs rejected the partition plan, and a day after Israel proclaimed its independence in 1948, the Arab countries attacked the new state. They were defeated. Amid violence by militias and mobs on both sides, huge numbers of Jews and Arabs were displaced.
Jerusalem was divided: The western half became part of the new state of Israel (and its capital, under an Israeli law passed in 1950), while the eastern half, including the Old City, was occupied by Jordan. “For the Palestinians, it was seen as a rallying point,” Professor Dumper said.
Israel and Jordan, he said, were largely focused elsewhere. Israel built up its prosperous coastal areas — including Haifa, Tel Aviv and Ashkelon — into a thriving commercial zone, while the Jordanian king, Abdullah I, focused on the development of Amman, Jordan’s capital.
The early Israeli state was hesitant to focus too much on Jerusalem, given pressure from the United Nations and from the European powers, according to Issam Nassar, a historian at Illinois State University.
Having accepted the idea of international control of Jerusalem, the early Israeli leadership sought alternatives for a capital, perhaps Herzliya or somewhere in the south. They also realized that not having control of Jerusalem’s holy sites might have some advantages, according to Dr. Ramon.
While Israel moved many government functions to Jerusalem during the country’s first two decades, foreign governments largely avoided Jerusalem and opened embassies in Tel Aviv, in recognition of the United Nations resolution.
No event has shaped the modern contest over Jerusalem as much as the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, in which Israel not only defeated invading Arab armies but also seized control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt; the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan; and the Golan Heights from Syria.
“The turning points in 1967 were two: the great victory, including the fast shift from fears of defeat before the war to euphoria and the feeling that everything was possible, and the emotional impact of occupying the Old City,” said Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Images of Israeli soldiers praying at the Western Wall, to which they had been denied access during Jordanian rule, became seared into Israel’s national consciousness.
“Jerusalem became the center of a cultlike devotion that had not really existed previously,” said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University. “This has now been fetishized to an extraordinary degree as hard-line religious nationalism has come to predominate in Israeli politics, with the Western Wall as its focus.”
The victory of the right-leaning party Likud in 1977, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, helped solidify this new emphasis on Jerusalem as integral to Israel’s identity. Religious settlers became more prominent in political life in Israel, beginning a long ascendance that has never really halted. Old-line socialists with roots in Russia and Eastern Europe gave way to a more diverse — and also more religious — population of Israelis with origins in the Middle East, North Africa and other regions.
As part of this shift, Jerusalem’s symbolic importance intensified. Its role in Jewish history was emphasized in military parades and curriculums, and students from across Israel were taken there on school visits. This process culminated in 1980, when lawmakers passed a bill declaring that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel” — although Israel stopped short of annexing East Jerusalem, a move that would most likely have drawn international outrage.
The 1993 Oslo accords provided for the creation of a Palestinian Authority to govern the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while deferring a resolution on core issues: borders, refugees and Jerusalem’s status. In the nearly quarter-century since, the prospects for a lasting peace deal have seemed ever more elusive.
A visit by the right-wing politician Ariel Sharon in 2000 to the sacred complex known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary — which contains Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock — set off violent clashes and led to a second Palestinian uprising that claimed the lives of about 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis over five years.
Palestinians say that Jewish settlers have encroached on East Jerusalem, and that Israel has compounded the problem by revoking residency permits. Even so, the ethnic composition of Jerusalem’s population has remained about 30 percent to 40 percent Arab.
“The entire international community has been in accord that Israeli annexation and settlement of East Jerusalem since 1967 is illegal, and refuses to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” Professor Khalidi said. “If Trump changes this position, given the importance of Jerusalem to Arabs and Muslims, it is hard to see how a sustainable Palestinian-Israeli agreement or lasting Arab-Israeli normalization is possible.”
Professor Ben-Arieh says the conflict over the city is likely to endure. “The Arab-Jewish conflict escalated into a nationalistic conflict, with Jerusalem at its center,” he said. “Jerusalem was a city holy to three religions, but the moment that, in the land of Israel, two nations grew — the Jewish people and the local Arab people — both embraced Jerusalem. More than Jerusalem needed them, they needed Jerusalem.”