Monday, June 4, 2012

Who Owns Jerusalem, Historically?

I believe very strongly that the artificial drawing of new national lines by benignly disinterested world powers is idiotic. A popular form of postbellum recreation for Western countries during the colonial period on through the early twentieth century, the foolhardy attempt to make new countries has led to countless wars in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Of all the manifest stupidity that has been splattered across the pages of history, there has been no more boneheaded move on the part of the wise world rulers than the creation of an independent Israel in 1948. Recognizing this is, of course, not the same as suggesting that the state of Israel, now in existence, should be as blithely destroyed or that the Palestinian people have a right to any or all of the land that was given to the Jews after World War II. It is, primarily, a historical observation, a looking back into time and performing the academic equivalent of a facepalm in view of our forefathers shortsightedness and naivete.

Unfortunately, however, the ability of so many to distinguish between historical and political realities has apparently been stunted by decades of war and rhetoric that grasps hopelessly at historical straws to justify political actions. Consider this passing, and thoroughly unnecessary, aside in Seyyed Hossein Nasr's brief introduction to (and apology for) Islamic civilization, Islam:

But [Arabs] remain of central importance in the ​ummah​ because of their historical role in the Islamic world...and the significance for all Muslims of the sacred sites of Islam that lie within the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, and old Jerusalem, which was historically in Palestine but has been occupied by Israel since 1967.

Subtle, Nasr. Not to mention irrelevant to your point, which was, ostensibly, to explain the ongoing significance of the Middle East and Arabs to the global Muslim community. Most unfortunate of all, however, when evaluating a work of supposed history, is the ease with which Nasr states as a matter of incontestable fact that "historically" Jerusalem has been in Palestine. Perhaps in the primary sense of the term Palestine prior to 1988 as a geographical determination, Jerusalem has always been in Palestine and, of course, still is. As for who has controlled Jerusalem, I would hope that Nasr--as with every thoughtful intelligent person with access to Wikipedia--would realize that if anyone can ever be said to have owned it, then just about everyone can be said to have owned it. So, in the interest of injecting some much needed history in to the question of who "historically" Jerusalem belonged to, let's construct a timeline beginning with David, the first Israelite who "occupied" the city:

  • ca. 1000 BC - David seizes Jerusalem
  • 586 BC - After more than four centuries of Israelite occupation, Jerusalem falls into the hands of the Babylonians
  • 539 BC - Cyrus the Great and his Medo-Persians take control of all Babylonian holdings, soon after allowing the exiled Israelites to repatriate and be ruled, alternatively, by Israelite governors and Israelite theocrats
  • 332 BC - Alexander conquers and the region is held by his Ptolemaic successors
  • 198 BC - The rival Hellenistic Seleucids take control of the region
  • 167 BC - The Israelites resume autonomous control after the Maccabean Revolt
  • 63 BC - Pompey captures Jerusalem for Rome
  • AD 614-629 - Jerusalem is briefly in the hands of the Sassanid Persians before returning to the Romans (now known to history as Byzantines)
  • AD 637 - Jerusalem is captured by the Rashidun Caliphate, representing the first time in more than one thousand years that Jerusalem was under the control of non-Jewish Semites (e.g. Arabs)
  • AD 1099 - The First Crusade results in the establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem
  • AD 1187 - Saladin takes Jerusalem back for the Ayyubids
  • AD 1229 - Frederick II treats to return control of most of Jerusalem to the Kingdom of Jerusalem
  • AD 1244 - Mercenary Turkic Khwarezmians take Jerusalem and raze it to near total destruction
  • AD 1247 - The Ayyubids resume control of Jerusalem
  • AD 1250 - The Mamluks overthrow the Ayyubids, thus inheriting Jerusalem
  • AD 1517 - The Ottomon Turks take control
  • AD 1917 - The British win control of Jerusalem as part of World War I and are entrusted with its care
  • AD 1948 - The State of Israel declares independence and begins the process of occupying of Jerusalem
Was that easy enough to follow? If not, realize that the above is the condensed and sanitized version. It omits the centuries of infighting between various Arab states, a number of momentarily successful Jewish revolts, the constant battling between Persian and Egyptian Muslim groups, and so on. The result ought to be a humble refusal to say that anyone has a legitimate historical claim to Jerusalem. The Jews are in the wonderful position, historically, of being the first and last group to hold it (unless there are some Jebusites who protest), but that reality is historically incidental. If people really want to give Jerusalem back to its previous owner, then pass it back to the British. After all, they won it fair and square the way territorial lines used to be drawn. Of course, the problem there is that the British don't want it. We could go back another generation and give it to the Turks, ethnically and geographically distinct from the Palestinians with their "historical" claim to the territory, who ruled it before the British in the form of Ottomans and Mamluks. Of course, Turkey has enough problems of it's own without adopting Levantine ones. One of those problems happens to be a restless Kurdish population. Turkey might consider signing over their rights to Jerusalem to the Kurds who ruled it before the Turks did in the form of the Ayyubid Caliphate.

In truth, a historical evaluation of who has ruled Jerusalem throughout its history shows both Jews and Arabs (which most modern, self-identifying Palestinians are) are both in the ethnic minorities. Turks, Persians, Greeks, and Romans occupied it with at least equal frequency. In fact, in the above timeline, Jews and Arabs each have only about four centuries each in the form of the Davidic and Rashidun dynasties respectively. If either party wants to make a historical argument on the grounds of frequency of occupation or proximity to the present, they will find other groups with stronger cases based on the offered criteria.

What's truly important to remember, however, is that deciding national lines on the basis of historical arguments is a modern novelty, not to mention a modern fantasy. It's lucky for Americans that people who owned our land one thousand years ago (which was the last time an Arab empire ruled over Jerusalem) can't just demand to have it back. For millennia, borders have been determined in the same bloody way. It's awful, it's immoral, but it's effective. Moreover, it is precisely what we are seeing played out in the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict. UN resolutions and negotiated borders cave under the tantalizing prospect of land won a the expense of life. What will ultimately decided the conflict--if we can pretend, after seeing the above timeline, that the conflict will ever be ultimately resolved this side of the eschaton--will be who ends up with the biggest guns in the best positions when everyone gets bored of fighting. War and politics are a nasty business (perhaps the same nasty business variously named). Let's try not to sully the noble discipline of history by impressing it into their service armed conflict.

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