The Palestinians and their backers have long resorted to diplomatic war in order to undermine Israel’s legitimacy. The Global March to Jerusalem, scheduled for March 30, is a classic example of this tactic. The organisers claim they are seeking “freedom for Jerusalem” and an “end to the Apartheid, ethnic cleansing and Judaisation” affecting the city.
In reality, they are distorting the historical record for political purposes. They seek to depict Israel as a malevolent custodian of the Holy places and a usurper of Muslim rights, so as to buttress an Arab and Islamic claim to the city. But as it happens, their claim does not stand up to serious scrutiny.
For starters, the city is not mentioned once in the Koran. Mohammed never visited Jerusalem and the only possible religious reference is to the prophet’s night journey, which is essentially a matter of legend. Jerusalem has never been the capital of a sovereign Muslim state and for long periods under Islamic rule, was little more than a neglected backwater. Over the centuries, numerous accounts by travellers testify to Jerusalem’s degraded state under successive Arab empires.
By contrast, Jerusalem is seared into the Jewish national consciousness. It has played a central role in Jewish faith and history for three millennia, being mentioned on no fewer than 669 occasions in the Old Testament. Around 3,000 years ago, King David made Jerusalem his capital and ever since, Jews have prayed in the direction of his royal city. It is referred to in numerous religious services, blessings and customs and at the end of many festivities, Jews say “Next year in Jerusalem”, symbolising their eternal connection with the city.
Thus the popular notion that Israel has wrongly “Judaised” Jerusalem is as absurd as the suggestion that the Saudis have wrongly “Islamised” Mecca. Jerusalem’s Jewishness is at its very core. In the words of the Hebrew writer Elhanan Lewinsky: “Without Jerusalem, the land of Israel is as a body without a soul.”
The suggestion that Jerusalem must be freed from the shackles of “oppressive” Israeli rule is equally absurd. Since 1967, the Israeli law for the protection of holy places has guarded sacred sites from desecration and ensured that there is freedom of access for different faiths. Those who do anything likely to violate freedom of religious access can be imprisoned for up to 5 years. The Islamic Waqf, not the Israeli authorities, control administrative affairs on Temple Mount.
But under Jordanian rule, Jewish east Jerusalem was ransacked. More than 50 synagogues were demolished or desecrated, slums were built near the Western Wall and many thousands of gravestones on the Mount of Olives were destroyed in a grotesque display of cultural vandalism. Jews were also banned from visiting their holy sites, in contravention of the 1949 armistice agreement.
The charge of Israeli apartheid is particularly fraudulent. Walk through the streets of the old city and you see young Muslim girls mingling with ultra orthodox Jews. Jew and Arab sit on the same Egged buses, frequent the same restaurants and work in the same hospitals.
Muslims in Jerusalem, like those in other parts of the country, are not confined to an Islamic “bantustan”, nor are they forced to work in Arab-only business areas or denied access to Israeli universities. As with every civilised country, instances of discrimination are always institutional, not constitutional. Thus the analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa is both intellectually wrong headed and morally bankrupt.
However, if you want to see real examples of religious discrimination in the Middle East, look no further than Israel’s most vociferous critics. Saudi Arabia, the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites, prohibits the public practice of non-Muslim faiths while it is a capital offence for a Muslim to convert from Islam.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the Saudi Grand Mufti, recently declared that it was “necessary to destroy all the churches of the region” in line with Wahhabi teaching, though the global condemnation was conspicuous by its absence.
Egypt’s Copts have suffered decades of persecution at the hands of Islamist extremists while Christian communities have long been under attack from Gaza to Kabul. Iran is notorious for imprisoning Bahai worshippers for their beliefs. These cases could be multiplied many times over, such is the ubiquitous level of religious intolerance to be found across the Islamic world.
So during the Global March to Jerusalem, the spotlight should fall squarely on Israel’s enemies and critics. It is their hypocrisy and double standards that merit censure, not a Middle Eastern democracy that upholds religious freedom.
Jeremy Havardi is a journalist and the author of two books: Falling to Pieces, and The Greatest Briton