The “Eternal and Undivided” Jerusalem and the Bible

By Michael G. Azar
Theology/Religious Studies
University of Scranton
February 2018

This is an expanded version of an OpEd originally published in the Times-Tribune.

Last December saw President Trump dramatically upset the history of US policy in the Middle East: Standing in front of a Christmas tree, with Vice President Pence looking approvingly from the background, Mr. Trump declared that “it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” having recognized that the city is “the capital the Jewish people established in ancient times.”

Almost immediately, a number of pundits, preachers, and public officials in the US and Israel (but little elsewhere) publically thanked Trump, declaiming the Bible as proof that Jerusalem is, in a phrase often repeated, the “eternal and undivided” capital of Israel. Thus, when President Macron of France stated his country’s opposition to this move, Netanyahu bit back, telling Macron, “You can read about it in a very fine book; it’s called the Bible.” So also, H.R. 4718, a bill introduced shortly after Trump’s declaration, begins, “For more than 3,000 years, the Jewish people have maintained a continuous connection and presence in the land of Israel and their eternal and indivisible capital city of Jerusalem.” The argument elicited here is not moral or legal, but biblical.

It is true: According to the Bible, God chose to give Jerusalem to the Israelites when he had the nascent King David conquer the city from the Jebusites, an ancient tribe indigenous to the city, shortly before 1000 BCE (2 Samuel 5). When Jerusalem first became the capital of David’s kingdom, it was roughly .02 sq. mi. in size, built not where “Old City” Jerusalem is today, but to the south of the Old City, primarily where the modern-day Palestinian neighborhood, Silwan, sits (a key reason why Silwan is today being increasingly strangled by biblically driven Israeli settlement expansion).

At God’s direction, and seeking to expand the city, David purchased (but did not take) property north of the city from a Jebusite (2 Sam 24:18); on that spot, David’s son, Solomon, would eventually build the first Israelite temple. Subsequent generations of kings expanded the city to the west, encompassing what is now the Armenian and Jewish neighborhoods of the “Old City” as well as property immediately outside to the south. When the city was conquered by Babylonians in the sixth century BCE, it was likely around .23 sq. mi. As Jerusalem was conquered and reconquered by various empires in the next two millennia, its borders shifted toward the north and west, but increased very little. A little over a century ago, the city had grown to a mere ~.34 sq. mi.

The British increased the boundaries of the city prior to WWII, but after the war, they abandoned Jerusalem and Jews and Arabs fought for control of the city. When hostilities ceased, the newly created State of Israel annexed what became known as “West Jerusalem” (~14.6 sq. mi.), while Jordan annexed “East Jerusalem” (~2.47 sq. mi), including the Old City.

When Israelis gained control of all of Jerusalem in 1967, they annexed not just what became known as “East Jerusalem” (previously held by Jordan, under whom the local population, Palestinians, had lived without an independent state), but far more. Rather than “unite” the 2.47 sq. mi. of Jerusalem held by Jordan with its previously held 14.6 sq. mi, declaring this municipality the “eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people,” Israel annexed just under 28 sq. mi from at least 27 Palestinian villages that surrounded Jerusalem—far more land than Jerusalem had ever held in its entire history—and declared this newly defined city its capital. In the years since, through a meticulously planned settlement policy and the construction of a 30-foot wall, Israel has increased the city to just under 50 sq. mi—2,400% bigger than the city God gave to David and nearly 200% bigger than the city’s size prior to 1967. Though the present city encompasses far more property than anyone in history, Jewish or not, has ever called “Jerusalem,” it is this city that Israel considers its capital, and to which so many members of congress have pointed as the “eternal and undivided” capital of the Jewish people.

Cities like Jerusalem grow and shrink all of the time; there is nothing “eternal” about the city’s current boundaries, whatever one might believe about its divine standing or its place in Jewish history. Yet, if the Bible is to be determinative of one’s political policy, one question is far more important than precise boundaries: How does God expect the city to be ruled?

When God promised the land to the Israelites as they came out of Egypt, he did so with a number of stipulations, including a demand that they treat kindly the foreigners who would permanently dwell among them (variably translated into English as “strangers,” “aliens,” “permanent residents,” or “resident aliens” depending on the context). Time and again God repeats the point: “You shall not oppress a resident alien” (Exod 23:9); “The Lord your God…loves the resident aliens, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:17–19). As the story of the Israelites continues, God regularly sends them prophets to remind them that the freedom they have been given was not for their own sake, but for his. The Lord tells them that he destroyed Sodom because the people of Sodom did not care for the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:49); he tells them that the Promised Land that he has given them is not just for them, but for any who are in need. Thus, when the people return from Exile, God instructs them to divide up the land “as an inheritance for yourselves and for aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as the native-born of Israel” (Ezek 47:22—a passage that many American Evangelicals assume to be about the return of Jews to the Holy Land in the last century).

When Israel annexed what became known as “East Jerusalem” after 1967, it brought with it 69,000 Palestinians. Today, around 330,000 Palestinians live in Jerusalem, as have their families for generations. Most are deemed “permanent residents” by Israel, the same status given to foreign nationals who move to Israel, roughly the equivalent of a US Green Card (though these Palestinians have no citizenship elsewhere). In other words, according to Israeli law, Palestinians of East Jerusalem, whose families have lived in these neighborhoods for generations, are considered foreigners residing in Israeli land. While those permanent residents may apply for citizenship (despite the restrictions that still come with it), a relative few have, and of the few that have, Israel has granted less than half: less than 6,000 East Jerusalem Palestinians are now citizens of Israel. In the meantime, Israel has revoked near 15,000 permanent residency permits—sometimes without warning while traveling abroad.

Around 35% of privately-owned Palestinian land in East Jerusalem annexed after 1967 has been expropriated by Israel for “public use.” However, instead of benefiting Palestinian residents (as required by Israeli law when land is expropriated for such use), the land has been used to build twelve Israeli settlements (“neighborhoods”), while building permits for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have been notoriously difficult to obtain. This forces many Palestinians residents of Jerusalem to build “illegally,” only to have their structures demolished by Israeli authorities.

Though Palestinians make up nearly 40% of Jerusalem’s residents, they receive roughly 12% of the city’s budget, leading to a multibillion-dollar gap in infrastructure between Jewish and Palestinian sectors, causing the latter to face severe shortages in classrooms, roads, water, trash pickup, sewage, drainage, parks, etc. Just over half of the Palestinian residents are connected to the city’s water grid, and, as a result, Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem are easy for even the most casual visitor to spot: Palestinian buildings typically have water tanks on the roof that store water, when Israel allows water to flow, and continue to provide water when Israel shuts off the water. The same does not happen in Jewish neighborhoods. Around 80% of the Palestinian residents live below the poverty line and also face inequalities in the city’s taxation system, property and voting rights, the rule of law, marriage and family rights, immigration processes, and social services.

Little about a city where such disparity is fostered by authorities is “undivided.” Little about a city whose municipal boundaries increased so dramatically only a few decades ago is “eternal,” even if a gift from God.

If the Bible is elicited to justify this city as the “eternal and undivided” capital of Israel, it must also be elicited to address the disparity deliberately imposed by authorities on Palestinian residents. While supporters of the President’s announcement may laud Israeli sovereignty over a “united” Jerusalem as fulfilling God’s intentions expressed in the Bible, the manner in which the current city is ruled assuredly does not.

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For an in-depth, illustrated overview of the Jerusalem’s history, political situation, and demographics, see Daniel Seidemann, A Geopolitical Atlas of Contemporary Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Terrestrial Jerusalem, 2015).

Comments (7)

Well said. The hijacking of the Bible by Christian Zionists and their Israeli counterparts is the greatest hindrance to peace. Plus, it's simply historically and exegetically wrong.

#1 - Jim West - 02/28/2018 - 16:50

This is article is problematic. The justification for "eternal and undivided" Jerusalem is not based on the Bible. Only Protestant fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally claim so. For the rest of the word, history matters, not theology. God has nothing to do with this.
Ironically the Palestinian claim exactly the same thing, but they say that it was Jerusalem was always Arab. However, no historical record support this claim. Jerusalem was never an "eternal and undivided" capital city of any Arab state.
There are indeed 330,000 Arabs living in Jerusalem, but there are about 1 million Jews living in that city. (Jerusalem is the largest city in Israel). Since the first census of Jerusalem by PEF in the 1870's, the vast majority of the population in Jerusalem was Jewish. Nothing is mentioned in the article. Why?
In addition, the Arab population of Jerusalem are offered Israeli citizenship. Very few took it, not because they do not want to become Israelis but because they fear to be tainted as traitors. There is a big pressure on them not to take part in the election for the city government. The result, they have no representation in matters that regard to their daily life in the city. Are the Jews to be blamed for that too?
In addition to this, it is ironic that the EU has an embassy in Tel Aviv, but the embassy to the Palestinians is in East Jerusalem. Why this discrimination? Moreover, If after a half of a century east Jerusalem is not recognized as Israeli, and the cease fire lines from 1949 became borders, that were not recognized by the Arabs, what is the problem of putting embassies in "West Jerusalem". After all there is no question that that it is Israeli.
All in all, the picture is far more complicated than what this articles shows. This is the reason that no solution is seen in the horizon. The article needed more research.

#2 - Rami Arav - 03/01/2018 - 06:33

Jim's remarks about the quality of exegesis is important.

Reading the allegories of the Bible as if they were accounts of historical origins is indeed bad exegesis. One should not only read the David story and Nathan's prophecy, but also the close of the story in Jeremiah 5 and 25, where Jerusalem--a city of emptiness and plays the role of victim to divine anger and rejection. Yahweh calls his servent Nebuchadnezzar to turn the whole land to ruin to empty it and make Jerusalem an eternal desert. Jeremiah's is a Jerusalem that Yahweh regrets creating.
If one insists on using the Bible to support war crimes and ethnic cleansing, one should first read it!

#3 - Thomas L. Thompson - 03/01/2018 - 10:58

Thank you everyone for your comments; I'm glad to see this has spurred some discussion. I agree that this issue is more complicated than I could possibly address in less than 1,500 words. I have addressed, however, a specific facet of the issue and I have done so with sound research; I have not addressed other matters such as the historicity of the biblical account or the historical ethnic makeup of the city. Without denying the importance of either of those discussions, neither is included here partly because neither addresses the two underlying issues of the article: 1) What is modern-day "Jerusalem?" Israel did not "unite" East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem after 1967 but expropriated the vast majority of what is now called "East Jerusalem" from 27 Palestinian villages that had never before been considered part of Jerusalem. This point cannot be denied and has nothing to do with the ethnic (Jewish) makeup of historic Jerusalem or the misguided denial thereof. 2) Does the Jewish government of Jerusalem treat the non-Jews equally? The answer is no. No one can claim otherwise, given the municipality's own statistics. One can blame bad Palestinian rhetoric or failure both to vote regularly or apply for citizenship as much as one wants, but that only deflects the question. Does the fact that 55% of eligible Americans voted in the last presidential election mean that the White House should allocate only 12% of the national budget to the other 45%? Of course not. Do those who hold Green Cards in the US and choose not to become citizens deserve to have their water shut off regularly, trash pickup to be imbalanced, or classrooms underfunded? Of course not. No government should operate that way, especially not one who regularly justifies its status with the Bible.

#4 - Michael G. Azar - 03/02/2018 - 01:49

Mr. Azar, correct me if I am wrong. It seems to me that you were never a mayor of a city. Is that correct?
If you were a mayor you would have realized that cities, and in particular since the second half of the 20th century grow rapidly. So you need a place to expand the city. New Amsterdam, later New York, expanded already centuries ago and annexed Greenwich Village. Today only the name and the different grid of it testified to the fact that it was one time a village. I bet you, not all residents of the Greenwich Village know it.
Equal rights is indeed a issue to which the case of Jerusalem is not different. However, how equal rights can be implemented if there is no representation? Who will be their voice? Willingly or unwillingly they have no voice. They are the victims of those who command them not to take part in their daily life of the city. Not the government of the city.

Comparing this to Green Card holders in the USA is indeed comparing apples and pears. I did not know that all Green Card holders in the USA live in one segregated place. Perhaps you know better. I am happy that you say that your article is bias for not covering all issues. For the next time I suggest take one single issue and work on it to its depth. Do not try to catch more than what you can. You will save yourself from criticism.

#5 - Rami Arav - 03/02/2018 - 06:12

The Biblical conception of strangers in the midst seems to see them in many ways benignly, but also as actual or potential converts to Yahweh and his regime of sabbath observance - in some ways with hostility: no Moabiites, thanks. I am not sure how this ethos would apply to modern Jerusalem, where the Palestinians are not seen as potential converts.

#6 - Martin Hughes - 03/02/2018 - 20:32

I think it was essential that you discussed both the Bible and the hard facts behind the situation. To ignore the Biblical aspect of the occupation would also overlook the Jews' main argument behind taking the land from the Palestinians - that God intended them to live on the property. While it seems that the Israelis should also follow the parts of the Bible that tell them to treat foreigners with kindness, in reality, they ignore these sections (as the statistics that you provided prove). Because of this, it appears that some Jewish individuals are manipulating the message of the Bible and using it for when it directly supports them (gaining the Holy Land) but ignoring the parts that do not benefit them (treating the 'foreigners,' or Palestinians, equally). From a political stance, many may argue that the Palestinians are not foreigners, but that the Jews are foreigners. After all, the Palestinians were there for generations before any of the immigrating Jews. It is incredible to me that Jews can take Palestinian land because of their religion. The Bible aside, this is a blatant violation of international law. I am confused as to why the international community is not so concerned about this? They are picking and choosing who gets punished for the same offenses. The international community is leaving the Palestinians to fend for themselves in the laws of the jungle.

I am embarrassed about Trump's declaration of an "eternal and undivided" capital of Jerusalem. It sends a message of hopelessness to the Palestinians who are fighting for their part of Jerusalem and facing daily discrimination.

#7 - Emily Amershek - 01/13/2020 - 03:11

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