Faith

Recognizing the Deep Roots of Jewish History

As Hanukkah begins this year, here's why President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital is so significant

President Donald Trump fulfilled a campaign promise by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. So what? Why all the fuss?

It matters because history matters — and the history of Jerusalem is super-important.

The first connection with this hilltop city goes right back to the Old Testament patriarch, Abraham.

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The Book of Genesis tells the story of how Abraham took his son Isaac to Mount Moriah, and although scholars debate it, some believe the location of that mountain is also the site of Jerusalem.

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A settlement must have been there in Abraham’s time, as there is a record of the city of Urusalima on Mesopotamian tablets from about 2400 B.C. Historians date Abraham from about 2000 B.C, so the character from Genesis called Melchizedek, “the priest of Salem,” may have dwelt in that ancient city.

What we do know is that approximately 1,000 years later, Jerusalem became the united capital of King David and his son King Solomon.

For at least 3,000 years, the city of Jerusalem has been not only the political capital, but also the religious center for the Jews. On the ancient mountain, Solomon built his magnificent temple, and for nearly 500 years Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life and religion. Then, in 586 B.C., the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar swept down from the Northeast, besieged the city, and finally conquered it — and destroyed the temple. The Jews were exiled to Babylon and many fled into Northwest Arabia.

About 50 years later the Jews returned and rebuilt the temple on a more modest scale. Some four centuries later, during Roman occupation, Herod the Great served as the king of the Jews under the thumb of the Roman emperor. Herod expanded the temple — restoring it to the grandeur that Solomon’s great temple had displayed.

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It was during Herod the Great’s reign that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem. Matthew’s gospel records how wise men came “from the East” to look for the Christ child. During Matthew’s time “the East” was shorthand for Arabia, and the evidence indicates that the famous Magi were diplomats from the neighboring kingdom of Nabatea on a diplomatic mission to pay homage to a new heir to the throne of Judea.

Jerusalem was also the site, some 30 years later for the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus. Over the site of His death and resurrection — within the old city walls — is built the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher, thus making Jerusalem a holy city not only for the Jews but also for Christians.

Over the site of His death and resurrection — within the old city walls — is built the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher, thus making Jerusalem a holy city not only for the Jews but also for Christians.

Always rebelling against their Roman overlords, the Jewish launched a final fatal rebellion a few decades after the death of Jesus Christ. The Romans crushed the rebellion mercilessly and, after a long and terrible siege, destroyed the temple and the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The Jews were dispersed and the city leveled.

Eventually the Romans rebuilt the city, and when Christianity was legalized, the Emperor Constantine constructed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and for several centuries the city was predominantly Christian.

From the seventh century through the Middle Ages, various Muslim powers controlled the city. The prophet Mohammed was supposed to have traveled to the city, and the Al Aqsa mosque — which now stands on the site of the Jewish temple — is the third holiest site for Muslims.

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Throughout the next 18 centuries, Muslim dominance of Jerusalem was challenged by various invading Christian forces, but it was not until 1917 that Western forces took control as the British conquered the city. They controlled the territory until after the Second World War.

In 1947, with many Jewish refugees returning to the Holy Land, the United Nations established a separate state ruled by Israel and Jordan. In the wars of 1948 and 1967, the Israelis consolidated their hold on the city and declared Jerusalem their capital.

Nevertheless, the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has been a matter of international controversy and debate for the past 70 years. The Palestinians also claim the city as their capital, and the complicated and volatile politics of the region still dominate the headlines.

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In recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, President Trump is not only honoring a campaign promise, but he is recognizing that the Jewish claim to the city and territory not only has deep roots in history, but branches that reach into the future. He is also taking sides in the long and bitter battle between Jews and Muslims — throwing American weight behind the continued struggle of the Jews to rule the ancient city and country they claim as their own God-promised land.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a parish leader and award-winning Catholic blogger based in Greenville, South Carolina, is the author of “Mystery of the Magi:The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men.”

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