According to one historian’s rough count, the holy city of Jerusalem has been sacked 23 times, captured or recaptured 44 times, attacked 52 times, and destroyed at least twice.

But it has been divided only once.

Yom Yerushalayim, or Jerusalem Day, which this year begins at sundown on May 18, marks the Hebrew anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem – the first time the holy city, as a whole, came under Jewish rule since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. But how was Jerusalem torn asunder in the first place? And why, after more than 50 years, is this day often a flashpoint for the wider Arab-Israeli conflict? Here’s what you need to know.

When was Jerusalem divided and why?

The 1947 UN Partition Plan, adopted by the General Assembly by a vote of 33-13-10, originally designated Jerusalem an international city – a designation that was to last a decade, at which point residents would vote which region, Israel or Palestine, they would join. But as soon as Israel declared independence in 1948, pursuant to the UN resolution, Arab neighbors waged war, vowing to destroy the nascent Jewish state.

During that First Arab Israeli War, Jordan captured the eastern half of Jerusalem, which included Jerusalem’s Old City and its holy sites, such as the Temple Mount and Western Wall, as well as territory that later became known as the West Bank. During its occupation, Jordan pushed Jewish residents out of East Jerusalem; demolished half of East Jerusalem’s synagogues, and raided the historic Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, using the tombstones as pavers. Jews were cut off from the Western Wall, the closest accessible site to the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the ancient Jewish Temple.

How did Israel put Jerusalem back together again?

In 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping vessels, which Israel had warned would be considered an act of war after the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956.

Nasser directed United Nations peacekeepers to leave and Israel responded with airstrikes targeting Egypt, which had threatened Israel with destruction.

The preemptive attack on June 5, 1967, triggered the Six-Day War with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Within six days, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, and the West Bank from Jordan. It also captured from Jordan the eastern half of Jerusalem and the Old City – at long last reuniting the two parts of Jerusalem. This included the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, which is known to Muslims as the Haram Al-Sharif, and where the Al-Aqsa Mosque is located.

How did Israel acknowledge Jerusalem as a holy site for all Abrahamic faiths?

Israel immediately recognized that the Temple Mount held a sacred status for Muslims, too. Israeli leaders essentially handed the keys back to Jordan, granting Jordan’s Muslim religious trust responsibility for the administration of the site.

Under an agreement known as the status quo, Israel maintains overall security control of the site, while Jordan’s religious trust, or Waqf, is responsible for ensuring that the site remains open to Muslim worshipers.

To maintain the fragile peace that followed the Six-Day War, Israel made an enormously significant concession. Jewish visitors are allowed to visit their holiest site only during certain times and enter through only one gate, but they are not permitted to pray there. Instead, Jews are directed to pray at the adjacent Western Wall, part of the larger retaining wall of the Temple Mount.

How do Israelis commemorate Jerusalem Day?

In 1968, the reunification of Jerusalem was celebrated with a nighttime Dance of Flags, a festive march through Jerusalem to the Western Wall with Israeli flags and orchestras on wheels. The march has since been moved to the daytime so more Israelis can participate.

Though the day is not considered a public holiday, some businesses and organizations close for people to attend parades, parties, or prayers in their vicinity, or to make personal pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Memorial services are also held for those who died in the Six-Day War.

In 2004, the Israeli government also began holding a memorial ceremony for Ethiopian Jews who had perished on their way to Israel.

Why is the flag march controversial?

Palestinians perceive the parade as a provocation, and some unruly participants fulfill that expectation, calling for violence and shouting racist remarks when the march passes through Jerusalem’s Muslim quarter.

In past years, when Jerusalem Day coincided with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, authorities diverted the parade route, closed off the Old City, or postponed the march to a later date in order to include the entire city.

In 2021, the Israeli government rerouted the parade to alleviate tensions, but Hamas terrorists still fired rockets at Jerusalem in what escalated to become an 11-day conflict.

Last year, the march came on the heels of a wave of deadly terror attacks across Israel, security operations that led to more deaths in the West Bank, and a controversial ruling by a Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court that did not bar three Jewish teens from the Temple Mount, even after they had recited prayers there.

Why does Jerusalem Day matter to Jews in the Diaspora?

In a previous episode of People of the Pod, author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi explained that the historic six-day turnaround from possible annihilation of Israel to the reclamation and reunification of Jerusalem after 2,000 years of exile empowered a generation of Diaspora Jews. Still tormented by the horrors of the Holocaust, the surge of pride galvanized American Jews around their biblical homeland and the rights of Jews everywhere, including refuseniks in the Soviet Union. 

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