The matter of Israel’s capital city has long been a source of dispute. Although nearly all foreign embassies in Israel are located in Tel Aviv, the country considers Jerusalem to be its capital. Jerusalem, which is one of the oldest cities in the world, has been formally divided between Israel and Palestine for nearly 70 years, yet changed hands many other times throughout the course of its over 5,000-year history.
Israel and Palestine’s dueling claims to the city are steeped in decades of conflict, during which Jewish settlers pushed Muslim Arabs out of their homes and established the state of Israel on their land in the middle of the 20th century. But the claims are also tied to the religions of Judaism and Islam, both of which recognize Jerusalem as a holy place.
On December 6, 2017, President Donald Trump broke with previous U.S. foreign policy and announced that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, effectively endorsing Israeli control of the city. On May 14, 2018, the U.S. relocated its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are strongly tied to the ancient city, and followers of each of these religions have controlled all or part of the city over the past few thousand years. In 1,000 B.C.E., King David established Jewish control over Jerusalem. The city fell in and out of other hands during the next couple of millenia; particularly during the crusades, when Christian crusaders fought competing Christian and Muslim factions for control of the city. And between 1517 and 1917, the Ottoman Empire—whose official religion was Islam—ruled the city.
Jerusalem features prominently in the Hebrew Bible. In the Jewish tradition, it is the place where Abraham, the first Patriarch of Judaism, nearly sacrificed his son Isaac to God thousands of years ago. Later, Abraham’s grandson Jacob (who took the name “Israel”) learned that Jerusalem is “the site that the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes, as a place established in His name,” according to the Book of Deuteronomy.
Jerusalem was the capital of King David’s Israel in the Hebrew Bible, as well as the city where David’s son Solomon built his temple. In biblical times, Jewish people who could not make a pilgrimage to the city were supposed to pray in the direction of it.
According to the Quran, Jerusalem was also the last place the Prophet Muhammad visited before he ascended to the heavens and talked to God in the seventh century. Before that, he was flown from Mecca to Jerusalem overnight by a mythical creature.
Both this miraculous night journey and his communion with God are important events in Islam. During the night journey, Muhammad was purified in preparation for his meeting with God. Once in heaven, God told Muhammad that he should recite the salat, or ritual prayer, 50 times each day. However, Muhammad begged God to reduce the number to five times a day, which is the current standard for Muslim prayer.
Muhammad saw his mission as an extension of the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Therefore, the first Qibla, or direction in which Muslims should pray, was Jerusalem. (Today, Muslims bow towards Mecca.) In addition, Islamic tradition predicts that Jerusalem will play an important role in the future, naming it as one of the cities where the end of the world will play out.
President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital drew praise from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and condemnation from Palestinian allies who worried that this move would make it more difficult to negotiate a long-sought peace treaty between the states.
President Joe Biden has kept the embassy in Jerusalem as the U.S. stepped back from playing a major role in mediation between the Israelis and Palestinians.