Throughout the Muslim world, history is being retold. The most notorious example, of course, is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that the Holocaust is a “myth,” which has given new credibility to a conspiracy theory that has long circulated among Muslim publics. However, thanks to the constant attention the Western press has afforded Ahmadinejad’s lies, this is old news. Yet the Western media has failed to cover another distortion of history that is suddenly gaining traction even within the most liberal, Western-friendly of Muslim states: that Jewish historical ties to Jerusalem have no basis in reality, having been fabricated as part of a broader Zionist conspiracy.
This lie found a new venue yesterday in Istanbul, where the three-day Al-Quds International Forum opened. Within the Arab press, this was a top news item, with conference participants’ denials of Jerusalem’s Jewish historical ties a prominent theme. Al-Jazeera’s headline declared “International Al-Quds Forum Opens With a Call to Resist Judaization,” while the state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) similarly announced that “The Al-Quds Forum Calls for the Necessity of Liberating Jerusalem and Opposes Plans to Judaize It.” In fairness to the Western press, it’s a story that would have been easy to miss: the English-language headlines regarding the Al-Quds Forum were more benign, while Al-Jazeera English typically declined to mention it.
Whether or not it ever appears in the New York Times, make no mistake: this conference is deeply significant. The charge that Israel is “Judaizing” Jerusalem through archaeology or maintenance of religious sites is deeply rooted in Palestinian political discourse. Yasir Arafat and Hanan Ashrawi invoked the terminology of “Judaization” in 1996, after Israel opened Hasmonean Tunnel in the Old City, which revealed the foundations of the Second Temple. This past February, Palestinians used “Judaization” charges to protest Israel’s repair of an access ramp to the Mughrabi Gate, which leads to the Dome of the Rock; one Fatah spokesperson accused Israel of trying to replace the mosque with a “Jewish Temple.” At the time, these charges resonated sufficiently among Muslim publics that Israel installed webcams to prove that they were not damaging Muslim holy sites. The furor seemed to have cooled thereafter.
But conspiracy theories don’t die easily in the Middle East. The charge of Jerusalem’s “Judaization” has thus officially moved beyond the Palestinian territories. The Al-Quds Forum in Istanbul—and the overwhelmingly positive press it is receiving throughout the Muslim world—shows that denial of Jewish historical ties to Jerusalem has attained disturbing legitimacy.