This Week in History: The Knesset moves to Jerusalem

The decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of the new Jewish state has never been accepted internationally.

Trivia Knesset moved (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Trivia Knesset moved
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On December 13, 1949, the first Knesset of Israel voted to transfer the young country’s seat of government from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move, which came less than six months after the last of the armistice agreements ending the War of Independence were signed, had been expected but also came partially in response to a debate and vote taking place in the United Nations at the time, reiterating its call to internationalize the Holy City. Although moving Israel’s capital to Jerusalem has been contended in foreign capitals ever since, it was and remains one of the cornerstones of the State of Israel’s Jewish identity.
The UN Partition Plan, which was the international community’s final go-ahead for the establishment of the Jewish state, had designated Jerusalem as a corpus separatum – an international city which would fall under neither Jewish nor Arab sovereignty. The 1948 war, however, left the city – home to some of the holiest sites of the three monotheistic religions – divided between Israeli and Jordanian rule. In early December 1949, the UN revisited the issue of Jerusalem, debating and eventually reiterating its determination to see Jerusalem become an international city.
As the UN debate was taking place, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, decided Israel must make its own move independently of the world body. On December 5, 1949, in an address to the Knesset in Tel Aviv, he noted the debate being held in New York but declared he could not imagine “that the UN would attempt to sever Jerusalem from the State of Israel or harm Israel's sovereignty in its eternal capital.”
“A nation that, for two thousand and five hundred years, has faithfully adhered to the vow made by the first exiles by the waters of Babylon not to forget Jerusalem,” Ben-Gurion told members of Knesset, “will never agree to be separated from Jerusalem.”
Noting that the UN was unable to ever implement the Partition Plan and that only Israel's military victory in the War of Independence had prevented the destruction of Jewish Jerusalem at the hands of other, Arab members of the UN, Ben-Gurion said Israel was "no longer morally bound" by the plan. The provisions relating to Jerusalem, he declared, were "null and void" as far as Israel was concerned.
Meanwhile, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 303, reiterating its demand that Jerusalem fall under an international regime. Israel’s new government, however, was steadfast in its determination to move itself and thereby the country’s capital to the ancient city.
One week later on December 13, Ben-Gurion once again ascended to the Knesset rostrum in Tel Aviv and declared that his position had not changed. For the State of Israel, he explained, “there has always been and always will be one capital only - Jerusalem the eternal. Thus it was 3,000 years ago - and thus it will be, we believe, until the end of time.”
The vote to officially move Israel’s capital to Jerusalem, however, was not unanimous. The communist parties objected to disregarding the UN resolutions, arguing that the city’s status as a corpus separatum was designed to protect its own residents. MK Meir Wilner (Maki) told the plenum the decision "was not designed against Israel, but was intended to eject the Arabs with their British guns from the Old City and the rest of Palestine to assure peace for the people of Jerusalem," The Palestine Post reported at the time.
Nevertheless, the resolution passed 59 to 27. After the vote was challenged, it passed a second time 60 to 39. Ben-Gurion declared that following the upcoming Hanukka recess, the Knesset and government would reconvene in its new headquarters in Jerusalem.
The decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of the new Jewish state has never been accepted by the international community. Even though many foreign embassies were never located in the capital, following Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem 13 years after the 1967 war, nearly all the remaining diplomatic missions were moved to Tel Aviv in protest. The issue of Jerusalem remains a major point of contention, particularly in peace talks with the Palestinians who also claim Jerusalem as their future capital.
Israel, however, has never ceased to declare Jerusalem its “eternal capital.” As Ben- Gurion expressed in 1949 and every succeeding prime minister has reiterated in the years since, “The attempt to sever Jewish Jerusalem from the State of Israel will not advance the cause of peace in the Middle East or in Jerusalem itself. Israelis will give their lives to hold on to Jerusalem, just as the British would for London, the Russians for Moscow and the Americans for Washington."