Jerusalem belongs to all because it is sacred to all
How do we divorce Jerusalem from King David and King Solomon’s temple, from Jesus’ crucifixion and ascension, from Muhammad’s night journey? It is a natural human tendency to want to grasp the sacred, to own it, possess it. Perhaps we feel more secure, more “rightness” in our claims, and closer to the divine.
“Jerusalem has for centuries been a symbol, surrounded in people’s minds with an aura of associations that has made it sacred. They found their God in the Holy City and it thus became inseparable from their deepest selves. People have always experienced God not simply as a transcendent reality “out there” but also in the ground of their being.
When Jerusalem was threatened, they felt personally attacked; when its sanctity was violated, they experienced this is as a rape. Today everybody feels threatened; everybody is in danger; everybody is on high alert in the expectation of a terrorist attack. As a result, Jerusalem has become more sacred to their identity than ever before…
If Jerusalem has become the symbolic heart of the conflict that threatens the whole world, then a solution is a matter of the highest importance.”
– Karen Armstrong, celebrated author and winner of TED prize. This excerpt is from her 1996 book, Jerusalem
Walking through the crowded, covered streets of Old City of Jerusalem has always been a moving experience for me, seeing the religious pageantry on display as adherents of the monotheistic faiths share space. I remember gazing in awe at orthodox Jews and their tall, black hats and long beards and curls passing by a procession of Latin American Christian pilgrims carrying a cross and signing hymns, amidst Arab Palestinian Muslims cajoling tourists into their shops and hawking their wares. I never felt more of a connection to the “Holy One” in the city, but I understand how others do. But, as Karen Armstrong points out, I realized Jerusalem is a symbol, a symbol of our connection to God, a symbol of that which is holy and precious, a symbol to these three faiths who proclaim the oneness of God and allegiance to the prophets who once walked the land.
As fantastical and as ill-fated as the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 was, it did get one thing right; that was, to recognize the sacredness and specialness of Jerusalem, and designate it a “corpus separatum”— a demilitarized zone governed by a special international regime and administered by the U.N. that would allow free and open access to its holy sites.
Jerusalem should belong to all because it is sacred to all. How do we divorce Jerusalem from King David and King Solomon’s temple, from Jesus’ crucifixion and ascension, from Muhammad’s night journey?
It is a natural human tendency to want to grasp the sacred, to own it, possess it, and perhaps doing so helps us feel more secure, more “rightness” in our claims, and closer to the divine. Jerusalem is a physical city, a tangible piece of rocks and real estate that we can see and touch and smell. It’s easier to lay hold of something physical than to work towards the metaphysical, elusive divine presence. This is in line with how one Christian text defines Jerusalem, as “Mortal belief and knowledge, obtained from the five corporeal senses; the pride of power and the power of pride; sensuality; envy; oppression; tyranny.” Indeed, we have seen this description play out in the fight for Jerusalem over millennia. In contrast, the definition of “New Jerusalem”, includes “the spiritual facts and harmony of the universe; the kingdom of heaven, or reign of harmony.” What a glorious view to aspire to!
As you know, my sisters, I have been expressing for decades a hope that Jerusalem become a shared city, the capital of both Israel and Palestine.
Of course, the struggle over Jerusalem is not really about territory. It is about Jerusalem as a symbol.
Now, unfortunately, there is yet again danger of imminent and escalating violence on the local level here in the holy city. Yet, beyond current politics, Jerusalem is a place where civilizations have been clashing for millennia- greedily vying for possession of what? Of Holiness?
I do not think that symbols as important as they are for meaning and identity are worth one drop of blood-shed—nobody’s blood. Shall we allow yet again this central symbol to become more important than human life?
Beyond right and wrong and who ‘owns’ Jerusalem and who was here first, and whose Temple Mount it is, whose Rock, in whose jurisdiction lies the ‘Foundation Stone’ of the world, this or that square centimeter of the Western Wall compound, there is The Holy One who cannot be possessed. We thirst for holiness but we cannot posses it. Yes, we can hold on to a few stones for a while…
It’s not that President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel changes the reality on the ground. Israel since 1980 has declared “united Jerusalem” as its capital, and Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state of Palestine. It’s that by taking this position the U.S. puts its backing behind the limited view of Jerusalem, as a piece of real estate that can be owned and possessed by one side or the other. In this scenario, we’ve taken the side of Jews’ claim to the city, at the expense of Muslims and many Christians. (See the letter to President Trump from the Christian churches of the Holy Land exhorting him not to take this action.) And, in so doing, the U.S. is framing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more as a religious battle than a political one, which makes it much harder to solve, when you’re arguing God is on your side, as my friends in the region tell me.
We reached out to a thoughtful teenager in Gaza, a Palestinian Muslim who lived with my family last year for his take on the issue and he responded to this sense of unfairness of choosing sides:
“I wish Trump’s decision was to make Jerusalem the capital of both Palestine and Israel! I wish it was our decision to make! We live on and share the same land! All that I can see now on the streets in Gaza are angry people and large crowds protesting. And nowadays Hamas is sending rockets to Israeli settlements as a response to Trump’s decision. I can’t imagine how far the situation could go. All that I hope for right now is that both sides could reach an agreement to settle the issue down.”
Here we are. In a way, Trump tore the mask off the notion that the U.S. is an unbiased advocate for equality, for peace, and for a just resolution to the conflict. Moving forward, we point to these words of wisdom of Sami Awad, a Palestinian Christian whose family fled Jerusalem as refugees, and who founded Holy Land Trust, a non-violent action and peace organization in the region.
“Between the reality of what Jerusalem had become under Israeli rule since 1948 – a reality that our leaders refused to confront and resist, and the deceptive U.S. and international community’s promises, resolutions, and statements which our leaders celebrated as brief highs of “diplomatic success,” – we the people and our cause have been lost.
U.S. recognition or lack of recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel means nothing in the face of the reality of what the Israelis for decades have created in and around Jerusalem with almost no resistance. If anything, Trump erased the illusion that there was an actual peace process. Our leaders had believed the Oslo peace process and led others to believe in it.
We believe that peace and justice in the Holy Land and the centrality of Jerusalem as the heart of three beautiful religions and two peoples, will not be realized in the diplomatic hallways of D.C., or the United Nations, or by one side forcing its will on others.
It is only through a commitment to recognizing and honoring the full equal rights of all peoples in the land and building a new joint vision for the future that is founded on the principles of non-violence, justice, equality, and healing, that we will be able to move forward in real peace.” — Sami Awad
This is the “New Jerusalem,” a vision of the reign of harmony which leaves no one out and includes all.
Photos by Nathaniel Wilder