Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Jerusalem and the three Abrahamic faiths

Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press

Jerusalem is probably the most famous city on the planet, a place vibrantly imagined even by people who have never been there. It is the spiritual and religious heritage to one half of humanity and has also been central to the experience and “sacred geography” of Christians and Muslims.

All three faiths have claimed the city as their own over the centuries. This has made it one of the most explosive and emotional issues in the world.

The story of Jerusalem is history in a grand manner—an absorbing saga of prophets, priests, and pilgrims, of kings and conquerors, a city besieged, defended, conquered, damaged or destroyed, and rebuilt, some 40 times in 30 centuries—always in the name of God.

All the dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are condensed and symbolized in Jerusalem—and in particular in its walled Old City of 220 acres and thirty-five thousand Jewish, Christian, and Muslim dwellers, divided into the Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarters, where, in the words of Thomas Stransky, a Catholic priest in Jerusalem, “too much history crowds claustrophobic space.”

He might agree with the tenth-century Arab geographer Muqaddasi, who wrote that the city was “a golden basin filled with scorpions.” In today’s Jerusalem, too, piety easily becomes political, and politics transforms into piety.

The tremendous devotion felt by religious Jews to Jerusalem is demonstrated by the more than 600 citations to it in the Bible. The Temple Mount in the Old City is arguably the world’s most desired piece of religious real estate.

It is where King David erected an altar, and where Solomon and Herod built their temples. The Western Wall of the second temple is the holiest site in Judaism.

For Muslims, Jerusalem is known as Al Quds, (the Holy) and is the third holiest site in Islam, following Mecca and Medina. The Temple Mount is known as the Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), where Mohammed began his famous Night Journey to heaven. Ever since Caliph Abd al-Malik dedicated the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque at the end of the seventh century, it has been, except in the Crusader period, under the control of the Muslims.

Almost all of the sacred shrines and sanctuaries connected with the life and death of Jesus are found here. Among its many splendid Christian sites are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa, and the Garden of Gethsamane.
Contemporary Jerusalem is doubly divided. As well as being a holy site for Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the city contains secular Israelis and Palestinians who also, we should not forget, ground their respective national identities within its borders.

The modern Jerusalem today includes not just the Old City but also East Jerusalem, formerly held by Jordan and annexed by Israel in 1967, as well as West Jerusalem and the 1994 western expansion of the municipal borders. The city limits now encircle ninety-four square miles and more than 650,000 inhabitants. About 62 percent are Jewish, 38 percent non-Jewish, most of them Muslim Arabs.

When the UN General Assembly in 1947 voted for the partition of Palestine, Jerusalem was to be part neither of the Jewish State, nor of the Arab State. It was to be an international city, a corpus separatum.

But the UN was never able to establish international control of the city. Instead, it was partitioned in bitter fighting in 1948 and 1949, between Israel and Jordan.

The idea of internationalisation was primarily an idea promoted by the Christian powers, particularly by the Vatican, and those Catholic states that were operating under the influence of the Vatican, who had much more influence in those days than now.

And indeed the Christian presence, at least in terms of population, has declined dramatically in the course of the past century. In 1900 there were more Christians in Jerusalem than Muslims. In the Jerusalem of 1948 the 32,000 thousand Christians made up approximately 19 percent of the population; today, at 12,000, they are less than 2 percent. (There are some 230,000 Muslims in the city.)

Now historically, Christians judged that the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 and the final expulsion of the Jews in 135 was divine punishment. Today things are very different. While there are remnants of this classical anti-Judaism among Jerusalem’s Christians, it is very minor, and becomes even more so now when they are in eclipse. The change in Christian attitudes is best symbolized by the visit to Jerusalem in 2000 by Pope John Paul II.

He prayed at the Western Wall to ask for forgiveness for centuries of anti-Semitism, an image, writes Stephen Crittenden, that may be the most enduring of his entire pontificate.

And what of Islam, and in particular Palestinian Arab Muslims? For those who belong to Hamas, God has given the entire Middle East, which includes the intrusive “Zionist entity,” as an Islamic trust (waqf) for all generations until the day of judgment. "Jerusalem should be forever united solely under Palestinian (read: Islamic) sovereignty,” reads its covenant. “The liberation of Palestine is an individual duty for every Moslem wherever he may be.”

The extremists would not support the Palestinian Authority’s less radical desire for sovereignty over East Jerusalem, including the Old City. Hamas preaches and engages in violence and terror in order to destroy the state of Israel and replace it with an Islamic state.

Indeed, some Muslims, and even some secular Arab nationalists in Palestine, have been denying that the Temple Mount is in fact the site of the ancient Jewish Temple, by any historical or archaeological reckoning an absurd position.

What of the Jewish position on Jerusalem? After June 1967 Israel controlled all of Jerusalem for the first time in about 1900 years, a watershed moment for Jews in Israel and around the world. They were overcome by the euphoria of a victory that was stunning, unexpected, and seemingly complete.

It should thus come as no surprise that almost all Orthodox Jews now support the political slogan, “Jerusalem should and will remain the unified and eternal capital of the State of Israel, under the absolute sovereignty of Israel alone.” The steady exodus of so many not-too-religious Jews from the city in favor of Tel Aviv, and the immigration of so many Israeli and diaspora Orthodox Jews to the city, has had the effect of radicalizing its politics.

So what will be the future of the earthly Jerusalem? Israel has tried very hard since 1967 to imprint its presence on the whole of the city.

But Jerusalem remains deeply divided, a city of two thoroughly antagonistic and mutually hostile communities who hardly set foot in each other’s areas, who hardly communicate with each other, and who live very separate lives, mentally and culturally divided. Since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, this chasm has widened.

Demographic facts also favour the Palestinians. With the Arab minority currently increasing at an annual rate of 3 percent, twice the rate of the Jewish majority, Arabs are likely to form the majority of voters in Israel’s capital within thirty years. And that is one of the things that is impelling many Israelis to think that the Arab populated parts of Jerusalem should become part of the Palestinian state, rather than remaining part of Israel.

But no repartition of Jerusalem that would involve a return to the 1967 armistice lines would be acceptable to Israel, as it would necessitate the eviction of 200,000-plus Jewish residents of East Jerusalem from their homes. A settlement will probably have to be based on existing population patterns.

An alternative to a territorial partition might be an open city based on existing population patterns, so that the existing Arab populated parts of the city would be part of Palestine, and the existing Jewish populated parts of the city would be under Israeli sovereignty.

This is one version of the “condominium” solution—a form of joint sovereignty, perhaps only over the Old City, if not all of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is an essential component of any settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is not primarily a security issue, but rather a symbolic issue. It was at the Clinton-Barak-Arafat negotiating summit at Camp David in 2000 that President Bill Clinton discovered to his surprise that the main unresolvable issue was the ownership of this small piece of real estate.

The Jewish and Muslim holy sites are conjoined, nor can they be surgically separated. In any case, as the Israeli writer Avishai Margalit has asked, how does one divide a symbol?

It is of course easy, and perhaps even rational, to be a pessimist. Yet, as the historian Martin Gilbert has remarked, while “The twentieth century has often been a bloody one for Jerusalem, it has also been a century of creativity and satisfaction, exuberant life, determination, civic achievement, and perpetual hope.” Despite all the odds, we must all, in the words of the Psalmist, “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”