* Article by Todd Deatherage, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Telos - A Washington DC based initiative seeking to advance better understanding of Israeli-Palestinian conflict among American policy and opinion makers and faith community leaders.
In many ways, Jerusalem is a Middle Eastern city like many others. It is a city of civilizational layers, one that has risen and fallen for over 4,500 years. There are of course other contemporary cities with ancient pasts—it’s estimated that nearby Jericho has been continuously inhabited for more than 10,000 years—but Jerusalem is unquestionably a city unique in our human story. For millions of people around the world, it is a holy city, a place where the veil between heaven and earth was once penetrably thin.
It is the very birthplace of Judaism and the cradle of Jewish civilization. To religious Jews today and for centuries past it is the place where the one God dwelt among them in a magnificent Temple built by the great King Solomon. And through centuries of exile, it is the place about which the Jewish people have dreamt and sang, and for which they have longed.
It is also from Jerusalem that Christianity arises, where Jesus of Nazareth spoke of a universal kingdom of God and was crucified on the cross of a mighty empire. The place where, to his followers then and today, he overcame the powers of sin and death and left behind a still venerated empty tomb.
And for Muslims it was to Jerusalem that the Prophet Mohammad was taken on his night journey and from which he ascended into heaven and met with Jesus, Moses, Abraham and even with God. For 1,400 years the dominant feature of the Jerusalem skyline has been the grand mosque and known as the Dome of the Rock.
For obvious reasons, Jerusalem has long held a seductive power, making it often a contested city, and episodically a place of conflict. The Romans imagined they could erase Jewish connections to the city by destroying the Temple and scattering the Jewish people to the corners of their Empire. The Crusaders claimed a mandate to create an outpost of Western Christendom in Jerusalem by violently cleansing the city of the “infidels” who controlled it and lived there, and by that they meant Muslims, Jews, and Eastern Christians.
These are not the only examples of those who attempted to rewrite Jerusalem’s story by diminishing the connections of others. But the lesson of history is that Jerusalem is a city which can never be mastered, can never be exclusively owned by any religion, empire or nation. It is a city with competing claims made upon it, and its peace and prosperity are tied to respect for those claims.
In the post-Enlightenment world, not all Jews, Christians and Muslims regard Jerusalem (or any other city) with religious devotion. But it retains its ability to arouse deep passions. And of course, in our era, the battles over Jerusalem arise both from inter-Abrahamic religious devotion and geo-politics.
In the nineteenth century Zionism arose as a modern national movement out of centuries of European anti-Semitism, tapping into exilic longing for Jerusalem by the Jewish people.
The Palestinian national movement has also long seen Jerusalem as a focal point in its aspirations for freedom and self-governance, drawing on its long history as an Arab city.
Following their War of Independence, the Israelis built their capital there. The Palestinians still hope to. The city’s status remains one of the most contentious issues in their long running conflict. Which is why the decision of the United State to move its embassy there without an agreement between the parties is widely hailed by Israelis, who see it as a mere recognition of an obvious fact, something a world too shaped by anti-Semitism has refused to do. And why the same decision is roundly denounced by Palestinians who see it as yet one more betrayal of a dispossessed and stateless people who have become all too accustomed to indifference by the international community and who see the Israelis as engaged in ceaseless efforts to erase their connection to and presence in the city.
Add to these national claims the way in which Jerusalem remains a symbol for religious believers, and the combustibility arising from the exclusivist approach some in these communities take to the city’s religious history and significance. Real or perceived threats to sacred space have long been one of the historic predicates to violence in the region.
The city’s long history suggests that Jerusalem works best when it is allowed to speak in its multiple voices— Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, and today, Israeli and Palestinian. An Israeli friend and resident of the city has devoted himself to creating just such a Jerusalem. He often speaks about going to the Third Station of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa on a Friday and seeing Catholics pilgrims led by Franciscans processing toward the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Muslims making their way to al-Aqsa for Friday prayers, and Jews headed toward the Western Wall in advance of the coming Shabbat. My friend enjoys noting there are no high fives as they each pass, and this scene does not arise from a U.N.-funded coexistence program, but “the damn thing works.” There is power and beauty in the rhythms and ancient practices of the city.
The modern residents of Jerusalem need “the damn thing” to work. They need a city in which all its residents live in full equality with each other yet never fearing their communal, national, and religious connections are under threat. But those of us who don’t live there need this too. We of course need more places in the world which demonstrate that we can find ways to live together in spite of deep differences. But we especially need Jerusalem to be that place, a truly holy city emanating coexistence and respect for universal human dignity throughout the region and even the world.