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Sharing Jerusalem the spiritual and political challenges
welcome the invitation to share my thoughts I with you, here in Rome, about that other holy city, Jerusalem, which is my home. Both cities have a history mixing religion and politics and they have seen wars in the name of religious faith. There are, of course, also many differences between them. We can all rejoice over the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the State of Israel and the Vatican. The Israeli Embassy to the Holy See, seen against the background of Theodore Herzl's famous audience with Pius X in 1904, reflects an historic watershed in Catholic-Jewish relations.
The Return to Zion: Two Historical Precedents
In the Christian ordering of the Bible the prophetic books come last since Matthew's geneology which opens the New Testament marks the fulfilment of all the prophetic prefigurations of Jesus. That editorial choice makes perfect sense from a Christian perspective. The Jewish editors placed the prophetic books in the middle, between the Pentateuch and the Sacred Writings. Actually at the time of Jesus the Canon wasn't closed. The New Testament uses the term "The Torah and the Prophets" for the Scriptures. The Jewish Tanakh ends with I and II Chronicles rather than Malachi. So the last two verses of my Hebrew Jewish Bible read:
Now in the first year of Cyrus, King of Persia, so that the word of the Eternal spoken by Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Eternal stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, King of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and put it also in writing, saying: "Thus says Cyrus King of Persia: the Eternal God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth He has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem which is in Judea. Whoever is among you from all his people, the Eternal his God be with him, and let him go up!"
The last words in my Bible are a call to "go up" to Jerusalem in fulfillment of Jewish destiny and God's word - and it is this call which has brought me there, together with many other Biblically-faithful Jews.
There is a very important teaching in the Talmud. The first entry into the land in Joshua's time was by military conquest, as the land was purged of idolatrous desecrations. This consecration or sanctification, transforming the land of Canaan to the land of Israel, was only temporary - it was undone through the subsequent military conquest by Nebuchadnezzar, who deported the people to Babylon. Some fifty years later, at the time described at the end of II Chronicles, only part of the exiled community, not the whole people, returned from Babylon with Ezra and Nehemiah. They did not come with a conquering army but with the sponsorship of the superpower of that time (Cyrus), and they resettled in only parts of the land (the coastal plain was populated by descendants of the Philistines). The Talmud and Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Zera’im 1:5) teach that this non-violent homecoming, resettlement, and rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem gave the land its permanent, irrevocable kedushah (sanctification). The consecration by military means was reversed by Nebuchadnezzar's army, but the sanctification by peaceful resettlement is everlasting.
Today, in the midst of our third return to the land, we have these two earlier precedents to learn from. Some Jews seem to believe we are engaged in a repeat of Joshua's conquest. Others like myself cite the return from Babylon as a model for the Zionist homecoming in the last century. When Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook delivered a benediction for the new Jerusalem headquarters of the Jewish Agency in 192X, he declared that the Jews were not returning to the Land of Israel as alien conquerors but rather as exiles intent on "buying (back) and building" the land of our ancestors, which was also the repository of our messianic hopes. This lofty spiritual ideal clashed with the reality of an indigenous Palestinian people, aspiring toward its own identity and independence, who did not welcome us back as some Zionist pioneers naively expected. Instead, the Palestinians violently resisted our return, and we have fought back. Warfare often warps a people's consciousness, which is why we urgently need peace. The image and understanding of Torah Judaism will continue to suffer distortion (elevating Joshua or the Masada zealots to the status of heroes, for example) so long as we are caught up in fighting for our physical security. As a religious educator, 1 often feel that our holy Torah has become a prisoner of war, which needs to be rescued from those who would pervert its life-affirming truths.
Jerusalem: "Heart" and "Mother" of Two Sibling Peoples
After almost a century of conflict between Israel and Palestine, both collective bodies are suffering from blood poisoning. They inhabit the same land but can't seem to share it in a spirit of equity and mutuality. if we take this anatomical metaphor one step further, we can say that Jerusalem is the heart of both bodies politic and is suffering symptoms of cardiac disease. Unless we do some careful diplomatic surgery sooner rather than later, that amputates part of each gangrenous body and also heals their common heart, we are going to suffer even more painful symptoms of chronic social and spiritual pathology.
Try to imagine Israel and Palestine as Siamese twins joined at the heart. I read not long ago of two American girls who actually fit this description. Their doctors could not separate them without killing at least one of them. This is the challenge confronting our politicians, diplomats, and religious leaders: to separate Israel and Palestine peaceably so that neither is a threat to the life and well- being of the other. Such a task requires time, patience and much empathy on all sides. The common heart has to remain whole: it cannot be divided again as it was from 1948 to 1967. There is no historical precedent for two warring nations, claiming the same land, establishing a joint capital. So we need to mine our religious traditions for wisdom and guidance.
I wish to share with you a hopeful vision for the Holy City. I start with the question: How can we experience holiness as an inclusive reality rather than the monopoly of any particular community? I am not a politician but a religious educator, living within a Jewish spiritual matrix. On the basis of my Biblical and rabbinic heritage, I try to understand what the holiness of Jerusalem and the land means for us Jews and for the whole world. Such an understanding ought to help heal the wounds that separate us from our Palestinian Muslim and Christian siblings.
It seems that the God of history has put us to a supreme test in this century - two tests, really: first the ordeal of genocide and then, without any time to recuperate, the difficult challenge of going home as traumatized survivors to confront the children of Ishmael, the majority community in the land.
Two millenia of prayers and dreams are pitted against the militant resistance of others with their own national loyalties, attachments, and symbols. How can we live with this tragedy and pain? How does this brutal reality square with our messianic beliefs and hopes? How do we keep our souls intact while our bodies are wounded and we face additional sacrifices on the road to a peaceful resolution of this conflict?
I will not recount here the whole history of Jewish attachment to, and longing for, Jerusalem. Psalms 137 and 126 suffice as Biblical testimonies. Since King David's time the city has been the spiritual and political capital of the Jewish People. The Garibaldini had as their rallying cry Roma 0 Morte! - but we Jews, throughout our long exile never linked Jerusalem with death, even as we mourned her destruction on Tisha B'Av. Instead we affirm "Next Year in Jerusalem!" after each Passover seder and Yom Kippur, meaning that we would live to celebrate the next cycle of holy days back home as a reunited family. Few of us envisaged mobilizing an army to fight our way home: rather a Moses-like Redeemer would be sent to lead us there from the four corners of the earth. The modem Zionist movement reinterpreted Jewish messianism, and religious Zionists like myself see the process as an unfolding partnership between God and the people. When the Messiah comes to reveal the radiant, all- embracing holiness of Jerusalem, enough of us Jews will have returned to help prepare the foundation for this blessed event - and we will all rejoice together. The theological disputes of centuries will evaporate, and we will laugh about them. It will be like Purim, the only holiday which is supposed to continue into the messianic age. God does have a sense of humour, ironic though it may be.
In 1967 Jerusalem was reuinited after being torn apart for 19 years. Sadly, it took a war to bring this about. After the Six-day War, the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli army - Shlomo Goren - was asked to give his view on the future of the Holy City. He cited the famous Biblical story in which his name-sake, King Shlomo/Solomon, was asked to decide which of two women was the true mother of a contested infant. Since the real mother would not allow the child to be cut in two, Rabbi Goren used this analogy to claim that Israel was the "true mother" of Jerusalem because the Jews, having fought to reunite the city, opposed the Arabs' wish to divide it.
Rabbi Goren was a highly respected scholar and teacher, but such an exercise in "political midrash" does not require Talmudic sagacity. In fact, if the parable makes any sense at all, it has to be turned around. For Jerusalem is not the "holy baby" fought over by two would-be mothers: rather, as Psalm 87 teaches, she is the mother of us all. The psalmist sees every Biblical believer as having two birth certificates: one recording his/her bodily birth and the other testifying to the person's spiritual birth in Jerusalem aeons ago, at the time of Creation. So if we engage in meta- midrashic homilies about the fate of whole peoples or the messianic vocation of Jerusalem, we have to be as humble as possible and avoid the temptations of spiritual triumphalism.
The Name "Jerusalem": Symbol of an Essential Plurality
Of course Israeli politicians do not spend their time probing the mystical depth of sources like Ps. 87 and Yasser Arafat and his colleagues are not Sufis waging the inner jihad against sin. Both sets of leaders are partisan nationalists struggling to secure their own people's rights and claims, also regarding Jerusalem. Often enough words and symbols are enlisted as ammunition in the ideological struggle. For example, on this year's Israel Independence Day, the Jerusalem Municipality decorated the city with banners, some bearing the Lion of Judah symbols and others featuring a picture of three human hands clasping above the words "Jerusalem City of Peace" in English, Hebrew and Arabic. The Arabic name for the city on these banners was Urshalim al Quds, an Israeli invention. No Arab anywhere would add Urshalim to the traditional Arabic name al-Quds ("The Holy"). The former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti, recounts the history of this linguistic anomaly in his book Conflicts and Contradictions (p.196):
"In 1967, after the occupation of the Old City, the government insisted on the use of the name Urshalim in Arabic-language broadcasting...At the time I was administrator of the Old City. I made a tacit agreement with the Israeli Broadcasting Authority that we use the traditional name, and one morning the radio began its broadcast in Arabic with the announcement: Saw Israel min al-Quds ("The Voice of Israel from al-Quds"). This caused a furor that reached the Cabinet. I insisted on knowing why they wanted to force the Arabs to call a city holy to them by a fabrication, a Hebrew name transmogrified into Arabic. The answer was that the use of Urshalim established a political fact: Jewish rule in Jerusalem. Eventually a compromise was reached. The name would be hyphenated and the city would be known officially in Arabic as Urshalim-al Quds. And so it has remained."
How do we resolve this clash of symbols, names, hopes and dreams? How can Yerushalayim in Hebrew and al-Quds in Arabic coexist in harmony? How can the two nations who call their common mother city by these names share her beauty and holiness without fighting over her?
I will share another meta-midrash that helps me to answer these down-to-earth questions. The source is Bereshit (Genesis) Rabba and its author tries to explain the origin of the name Yerushalalyim. In Genesis 14, after Abraham rescues his nephew Lot, he comes to Jerusalem to be blessed by its king and distinguished priest, Melkhizedek. The name of the city was then Shalem (suggesting wholeness, harmony). Melkhizedek blesses Abraham in the name of El Elyon, the Supreme God. (Abraham was not the only monotheist at the time, so he could accept Melkhizedek's bread, wine, blessing and tithed offerings). Two verses later (v.22) Abraham speaks to the king of Sodom and refers to God in the same language. El Elyon, possessor of heaven and earth. So Abraham and Melkhizedek share a monotheistic vocabulary and use it to glorify God's name before others in Jerusalem. In the midrash, God immortalizes that encounter by naming the city in honour of these two righteous servants of the Almighty. How did God do that? By taking Shalem in honour of Melkhizedek, and placing in front of it Yeru to honour Abraham. Why Yeru? This is a slight variation on (Adonai) Yireh, "the name which Abraham himself gives to the Temple Mount/ Moriah in Jerusalem at the end of the Binding of Isaac drama eight chapters later. The text in Genesis 22 explains that this name means that God will be revealed, made manifest, there. So Yeru-Shalem testifies to a pluralistic monotheism, as seen and sanctioned from God's vantage point. Moreover the plural ending on Yerushalayim suggests that the multiplicity inherent in the city's holiness goes beyond just two monotheisms to embrace the manifold community of all believers in the One Supreme God.
I would add a parenthetical comment. To the south of Jerusalem is the city where Abraham lived, Hebron. Hevron. in Hebrew derives from the same root as does haver or friend. The Arabic name for the city, Al Khalil, also means "the friend" and is a reference to Abraham/Ibrahim, the beloved friend of God. The patriarch bought the cave Makhpelah, there as a burial site for his wife Sarah. He did not conquer it or even claim it before Ephron and his fellow Hittites, even though God had promised him five times before Gen.23 that his descendants would inherit the entire land. Makhpelah in Hebrew means "multiplicity" - so encoded in the names of the two holiest places in the holy land, Yerushalayim and Makhpelah, is the idea of a multiple or pluralistic sanctity. Such a perception should, in turn, call forth from us an inclusive understanding of what our consecrating role should be at and around these places, if we wish to honour the legacy of Abraham, who is our common forefather just as Jerusalem is our common mother.
Armenians, Jews and Palestinians: Sharing the Abrahamic Blessing in Jerusalem
I will end with another meta-midrash about the three Avbrahamic faith communities who live alongside each other in Jerusalem today: Jews, Christians and Muslims. The old city is made up of four quarters, akin to the four chambers of a human heart: one Jewish, one Armenian, one Muslim, and one universal-Christian (this last contains the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). I want to reflect on the first three quarters and the communities that reside in them. Why should these three peoples share Jerusalem in separate, though adjacent spaces? Why, of all the Christian nations, should the Armenians deserve a quarter of their own, with the Cathedral of St. James as its spiritual centre? The Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to the fourth century, soon after they became the first Christian nation (converting en masse a decade before Constantine). Their own via dolorosa through history reached its horrible climax at the turn of this century, as some one-and-a-half million Armenians were slaughtered by the Turks in the "forgotten genocide". This past year, for the first time, the Israeli Government was represented at the April 24 ceremony commemorating the Armenian martyrs, by Yair Tzaban, Minister of Immigration and Absorption.
We Jews were the next targets for annihilation, and there is a direct connection between the slaughter of the six million and the earlier Armenian genocide. On the eve of his blitzkrieg into Poland in 1939, Adolph Hitler asked his generals, "Who today remembers the Armenians?" The world community did virtually nothing to save the Armenians and, so he reasoned, the Nazis would succeed in their genocidal designs against the Jews, Gypsies and other groups. The establishment of Israel in 1948 was partly a defiant answer on the part of Jews determined, after the Holocaust, to end our Diaspora state of exile, vulnerability, and victimization.
The Palestinians, for their part, have not undergone a genocide, but the loss of Palestine to the Jews, compounded by their being manipulated and occasionally massacred by almost every other group in the Middle East (including the various Arab regimes), has left them traumatized, resentful and as mistrustful of others' intentions as we Jews are. Now these "crucified" peoples - the Armenians, the Israeli Jews, and the Palestinian Muslims and Christians - share Jerusalem, as they mourn their martyrs and try to stay faithful to their respective faith traditions. In addition to the deep wounds suffered in the flesh, the spiritual suffering of exile, of being refugees in strange lands, is another common denominator linking the three nations. Could these similarities of fate be tied in any way to the fact that all three communities share identity elements linking particularity of peoplehood, faithfulness to religious tradition, and attachment to a land each calls holy? Could these common denominators, and their juxtaposition now in Jerusalem, be of service to a bewildered humanity struggling to find a healthy balance between cultural particularities and universality? And most essentially, could this challenge be part of Jerusalem's messianic vocation, calling on Jews, Christians and Muslims to work together as partners in the task of consecration so that our crippling traumas may be healed and we, in turn, may be truly liberated?
From Melkhizedek's time until today, the holiness of Jerusalem has been witnessed to not only in the prayers of her servants but in the political institutions established by those who ruled her. Judaism and Islam, in fact, do not accept the notion of a desacralized politics, especially regarding Jerusalem. So the sacred task before us is to help negotiate an arrangement acceptable to all parties, one that honours the spiritual and political attachments of both Jews and Palestinians - with the Armenians and everyone else made to feel welcome, too. Such "open heart surgery" is needed to help us heal the traumas and wounds of this century and prepare our children to live freely and securely into the next.
Recently Hirsh Goodman wrote in his magazine The Jeusalem Report (Nov. 4, 1993, p. 56): "I would suggest that from the outset (of political negotiations) we all agree that Jerusalem become the symbol of reconciliation, the place where all peace talks are held... Jerusalem should not become an 'international city, but the shared and united capital of two peoples striving to live together. It should be a city with no internal borders, but a city whose parts are permitted to retain their geographic and ethnic uniqueness as a microcosm of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence."
It is an enormous responsibility that we all bear. Up to now the conflict in and around Jerusalem has, all too often, evoked the worst traits in both Jews and Arabs. But our common mother city has the capacity to evoke the best in us as well. Our common forefather Avraham/lbrahim was promised (Gen.12:3) that "through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." In order for Jews and Arabs to really share in this promised blessing, they will have to sacrifice their partisan, exclusive loyalties to Jerusalem. Such mutual sacrifice will not only help protect our bodies and liberate our spirits, but it will also spread healing and hope to the far corners of the earth. Those of us who live in Jerusalem need the prayers and support of people elsewhere as we try , through acts of justice and compassion, to make manifest the holiness that God has bestowed upon her and all her children.
grew up in the United States is now a citizen of Israel living in Jerusalem. He is an interfaith educator who writes and lectures both in Israel and internationally. For ten years he directed the religious peace movement OZ veSHALOM-NETIVOT SHALOM. Currently he is co-director of the OPEN HOUSE Peace Centre in Ramle, Israel. He is also co-editor with David Burrell, of Voices from Jerusalem