by Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger
Jerusalem is the living heart of the Jewish People and has been so for millennia. Our tradition teaches that it is the center of the world and the focal point for God’s indwelling on earth. It is here that Abraham fulfilled God’s command to bind his son Isaac upon the altar, it is here that God designated the site for the construction of the Holy Temple, it is here that King David established the capital of his kingdom and it is from here that the Messianic Dynasty will come forth.
Jerusalem has always been the center of our religious and political life. Since our exile from our land and the destruction of our kingdom and Temple by the Romans in the year 70, we have dreamed of our return to the holy city. For two thousand years, we fervently prayed thrice daily for the rebuilding of the city and our rendezvous with God within her.
In our time our dreams have been realized. At the end of the War of Independence in 1949, the western part of the holy city was in our hands and David Ben Gurion declared Jerusalem as the State of Israel’s eternal capital. East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were captured by Jordan and for the following 19 years, the city was rent asunder, divided by a wall. Jews were forbidden from praying at the Western Wall, and Jewish holy sites in the Old City were desecrated. With the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967 the Israeli government urged Jordan not to become involved, but our words fell on deaf ears. When attacked we responded. The city was reunited under Israeli rule.
The wall dividing East and West Jerusalem was torn down and thousands upon thousands of Jews streamed to the Western Wall. Tears of joy and of fulfillment flowed freely. We were fully home at last. The Knesset declared unified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
For most Israelis, the refusal of the world since 1949 to recognize Jerusalem as our capital has been a bewildering affront to our dignity, our identity, and our sovereignty. Many would attribute it to irrational vestigial anti-Semitism. United States president Donald Trump is to be commended for finally correcting the painful and unjust slight and doing justice to the Jewish State. We are deeply thankful and we feel vindicated, as the greatest power on earth has recognized the truth at the foundation of our millennia-long identity.
I write the above words with fervor and conviction. It is all true. But it is only a part of the truth. There is another truth as well, and there will never be peace as long as we hang on to only part of the truth as if it were the full truth.
The Jewish vision of Jerusalem and our return to her bosom is not one of a defiant nation standing vindicated against the world. We are rather looking forward to a new chapter in the Jewish story, in which we rejoin the concert of nations and Jerusalem becomes a home for the world’s prayer. It is here that the truth of Trump’s recognition becomes more complicated.
Muslims relate to Jerusalem with great veneration and I cannot judge if their veneration is less or greater than that of Jews. Jerusalem is one of the three holy cities of Islam and the object of a whole genre of devotional literature. One of the primary elements of traditional Palestinian-Muslim identity is ‘Guardian of the holy places of Jerusalem’.
According to the Muslim narrative, Jerusalem is Muslim. It is holy Muslim ground and has been so for over a thousand years. The Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock – and the tens of thousands who pray there every Friday – bear witness to the abiding sanctity of what they call Haram Al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary, the Temple Mount for us) and the city of Jerusalem.
For me, she is forever called Jerusalem, but for those of the Islamic faith, she is Al Quds, the holy one. As difficult and as gut-wrenching as it is for me to admit, her Islamic sanctity is just as real and powerful for Muslims as the connection to Jerusalem is for Jews.
Muslims in general and Palestinians, in particular, live with a deep sense of victimization and historical injustice. During the early years of the 20th century, Palestinians felt themselves gradually losing their hold on one of their holy cities and on their ancestral homeland. The United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 that recommended the carving out of a Jewish state and the internationalization of Jerusalem, was for them, a travesty that they could not accept. They fought it and were defeated. Hundreds of thousands went into exile; today they are still waiting for their tragedy and plight to be recognized and for justice to be done. Palestinians feel bitter and neglected. Injustice was heaped upon injustice when in 1967, Israel conquered East Jerusalem – including the holy Haram Al-Sharif – and what was left of their truncated homeland. Islam was humiliated.
Since 1948, Palestinians and Muslims have comforted themselves with the knowledge that although the world recognized the State of Israel, it never recognized Israeli’s sovereignty over any part of their holy city of Jerusalem. It was not recognized in 1947 or 1949, not in 1967 and not since. The UN – in resolution after resolution – and the nations of the world, including the USA, have consistently maintained that Jerusalem belongs to the three monotheistic religions and that its final status must be worked out in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Oslo accords –upon which Israel affixed its signature – said the same:
From this perspective, President Donald Trump’s momentous announcement was a prodigious slap in the face. Its various caveats did little to soften the sting of humiliation. It gave a piece of the greatest prize to Israel, while the Palestinians still have nothing. Blatantly violating international consensus, it stole from the Palestinians and from the Muslims their last remaining sliver of dignity and hope. It recognized reality indeed, the reality of Israeli’s usurpation of their holy city. It gave the ultimate seal of approval to injustice after tragic injustice perpetrated against the Palestinian people and the Muslim religion.
During the long years of our bitter weeping for our beloved Jerusalem, time did not stand still. She welcomed other lovers. Jerusalem is still our Jerusalem of gold. But she has also become Al Quds.
We have here two truths. Both are valid, reflecting part of human reality. Each, however, becomes false when they separately present themselves as the full truth, the only truth. If we want real peace, we must take both into account. If we really want peace, there is no room for the blind hubris of exclusivity. We must work it out together. There is no place for unilateral measures. We must not lend a hand to any move that triumphantly tramples the last shred of the other side’s dignity. We must make our music heard in harmony with the concert of nations.
I am deeply torn between (a particular) truth and (a mutual) peace, but if I must decide between them – and indeed I must – I will come down on the side of a mutual peace.
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger is an Orthodox rabbi and teacher who has been profoundly transformed by his encounter with Palestinians and the Palestinian People. He now works together with Israelis and Palestinians to create understanding and peace between the two groups. Read more from Hanan Schlesinger here.