Jerusalem has recently been in the news again. President Trump has declared that the United States now recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, because as he put it, ‘This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality’. Further, he plans to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For those who don’t know the back-story, it seems obvious that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital; after all, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, is in Jerusalem, all the government departments are in Jerusalem, the residences of the Prime Minister and the President are in Jerusalem. But a qualification is needed. These political institutions are all in West Jerusalem. Had President Trump declared that the United States recognises West Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel, and East Jerusalem as the capital of a future State of Palestine, he would have been doing something very different and very bold; making a move to revive the defunct peace process and nudge it towards a two-state solution.
In June 1967, just 19 years old, the State of Israel fought for its very existence, when a stand-off with Egypt turned into an all-out war between Israel and the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, which included crossing the green ceasefire line established between Israel and Jordan at the end of the 1948-49 war, transformed the small beleaguered nation into an occupying power. Of course, claiming back the Jewish Quarter of the old city located in East Jerusalem, with the Western Wall of the last Temple at its heart, was a wonderful moment, in particular, for devout Jews, who had been denied access to this sacred Jewish shrine since 1949. But this spiritual homecoming hardened into something else entirely, as the occupation of the West Bank became established. Victory over hostile Arab neighbours resulted in the oppression of the Palestinians living on the West Bank and in Gaza. Within a few years, right-wing Jewish fundamentalists, asserting that the whole of the biblical land of Israel belongs to the Jews alone, began to build Jewish settlements on what they described – and still do – as ‘Judea’ and ‘Samaria’.
The ancient Jewish Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem was also completely rebuilt after 1967. Imagine how different the ‘reality’ – to use Trump’s word – would look today, had the occupation been temporary, and Israel had used its triumph to support the Palestinians, continually disregarded by their Arab brothers, to create a state that could have been an ally and Israel’s closest neighbour, enjoying economic cooperation and sharing scarce resources. In such a scenario, Jerusalem, with the three Abrahamic faiths safely ensconced in the old city, could have become the capital of both states.
Of course, for Jerusalem to be shared, both peoples need the vision to see that their destiny belongs with one another. But that vision is sadly lacking in the binary Arabs versus Jews versus Arabs game that rules in the Middle East, and which is played out in the contested heartland / heart-ache / heartbreak that is Jerusalem. Even the meaning of the name of the city is contested. In Arabic, it is Al-Quds, meaning, ‘The Holy One.’ The older Hebrew name, Y’rushalayim, might be translated as ‘foundation of peace’ – a combination of the Hebrew roots, Yud Reish Hei and Shin Lamed Mem – or ‘inheritance of peace’, a combination of the roots, Yud Reish Shin and Shin Lamed Shin – if the Shin is doubled. Alternatively, a corrupted form of the Hebrew noun for city, ir, Ayin Yud Reish, has been suggested: Jerusalem, Y’rushalayim, ‘city of peace’.
The contested nature of Jerusalem is expressed in the very fabric of the old city, with its different quarters – Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. And even within these quarters, religious conflict is rife. On a visit in 2006 to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands over the site where Jesus is reputed to have been crucified, and which is divided between the different Christian denominations, I witnessed two sets of monks lunging at one another with fists, until Israeli police were called in to separate them and they retreated to their separate areas of the church. Of course, there’s also a positive side to this Christian diversity. If you’re in Jerusalem over Christmas, as Jess and I were in 2006, you can enjoy several Christmas celebrations on the various dates recognised as Christmas by the Western Church, the Eastern Church, and the Armenians, respectively.
Throughout the history of Jerusalem, which according to the Hebrew Scriptures, goes back to the time of King David, just over 1000 years BCE, the citadel that became a city and centre of Jewish worship atop the hills in the Judean desert, has rarely seen peace. On the contrary, for almost three millennia Jerusalem has been a contested place and a prize trophy for a succession of empires: the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Assyrian Greeks, and the Romans, whose centuries-long imperial rule culminated in the establishment of the new dominion of Christendom, with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early 300s CE to the new religion of Christianity.
And then, with the rise of Islam in the 600s CE, a new centre of power emerged in the region. For centuries, Christian and Islamic empires vied for dominance, and in the early Middle Ages, their armies fought one another for possession of the holy city of Jerusalem in savage wars known as the Crusades. Eventually, Islam gained the upper hand, and for almost 500 years, the Ottoman Empire, centred in Turkey, ruled over the Middle East. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War One, two other colonial powers, Britain and France, stepped in. The map of the Middle East reflects decisions taken then: Lebanon and Syria, under the authority of the French, Palestine and what was called Transjordan, under the authority of the British. The Arab inhabitants of Palestine, mostly tenant farmers, had never known freedom and independence. Meanwhile, in Europe, in response to a new racist form of anti-Semitism that overtook anti-Judaism in its virulence and menace, a new movement arose: political Zionism. The longing to return to Zion on the part of Jews around the world goes back to the crushing of the Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Political Zionism was developed by those who felt that the only solution to anti-Semitism was for Jews to join the remnant Jewish population living in our ancestral homeland, and have our own independent Jewish state.
The first Zionist Congress was held in Basel in 1897. And then, 20 years later, juggling the aspirations of Jews and Arabs, the British government offered support for – and I quote: ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people… It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done that may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ These are the words used in a short letter from Lord Balfour to Lord Rothschild, on 2 November 1917.
For the next 20 years, Jews escaping persecution continued to immigrate to Palestine, there were two major Arab uprisings in 1929 and 1936, and successive attempts on the part of the British government to find a settlement to the dispute. In the end, it was Hitler’s war against the Jews, which resulted in the murder of one third of the world Jewish population that precipitated the formulation of United Nations resolution Number 181, calling for the territory of Palestine to be divided into two states with Jerusalem as an international city. At the UN General Assembly on 29 November 1947, 33 states voted in favour of the resolution and 13 against. 10 states abstained, including Britain. The partition plan was rejected by the Arabs and accepted, reluctantly, by the Zionists.  It failed. When the Zionist leadership established the state of Israel on 14 May 1948, following the departure of the British, it became the first sovereign Jewish nation since the Hasmonean state that had ruled for just 75 years from 140 to 65 BCE – which itself, had been the only independent Jewish state that the Babylonian conquest of 586 BCE.
There are some people today, who still hold out the hope that Jerusalem can be an international city. But how would this be accomplished? Sadly, the UN has lost credibility with Israelis during the past 70 years – in particular, following the adoption of resolution 3379 on 10 November 1975, asserting that ‘Zionism is racism’,  which was eventually revoked in 1991. We can only hope that a way will be found for Jerusalem to be acknowledged as the capital of, both, Israel and Palestine. Just this past week, in response to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, leaders from the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, meeting in Istanbul, recognised East Jerusalem as the occupied capital of Palestine and called on the international community to do the same.
And so, perhaps, something positive has emerged as a result of President Trump’s intervention. Although, no doubt, this was not his intention, Trump has reminded the world of the plight of the Palestinians, whose dream of an autonomous sovereign state has not yet been realised – and, at long last, the world is talking about Jerusalem. For decades since 1967, successive Israeli governments and Israeli mayors of Jerusalem have trumpeted the cause of a ‘united Jerusalem’, under Israeli sovereignty. Perhaps, if the calls increase for the recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, with the support of key players, not least the United States, the ancient walled city may yet become a centre of multi-religious celebration, shared by two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine.
Of course, this is not likely to happen any time soon. It is easy to fall prey to despair, as the conflict seems to grind on endlessly, without any resolution in sight. But it is very important that we do not lose hope. That is one of the central messages of the festival of Chanukkah, which commemorates a major victory in 164 BCE against the tyrannical regime of Emperor Antiochus IV. The Assyrian-Greek Empire continued its oppressive rule until 140 BCE, but when Judah Maccabee and his brothers recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, and rebuilt and rededicated the sacred altar, they didn’t simply rekindle the flames of the seven-branched m’norah, they rekindled hope in the hearts of the people for the continuing struggle. And so, for us, too, the accumulating flames of Chanukkah inspire hope. As the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel approaches in May 2018, let us hope that just as the Zionist dream of Israel became a reality, the dream of the Palestinians for their own sovereign state will also, however long it takes, become a reality – and that Jerusalem, East and West, with the sacred old city at its heart, will become a beacon of peace and reconciliation for the entire world. Bimheirah b’yameinu. Speedily in our own day. And let us say Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah, Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
Shabbat Chanukkah, 16th December 2017 / 28th Kislev 5778
- https://www.ft.com/content/604df246-daa5-11e7-a039-c64b1c09b482 ↑
- 25th December, 6th January, 19th January. ↑
- All the different sources on the UN resolution are presented from partisan perspectives, either pro-Israel, or pro-Palestine, so here’s the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balfour_Declaration ↑
- Most notably, reflected in the Peel Commission, which published its report in 1937. ↑
- Again, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Partition_Plan_for_Palestine ↑
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_General_Assembly_Resolution_3379 ↑
- By the adoption of UN resolution 46/86 on 16 December 1991. Ibid. ↑
- http://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/13/middleeast/oic-jerusalem-intl/index.html ↑
- As with the title of this sermon, this phrase echoes the title of Arnold Wesker’s play, I’m talking about Jerusalem (1960), which is part of a trilogy of plays that includes Roots and Chicken Soup with Barley. ↑