Alternative Insight


The Barrier to Mid-East Peace

Part II- The Heritage Perspectives

Jerusalem is unique

Past experiences with religious domination of political life have resulted in Inquisitions, Crusades, religious intolerance, suppression of freedom and stifling of progress. The homicidal conflicts in Algeria and other nations that contain strong fundamentalist groups remind others of the consequences of allowing extreme religious groups and those who deter progress to gain powerful positions in the politics of a society. Yet, the world has allowed this to happen with religious forces in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is unique.

To advance cultural and economic progress, nations and people have been willing to forget the past if it interfered with the future. Almost all of the famous biblical cities, Nineveh, Babylon, Ur, Megiddo, Hazor, etc., lie buried in dust, historical artifacts to the curious, distant memories to those who established new trade routes and new outlooks. Capital cities have been moved in many countries; Brazil and the United States as examples, whenever government and economic efficiencies demanded their transfer. Great cultural edifices, such as the Byzantine church Hagia Sophia, which had been the leading Christian institution during the time that Constantinople ruled the Roman and Christian world, have been converted to constabularies of other religions and nobody demands a return to their past situation. The once great Mayan people, who used astronomy and mathematics and innovative agricultural methods to tame the jungle and create a civilization that lasted more than 1000 years and stretched from Honduras through Mexico, have been reduced to abject poverty. Yet, they don't campaign for a return of Tikal, their commercial city of tens of thousands of persons, of markets, huge temples and irrigation platforms. Nor do any of the world's forces try to assist the Maya to regain the territory, raise them from poverty and enable them to return to a glory they once had. The conditions that enabled the constructions of great vanquished cities no longer exist, and their rehabilitations have no reason. The spiritual that accompanied the cultural and economic forces disappeared with the decline of the civilizations. Jerusalem, that decayed so greatly before the 19th century, that the Comte de Volney noted in 1784: "To see its destroyed walls, its debris-filled moat, its circuits choked with ruins, you would hardly recognize this famous metropolis which once defied the most powerful empires in the world," has made itself an exception. Its cultural and economic situations may have declined in previous times. Nevertheless, the spiritual and national heritages have never left Jerusalem. Jerusalem is unique.

The Jewish Heritage in Jerusalem
The Jews sanctify Jerusalem with a negative memory- the destruction of its Temple. Although Jews have an almost unbroken history of inhabiting Jerusalem, albeit at times in small numbers, the physical remains that describe Jewish heritage and previous control in Jerusalem are scarce. The old city Western Wall, a bearing wall of the temple platform constructed by King Herod under Roman rule, is revered by Jews as the most existing spiritual construction of their heritage. According to Karen Armstrong, Jerusalem, Jews did not pray at the Western Wall until the Mamluks in the 15th century allowed them to move their congregations from a dangerous Mount of Olives and pray daily at the Wall. At that time she estimates that there may have been no more than 70 Jewish families in Jerusalem. After the Ottomans replaced the Mamluks, Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century issued a formal edict that permitted Jews to have a place of prayer at the Western Wall. Due to Suleiman's invitation, Jews returned to Jerusalem and the Jewish community increased to 1,650 out of a total population of 13,384. Although many rabbis developed elaborate rituals to keep Jerusalem alive in the memory of the exiles, the several million Jews in the Roman Empire outside of Jerusalem and in the earlier Diaspora managed to survive without the memories of the destroyed temple influencing their behavior. The later Diaspora Zionists arrived in Palestine without any indication of re-establishing Jerusalem as the capital of their intended nation. This attitude changed after Israel captured East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, in the 1967 war. The Israeli government excavated and surprisingly uncovered conflicting heritages. At the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) archaeologists unearthed, subject still to interpretation, "not only the Jewish staircase into the lost temple, not only great ritual baths, but also remains of a great Arab urban center." (Amos Elon: Jerusalem, City of Mirrors) The City of David, which the Bible indicates to be the 3000 year old capital of a united Hebrew nation for 60 years, has also been excavated at the side of a hill below the temple. Limited in size to about 2000 persons, it appears to have been more of a garrison for troops and a palace government. The latter excavations have interested but have not excited the Jewish community. The other remaining symbol of Jewish presence, the Jewish quarter, has been recreated. Cleared of all previous Arab tenants, it now contains about 2,200 people, most of them Orthodox Jews. Jerusalem is the focus of Israel and its orthodox religious citizens because of memories of the earlier history and struggles of the Jewish people in that city. The eastern and western world from Baghdad to Kiev to New York contain many more physical monuments of Jewish creation and testimony to past Jewish culture and struggles.

The Christian heritage in Jerusalem
The biblical King David provided an impetus for the expansion of Jerusalem. The development of Christianity brought Jerusalem to world recognition during a more historical era by sanctifying Jerusalem with beliefs in Jesus's ministry, passion and resurrection. Of the twenty four most popular and venerated tourist sites in Jerusalem, eighteen are Christian (Virtual Tour of Jerusalem). Nevertheless, the decline of Christian population from 31,000 in 1946 to an estimated 9,000 in 1989 demonstrates that although the Christians may venerate Jerusalem, they have no desire to inhabit or control it. The Christian churches, monasteries, convents and other religious places, all of which inspire memories of Jesus have unequaled importance. They are most responsible for Jerusalem's main industry, tourism. The religious sites reflect the historical drama of Christian rule of the holy city. Today, control of some of the Christian holy sites are contested by several denominations, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Latin, etc. In order to prevent a dispute between the many Christian sects that share control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which supposedly contains Jesus' tomb, the keys to the Holy Sepulchre are said to be held by a Moslem family. Whoever inherits control of the holy city Christian sites will inherit confusion and conflict.

Moslem Heritage in Jerusalem
Moslems ruled Jerusalem almost continually for 1300 years until the 1967 war. Their link to Jerusalem and the holy sites they created, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque entered the conscience of Arab Moslems.Their veneration also includes marking Jerusalem's Temple Mount as the site where Mohammed made his nocturnal flight to heaven- a flight of faith rather than an accepted reality. During their period of control in Jerusalem, the Moslem leaders, recognizing the link between the Moslem religion and the previous western religions, generally respected the Jewish and Christian holy sites and their populations. On two occasions, Islamic conquest over Christian power permitted Jews in limited numbers to return to the city they revered. Nevertheless, at times, entry to the the Western Wall became physically restricted and Jewish praying at the wall became disturbed. The arrival of the Zionists and their expansion throughout Palestine changed the relations between Arabs and Jews and after the 1948 war, Jews were denied access to the Old City. The strength of the Arab commitment to Jerusalem is sufficiently intense to have made Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warn: "...a compromise over Jerusalem would lead to uncontrollable violence in the Middle Arab or Muslim can relinquish rights to East Jerusalem and its holy sites."

Considering that Jerusalem has been a city of conflict and trouble through much of its lifetime, and realizing the responsibility and obligation to others that any entity that controls Jerusalem will have, why does any nation want to exercise absolute control over Jerusalem? Unique ownership of total Jerusalem by either Israel or the Palestinian Authority will bring continual violence, possibly for generations. In contrast, the historical and religious sites of the old city can be easily partitioned among the competing groups without interference to any of them. The later city developments and their populations can also be separated without affecting the dynamics and integrity of either Israel or an emerging Palestinian nation. Why want as much as one can get rather than what is most beneficial? Since UN resolutions state that neither party has an acceptable legitimate claim to Jerusalem, why does the world community allow this dispute to endanger world peace? The answer is in power politics. The claims on holy sites and past memories are only a subterfuge for the hidden agendas.


august, 2000