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Jerusalem our eternal capital? Think again

Donald Trump's recognition of Israel's capital has divided opinion - what we need is a progressive approach to Jerusalem

    The Jerusalem Double, 2017 - bringing Jews and Arabs together through backgammon (photo: Getty)
    The Jerusalem Double, 2017 - bringing Jews and Arabs together through backgammon (photo: Getty)

    President Trump’s decision in December to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy there has divided Jewish opinion. In the United States, right-leaning Jewish groups welcomed the move; in contrast, the Reform movement, although sharing the President’s belief that the US embassy should at the right time be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, could not support the timing for his proclamation, given the absence of a concrete plan for peace. 

    Similarly in the UK, progressive organisations have cautioned against the timing, whereas both the Board of Deputies and the Chief Rabbi aligned themselves with the President’s position. In language echoing the most ardent religious Zionism, both indicated Jerusalem’s presence to be central to the spiritual life of the Jewish people. Chief Rabbi Mirvis called it “the eternal capital of the Jewish world”. 

    But the current discussion here so far lacks the outline of a genuinely progressive Jewish approach to Jerusalem, free from the usual cocktail of prejudice, exclusivity and possessiveness. The first important feature of this is to acknowledge that, far from us seeing Jerusalem as the eternal and sole centre of the Jewish world, there have always been alternative areas of focus. 

    In order to diminish the status of Jerusalem in Islam, it is often said that the city is not even referenced in its Holy Book, the Qur’an. The city, though, is not referred to in the Torah either. 

    Even during the time of the first Temple, archaeologists have pointed to places of worship other than the Temple itself which also use the term “House of the Lord”, both in Elephantine Egypt and Tel Arad. This certainly illustrates that monolithic devotion to Jerusalem was far from universal. 

    It was Rabbi Huna who in the Talmud declared: “We, living in Babylon, regard ourselves as equal to those living in the Land of Israel” (Gittin 6a). This statement makes clear that a full Jewish life is possible where freedom prevails and also urges against any dangerous superstitious reverence for particular sites.

    The 20th-century Reform theologian Ignaz Maybaum reminds us that “in praying for Jerusalem today, we cannot as faithful Jews mean the Jewish Orthodox Rome to which the Jew living in the diaspora should give up their independence”. 

    It is also crucial when discussing Jerusalem to understand that the city has always been redefined in accord with new and different historical situations. As an idealised image and focus of national and religious renewal during the years of exile, it evoked a spiritual yearning. Despite religious messianic fervour from certain quarters urging otherwise, we must still pray for “next year in Jerusalem”.

    What has become so problematic in recent times though, is the application of certain biblical paradigms to today’s reality, without an appreciation for the original historical concerns at play.

    For example, there is a trend in post-exilic prophecy insisting on the future purge from Jerusalem of all foreign elements. What attempts at imitation fail to confront, however, is that unlike today, the community of returnees from exile following the building of the Second Temple were hugely outnumbered by the local population. 

    Amos Oz, the celebrated Israeli author, offers an amusing solution to the current impasse: “We should remove every stone of the holy sites and transport them to Scandinavia for a hundred years,” he says, “and not return them until everyone has learned to live together in Jerusalem.” 

    When peace does emerge, it will surely come about through the recognition and respect for the heritage of the other. What is so desperately needed is to ground this approach in our texts. 

    Tradition, it is important to note, admits that Jerusalem was never originally an Israelite city and always had a mixed population. The Jebusites, for example, from whom David captured the city, continued to live there following his conquest. 

    There is also a strong universal thrust within certain strands of the prophetic tradition that we should take to heart. Isaiah reminds us, “For My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples”. In emphasising this path, we move away from the tropes of the religious Zionists. 

    Abraham Joshua Heschel, the 20th-century American thinker, presents the challenge of Jerusalem as nothing short of “how to unite the human and the holy? How to echo the divine in the shape of words and the form of deeds?”

    Perhaps the answer is that Jerusalem, in a way like no other place, gives us the opportunity to “love thy neighbour as thyself”. 
    It is ironic that the popular etymology for Jerusalem is equated with the word shalom (peace) because it has rarely ceased being a city of conflict. Rather than blindly endorsing the US President as some have done, what we must truly answer, when it comes to Jerusalem, is, in the words of its former mayor, Teddy Kollek, how to create “a city with sufficient spiritual space to embrace its multiplicity of faiths and ideologies”. 

    Simon Eder is director of the Friends of Louis Jacobs

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