This post and the following one are adapted from the first reflection paper I wrote for my Independent Study. The reading I consulted for this reflection was Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.
Jerusalem means “city of peace”—an ironic name for a city that has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. This much-contested city is one of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Currently, East Jerusalem is Palestinian territory held by Israel under military occupation. The Palestinian Authority claims East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state, while Israel claims all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (though this is not recognized by the international community). Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike regard Jerusalem as a holy city.
Karen Armstrong wrote her book to answer the question: What is a holy city? What does ‘holy’ mean? She believed this was equally important in regard to issues surrounding the history of Israel/Palestine as questions of ‘who came first?’ Armstrong argues that the meaning of ‘holy’ is complex, and intersects with the notion of place. Place, historians believe, “is one of the earliest manifestations of faith in all cultures” (xv). Because of this, no one can see Jerusalem objectively. In the question of holiness, three main factors are involved: God, myth, and symbolism—all interconnected and relevant.
I was assigned to read chapters 15-18 of Armstrong’s book, which detail the history of Jerusalem, beginning with the Ottoman Empire. Under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s reign (1520-1566), Jerusalem flourished. He rebuilt the city wall (which currently surrounds what is known today as the ‘Old City’). Under Suleiman’s rule, dhimmis (non-Muslims) enjoyed relatively fair treatment, and Jews found a safe place from Christian Spain. He designated a place of prayer for Jews at the Western Wall—a site that was not significant at the time but has since become the holiest place of the Jewish faith. Also active in Jerusalem at this time were several Christian groups, including Greek Orthodox, Syrian, Armenian, and Franciscan (Latin), all of whom fought over (and still fight over) the Holy Sepulcher Church—an issue that is fascinating in itself. Suleiman’s death in 1566 marked the beginning of the decline of Ottoman rule, accompanied by the rise of European powers.
Following 1831, Ottoman commander Muhammad Ali controlled Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, made himself independent from Istanbul, and introduced secularism. He encouraged Europeans to come to Palestine, and allowed the first Western consulate in 1839 (William Turner Young for the British). In 1840 the Ottomans were back in power, and 10 years later there was a Jewish majority in Jerusalem for the first time. 1857 was the beginning of the exodus from the walled city, when communities such as Mea Shearim formed. The Arabs began to resent Turkish leadership, and there were now 3 competing groups: the Arabs, Turks, and Europeans.
In 1865 the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) was formed. Its president, also the Archbishop of York, said, “the country of Palestine belongs to you and me; it is essentially ours” (361). These were the beginnings of ‘crusading archaeology’—and an overall attitude of entitlement that saw Palestine as belonging to whoever could stake a claim (least of all, the Palestinians themselves). Jews around the world were increasingly looking to Zion as their homeland, and encouraged each other to buy land in Palestine. Orthodox Jews, however, disagreed with this practice, believing that any such moves were aimed at “precipitat[ing] forcibly the redemption” (364).
Moses Hess and Heinrich Graetz were influential Jewish voices at this time, although they advocated for different ends. The first Zionist colonies were established in the Palestinian countryside in 1882, and the first Zionist conference was held in Switzerland in 1899. Spokesman of Zionism Theodore Herzl thought there needed to be a Jewish State, but not necessarily in Palestine. Interestingly, he suggested Uganda instead, but was later forced to abandon this idea. The idea of a Jewish ‘homeland’ in Palestine (for which Jerusalem was not necessary) gradually shifted to a demand for a Jewish state in which Palestinians were seen as invisible. Hitler’s ideology spurned this on further.
In the early 20th century British promises to the Jews and Palestinians became increasingly at odds. Palestine naively believed that justice would be on their side, as the land was ‘obviously’ theirs. The Balfour Declaration, White Paper of 1922, and the New White Paper were all influential in these negotiations. Ultimately, in 1948, David Ben Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel. Jordan intervened, and both Jordan and Israel disregarded the UN’s Resolution that Jerusalem should be a corpus separatum (separate body) under international control.
East (Palestinian) and West (Israeli) Jerusalem were separated, although Israel eventually ‘reunified’ all of Jerusalem. The November 1967 UN Resolution called on Israel to withdraw from the territories it occupied during the Six-Day War. In the 1977 Camp David Accords, Egypt recognized Israel, and Israel, in turn, agreed to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula. This is by no means, of course, an exhaustive history, and there is obviously much that follows in the subsequent years up to the present. It is at this point in history, however, that the Armstrong reading ends. One is left to wonder—will the City of Peace ever be worthy of its name?
“It is not enough to experience the diving or the transcendent; the experience must then be incarnated in our behavior towards others. All the great religions insist that the test of true spirituality is practical compassion. The Buddha once said that after experiencing enlightenment, a man must leave the mountaintop and return to the marketplace and there practice compassion for all living beings. This also applies to the spirituality of a holy place. Crucial to the cult of Jerusalem from the very beginning was the importance of practical charity and social justice. The city cannot be holy unless it is also just and compassionate to the weak and vulnerable. But sadly, this moral imperative has often been overlooked. Some of the worst atrocities have occurred when people have put the purity of Jerusalem and the desire to gain access to its great sanctity before the quest for justice and charity.” -Karen Armstrong, from her Introduction to Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths