The Tragedy and the Promise of Jerusalem

Makom Shalom is proud to be a diverse community with a range of views in current affairs and matters of faith. The views I present on this blog are my own and not a statement on behalf of the Makom Shalom community. I encourage you to share your views here in the comment section on this blog. I welcome respectful and engaged dialog.                                                                                                            Rabbi Cantor Michael Davis 


President Trump put Jerusalem on the world's agenda this week when he authorized the longstanding U.S. decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to the capital. It's not clear what policy changes in the U.S. or in Israel will flow from this decision. What the U.S. decision - and the reactions so far - have shown is the powerful symbolism of Jerusalem. As a rabbi and as a Jerusalemite, I'd like to take this opportunity to first unpack some of the religious symbolism of Jerusalem and then look beyond that symbolism to the realities of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem's story goes back so far that the city predates its Jewish and Christian name of "Jerusalem." The Bible identifies the ancient hilltop town not as Jerusalem, but as Yevus(יבוס, pronounced ye-VOOS). When Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan River and into Canaan, Yevus withstood the invaders. It was only generations later that King David's army seized the city from the indigenous Jebusites. His son, King Solomon, built the Temple there and established what we have since known as "Jerusalem." 3,000 years later, billions of people around the world - Jews, but mostly Muslims and Christians - cherish Jerusalem as a holy place.

Yevus and Jerusalem are two names that tell the tragedy and the promise of this Holy City.

The Old City of Jerusalem occupies an area just 2/3 the size of Grant Park. It is home to some of the most important sacred sites of the three Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These shrines are all tucked into one corner of the Old City. For Jews, the most recognizable feature of Jerusalem is the majestic Western Wall. The giant stones of the Western Wall buttress the Temple Mount/Haram el-Sharif and its golden Dome of the Rock. The gleaming dome is the most recognizable feature of Jerusalem. Just a few minutes walk from these Jewish and Muslim holy sites stands the Church of the Holy Sepulcher venerated by Christians as the resting place of Jesus.

As citizens of the world, as U.S. citizens, as people of faith, we all have a stake in these holy places. As Jews, we have a special responsibility towards the Jewish State and the Holy Land. Many of us have visited Jerusalem and have personal stories to share.

My Jerusalem Story

My family moved to Jerusalem from England when I was 11. Jerusalem was my home for some 20 years. I attended  middle school, high school and college in Jerusalem. As a soldier, I served on military in bases in and around Jerusalem. I started out my adult life in Jerusalem. My first apartment and my first jobs were in Jerusalem.

I am a Jerusalemite. Jerusalem is my home town.

Even after growing up in Jerusalem  and no matter how many times I go back home to visit, I am continually discovering new aspects of this amazing place, and learning new stories.

By "Jerusalem"I mean Jewish Jerusalem. Aside from a few exotic corners of the Old City, I had no reason to venture any further. Jewish Jerusalem includes the areas west of the Old City and the Jewish settlements that Israel built on Palestinian land to the north and south the Old City. 

Palestinian East Jerusalem was a foreign land to me. The indigenous Palestinians were strangers to me. As an Israeli in an Israeli city I was blind to the realities of Palestinian Jerusalem.

"Jewish"  in Israel is not the same as saying "white" in the U.S.  There was not one Palestinian in my parents' Jewish suburb, not one Muslim in my first neighborhood in the center of Jewish Jerusalem. Jewish Jerusalem is 100% Jewish. 

As I awakened to Interfaith and to Palestinian solidarity, my understanding of what it meant to be a Jerusalemite began to evolve too. I began to look beyond Jewish Jerusalem and see the other quarters and neighborhoods.

Jerusalem has always been a segregated city. The Old City was - and still is -  divided into "quarters" whose borders are drawn by ethnicity and religion: the Muslim, Christian (dominated by the Greek Orthodox), Jewish and Armenian (Christian Orthodox). For centuries, the Jewish Quarter was organized internally on ethnic lines. The Sephardic establishment held itself aloof from the Ashkenazi newcomers. The Ashkenazim themselves were divided by countries of origin into kollelim.

The Old City defined the borders of Jerusalem until about 150 years ago when the first neighborhoods were built outside the city walls. Jerusalem has since expanded many times to become the modern-size city it is today. The expanding municipal boundaries of Jerusalem swallowed up the surrounding villages and all the land in between them.

It was when I was a student at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, that the divided nature of my city hit home. One afternoon, I was riding my Vespa moped from my home in West Jerusalem. A few blocks from my apartment, a car heading in the opposite direction made a sudden, illegal turn. The car hit my Vespa. Thankfully, we were both driving slowly so I wasn't hurt, but the Vespa was damaged. The other driver refused to acknowledge his responsibility. I was advised to bring the case to Jerusalem's Small Claims Court. I was delighted when the judge awarded me the case. Since the other driver had failed to appear in court, it was an automatic ruling. But my celebration was short-lived. As I walked out of the courtroom, an older gentleman sitting in the waiting area called out to me. He offered a service for a fee. You see, the car driver was a Palestinian from East Jerusalem.  East Jerusalem is out of bounds for most Jews. It was considered too dangerous for Jews to visit, certainly not to collect money. The Israeli police or courts would not get involved in my case since this was a minor, civil matter. My only hope for getting the money from the Palestinian sector was to pay a high fee to an independent agent to make the collection. Since the damages and his fee were not that far part, it wasn't worth it and I passed. And I understood why it wasn't worth the other driver's time to show up in court. It made no difference anyway. 

The powerlessness of Jerusalem's Small Claims Court is only a symbol of the reality of a divided Jerusalem. The Palestinian neighborhoods and villages that make up East Jerusalem are deeply under-served. They have significantly less cultural resources, schools and infrastructure. You know you have passed from Jewish Jerusalem to the Palestinian side in East Jerusalem just by looking around.

There are thousands of articles and reports you can read to better understand the lived reality of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the gross inequality between the Palestinian and Jewish sectors.

Israel's creation of a unified Jerusalem was a political gesture directed at Jewish Israelis and the Christians who support them, not the Palestinian Jerusalemites. It paved the way for building settlements on the West Bank hills surrounding Jerusalem such as my childhood home in Gilo and then normalizing them as neighborhoods within the enlarged municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. The international community never recognized the imposition of Israeli rule on Palestinian East Jerusalem. 

Jerusalem - the Holy City

I was raised to see Jerusalem as holy because 3,000 years of Jewish tradition tell us so. From the Bible to the Talmud to the prayerbook, through stories, laws and ritual, Jerusalem is upheld in thousands of ways as our holy center.

While those references still resonate for me, I no longer see Jerusalem solely through the lens of traditional Judaism but as a member of general society. I see Jerusalem as holy because of the place it holds in the hearts of my Christian and Jewish neighbors who are part of the billions of Muslims and Christians around the world who venerate Jerusalem. And that requires me as a Jew and as an Israeli to uphold my hometown as the City of Peace, the meaning of the Hebrew Yerushalayim/Jerusalem

The intractable problem of Israel/Palestine are often framed as one of religious strife. Jews fighting Muslims. Muslims fighting Christians. But I know that the reality is that Jews, Christians and Muslims regularly worship side by side at their holiest shrines in Jerusalem.

If you happen to be in Jerusalem this coming year for the Passover Seder you can join the throngs of pilgrims streaming through the Old City. On Friday, March 30, tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims will celebrate Good Friday mingling with tens of thousands of Muslims celebrating the weekly Friday Jum'ah and many thousands of Jewish pilgrims from around the world preparing for the Passover Seder that evening. Hundreds of thousands of devout pilgrims of the three Abrahamic faiths will walk shoulder to shoulder through the narrow stone streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. I’ve been there at the Western Wall and at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for that sacred time and witnessed this amazing scene. The Old City is Interfaith at its best. Jewish, Christian and Muslim pilgrims worshiping side by side. 

Religion and political symbolism are not the problem.

Jerusalem's challenges lie in the occupation of East Jerusalem by Israel. Daily violence - and the threat of even more violence - hold an unjust reality in place. We should heed the original name of Jerusalem, YevusYevus translates as "the one who is defeated." For hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Jerusalemites, Yevus-defeat is their sad reality. Every day brings more land expropriation, humiliation at the hands of the roving Israeli Border Police, poverty and structural discrimination.

In the face of all this unjust treatment, Palestinians have overwhelmingly committed to non-violence. I fear that, in response to the announcement of the embassy move, cracks will appear in the Palestinians' commitment to non-violent resistance. The Israeli response to any use of violence has always been brutal. Such an escalation of Israeli violence will further inflame the citizens of East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.

Jerusalem will be a City of Peace when the needs of all its citizens are met. 

When all are treated equally under the law, there can be peace for all.

Israel sees President Trump's declaration as a green light to increase the pace of land seizures for Jews and dispossessing the Palestinians. My prayer is that our response to President Trump's decision will be to engage in conversation about the city’s real needs. 

Let our response be: What can we do here to advance the cause of justice and peace in Jerusalem?