image of jerusalem 2013

Jerusalem … A Mirror of Multiple Faiths!
Object or Subject?

1 February   |   2001   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Only ten days ago, one question being asked repeatedly was whether Palestinians and Israelis could reach a draft accord before President Bill Clinton left the White House on Saturday, 20 January 2001? A subsequent question being pondered was whether a rabbit will jump out of the hat at the ‘marathon’ talks in Taba before Tuesday, 6 February 2001? In so doing, would such an agreement confuse the majority of the polls predicting a decisive win by Likud leader Ariel Sharon and have instead the incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak re-instated at the head of a diffuse government? Moving forward ever more, another fashionable query these days seems to be whether President George Walker Bush - and his Secretary of State Colin Powell - will adopt a more even-handed approach to the conflict in the Middle East?

I believe the reader will have formed by now a distinct impression of the direction my questions are taking! All of them are attached to persons! Nobody is asking questions in terms of the issues themselves! In a classic Rufellian reversal of subject and object, the names are determining the issues rather than the issues pre-determining the names!

Indeed, my musings today - encouraged largely by a splendid article from Monsignor Robert Stern I read some weeks ago - take me back ten years when James Baker was US Secretary of State. He and his wife Susan were known to be practising Christian believers and stalwart supporters of the Palestinian cause. It was therefore assumed that American foreign policy will be changed single-handedly by this man and his coterie of advisers! Few were those people who stopped to think of the different fundamentalist lobbies or political groups that are constantly at play in the USA. Fewer even stopped to think that America’s policies are perhaps not guided by a heart-rending concern for the plight of the disenfranchised (this statement speaks volumes about America’s own history!) but are dictated by its own global interests. After all, if one wants to change a policy, one needs to change the interest too. And to change an interest, one selects the issues carefully.

Spiritual Issues, Political Facts

Ever since I returned to Jerusalem some four years ago, I have been witnessing interminable rounds of diplomacy and negotiation between Palestinians and Israelis interrupted by equally interminable rounds of fighting and bloodletting. Those fights and negotiations have both focused mutatis mutandis on the critical issues that define this 54-year old conflict. They relate roughly to the future status of Jerusalem, the right of return and compensation for Palestinian refugees, the contiguous territorial borders of a sovereign Palestinian state, settlements, water rights, economic standards and security guarantees.

I have already dealt in previous articles with a number of those issues, addressing myself to the legal and political loci from a faith-centred lens. Setting aside today the - sharp - secular and political aspects of Jerusalem, I would like to mull over its spiritual character and magical holiness to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Mind you, this is far from being an original thought or innovative approach! However, it is a sobering one and might help us all appreciate further that compromises touching the soul of Jerusalem - its spiritual side - are at least as difficult as those touching its body - the political aspect. From a spiritual perspective, no one faith can afford an exclusive monopoly over Jerusalem.

It is almost a non-sequitur to claim that any solution to the problem of Jerusalem has to deal with its religious and political dimensions. Those who claim that Jerusalem is singularly a religious problem are singularly wrong! Those who insist it is an exclusively political issue are exclusively wrong too! The inseparability of both components is the paradox most people wrestle with daily. In Jerusalem, the hagia and the polis - the holy and the secular - remain inextricably intertwined.

Three Faiths, Manifold Attachments

Starting off chronologically with Judaism, let me posit that Jerusalem was considered for long the spiritual centre of ancient Israel. The psalms - Ps 122 being only one such example - are replete with references to this city being at the centre of the Jewish faith. The Old Testament (1 K, 2 Ch & Ezra) reports that the First Temple was built during the reign of King Solomon. (According to Jewish rabbinical tradition, God forbade King David to build it himself since his hands were defiled by war). Following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC (Ez 33:21-22 & Jr 52:7), a Second Temple was built during the 5-4 C BC. Enlarged and embellished by King Herod, it was destroyed again by the Romans during the reign of Titus in 70 CE.

According to the Bible, Solomon had built the Temple in order to house the Ark of the Covenant that was brought to Jerusalem from Kiriath Jearim (2 S 6) by his father David. It consisted of a chest carrying the Tablets of the Law and epitomised for Jews the contract between God and Israel. The Ark was a privileged place of communication with God where prayers were offered and sacrifices made. It imparted its shchinah or divine presence on the Temple.

Jerusalem evokes equal spiritual attachment in Christianity. Going back to Jesus’ roots and the early days of the Christian faith, the New Testament speaks about the presentation of the infant Jesus to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem (Lk 2: 22-25). Furthermore, and once he started his public ministry after his baptism by John (Ac 10:37) and the miracle at Cana in Galilee (Jn 2:1-12), Jesus often went to the Temple to learn from the rabbis as much as to teach them (Lk 2:41-48). However, he also went to the Temple to drive out the merchants and overturn the tables of the moneychangers (Lk 19: 45-48, Mk 11: 15-18, Mt 21:12-14, Jn 2:14-17). Yet, what towers over and above all those signs for most Christians is that Jerusalem represents the sacred physical space of Jesus’ passion, death and Resurrection. The empty tomb at the Church of the Resurrection (or Church of the Anastasis) is a vivid reminder to all Christians - irrespective of their theosophies - that their faith derives its witness and sustenance from a glorious miracle that happened on Easter Sunday in this holy city.

Indeed, Jerusalem is replete with churches, shrines and sites that are associated with Jesus’ life and that of his apostles and disciples. Jerusalem is the Mother Church of the whole Christian faith, and a symbol of the ultimate redemption of all Christians. Chapters 21 and 22 of the Revelation to John describe how God, through Christ the Lord, will finally defeat all enemies and reward the faithful with the blessings of a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:2) - the new Jerusalem.

And last but not least, Jerusalem is also a pivotal spiritual centre for Islam. To start with, Muslims recall and venerate all the prophets that preceded Mohammed - including Abraham who is considered the father of all prophets, Moses and Jesus. However, and at the epicentre of their attachment to Jerusalem, Muslims refer to the nocturnal experience of the prophet Mohammed (al-Isra’ wa al-Mi’raj) when he travelled to Jerusalem by a winged steed named Buraq, alighted at the rock and was transported into heaven where he met all the prophets and where the face of God was finally revealed to him. On this very spot known as the Haram el-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, the Dome of the Rock was built in the seventh century CE. A second mosque adjacent to the first one is al-Aqsa, or the farthest mosque as mentioned in the Holy Koran, which symbolises the furthest point in religious experience.

Ever since the Hejira from Mecca by the prophet and his followers, Jerusalem has been considered the third holiest place for Islam after Mecca and Medina. In fact, each kneeling for prayer in this mosque in Jerusalem is the equivalent of five hundred in most other mosques, and therefore each prayer recited therein is tantamount to two thousand prayers elsewhere.

Inclusion or Exclusion, Harmony or Conflict?

As such, it seems sensible enough to conclude that the spiritual pull and magical symbolism of Jerusalem are as strong and mesmerising for Christians as they are for Muslims and Jews. Not only do the three religions of this land enjoy a special spiritual patrimony, it is one they hold in trust for the billions of Muslim, Christian and Jewish believers world-wide. It is extremely difficult to reach a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis - whose political parameters are perhaps easier to untangle - without taking into consideration the religious identity of Jerusalem.

But this is not enough in itself! Indeed, when dealing with something as personal and yet as public as religious affiliations or attachments in the Middle East, it behoves to be sensitive let alone respectful to the beliefs and values of others. As a Christian myself, and based upon the exegetical writings of many eminent scholars such as Jacques Vermeylen, Ahmed Qabbasi or G H Jones, I might disagree with, and even dispute the veracity of, a number of faith-centred narratives and traditions adhered to by Jews and Muslims - let alone by some Christian groupings! I could also evince some misgivings about certain schools of thought within Islam or Judaism which confine their jurisprudence to a literalist time-warp.

Nonetheless, I remain conscious that many Muslims or Jews could also question some of the rudimental tenets of my own faith. However, none of those disagreements grants me or anyone else the prerogative to dismiss summarily those values that others hold dear! Respect for the beliefs and narratives of others is a sine qua non for peaceful and convivial relations. In fact, I strongly believe that a critical parting of the ways lies between those who seek to impose a version of their own religious tradition - be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other religion such as Buddhism - in the interests of political supremacy, and those who recognise the more varied and pluriform texture of their spiritual pedigree and therefore its potential for making choices and showing openness toward others.

However, herein lies one of the misfortunes of this small parcel of land. People reinforce their own sets of assertions by belittling at best or trashing at worst those upheld by others. They are quite ready to denigrate those beliefs they find incongruous with their own. Hence arises the phenomena of collective memories and collective psyches that are inexorably in perpetual motion, in perpetual competition and thereby also in perpetual conflict. The answer - extremely hard and painful to envision let alone nurture - is to accommodate the beliefs of others within one’s own normative context.

Intellectuals for Jerusalem

And here enter the intellectuals! One major role that intellectuals fulfil is to foster an honest debate about the dynamics impacting their own societies. Whilst politicians zigzag and religious leaders justify, intellectuals are meant to encourage a critical examination of facts and to be at the forefront of new horizons and bold initiatives. But I sometimes wonder where many of these men and women can be found in [relation to] Jerusalem? Are they not meant to be the non-partisan voice of probity, defending freedom of conscience and religious liberty as much as standing up for the dignity, the rights and the transcendent dimension of the human person? Are they not meant to counter any hostility to concepts such as modernisation, democratisation, basic freedoms and the information revolution in order to contribute to the future stability of society?

I become concerned when I sense that some currents or individuals engage themselves in the process of building their own legitimacy with regard to Jerusalem by fomenting religious tensions. With the unfortunate dearth of an overwhelming number of inspiring religious leaders in our midst, intellectuals - an overarching category of men and women - have a duty to help society build up its legitimacy by pushing education and awareness-raising. They are the weathercocks that redress imperfect balances and speak out for the truth. In a nutshell, intellectuals should forcefully address the sort of education children are offered, the sort of economy that underpins a nation, and the sort of rule of law that a society establishes for itself in order to help determine the dignity and standing of a people anywhere in our global village.

Win-Win Peace or Win-Lose War?

After four challenging years in Jerusalem, I remain convinced that peace can only reign in this land when negotiators maintain and prop the political and spiritual dimensions of this city. I also remain adamant that this can only happen when we become vulnerable to others and honest with ourselves. So long as the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis remains a zero-sum game, peace with justice and dignity is likely to stay out of reach. Rather, the bloodshed, hatred and distrust that have been rampant in this land will continue to despoil the basic tenets of all three faiths that hold this land holy.

In moments of naïve optimism, I wonder whether it would be possible to float once again the idea of turning Jerusalem into an international spiritual capital for the whole world. The purist jurist in me still retains a healthy scepticism about abstruse concepts as ‘sovereignty to God’, having often advocated alternatives of ‘non-sovereignty’ or ‘shared sovereignty’. Yet, it might well take such an ‘outlandish’ proposition to set a precedent in International customary law, liberate both Palestinians and Israelis from the ‘stand-off of possession’ (J Wright) and help them achieve recognition of their mutual rights.

In the final analysis, if peace has not yet been ‘conquered’ in its truthful form, or if multi-faith dialogue for that matter has not yet been refined beyond platitudes and handshakes, this might well be due in large part to the fact that we are sorely bereft of a bracing vision that overrides our nugatory concerns for the sake of our larger aspirations and oversteps our comminatory attitudes towards others for the sake of achieving reconciliation with them.

Let me now go back full circle to my introduction and voice an obiter that we all need to overcome our solipsistic tendencies and emotive mentalities for the larger good. In order to succeed, however, we need to acknowledge the narratives of the past so as to construct the hopes of the future. We need to purify our memories, develop a regional code of ethics in our relations with each other and de-personalise what is at stake - from persons to issues, from vested interests to shared ones. Can we achieve such a developed level of transcendence and enlightenment? Can we rise above the fray and deflect pettifogging barters into more inclusive models? Can we put peace, with justice and dignity, above ourselves?

Last week, Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote a powerful letter calling upon all rabbis to rally around the principles of emet, tzedek and shalom. His letter constitutes a clarion call for our region that is gutted as much by painful physical closures as it is by agonising closed minds. Surely, truth, justice and peace - fundamental to all three traditions living back-to-back in this land - deserve better from us all than what we have offered so far ..? Most definitely!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2001   |   1 February


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