Jerusalem: Besieged by the Sacred

Article excerpt

Ten measures of suffering were sent by God upon the world. Nine of them fell on Jerusalem.

--A Hebrew proverb

The dew which descends upon Jerusalem is a remedy for every sickness, because it is from the gardens of Paradise.

--Excerpt from the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad

Jerusalem today is a detonating device with no fail-safe, a loaded pistol at a poker dispute, a driverless coach careering toward a blind curve. No other item on the entire Middle East peace agenda forebodes such potential mayhem as the city's future status. It is an issue "so contentious," according to the Economist, "that it would be better left undiscussed until all else is settled."

East Jerusalem, the walled Old City--holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims--has an exceedingly long history of foreign occupation, religious conflict, and persecution. Since its takeover by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, much controversy has been generated by the rezoning of the city's boundaries, ambitious Israeli construction policies outside the city, and recent plans to increase the Jewish population within.

Because of these factors, observers believe, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the city's future status will be continually plagued by potential derailment.

For the vast majority of Israeli citizens, Jerusalem--both the newer western suburbs as well as the ancient walled city--is their country's eternal capital, sacrosanct and indisputable.

In a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, a quote credited to analyst Mark Heller aptly conveys Israeli intransigence. "If there is any outstanding issue about which it can truly be said that an Israeli national consensus exists," Heller states, "it is that Jerusalem remain the capital of Israel, undivided and wholly accessible."

Although Palestinian authorities exert weaker claims over the city's more recent additions, they too assert unequivocal political rights over ancient East Jerusalem.

"We will not give up our great struggle until the establishment of the Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital," a forthright Yasser Arafat promised 3,000 supporters in a Palestinian refugee camp several months ago. Arafat is chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian Authority, which is in charge of Palestinian self-rule in the occupied territories.

As shown by recent deadly events surrounding the opening of an ancient Hasmonean tunnel to tourists, any tinkering with the perceived "balance of power" in Jerusalem has the potential to spark immediate and widespread violence and to set the entire peace process aflame.

On historical counts, Jerusalem--Hebrew for "City of Peace"--is truly besieged by the sacred. Holy center to the three major monotheistic faiths, the city has borne witness to the lives and teachings of many of the world's greatest saints and prophets. Yet Jerusalem has been stormed and occupied no fewer than 37 times, as conquerors of differing faiths have ousted one another, piling up a history of gall and resentment.


Jewish, Christian, and Islamic claims of heritage in Jerusalem are found in the deep historical roots of the city's holy sites. Judeo-Christian legend identifies ancient Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital, as an integral part of the Holy Land promised by God to the Jews.

David's son, Solomon, is said to have constructed the first Jewish Temple on the city's Mount Moriah in the tenth century B.C., placing within its inner chamber--its holy of holies--the Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments, the ethical code of ancient Judaism.

Although the Ark was allegedly stolen by the Philistines and the Temple was twice destroyed, the ruins of the Temple, in particular its Western Wall, and the surrounding city became forever a center of Jewish life, worship, and pilgrimage. …