Jerusalem, A Living Mosaic*
Saliba Sarsar, Ph.D.**
The city of Jerusalem is my home. She is our collective home. She is where we – Palestinian Arabs (Muslim and Christian), Israelis (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian), and others – live and work against a backdrop of constant uncertainty and, at times, in less than peaceful conditions.
Jerusalem is known by seventy names in biblical and post-biblical literature, including “sought after” (Is. 62:12), “joyful city” (Is. 22:2), “righteous dwelling” (Jer. 31:22), and “shalem” (whole) or peace (Gen. 14:18). Arabs and Muslims call her al-Quds (“the holy”), and most Israeli Jews and Jews in the Diaspora call her Yerushalayim (“the abode of peace”).
While small in size, Jerusalem is large in her offerings. Walking through her alleyways, holy sites, and marketplaces, I feel the awesome energy emanating from all around me. Like other historic cities that are pluralistic – multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multilingual – she constitutes an evolving mosaic, wonderful to observe but, of even greater consequence, essential to her reshaping. The alternative is inertia, which would reduce Jerusalem to a museum piece, fit to gaze at, but never to understand. This reshaping, obviously, requires inclusion, openness, empowerment, and joint action, which can turn untapped potential into realizable goals, vision into reality, and hopelessness into expectation and elated spirits.
As an evolving tapestry, Jerusalem articulates spirituality, religion, history, politics, and cultural identity. The way we connect to these expressions will ultimately either bring us closer to Jerusalem as home or distance us from her.
Jerusalem as Spiritual Place
Jerusalem is imprinted in my being and on my heart. She is the center of my existence and my destiny. Multitudes of people, my family included, experience this same reality. In Jerusalem, we are home. We sense stronger and more numerous connections than anywhere else. We feel that the Creator is in our midst, and that the Earth is nearer to the Heavens. On a clear summer night, we can touch the moon, even capture the stars!
Though Jerusalem does not have hundreds of monumental structures, she is a monument in her own right. Churches, mosques, synagogues, museums, the Old City wall (with its eight enormous gates, seven of which are open), the landscapes, and the identities and interests they all represent, imbue her with sacred narratives.
Jerusalem also has an eschatological import: long-time Arab and Jewish residents; Greek and Russian pilgrims; Jewish immigrants from Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia; Protestant missionaries from Germany, Sweden, and the United States – all have, over time, appreciated the real Jerusalem, but the ideal Jerusalem was equally important to them. They might not have seen the entire range of the tapestry but each, while rooted in a certain environment, was soaring—some preferring blue, others red or green, and still others all the shades in between. The earthly and heavenly Jerusalem, forever intertwined, still appeal to the imagination.
It is no wonder that several cemeteries surround sections of the Old City wall. Believers wish to live and be buried within the sight and sounds of the Divine, of Judgment Day. She is where I wish to rest in peace eventually as well – close to family and friends buried on the Western Hill (commonly known as Jabal Sahyoun or Mount Zion) a few feet from King David’s Tomb, the Cenacle or site of The Last Supper, and Dormition Abby, where it is believed, Mary, Jesus’s mother, fell into eternal sleep.
Jerusalem is not an island unto herself. She is interdependent with the region and the world. The Creator’s love, and our human compassion, instruct that we recognize that every community and every house of worship anywhere is ultimately Jerusalem. Jerusalem radiates light to all, but all equally nourish her life in return. The Creator is at home where the heart is pure, where the spirit is high, and where love is embracing and unconditional.
Jerusalem as Religious Space
In varying degrees, Jerusalem expresses the actualities and visions of the three monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
For Jews, Jerusalem is the center of their consciousness. As a symbol of religious connectedness and national independence, her possession and safety are paramount. As such, the Israeli Jewish argument holds that returning her to Arab control or sharing her politically with any existing or future Arab state, would endanger not only Jewish holy sites but also Israel itself, as well as exacerbating the Israeli-Arab conflict.
For most Christians, Jerusalem is the holiest city and the center of their faith: “In Jerusalem, Christianity was born. Every Christian, every Church, was born in Jerusalem. The words of the psalm apply precisely to that spiritual but real birth and belonging: ‘Everyone was born there’” (Psalm 87:5). Marking the location of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, she is the source of inspiration for Christian meaning-making and salvation. Therefore, Christians hold that sharing Jerusalem and retaining a strong connection and influence there are de rigueur for safeguarding the Christian holy places, interests, and presence.
For Muslims, Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest city after Mecca and Medina. She is connected with the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey on al-Buraq, his celebrated steed, from Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca to Al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem (Al Isra’ 17:1) and his ascension to Heaven (Micraj). Over the years, Jerusalem has signified communal and political independence from the occupying infidels. The Muslim argument holds that Muslim Arab control is the only way to protect Muslim sites. Israel’s archaeological digs, property confiscation, and machinations since 1967 clearly indicate Israeli-Jewish designs to Judaize and control the city completely.
The sacredness of Jerusalem has amplified conflict among the three Abrahamic faiths. This is evidenced by Jewish-Muslim tensions over the same holy compound, referred to as the Temple Mount by the Jews and the Noble Sanctuary by the Muslims. There are even intra-faith rivalries, as demonstrated by the occasional Christian disputes – among Greek Orthodox, Latin or Roman Catholic, and Armenian clergy over rights within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – which have prevented badly needed church renovations. It is interesting to note that the custody of the door and the key for the church has been entrusted to two Muslim Palestinian families – Judeh and Nusseibeh – for over 770 years, and that renovation of Jesus’s tomb, or the Holy Edicule, began in June 2016 and was completed in March 2017; the last was undertaken in 1809-1810 after a major fire.
Moreover, there are aspects highlighting a tendency for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live in the present, but exist in the past as well. This temporal dichotomy constantly compels them to plan the future to fit the past, more than to reinterpret the past to fit the present and future. While this worldview is understandable given past conflicts, fears, intolerance, and violence, it continues to divide communities, internally and externally, thus preventing compromise and reconciliation.
Jerusalem as History
Being one with Jerusalem refocuses time, compressing and elongating it to seek explanations and learn lessons. It evokes reflections from the past, both old and new. It gives fertile grounds to recollections, both pleasant and unpleasant. It considers the present and the future in the context of the land and its people, and of war and peace.
During the past 4000 years, Jerusalem’s history has been partly written in blood and fire. It still stains our house of memory. Canaanites, Jebusites, Israelites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Seljuks, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, and British previously walked her “holy” paths and tried to make her their home, but what remains of them are mostly archives or archeological ruins. In 1948, Jordan became the ruling power in East Jerusalem, and Israel the ruling power in West Jerusalem. Although Jordan and the Palestinians have influence in East Jerusalem, the whole city has been in Israel’s hands since 1967.
Regardless of the rise and fall of tribes, empires, and nation-states, Jerusalem has recovered. Although destroyed several times, the city maintains her essence and the distinguished cultures and traditions of various peoples who call her home.
The Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab communities have voiced historic claims and counterclaims and erected psychological blinders that perpetuate a zero-sum game and make peace less likely. A large segment in each community has constructed distinct collective identities or has adopted partial views of history that delegitimize the history and aspirations of “the other.” In addition, members in each community have resorted to varying levels of violence to make their case or to retaliate, resulting in the killing and maiming of countless inhabitants, in addition to dispossession, humiliation, and impoverishment, as expressed by several wars and bloody episodes of the past.
What is clear is that the language of conquerors and occupiers was, and remains, one of power and intrigue, not accommodation and reconciliation. The main goal was, and is, one of settlement, not caring, community creation, and peace building.
Jerusalem as Political Domain
Jerusalem is our collective city, but she remains challenged. As a result of winning the June 1967 War, Israel removed the barbed wire and frontier separating East Jerusalem from West Jerusalem, thus (re)unifying the city and proclaiming her its “eternal capital.”
Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs do not view this situation in the same way. While there are interactions between them, their proximity and socioeconomic exchanges do not guarantee close friendships or warm neighborly relations. Each community uses arguments and counterarguments to discredit the other community. When reason and truth are most needed, they get buried under rhetorical layers of contrary evidence and decades of miscommunication, misinterpretation, and misunderstanding. That is not surprising given their divergent backgrounds and polarizing historical experiences.
Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs live different lives. It is no surprise that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs do not have a meeting of minds. They compete over Jerusalem, even though the former has the upper military and political hand. Both – especially Israeli Jews – rush to buy, rent, or claim ownership of land in accordance with their differing perception of historic rights, and in anticipation of future negotiations over her status. Simultaneously, the newer sections of Jerusalem continue to expand, even while the price of land and the construction cost are astronomical, and the annual gross national product per capita – especially for Palestinian Arabs – is low. One wonders who is financing such expansion.
Jerusalem as Cultural Identity
Jerusalem is a workshop of cultural identity. She is where prophets of old and their followers walked and passed on inspiration and knowledge to others, and where the characters and personalities of multitudes were, and are, being formed. She is where we, ordinary people, want to live and let live, where we wish to raise our children with inclusive values, and where we hope to leave the world in a better condition than we found it.
Jerusalem is not discovered by attending a political lecture, listening to a guide, or reading a tourist book – although those might assist – but instead by watching people’s faces. She is known by embracing the other. While there is a tendency to categorize people based on their ethnic identity and identity cards, there is much more to witness in the unique looks in their eyes and in their individual smiles or tears. These speak volumes of who they are and of their aspirations and desires. The lines in their foreheads reflect diverse backgrounds and a history more of distrust and pain than trust and pleasure, and a struggle for security, survival, and wellbeing.
Cultural identity is not static or separate from its community or web of relationships. Aspects of it do change through time, though, as they shape and are shaped by surrounding influences. Historically, the way the city’s residents related to each other and to their daily existence molded them. In the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, Arabs and Jews lived in relative harmony. That began to change at the end of the Ottoman Empire and the First World War, when Zionism and Arab nationalism each appropriated the local identity of its own community in Palestine. These distinctions became stark as blame, conflict, and wars ravaged the land.
While the gap between Israelis and Palestinians is wide, hope for a better future is enhanced through both a realistic appraisal of what is possible and an empathetic understanding of the other. Such new thinking and acting support learning from past lessons, responding to today’s problems, and meeting tomorrow’s challenges.
Jerusalem as Home
As both our individual and collective home, Jerusalem requires our attention, sensitivity, and vigilance, as home is where most of our priorities and decisions must be made: the food and drink we consume, the work we have or seek, the bills we pay, the schools our children attend, the vacations we take, the friends we keep, and the social commitments we make. Home is not all stone and mortar, though. It is our aspirations and vision that hold it together. Like love, we feel it when it enfolds us, when we are safe in its arms. That is why home should denote comfort, dignity, support, and trust. Home becomes even more meaningful when we share it, when we create connections within it. Enabling others to belong, especially those who less fortunate – the disabled, orphans, widows, and refugees – is a blessing.
Given Jerusalem’s history of more conflict than peace and given that most institutional religious authorities express themselves more in competition than cooperation, we must rethink our concept of home – the way we live and relate to others, and the way we practice our faith (not on holy days or holidays, but each day).
We must engage in the art of re-creation, in the act of re-visioning, so that we can live anew the Golden Rule. When this happens, we elevate ourselves from our individual families to our human family. We highlight common human values that promote compassion, love, hope, and peace. We bring forth our shared – moral and practical – responsibility toward ourselves, toward each other, and toward our environment.
*Excerpted from Saliba Sarsar. Jerusalem: The Home in Our Hearts. North Bethesda, MD: Holy Land Books/Noble Book Publishing Incorporated, 2018. This essay is expressed in a PowerPoint format at https://www.jerusalem-pi.org/powerpoints/.
**Saliba Sarsar, Ph.D., born and raised in Jerusalem, is President & CEO of the Jerusalem Peace Institute and Professor of Political Science at Monmouth University.