“Jerusalem is a shared gift for humanity”.

Jerusalem, Our Common Mother City

By Yehezkel Landau

When I moved to Jerusalem from America in 1978, I chose to put my body where my Jewish prayers had already taken me. After watching the disturbing news emanating from the Holy City for years, I felt a strong need to be there, to experience the world from that unique vantage point and to contribute what I could to transforming the political conflicts that keep the city in the media crosshairs. As soon as I arrived, I felt at home. The pink stone facades just before sunset, the Muslim call to prayer reverberating from minarets, the sweet smell of jasmine, and the alluring fragrances of spices in the marketplaces, and, above all, the amazing diversity of people and cultures – all these features of that vibrant city nourished and elevated my spirit.

After living and working in Jerusalem for almost 25 years, I am again based in the northeast United States. Still, when I recite my daily prayers, my body is directed eastward toward the Temple Mount.[1] Jewish mystical teachings view that sacred plateau as the holiest place in the cosmos. They speak of a Foundation Stone, Even Hashtiyah in Hebrew, which the Eternal One placed there at the time of Creation. In the Jewish worldview that I share, it is the epicenter of the universe; and it became the spot where the Holy of Holies stood in the two ancient Temples built there, the first by King Solomon and the second following the return from exile in Babylon. In my intuitive understanding, centuries of prayers directed toward that site have created a kind of Jewish force field, sustained until now by devout Jews the world over. We are like iron filings in a magnetic field, aligned with those spiritual vectors whenever we pray.

Even in exile, faithful Jews never forgot the holiness of Jerusalem, ceaselessly yearning to return to that Divinely consecrated place. Psalms 126 and 137, which feature prominently in our prescribed liturgy (especially before the Grace after Meals), are ancient and eloquent expressions of that centuries-long yearning. I share that longing, which was manifest in my nightly dreams and daily meditations even before I had the chance to leave North America and take up residence there. Still today, in many of my dreams I find myself in Jerusalem, walking its streets and enjoying its unique spiritual and cultural atmosphere.

In Psalm 87 there is another reverential description of Jerusalem, called “Zion” and “City of God.” The psalmist seems to believe that each of us, “this one and that one,” is born twice, receiving in a metaphorical sense two birth certificates. The first is for our bodies, which come into the world wherever our mothers are at the time of our arrival. The second, a Divinely issued birth certificate, lists Zion/Jerusalem as our spiritual birthplace. I resonate strongly with this description of Jerusalem as our common Mother City, since I view it as the cosmic point of origin as well as of universal redemption.

As an interfaith educator and religious peacebuilder for over forty years, working to promote inclusive justice and genuine peace between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, these scriptural and kabbalistic teachings undergird the faith that has animated my efforts. I am dismayed and saddened by religious exclusivists who claim Jerusalem as the rightful domain of only one Divinely favored community – whether they be Crusader Christians in medieval times, their apocalyptic heirs of today, or militant Jews and Muslims who have supremacist ideologies sanctioning unholy wars that end up desecrating what they profess to be holy.

One of those exclusivists was, sadly, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, the late Shlomo Goren.[2] He once cited the well-known Biblical passage (I Kings 3:16-28) in which his kingly namesake was asked to decide which of two harlots was the real mother of a contested infant. Since the false claimant was prepared to divide the child in two, while the real mother was ready to give up her baby to ensure its survival, the wise King Solomon understood whose claim was genuine. Engaging in what we might call political midrash, Rabbi Goren argued that, since the Arabs want to divide Jerusalem into two capitals while the Israeli government wants it to remain united under its sole sovereignty, Israel is Jerusalem’s true “mother” My own midrashic and political understanding is in total disagreement with this viewpoint. As I indicated in my reference to Psalm 87, this exclusivist notion reverses the Biblical metaphor by seeing the Holy City as a contested baby rather than the Mother City for various “children.” As we know from our own experience, mothers (and fathers) can love their different children equally.

Rabbinic tradition is full of teachings that can, and should, be cited in the service of peacemaking rather than partisan politics. There is another midrash, in the compendium Bereishit Rabba (56:10), that offers an explanation for the origin of the Hebrew name for the Holy City, Yerushalayim. In Genesis 14, after Abraham rescues his nephew Lot, he comes to Jerusalem to be blessed by its king and distinguished priest, Melkhitzedek. The name of the city was then Shalem, suggesting wholeness or harmony. Melkhitzedek blesses Abraham (still called Avram) in the name of El Elyon, the Supreme God. Abraham was not the only monotheist at that time, and he accepted Melkhitzedek’s bread, wine, blessing, and tithed offerings.[3] Two verses later, Abraham speaks to the king of Sodom, referring to the Divine in the same language: El Elyon, possessor of heaven and earth. So, Abraham and Melkhitzedek share a monotheistic vocabulary and use it to glorify God’s name before others in Jerusalem. In the midrash, God immortalizes that encounter and that joint testimony by naming the city in honor of both the priest-king and the patriarch, with Shalem to acknowledge Melkhitzedek and placing in front of it Yeru to honor Abraham. Why Yeru? This is a slight variation on (Adonai) Yireh, the name that Abraham himself gives to Moriah, the Temple Mount, at the end of the Binding of Isaac drama eight chapters later. The text in Genesis 22 explains this name as meaning that God will be revealed, or made manifest, there.

In this rabbinic source, which unfortunately few Jews are aware of, we are taught that Yeru-Shalem testifies to a pluralistic monotheism, as seen and sanctioned from God’s vantage point. Moreover, the plural ending on Yerushalayim suggests that the multiplicity inherent in the city’s holiness goes beyond two monotheisms to embrace the manifold community of communities encompassing all believers in the One Supreme God.[4]

These and similar Jewish teachings continue to inspire me. Wherever I happen to be located, Jerusalem is my spiritual home. However the mystics of different faith traditions imagine a celestial Jerusalem as a template for messianic transformation on the earthly plane, the terrestrial Holy City is an ambivalent place, a source of hope as well as tragic conflict. It has been for centuries a contested prize for religious warriors. Today, it is the heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. I use the “heart” metaphor deliberately, for I find it useful as a symbolic lens. I see the four quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian) as akin to the four chambers of a human heart, pumping spiritual vitality through two bodies politic, Israel and Palestine. But this holy heart is also suffering from “cardiac” disease, coronary stenoses or blockages that endanger the health and ultimate survival of both political entities. The diplomats and politicians who will eventually have to negotiate a final status peace agreement will need to create a framework in which the two national communities undergo amputations of their symbolic bodies. This means that the State of Israel (Medinat Yisrael) will be smaller than the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) and the State of Palestine (Dawlat Filastin) will be smaller than the Land of Palestine (Ard Filastin). Courageous political and religious leaders on both sides will need to help the two peoples grieve the loss of their maximalist dreams and aspirations. At the same time, the political surgeons will have to leave the shared heart, Yerushalayim/Al-Quds, whole and intact, whatever the mutually acceptable arrangement for joint sovereignty.[5]

Even before a peace agreement is negotiated, Jerusalem is perhaps the world’s premier laboratory for interreligious encounter and cross-fertilization. The sad reality is that political pollution prevents the city from realizing its potential as a center for spiritual interaction and shared blessing. Still, even with its current impediments, I have been privileged to participate in many interfaith activities and programs involving both local residents and visitors from many countries. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict moves toward resolution, many more people will come as pilgrims, students, and long-term residents, adding their religious and cultural perspectives to the mix.

I do not want to indulge in premature celebration, since I am pessimistic in the short run even as I remain hopeful for the future. (I have an infant granddaughter living outside Tel Aviv, and I have her and her generation in my heart and mind.) I know how painful and stressful the present situation is for those who live in the Holy City. I am cognizant of the power imbalance that favors Jewish interests and disadvantages those of Palestinians, many of whom cannot even live in the city because Israeli government policy prevents them from returning to their original homes there.

Although Israeli officials like to speak of Jerusalem as the “eternal and undivided capital of Israel,” the reality on the ground is of two national communities (and other minorities, like the Armenians) under one political jurisdiction. Fear is a common denominator keeping the communities apart. I can share two illustrative experiences, each connected to my work as an interfaith educator, which brought this sad reality home. Both occurred during the first Intifada (1987-1993), when my son Raphael was a toddler. I was then living at the edge of West Jerusalem, not far from Hadassah Hospital in the neighborhood of Ein Kerem/Ein Karem.

In the first instance, I was scheduled to deliver an evening presentation at St. George’s College, an Anglican institution in East Jerusalem where I often lectured. I was without my car that day and had to take a taxi, along with my son, across the city to give my presentation and lead a discussion. The Jewish taxi driver refused to take me there, saying he feared that his vehicle would be damaged by stone-throwing Palestinians. I tried to reassure him that the route was safe, but I was confronted by what the late political theorist Meron Benvenisti called “the geography of fear.”[6] In the end, the driver agreed to let me off at the American Colony Hotel, and I walked with Raphael the short distance from the hotel to the college.

In the second illustration, I was on my way to give another lecture, this time at the Ecce Homo center on the Via Dolorosa, where the Catholic community of Notre Dame de Sion (NDS) ran a Biblical Studies program for priests and nuns from all over the world. My usual route to the Lions’ Gate, where I parked my car and walked up the street to Ecce Homo, took me through the Palestinian neighborhood of Wadi el-Joz. Many Jewish Jerusalemites had their cars repaired by Palestinian mechanics in that neighborhood, and it was a part of the city where mutually beneficial commercial relations prevailed over politics. But on the day in question, municipal elections were being held, and that raised the level of political confrontation. As I drove up a hill in Wadi el-Joz, I saw a Likud Party campaign car, identifiable by its markings, on fire in front of me. Apparently, someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail at the car. I was shocked to see this flaming vehicle and horrified to see its driver rolling on the ground nearby, his clothes also on fire. Several Palestinians had gathered to help douse the flames and save the driver from serious injury. Instinctively, I put my car into reverse and sped away, reaching a nearby Border Police station and alerting those inside to what was happening. I then returned home and called the NDS sisters to let them know why I could not make it to that week’s class. For the remainder of the course, I met the students at the Notre Dame Catholic center outside the New Gate, a venue that seemed safer amid the sporadic violence characteristic of that time period. Since I had recently become a father, my parental responsibilities took precedence over my work, and I had to make some prudent compromises that took the tragic reality around me into account.

Psalm 122 remains one of my favorite poetic passages from the Hebrew Bible:

A Song of Ascents, of David:

I rejoiced when they said to me,

Let us go to the House of the Eternal;

when our feet stood within your gates, O Jerusalem!

Jerusalem, built as a city

whose parts are linked together;

There the tribes used to go up,

the tribes of the Eternal –

as was enjoined upon Israel –

to give thanks to the name of the Eternal.

For there the thrones of judgment stood,

thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:

May they who love you prosper.

May there be peace within your ramparts,

and tranquility within your palaces.

For the sake of my brethren and friends,

I will say,

Peace be within you;

For the sake of the House of the Eternal our God,

I will seek your good.


As I pray with the psalmist for the peace of Jerusalem and all its inhabitants, I consider myself a faithful realist, aware of the social and political obstacles to genuine peace in and around the Holy City. The psalmist acknowledges that this holy city brings together two kinds of authority: the political or temporal, along with the religious or spiritual. This was the case already in the time of Abraham and Melkhitzedek when the latter was both the king and the high priest of the city. Combining these two disparate dimensions is a mixed blessing, since politics is the realm of the possible, usually requiring negotiated compromises, while religion is too often the realm of the absolute, making compromises elusive, if not impossible. Balancing these two aspects of human life in a place held sacred by several religious traditions is an almost super-human challenge, especially since both Judaism and Islam do not, in principle, acknowledge a desacralized social or political realm. History is full of instances when armies fought to establish unilateral control over the sanctuaries and palaces in Jerusalem, where the psalmist envisioned peace and tranquility prevailing. In our time, we are faced with the same extraordinary challenge: how to ensure that Jerusalem lives up to its vocation as the City of Peace. To realize this sublime vision, different religious communities must work together as partners in consecration while, at the same time, two national communities create a framework for sharing political sovereignty.

If we return to the metaphor of Jerusalem as a diseased but holy heart, a healing path to inclusive justice and genuine peace may lead through the pluralistic geography of her four quarters.

The ecumenical Christian Quarter resounds with the diversity of Christian life present in Jerusalem for two millennia. I will leave it to Christians to decide whether this diversity is a positive sign of “multiplicity” within the Christian family, or whether the separate chapels within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre signify a lamentable fragmentation among the different Christian communities.

One Christian community has a separate quarter unto itself: the Armenians. They were the first people to adopt Christianity en masse as their national faith, in the year 301. The Armenians are a deeply devout people, and their small Jerusalem community (numbering some 1,500 people) is centered around the ornate Cathedral of St. James. When one considers the distinctness of Armenian Christians, the unique features of their history and faith, and then juxtaposes them to the Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims in adjacent quarters, a remarkable pattern reveals itself.

These three peoples – the Armenians, the Jews, and the Palestinians – are rooted in the Holy Land for centuries with their respective identities and traditions. One common aspect of their religious heritages is a three-fold loyalty: to a people, to a faith tradition, and to a particular land. (For the Jews and Palestinians, it is the same common homeland; for the Armenians, it is the land of Armenia in the Caucasus region.) Perhaps because of this shared basis for self-identification, the three peoples have undergone similar experiences, particularly in the twentieth century.

On the level of the physical body, all three peoples have endured traumas: first the Armenian Genocide before and during World War I; then we Jews passed through the valley of death during World War II; and since then, the Palestinians have suffered dispossession, disempowerment, and injury or death at the hands of virtually every other Middle Eastern people they have encountered. All three peoples have a subjective sense of being survivor communities, mourning their martyrs and proudly affirming their communal dignity.

On the level of the spirit, the three peoples share another common denominator. All have suffered exile from their respective homelands during the last century. We Jews, of course, know what it means to be refugees, “strangers in strange lands,” for more than twenty centuries. Our yearning and expectation to return to Jerusalem helped sustain our faith, even under harsh and desperate conditions. If, in our time, we Jews have been blessed to return to the Holy City as a free, self-governing people, while the Armenians have their own country once again and the Palestinians are still struggling to achieve independence and sovereignty, what lesson could there be in this fateful intermingling of joy and sorrow?

One allegorical scenario in my imagination conveys the experience shared by these three “suffering servant” peoples, to use the Biblical language from Isaiah 52-53. It is of three traumatized individuals walking through darkness while holding candles, lit by their ancestors, to illuminate their way. All three wanderers long for their lost homelands. Each one fears that, out of the darkness, some enemy will launch an attack, adding to the cross-generational chain of victimhood. None of the three is able to trust others to help overcome the trauma or the dread of future atrocities.

Then, suddenly, the three wanderers converge – in Jerusalem – and their candles illumine each other’s faces. Each experiences the shock of mutual recognition. And in the human faces is a reflection of something mysteriously divine, so that each can echo the wondrous exclamation of the wounded Jacob, renamed Israel, in Genesis 33:10: “For I have truly seen your face as though seeing the face of God.”

Could such an awareness of common vulnerability, especially in an age when humanity as a whole is an endangered species, together with an appreciation of the sacred Image of God that we all bear, be essential elements of Jerusalem’s transcendent nature as a messianic epicenter? Could this challenge of reconciling fearful, embittered hearts summon Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others to work together as partners in consecration so that our traumatic histories can be healed and we, in turn, can be truly liberated?

Israeli journalist Hirsch Goodman wrote in The Jerusalem Report, the magazine he founded and edited, these inspiring lines: “I would suggest that … we all agree that Jerusalem become the symbol of reconciliation, the place where all peace talks are held … Jerusalem should not become an ‘international city,’ but the shared and united capital of two peoples striving to live together. It should be a city with no internal borders, but a city whose parts are permitted to retain their geographic and ethnic uniqueness as a microcosm of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.”[7] I would extend this idea and affirm that the Holy City has the potential for becoming a microcosm of global coexistence on this planet, balancing the particularistic and the universalistic dimensions of the human condition. Human survival may well depend on achieving such a balance in an organic and viable way.

Up to now, the conflicts over Jerusalem have, all too often, evoked the worst traits in those who claimed to love her, including both Jews and Arabs today. But our holy Mother City has the capacity to evoke the best in us as well. Our common forefather Abraham/Ibrahim was promised, in Genesis 12:3, that “through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In order for Jews, Palestinians, Armenians, and others to share in this promised blessing, they will have to sacrifice their partisan, exclusive attachments to Jerusalem. Such mutual sacrifice in the service of inclusive justice and peace will not only help protect our bodies and liberate our spirits, but it will also spread healing and hope to the far corners of the earth – insha’Allah, b’ezrat Hashem, with God’s help.

[1] In the Jewish tradition, Jerusalem has been the only qiblah, the place for directing one’s prayers, for millennia. I find it fascinating that Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, favored Jerusalem as the qiblah for the emerging umma (Muslim community) for about a year and a half, until he changed it to the Kaaba in Makkah/Mecca.

[2] In this context, his name carries some irony. His first name is that of King Solomon, and his surname means “threshing floor,” an allusion to the location that Solomon’s father, King David, purchased from Aravna the Jebusite and which became the site of the first Temple. David, according to the Bible (I Chronicles 28:3), was disqualified from erecting that House of God because of the blood he had spilled during his years as a warring militia leader. It was left for his son, whose name derives from Shalom/Peace, to build the first Temple. The central altar in that Temple was made of uncut stones, ensuring that no implement that might have served as a weapon would be used in its construction. When I hear Jews and Christian Zionists calling for the erection of a third Temple in place of the Islamic shrines on the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif, which could only happen through horrific warfare engulfing millions of people, I wonder what Bible these apocalyptic militants have read.

[3] This is the first Biblical reference to the sacramental symbols of bread and wine, which later became central elements in Jewish and Christian rituals.

[4] I would add a parenthetical but important comment here. To the south of Jerusalem is the city where Abraham lived, Hevron/Hebron. Its Hebrew name derives from the same root as does haver, or “friend.” The Arabic name for the city, Al-Khalil, also means “the friend” and is a reference to Abraham/Ibrahim, the beloved friend of God (see, for example, II Chronicles 20:7 and Isaiah 41:8). The patriarch bought the cave of Makhpelah there as a burial site for his wife Sarah when she died. He did not conquer it or even claim it before Ephron and his fellow Hittites, even though God had promised him five times before Genesis 23 that his descendants would inherit the entire land. Makhpelah in Hebrew means “multiplicity” – so encoded in the names of the two holiest places in the Holy Land, Yerushalayim and Makhpelah, is the idea of a multiple or pluralistic sanctity. Such a perception should call forth from all monotheistic believers an inclusive understanding of what our consecrating roles should be at and around these sacred places, if we wish to honor the legacy of Abraham, who is our common forefather just as Jerusalem is our common mother.

[5] Years ago, I saw an issue of People magazine with conjoined twins on the cover who were joined at the heart. There was no way to separate them without killing at least one of them. Israel and Palestine are in a similar situation, sharing a common heart that must remain physically united and spiritually healthy.

[6] Benvenisti served for a time as deputy mayor of Jerusalem. In his book Conflicts and Contradictions (New York: Villard Books, 1986, p. 196), he recounted an odd, but illustrative, incident concerning how the Holy City should be called in official Israeli communications: “In 1967, after the occupation of the Old City, the government insisted on the use of the name Urshalim in Arabic-language broadcasting. [N.B.: No Arab anywhere would adopt Urshalim in place of the traditional Arabic name for Jerusalem, Al-Quds, meaning “The Holy”]…At the time I was administrator of the Old City, I made a tacit agreement with the Israeli Broadcasting Authority that we use the traditional name, and one morning the radio began its broadcast in Arabic with the announcement: Saut Israil min al-Quds (“The Voice of Israel from al-Quds”). This caused a furor that reached the Cabinet. I insisted on knowing why they wanted to force the Arabs to call a city holy to them by a fabrication, a Hebrew name transmogrified into Arabic. The answer was that the use of Urshalim established a political fact: Jewish rule in Jerusalem. Eventually a compromise was reached. The name would be hyphenated and the city would be known officially in Arabic as Urshalim-al Quds. And so it has remained.”

[7] The Jerusalem Report, November 4, 1993, p. 56.

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