When Jerusalem’s True Spirit Shines

Dr. Saliba Sarsar*

Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world, has had a tough history that was repeatedly marked by violence and pain. Much was caused by external forces but equally so by internal division and conflict.

In the past six millennia, the city experienced the presence or rule of a wide variety of peoples, such as the Jebusites, Canaanites, Hittites, Hyksos, Philistines, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Tartars, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Mongols, Ottomans, and British. What remains of these regimes, if anything at all, are archives, archeological ruins, tombs, and some holy sites, especially for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. What is instructive is that change is constant. No ruling power is everlasting.

In Jerusalem Besieged (https://www.press.umich.edu/2693543/jerusalem_besieged), Eric H. Cline writes of no less than 118 separate conflicts related to the city during the past four millennia. Among them are 52 attacks, 44 captures and recaptures, 23 sieges, and two complete destructions. The indigenous populations, if not killed or exiled, had no choice but to survive amid the transitions or appearance and disappearance of empires and sojourners.

Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jordan became the governing authority in East Jerusalem, and Israel the governing authority in West Jerusalem. Although Jordan and the Palestinians have influence in East Jerusalem, the whole city has been in Israel’s hands since the June 1967 War. Over the years, Israel has extended Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries to address changing realities – demographic, operational, political, ideological, religious – and to create irreversible facts on the ground.

On December 6, 2017, President Donald Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and declared that the United States Embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was officially relocated on May 14, 2018, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Trump’s decision ran counter to basic precepts developed over many decades, including established U.S. policy, UN resolutions, and international law. It neither considered the needs and wishes of the residents of Jerusalem nor resulted from direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian officials. It was more pragmatic than principled, more political than ideological or religious, and more of a reward to his supporters than a wise decision based on a deep appreciation of Jerusalem’s history and spirit.

Jerusalem is distinctive because of its holiness and universality. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others imbue it with special meaning. But, when the religious and political intertwine, exclusive ideologies and power to dominate often develop or intensify, leading away from humanity and inclusion. As Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem advised in What Jerusalem Means to Us: Christian Perspectives and Reflections (https://tinyurl.com/y2jf59yh): “All parties concerned should go beyond all exclusivist visions or actions, and … they must consider the religious and national aspirations of others to give back to Jerusalem its true universal character and to make the city a holy place of reconciliation for humankind.” HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal, in his Foreword to What Jerusalem Means to Us: Muslim Perspectives and Reflections (https://tinyurl.com/y38kckzj), added, “Jerusalem is a shared gift, not the sole property of one government or one people.”

If there is to be a just peace in Jerusalem (and the rest of Palestine and Israel or the Holy Land), then its fate must be decided through negotiation, not dictation, which recognizes both secular and religious stands on the city. This can only be achieved by securing the political aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis as well as the religious rights of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. There can be no monopoly of sovereignty by any one state power and no disempowerment imposed on one people by another. No ethnic, national, or religious group can be advantaged or favored in Jerusalem. The city belongs to all its inhabitants, equally. It is wise if Jerusalem evolves to become genuinely shared and undivided. It will be assured when its inhabitants are accorded basic human rights and full protection under the law. Its true spirit will shine when a culture of diversity and pluralism is actualized, when dignity, respect, human security, and the power of values prevail over fear, humiliation, and the value of power.

Jerusalem and all those who care about its present and future deserve better. It is time to enliven the city’s spirit, so it embraces its inhabitants and guests, ensuring their engagement, inclusion, and wellbeing.


*Dr. Saliba Sarsar is the President/CEO of the Jerusalem Peace Institute and Professor of Political Science at Monmouth University. He is author of Jerusalem: The Home in Our Hearts (2018), editor of What Jerusalem Means to Us: Christian Perspectives and Reflections (2018), and co-editor of What Jerusalem Means to Us: Muslim Perspectives and Reflections (2021).

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