An American Jewish Perspective

May 1, 2000
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Carolyn Green

Virtually no words draw more sustained applause from American Jewish supporters of Israel than the resolute declaration of successive Israeli leaders that a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty will remain the capital of the Jewish state. This government policy reflects Israeli public consensus, and the organized American Jewish community has consistently backed this position–reiterated by government leaders from Begin to Barak.

Yerushalayim…she’mehaberet et Yisrael zeh lazeh. “Jerusalem…the city that unites the people of Israel” (Jerusalem Talmud, Baba Kama 7:7). Such is the sway of this extraordinary city–the capital of ancient Israel and successor independent Jewish states, the spark of Jewish imagination, and the embodiment of Jewish national identity for more than 3,000 years. There has been a continuous Jewish presence in the city for three millennia, with the exception of a few periods in history when Jews were forcibly barred from living there by foreign conquerors.

This talmudic affirmation still rings true today as Jerusalem remains at the heart of Jewish passions, politics, and peacemaking. Perhaps no single issue unites the American Jewish community, Israelis, and Jews worldwide more than the notion that Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of Israel and should be formally recognized as such.

No one disputes that Jerusalem also has profound significance to Islam and Christianity. Yet, unlike Jews for whom Jerusalem is part of a religious legacy, Muslims and Christians look toward specific holy places. Professor Krister Stendahl made this point in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin: “For Christians and Muslims the term [holy sites] is an adequate expression of what matters. Here are sacred places, hallowed by the most holy events, here are places for pilgrimage….But Judaism is different…its religion is not tied to ‘sites’ but to the land, not to what happened in Jerusalem, but to Jerusalem itself.”

While history can neither dictate nor limit the search for pragmatic solutions to complex contemporary issues, it does provide a context for understanding competing claims. History cannot be dismissed as irrelevant, for without chronicling the past it is nearly impossible to understand the present, let alone consider a future reconciliation.

Additionally, on the moral level, Israel not only safeguards the religious sites of various faiths, but government policy has been fully mindful and protective of the rights and needs of adherents of all religions to worship in their holy places. A final status agreement on Jerusalem could offer Muslims and Christians continued control over certain holy sites without de facto sovereignty.

The divided Jerusalem of 1949 1967 evokes painful images for Israelis and American Jews: barbed wire, cinderblock walls, sniper fire, and landmines. Jews whose families had lived in the Old City for generations were expelled and Jewish institutions and cemeteries were desecrated. With the reunification of the city, physical barriers came down, buildings were reconstructed, infrastructure developed, and free access to holy sites reinstated. The boundaries of Jerusalem were expanded by Israeli planners who intended to prevent any possibility of redividing the city, to assure a Jewish majority in Israel’s capital, and to establish control over its strategic heights and approaches. And the conditions under which many Arab residents live improved as well.

Any final settlement for Jerusalem will involve painful compromises on both sides. Current Israeli thinking regarding the city’s future is influenced by historical, demographic, geographic, strategic, and economic factors, and is complicated by emotional and religious sensitivities. Innovative, realistic solutions under discussion between Israelis and Palestinians, including proposals set forth by Joseph Alpher, have support among American Jews, as they retain Israeli sovereignty over united Jerusalem while recognizing legitimate Palestinian, Muslim, and Christian interests. The need to protect the rights of Jerusalem Arabs is recognized universally, but their claim to sovereignty over the city is not “equal,” as Jerome Segal contends.

Sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem as Segal suggests–a notion repudiated by both Israelis and Palestinians–is not feasible and would inevitably lead to conflict and redividing the city. Statements like that of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat that “Jerusalem must [be] liberate[d] from this cancerous Judaization” (Jordan Times February 2000) do not support Segal’s claim to Palestinian flexibility. Nor do statements by Palestinian Authority Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Faisal Husseini, who said, “We are not ready to give up any of our rights in West Jerusalem, let alone East Jerusalem. It is non-negotiable” (Al Hayat September 1999).

Most of the senior leadership of Israel’s “peace camp” share the view of former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who says, “The establishment of two capitals or two municipalities cannot be accepted within the framework of united JerusalemŠ Two sets of laws, two rates of customs and taxation, two police forces are an invitation to a boundary, and a boundary is an invitation to a wall… Within no time, there would be frontier barriers, and the walls and the barbed wire would return…”

The only practical approach is maintaining a unified city with a single administration under Israeli control, while striving to create productive working relationships between Jerusalem’s Jews and Arabs. This is the best way to ensure Jerusalem’s future security, sanctity and openness, and the perpetuation of its historic links with Jews the world over.

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Carolyn Green is the Associate Executive Director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

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