For a shared Jerusalem

Rashid Khalidi , Sunday 14 May 2023

Revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews, this beautiful city is holy and cursed, drowned in blood yet still magnificent. Last year, the Arab ministers of information designated 26 September as Jerusalem Day. Rashid Khalidi* unravels modern myths and ancient passions in his search to locate the united heart of this torn and worshiped place



From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 1 October 1998

The idea that Jerusalem constitutes the exclusive property of one party, which has privileged rights there, is an old one. In ancient times, and many, many other times during its more than 40 centuries of history, Jerusalem has been conquered, and then treated as if it belonged to the conqueror alone. Each time, of course, the arguments used to justify such behaviour went far beyond the simple conqueror's claim that might-makes-right. Most frequently, religious justifications were utilised to give a patina of legitimacy to such appropriations, and to the attendant dispossessions which went with them.

Quite often, such forcible takeovers were accompanied by wholesale slaughter, while at other times, the indigenous population was expelled or subjugated by that of the conqueror.

While somewhat barbaric, at least this old-fashioned approach had the merit of simplicity. The spirit in which old-time conquerors approached this matter was generally refreshingly straight-forward: "Jerusalem used to belong to them, we took it because of divine favour, and now it is ours to do with exactly as we please." The religious arguments in which this argument from brute force was usually clothed in fact generally mattered far less than the brute force involved, which was the nub of the matter. Thus, while there was a fair share of hypocrisy and cant in the old approach, it generally relied in essence on the sword, sometimes quite unashamedly.

I mention this ancient history not because I plan to focus on tales of Jebusites and Israelites, but rather because we are constantly told that there are special, privileged and exclusive Israeli claims to Jerusalem today because of the ancient attachment to it of the Jewish religious tradition. This is an argument which carries enormous force, since followers of all three of the monotheistic faiths which grew out of the Abrahamic heritage revere this tradition, both in general and as it applies to Jerusalem.

But in fact, the ancient, enduring and indisputable attachment to Jerusalem of the Jewish religious tradition is today exploited to cloak what is at base no more than the old, brutal legitimation-by-conquest approach. We must remember that what is being argued by those who do this is NOT that this ancient and enduring religious attachment justifies a modern religious attachment, or freedom of worship for Jews in Jerusalem today. What is being claimed is that this attachment takes precedence over all others, and that it is more ancient, more sacred, and more important than whatever others may feel for the Holy City. This in turn is used to justify exclusive Israeli sovereignty and control over the entire city today, both its Jewish and Arab sectors, and including its Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy places.

What is at work here is particularly insidious because it is so subtle. Since no believing Christian or Muslim could possibly deny the Jewish affiliation to Jerusalem without denying a central tenet of his or her faith, this indisputable Jewish religious connection is employed to serve two purposes. The first is to make plausible a seamless continuity between the enduring centuries-old spiritual yearning for Jerusalem among Jews the world over, and the secular political purposes and rapacious nationalist ambitions in today's Jerusalem of the modern nation-state of Israel. The second is to delegitimise the political claims of others by projecting a relatively recent political connection with Jerusalem three thousand years back in time.

Thus, it is argued, while Christians of Muslims can claim two thousand or one thousand four hundred years of continuous attachment to Jerusalem respectively (and indeed the continuous nature and the intensity of these attachments are sometimes called into doubt), Jews can claim three thousand. Then -- and note the sophisticated bait and switch technique which operates here -- it is first claimed that this ancient Jewish religious attachment is in fact nothing other than an early variant of modern-day ntionalism; it is then assumed that David and Solomon were nothing other than very early prime ministers of a very early state of Israel; it is thereupon assumed that the sources whereby we know what we know of Jerusalem in the time of David and Solomon are genuine historical sources rather than accounts of religious traditions, myths and beliefs compiled over 500 years after their time; all of this is then tarted up with the results of generations of biblical and nationalistically driven archaeology which has taken these historically questionable biblical texts as its underground road-map; next, a couple of thousand years of intervening history are conveniently forgotten; and, voila, we have the modern myth whereby the only legitimate claim to Jerusalem is that of the modern Israeli nation-state.

All of this serves to obscure a very important fact: this is that the ancient Jewish connection with Jerusalem has profound meaning for both Christians and Muslims. For Christians and Muslims, this connection has been fully incorporated into their central religious narratives in such a way that to argue, as some do, for the exclusivity of these attachments is in fact to misunderstand the beliefs of others. Thus in the Christian Bible, the Old Testament is an integral part of the Scriptural under girding of faith -- and it is thus not just the Passion of Jesus which causes Christians to venerate Jerusalem, but also the traditions and beliefs which Christians share with Jews about the city.

Similarly, Muslims believe in the Jewish connection with Jerusalem as an integral part of God's messages to mankind; they see the biblical prophets, without exception, as among their prophets and venerate them all, notably David and Solomon, and it is not simply the night journey of the Prophet Muhammad to Jerusalem described in Sura 17 of the Quran which causes them to venerate the city. What is at issue therefore is not the Jewish claim to Jerusalem: that claim is in fact endorsed and upheld by all believers in the Abrahamic tradition; it is rather the exclusivity of that claim, and its present utilisation for political purposes.

all of this leads directly to the crucial matter at issue, which is that just as modern Israeli nationalism has been constructed in part through a reweaving in nationalist political terms of Biblical and other narratives, so has modern Palestinian nationalism been constructed in part on the basis of these same Biblical, and related Quranic narratives. What is at issue is not refutation or advocacy of any of these nationalist claims. Nationalism after all is a matter of belief, and sometimes quite irrational belief. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm puts it, "No serious historian of nations and nationalism can be a committed political nationalist... nationalism requires too much belief in what is patently untrue."

Rather, what we should be trying to do, if we are serious about looking for a solution for Jerusalem, is to avoid denigrating the claims of others. We must recognise that these claims, both the national claims, and the religious ones on which they are in part based, exist, and have a power which cannot be denied. Put more bluntly, we can not tell others what they believe, or what they should believe. We must recognise further that these claims must be reconciled in some fashion if there is ever to be a resolution of the conflict which has Jerusalem as its core.

This conflict simply cannot be resolved on a basis of might-makes-right, nor can it be done by attempting to privilege one of two national claims, or one religious tradition among three, or one archaeological stratum in a city which has at least 21 known major strata. It simply will not do to pretend that Jerusalem has three thousand years of history -- back to the time of King David in other words -- when in fact the archaeologists agree that it has been in existence for well over four thousand years. Similarly, it will not do to ignore, and indeed to actually undermine, the Arab-Muslim structures which make up the physical fabric of the Old City of Jerusalem in an obsessive search for the remains of structures from 2000 or 3000 years ago.

If the conflict is to be resolved, those who search for a real solution in Jerusalem will have to find a formula for sharing this holy city in ways which give real empowerment and the full exercise of political rights to all of those who live there or look to Jerusalem as their capital, without infringing on the rights of others. This formula at the same time will have to give all believers in the faiths of the Abrahamic tradition a sense that they are free to worship without coercion, and are not doing so on sufferance.

This is a tall order, and it will not be easy to do, but it is not impossible. It can be done without redividing Jerusalem. But those who do it must take also into account the cold hard fact that all the windy rhetoric about "reunification" notwithstanding, this city includes two national communities which have been in conflict with one another for over five generations now, and that one has subjugated the other. For this reason they are rigidly segregated from one another in virtually every significant aspect of their existence, and are likely to continue in this fashion for at least some time into the future.

What is crucial, however, is that the veil of cant and deceit which envelops discussion of this question, especially in the United States and Israel, be lifted: the fact is that asserting the primacy of one religious tradition in effect demeans the others; the fact is tat asserting the absolute primacy of one nationality in practice means the subjugation of the other. This is not to say that believing Jews or Christians or Muslims should not regard their affiliation with Jerusalem as special, unique an distinct; each group will naturally and necessarily do so. It is rather the assertion that their affiliation gives them the right to primacy in the here and now which is dangerous. Similarly, no one could expect either Palestinians or Israelis to cease to regard Jerusalem as the supreme focus of their national aspirations. They will continue to do so whatever we do. Rather, these aspirations have to be realised in such a way that their realisation does not prevent the realisation of the legitimate aspirations of others.

Like religion, nationalism can be an uncompromising and elemental force which is singularly unamenable to such reasoned arguments. It is the task of those who seek a mutually acceptable resolution of the conflict over Jerusalem to resist these uncompromising and elemental tendencies in religion and nationalism, and to challenge the exclusivist political claims which they engender. What this means on one side is to resist a new exclusivism regarding Jerusalem which is associated with some voices in the Islamic, Arab and Palestinian communities.

Important though these voices are, they probably represent a minority, whether in Palestine or in the Arab-American community, where a majority seems committed to some form of sharing in Jerusalem.

What this means on the other side is far more difficult. For it involves a willingness to stand up to an apparent consensus calling for exclusive Israeli control over Jerusalem. This consensus is not in fact as monolithic as it may seem, but it is intimidating and even terrifying to some who would defy it, whether in the US Congress, or in the Christian and Jewish communities in North America and Europe. Indeed the only reason that the partisans of this exclusivist approach to Jerusalem can claim tha they represent a consensus is that this issue has not yet been openly debated. If this issue involved in a resolution of the dispute over Jerusalem were dispassionately laid before most people, Muslims, Christians or Jews, it might be easier than many expect to arrive at a consensus for a shared rather than an exclusivist solution. It is imperative that we arrive at such a consensus, for an exclusivist solution -- whatever the religious or other justification in which it might be dressed up -- is at bottom based on the bayonet and the barbaric argument that might-makes-right, and cannot possibly lead to peace or justice.

I will not dwell on how important a just resolution of the issue of Jerusalem is to the achievement of an overall Middle East peace settlement.

Of course, there is the possibility that I am being wildly naive in saying all of this. Perhaps we have not progressed since the days of the Jebusites. Perhaps mankind has not reached a stage where the idea of sharing can prevail.

I prefer to take a somewhat more optimistic view, and to believe that we have progressed past the era of the caveman, and of our warlike ancestors and others who have fought over Jerusalem for centuries, in doing so sometimes wading in the blood of their opponents, and sometimes operating less dramatically with legal writs and bulldozers.

If I am right, and if a compromise solution is possible, it will be one which, while it respects the three different religious traditions which give Jerusalem its sanctity, and the two national claims which today envelop it, will privilege none of them, but will rather enable all to share jointly in the wonders of this magnificent, beautiful, great, holy and cursed city, Jerusalem.


* The writer is professor of history at the University of Chicago. The above article appeared in a special issue of Jusoor: The Arab American Journal of of Cultural Exchange entitled The Open Veins of Jerusalem, Maryland, 1998.


This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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