Declaring Jerusalem the Capital of Israel: The Destruction or Building of True Peace?

By: Daniel Roth

December 19, 2017

Jerusalem as Israel's Capital: Smart Politics or Provocation?

Jerusalem can be literally translated as I’r shalem–the City of Peace, or more accurately, of completeness and connectedness. As the psalmist writes, “Jerusalem, thou art builded as a city that is connected together” (Psalms 122:3). However, in the wake of President Trump’s recent declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, the city of connectedness and peace has become once again the source of division and conflict.

For me the question lies in whether this declaration just added one more nail into the coffin of the two-state solution, or perhaps not. The "perhaps not" glimpse of optimism does not come from political conspiracy theories such as this declaration being the carrot before the stick of a forced U.S.-Saudi led peace agreement, but rather from a much deeper religious perspective.

It is possible that Trump’s political incorrectness may have forced the elephant in the room, or, in this case, the “mountain” in the divided land, to finally be acknowledged and discussed. So often, moments of despair and conflict breed creativity and "out of the coffin" thinking.

One direction of creative thinking would be to include more voices of religious peacebuilders into the peace process and not leave it solely in the hands of politicians, whether in Jerusalem, Ramallah, or Washington. The religious peacebuilder does not seek to solve the problems through maps, weapons, and money, but rather to reconcile the opposing sides and transform their relationship and identities through texts, legends, and meaning making.

A good example of such a legend is the ancient story of the two brothers and the founding of Jerusalem, which goes more or less as follows:

“Long ago lived two brothers who shared a field whose crops they used to divide equally. One brother was a bachelor; the other a married man with many children. Once, during the harvest, each of them felt pity for the other. The bachelor was worried that his brother did not have enough to feed his household while the married man had concern for his brother’s solitude. In the dark of the night each of them would carry some sheaves of produce to the other’s house, and in the morning each would be astonished to discover that their own supplies had not diminished. This went on for several days and nights until the two met tearfully during one of their nocturnal errands. At that point, it was decreed from above that this was the place upon which it would be fitting to establish God’s Holy Temple.” 

This well-known legend about Jerusalem, which promotes the values of unilateral acts of kindness and brotherly love, is often referred to as an ancient Jewish legend found in the Talmud. However, if you search for it there you won’t find it. This led Professor Eliezer Segal to research the source of the story. He discovered that it is not an ancient Jewish legend at all, but rather an ancient Palestinian midrash (or legend) that was adopted by Judaism in the mid-nineteenth century.

Pointing this out could lead Israelis and Palestinians to have something new to fight over–the very legend of Jerusalem and brotherly love. Is the story only about two Jews or two Muslims, or perhaps two Christians? However, this can also be an important opportunity and offer a glimpse of hope.

If we can learn to share such a story, expanding our own identities to allow for the identities of the two brothers to be all those who love and feel connected to Jerusalem and the mountain, then perhaps one day the ancient legend can become a reality. If we can’t expand the identities and share the story, and each side continues to claim it as exclusively their own, no politician can solve the tension between them. The conflict between the various brothers on the mountain is not due to the lack of physical space on the mountain, but the lack of space in their identities to allow in the other to exist and be respected and perhaps one day even be embraced and loved as a brother.

Today, these two brothers stay on their respective sides of the mountain and almost exclusively meet only when they are fighting over who it belongs to. There is therefore a great need for trusted third-party peacebuilders to go back and forth between them to help translate to each side the narratives and religious legends to the other and reconcile between them. Such peacebuilders are not going to be the U.S. president—not this one, not the previous ones, and probably not the future ones, since their definition of peace is to bring the brothers to finally divide up the mountain, or rule in favor of one side or the other as the sole owner. Rather, these trusted peacebuilders are translators of meaning and narrative who seek to bring the brothers to one night meet and embrace and declare Jerusalem a city that truly belongs to the their shared God of Abraham.

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