There seems to be something about the city of Jerusalem and this season of the year. 2,181 years ago, according to 1 Maccabees, a victorious army of Jewish rebels recaptured the Temple and the holy city from the Syrian-Greeks, rededicated the altar, and established an eight day festival which we observe to this day. Big things happen in Jerusalem in December.
In the more recent past, exactly 100 years ago this week, the Ottoman army abandoned Jerusalem. Three days later, under the leadership of General Edmund Allenby, and accompanied by a small army of photographers and journalists, the British Army’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force entered Jerusalem on foot, parading through the Jaffa Gate. “Jerusalem is Rescued by British After 673 Years of Moslem Rule” read the headline in The New York Herald on December 11, 1917. The formal surrender decree also noted the shifted from Muslim to Christian rule. “Due to the severity of the siege of the city and the suffering that this peaceful country has endured from your heavy guns; and for fear that these deadly bombs will hit the holy places, we are forced to hand over to you the city through Hussein al-Husseini, the mayor of Jerusalem, hoping that you will protect Jerusalem the way we have protected it for more than five hundred years.”
The story of world powers ‘liberating’, ‘occupying’, ‘rescuing’, and ‘conquering’ Jerusalem is an old one, stretching back to the city’s origins nearly three thousand years ago. Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Persians (again!), Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Muslims (again!), and Ottomans, just to name some of Jerusalem’s more than forty conquerers. The context of those conquests has always been that of international politics and has frequently featured the great powers of the day. Indeed, at least six of world history’s greatest empires have entered into (and exited from) Jerusalem. International concern for Jerusalem has been a piece of the city’s story from the beginning.
There is, of course, a specifically Jewish concern for, and a particular Jewish story about, Jerusalem. That story too goes back three thousand years to King David’s consolidation of the Kingdom of Israel and the establishment of Jerusalem as his and the kingdom’s capital. David’s son Solomon built the First Temple on Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah and the building (and rebuilding) of Jerusalem has been a focus of Jewish longing ever since. The story of Hanukkah is one of the most famous and beloved scenes from that long running story of ‘Jewish Jerusalem.’ The best known statement of the goal of Zionism, the closing line of Hatikvah, draws on that religious legacy. “We have not yet lost our hope, the hope of two thousand years: to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Sixty eight years ago this week, Israel’s newly formed Knesset, declared that Jerusalem would be the new country’s capital and seat of government. Hanukkah of 1949 marked the Knesset’s first meeting in Jerusalem. Over the year that followed, most of Israel’s governing bodies and institutions moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as well. The Knesset debates of December 5 and December 13 of 1949 make for fascinating reading. A few of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s and Opposition Leader Menahem Begin’s words resonate this December.
Here’s Ben-Gurion on 5 December 1949: “we see fit to state that Jewish Jerusalem is an organic, inseparable part of the State of Israel, just as it is an integral part of Jewish history and belief. Jerusalem is the heart of the State of Israel. We are proud of the fact that Jerusalem is also sacred to other religions, and will gladly provide access to their holy places and enable them to worship as and where they please, cooperating with the U.N. to guarantee this. We cannot imagine, however, that the U.N. would attempt to sever Jerusalem from the State of Israel or harm Israel’s sovereignty in its eternal capital.”
And here’s Begin in that same debate: “Foreign powers will not determine the borders of our state. The nation that dwells in Zion will decide what the extent of Israel’s sovereignty shall be…The world must be told that Jerusalem is ours, all of it–the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, Jerusalem inside and outside the walls–and that it is our capital, both in practice and in theory. This is a decision which the Knesset must make…We are a state, a sovereign state, and Jerusalem is ours. Justice, history, emotions and faith favor undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel…We must make it clear to the world that all of Jerusalem is our capital.”
And, finally, Ben-Gurion a week later on 13 December 1949: “From the establishment of the Provisional Government we made the peace, the security and the economic consolidation of Jerusalem our principal care. In the stress of war, when Jerusalem was under siege, we were compelled to establish the seat of Government in Tel Aviv. But for the State of Israel there has always been and always will be one capital only – Jerusalem the Eternal. Thus it was 3,000 years ago – and thus it will be, we believe, until the end of time.”
This December, the President of the United States aligned American policy with Israel’s self-understanding. Here are President Trump’s words: “Israel is a sovereign nation with the right, like every other sovereign nation, to determine its own capital. Acknowledging that this is a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace. It was 70 years ago that the United States under President Truman recognized the state of Israel. Ever since then, Israel has made its capital in the city of Jerusalem, the capital the Jewish people established in ancient times…today we finally acknowledge the obvious. That Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.”
I simultaneously welcome and worry about President Trump’s declaration. It acknowledges our story and our claim as Jews and Zionists, and for that I’m grateful. At the same time, it fails to acknowledge the many questions of broader context that have always been part of Jerusalem’s story. As Ben-Gurion reminded the Knesset and the world in 1949, Jerusalem is both “the heart of the State of Israel” and “sacred to other religions.” For Israel’s first prime minister that broader context was a source of pride. It should be for us as well.
Actions in, and declarations about, Jerusalem often have unintended and unhappy consequences. As I write, violent demonstrations are taking place in Jerusalem and along Israel’s separation barrier and border fence in the West Bank and in Gaza. As a headline in today’s Haaretz puts it, “How Much Will Trump’s Gamble Cost and Will Israel Defuse It?” As one with a vested interest in that question, I wish more attention had been paid to potential consequences both in the President’s decision and in his words. When it comes to Jerusalem, quick escalation and bloody outcomes have too frequently been the norm.
Finally, there is the matter of the hope for peace between Israel and her Palestinian neighbors. As troubled as the ‘peace process’ may be, I so far fail to understand the logic of further enflaming only one side in the dispute. Perhaps President Trump’s logic will become clear over the coming months. Right now, however, I don’t detect any strategic benefit from this week’s declaration.
As ever, the enduring words and sentiment of Psalm 122, which describes Jerusalem as “a town that is joined fast together,” are on my mind and in my heart.
“Pray for Jerusalem’s weal (shalom). May your lovers rest tranquil! May there be well-being within your ramparts, tranquility in your palaces. For the sake of my brothers and my companions, let me speak, pray, of your weal. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, let me seek your good.”