Opinion: Trump is wrong; Israel alone can't claim Jerusalem

An Israeli flag flutters on the roof of a building of the Jewish quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem opposite the Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, on December 5. Photograph:( AFP )

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Dec 06, 2017, 10.49 AM (IST) Madhumita Saha

Every year, at the very end of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, and at the end of the Passover Seder, Jews all over the world recite, “Next year in Jerusalem.” The City, older than Bible, is at the heart and mind of all practising Jews. Jerusalem, more than any other city, stands as the symbol of the 'Promised Land' as the Jews survived expulsion by the Romans, slavery in the land of the Pharaohs and the Holocaust in Europe. At the end of the Second World War, many Jewish survivors of Hitler's concentration camps came back to settle in and around Jerusalem. 

For long, the Jewish stakeholders around the world had been trying very hard to gain a recognition for the Holy City as Israel's capital. But they have faced tough luck so far. Even Israel's closest ally, the US had been refusing to grant capital status to Jerusalem primarily because of the sensitivity of the matter. 

Battle for Jerusalem

Palestinians and Israelis have been fighting over Jerusalem ever since the state of Israel has been established. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has himself asserted that Israel is in the midst of a “battle for Jerusalem”. While political and religious acrimony over the city has caused much bloodshed among members of both the communities, the lives of the Jerusalem's citizens have been almost inextricably intertwined. 

The primary flashpoint in Jerusalem is the sacred compound in the Old City, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The religious topography there is meaningful for the current conflict. Islamic structures stand on the Haram today and are used on a daily basis. The Jewish holy places exist primarily in archaeology and memory. Worship focuses on a remaining fragment of the Second, or Herod’s, Temple, known as the Western Wall. A fragile modus vivendi has existed since 1967 that enables Jews to pray below at the Wall and Muslims above on the esplanade. 

Such entwined existence is ubiquitous because the two communities, over the ages, have lived there in harmony as well as in discord. So much so that when violence breaks out it has become impossible to spare anyone community from sufferings such attacks entail. In 2014, for instance, when an attack took place in West Jerusalem at a synagogue, killing four Jewish worshippers, it also resulted in the death of Israeli Druze Zidan Saif. 

Saif, incidentally, was not an Israeli Jew.  He belonged to a distinct branch of Islam whose members often serve in Israel’s police or armed forces. Saif's funeral was attended by the President of Israel and a large number of ultra-orthodox Jews. 

My city, your city, our city

President Trump's announcement in support of making Jerusalem the capital city of Israel will further weaken the fragile balance on which Jerusalem sustains itself. The decision has the potential to embroil the different religious communities in bloody violence. Particularly because just like the Israeli state, in May 2017, the Palestinian group Hamas presented a document that proposed the formation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. 

Giving to the demand of one community over the other, particularly when one-third of the population of Jerusalem is actually Muslim, and with a large number of Christians living in the area too, tantamounts to playing with fire. But Trump to fulfill his election promises and to pacify a large number of his orthodox influential voters is ready to let an already volatile region go further the extremist way. 

But as Trump does not seem to care, it seems similar dogged determination has taken over supporters of the Zionist cause living in Israel too. Shumel Rosner, an expert in the Israeli politics and Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance, writes in the New York Times that the Israelis will not be deterred by threats of violence or by actual violence itself. Indeed as per the words of Rosner, the US declaration in support of Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel is a truly Trumansque moment. The author is here referring back to President Truman's decision to support the partition of Palestine, though the C.I.A. warned the President that “armed hostilities between Jews and Arabs will break out if the U.N. General Assembly accepts the plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.” 

Whose city is it anyway?

Jews, Muslims and Christians all the three communities have very long and intimate association with Jerusalem. For historical reasons, one community might have come before the other, but their histories overlap for a significant stretch of time.

Jews had been praying facing Jerusalem for time immemorial. 

It is Jerusalem that matter most to the Christians, more than Bethlehem and Nazareth. This was where Christ preached, ate the Last Supper with his disciples before his death, where he was arrested, put on trial, condemned to death, crucified, and died, a man mocked and tortured by the occupying Romans. It is where, Christians believe, his tomb was found empty and he rose from the dead. Jerusalem, they say, is the 'sacred heart' of the Christian story.

Jerusalem's pivotal place in the religious and political history of Islam is equally undeniable. According to Islamic tradition, the prophet travelled miraculously from Mecca to Jerusalem and then upwards through the seven heavens, culminating in a direct conversation with, and/or vision of, God. Before his ascension, he led all the previous prophets of God, including all the Biblical and Israelite prophets, in prayer. Islamic rule over Jerusalem lasted for 12 centuries, longer than any other rule, whether Israelite, Roman, Persian or Christian.

President Trump should have shown better judgement on the matter. He needed to have shown more nuanced appreciation towards the shared history of the region. But characteristically to his rash and provocative nature, Trump went ahead without heeding the advice of the world community. 

We can just hope that Jerusalem in spite of its newfound recognition will continue to be a place of harmony for all peoples. And, instead of being the political capital of nation-state, it will be the emotional center of a multicultural universe. After all, the root meaning of Jerusalem is shalom- a city of peace.  


(Disclaimer: The author writes here in a personal capacity).

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.