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Today marks the 44th anniversary of Israel’s re-unification/liberation/conquest/occupation of Jerusalem. I use all of those terms, not because I agree that they are all necessarily equally legitimate claims, but because they are equally real to different people — all of whom have deep interest in the city, and some of whom shape global events based on those interests.
How real those overlapping and often competing interests are, is actually far more important than is the debate about which is most accurate. Why? Because as the Hebrew Bible teaches, we are to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalms 122:6), and peace is made by focusing on the present and pursuing our dreams for the future, far more than it is by endlessly arguing about the past.
It’s not that history doesn’t matter – it does. But an obsession with history can all too easily crowd out any real understanding of the present and make any forward progress impossible. There is probably no day on which that challenge is more felt, than it is on Jerusalem Day.
For some, Jerusalem Day marks the beginning of a period of unprecedented levels of religious freedom and genuine celebration of the many faith traditions which see Jerusalem as a holy city. They are correct to see that. At no time in the history of the city have people of all faiths and those of none at all, all enjoyed the freedom of access to Jerusalem’s holy sites, and life in the city as a whole, as they have since Israel’s 1967 victory.
For others though, Jerusalem Day marks the beginning of Israeli hegemony over the city – a reality which causes them pain not dissimilar to the pain which centuries of Muslim or Christian rule caused many Jews. They also see a contemporary Jerusalem which though far better, cleaner and safer for all of its citizens than it ever was, remains a city which invests unequally in the infrastructure and services provided to different sections of the city, generally corresponding to religious and ethnic differences. Those too are facts about contemporary Jerusalem.
Contemporary Jerusalem is both an enormous success story, and a story whose ending is not yet written – a story with many unresolved questions which must be addressed regardless of the political arrangements which negotiators eventually reach. Between the calls for keeping Jerusalem the eternal undivided capital of Israel and the Jewish people, and those for the division of the city along the pre- Six Day War lines, there need to be leaders who can acknowledge the truths in claims made on both sides about how the city functions for all of those who live there and how it functioned under those who governed the city before Israel did so.
I love Jerusalem Day and celebrate it proudly and unapologetically. But genuine pride and refusal to apologize for having it are not an excuse for either avoiding serious questions about the present or the need for creative solutions which will yield a future in which others can also celebrate the city and the role it plays in their lives – both religiously and politically.
Praying for the peace of Jerusalem does not mean, and can never mean, peace at any cost. Such arrangements never bring peace anyway. But neither can the mandate to pray for peace avoid the challenges of making real peace by hiding behind commitment to Jerusalem at all costs either.
I hope that this Jerusalem Day brings more than the inevitable speeches by political and religious leaders, which do one of the above. I hope that this Jerusalem day brings speeches which articulate a vision of life in that city and a practical plan for how it could be achieved – a plan which recognizes history and historic precedent, but is not enslaved by it.
What that might look like, I don’t think anyone yet knows, but Jerusalem Day would be a good time to begin that conversation.