In mid-February an unprecedented conversation took place in Jerusalem. It brought together Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars to discuss the religious significance of Jerusalem itself in these three traditions. I was invited to make a presentation to the gathering as part of the Christian delegation. The underlying hope of the conference organizers was that their deliberations would make some contribution to the "Final Settlement" that the Israelis and Palestinians recently rededicated themselves by promising to resume negotiations. The politicians' job will not be easy. The issues that the official negotiators will have to tackle--how much of the West Bank to return to the Palestinians, the future of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, water resources, and the return of the refugees--are all prickly. But they are the kinds of normal questions diplomats talk about all the time. Still, no lasting settlement will be attained until they reach some agreement on Jerusalem.
And Jerusalem is different. It's not just a city with schools, shops, and a sewage system. It's a sacred site, a city held to be holy by all three major "Abrahamic" religious traditions. Understandably, some people fear that the intense emotions aroused by the various religious meanings of Jerusalem will make the give-and-take of negotiating even more difficult.
However, as I've talked with people on various sides about this knotty issue during previous visits, I've come to hold a more hopeful view. I've found that the genuinely religious people I've met--Jewish, Muslim, Christian--seem more prepared to share Jerusalem than are the people who (at least it seems to me) operate from more geopolitical premises and deploy religious language mostly to shore up their arguments.
The press gives considerable coverage to the most stubborn religious elements on all sides. We hear about the West Bank Jewish settlers who derive their theology from the Old Testament book of Joshua, with its commands to "conquer and settle" despite the wishes of the local population; the suicide bombers of the armed wing of the radical Islamist Hamas; and the Christian fundamentalists who refuse any compromise over Jerusalem because they believe we are entering the Last Days, complete with the rebuilding of the Temple, the Battle of Armageddon, and the imminent return of Christ.
Only recently have we heard about the cooperation of Palestinian and Israeli peace activists in rebuilding Palestinian homes demolished by the Israeli military. There are many other signs of hope. The ground is being prepared, slowly and patiently, for what will need to be the long, very long, haul.
Last fall I organized a 12-week course on Jerusalem that brought together Jews, Christians, and Muslims, including a Palestinian whose family once owned the land where the Knesset now stands and a recent veteran of the Israeli army. The students worked together in small, mixed groups trying to think through a viable future for the city. As usual, I learned a lot from them. My own contribution to the Jerusalem conference (which will focus on the "holiness" of the city) was based on three principles:
First, what is sacred above all else about Jerusalem is not the stones or the buildings, however precious. It is the people. God did not create inanimate objects but human beings in his own image. Every proposed "solution" to the Jerusalem question must keep this in mind. The people who live in Jerusalem, and those who visit it, are the foremost expressions of its holiness. They are the bearers of the presence of God and must be treated appropriately, with dignity and respect. And their voices must be heard in any agreement reached.
Second, even in the case of the "sacred sites," there is a difference between venerating a place and owning it. The challenge of Jerusalem is whether the three faiths can continue to cherish it as a holy city but not demand property rights--so long as these sites and the holy city itself are made accessible to everyone. The question is quite simple: If the God who created me also created you, why can't my holy place be holy to you as well? Does either one of us need to fence it in, and keep everyone else out?
Third, the most important religious meaning of Jerusalem lies not in the past but in the future, not in what once happened there but in what could happen there.
I know that pious Jews believe it is the place where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac, and that many Christians believe the Church of the Holy Sepulcher marks the spot where Jesus died on the cross, and that Muslims revere El Quds (the Arabic name for Jerusalem) as the place from which the prophet ascended into heaven.
But these things took place centuries ago. Is it not equally significant that now the one God worshipped in all three traditions has crowded his diverse followers into one tiny corner of the world where they brush one another's shoulders as they hurry to their prayers? Can it be spiritually meaningless that this is one of the few cities in the world where the chant of the cantor, the peal of the church bells, and the call of the minaret blend down the same alleys? It's as though the Creator were saying, "Well, here you all are, crammed together, just as you are on one tiny planet. Now let us see if you can live together as my children should."
I am grateful that the American rabbis broke the ice and made possible among American Jews--and the larger American and world public--a long-needed discussion. Now I hope and pray that the three-way conversations started in Jerusalem last month will demonstrate for the political leaders a mutual respect and willingness to appreciate the other.
Hans Kung once said there could be no peace in the world without peace among the religions. This is surely true for "Jerusalem the Golden," which has too often been reddened by the blood of religious strife. It's time now for the religions to take the lead in helping to make it, at last, the City of Shalom.