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The Holiness of Jerusalem: Asset or Burden?

Author(s): Karen Armstrong

Source: Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Spring, 1998), pp. 5-19
Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Institute for Palestine Studies
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Since the 1967 war,Jerusalemand theJewishholyplaces have ac-

quired a new centralityeven in thetraditionallysecular Labor Zionist
vision.Afternotinga parallel shifttoward religiosity among theeacrly
Christiansfollowingtheexcavation of theHoly Sepulchre,theauthor
discussestheconnectionbetweensacred relicsand identityas wellas
theimpulseto demolishrivalartifactsand claims.Drawing numerous
examplesfrom historyand scriptureto illustrateher points, the au-
thortracesthecity'schanginigimportanceto the threefaiths over the
or loss. Finally,she examines the differingconceptsof holiness,con-
ism'sand Christianity's more exclusivistcult of thecity'ssanctity.The
articleends witha discussionofDavid's conquestofjerusalemn, which
leaves scopefor greaterinclusivenessthan is generallyassumed.

IT IS AN ABIDING TRAGEDY THAT JERUSALEM, reveredby Jews, Christians,and

Muslimsas the "Cityof Peace," should so oftenin itslong and complex his-
toryhave been a cityof war-and nevermoreso thantoday,when itresem-
bles a violentbordertownratherthana place of pilgrimage.Majorfeastdays
in all threefaithsare markedby reinforcements of riotpolice while military
helicoptershover noisily overhead. Jewish settlers,sportingthe knitted
kippa as a sign of theirradicalcommitment, patrolthe narrowstreetsof the
Old City,openly displayingguns and pistols.
Since the signingof the Oslo accords,the holycityhas witnessedintensi-
fied and horrificsuicide bombing attacks,further land expropriations,and
the bulldozing of Palestinianhomes. The Likud government of PrimeMinis-
terBenjaminNetanyahuhas also authorizedthe InteriorMinistry to tighten
regulationsrelatingto residencypermitsforthe Palestinianinhabitantsof
Jerusalem,with such draconian effectthat Israeli and Palestinianhuman
rightsgroupshave describedthenew measuresas amountingto a "deporta-
tion"policy to limitthe numberof Palestinianresidentsin the city.As the
politicalfutureofJerusalemis bitterlycontested(withIsraelischanting,likea
mantra,thatJerusalemis the eternaland indivisiblecapital of theirJewish

KAREN ARMSTRONG,a leadingBritishcommentator teachesat theLeo

on religiousaffairs,
BaeckCollegefortheStudyofJudaism and theTrainingofRabbisand Teachers.She is the
authorofmanybooks,includingJerusalem.n A
One City,ThreeFaiths,and thebest-selling

Joaurnalof Palestine Studies XXVII, no. 3 (Spring 1998), pp. 5-19.


state,and thePalestiniansequallyinsistentthatal-Quds be thecapitalof their

futurestate),it is surelyironicthatthe one facton which all the contestants
can agree, be theyJewish,Christian,or Muslim,is thatthe cityis "holy"to
them.How can a citythatinspiressuch crueltyand injusticebe holy?Given
thatall threemonotheisticreligionsare committedto the ideals of benevo-
lence and compassion, how can a cityteemingwith unholy activitiesbe


Since the infusionof religioninto politicsis so oftendisastrous,it is un-

derstandablethatmanycall foritsexclusionfromthedebate about thefuture
of the city.Once religionrearsitsuglyhead, people seem to lose theirwits,
assertingthatthe cityis so "sacred"thatitsfutureis nonnegotiable.It would
indeed be desirableto lay aside the vexed question ofJerusalem'sholiness
and conducta rationaldiscussionbefitting the modernage, but thisis not a
The late twentiethcenturyhas seen a revivalof religionon a global scale.
The typeof religiosity thatis often-misleadingly-called"fundamentalism"
has eruptedin all the majorworldfaithsand is largelydedicated-to breaking
down the secularistdistinctionbetween politicsand religion.Issues of faith
now frequently dominatethe headlines in a way thatwould have been in-
conceivable in the 1960s,when, it was thought,secularizationwas an irre-
versibletrendand, aftercenturiesof persecutionand holywar,religionwas
safelyrelegatedto the privatesphere. Nowhere has thisreligiousrenewal
been more dramaticthanin the MiddleEast.The Arab-Israeliconflictbegan,
on both sides, as a seculardispute.Since the Six Day War of 1967,however,
it increasinglyhas been transformed by an aggressiveand utterlyintransi-
gent religiouselement.Today, on both sides, the people who have been
mostactiveforpeace have been secularistsand those mostbelligerently op-
posed to the Oslo accords have been religious.
As a resultofthisradicalreligiosity,
theholinessofJerusalemhas acquired
a new centrality thatsecularistscannot affordto ignore.Most of the early
Zionistswere eitherindifferent or hostileto thereligioussignificanceofJeru-
salem. Zionismaimed to create a new kind ofJew,unfettered by a religion
which,it was thought,had encouraged an unwholesome passivity,encour-
aging Jews to await the Messiah instead of taking
Theodor Herzl vowed that theirdestinyinto theirown hands. The spectacle of
thefirst thing the Zionists Jews clingingto the WesternWall and weeping sym-
would do when theygot bolized everything thatZionismhoped to transcend.
control ofJerusalem would When Theodor Herzl, the founderof politicalZion-
be to tear most of it down. ism, visitedJerusalemin 1898, he was repelled by
"the mustydeposits of two thousandyears of inhu-
manity,intoleranceand foulness"in the "reekingalleys"of the Old City.He
vowed thatthe firstthingthe Zionistswould do when theygot controlof

Jerusalemwould be to tearmost of it down, buildingan "airy,comfortable,

properlysewered,new cityaroundtheholyplaces." A fewdays later,he had
changed his mind:he would build a new secular cityoutside the walls and
leave theholyshrinesin an enclave of theirown. It was a perfectexpression
of thesecularistideal: religionmustbe relegatedto a separatesphere,where
it would rapidlybecome a museum piece.1 In thisspirit,even iffortactical
reasons,the Zionistsaccepted the UnitedNationsPartitionPlan of 1947, in
whichJerusalemwas to be a corpusseparatum underinternational control.
Possession of theHoly Citywas not,at thisstage,regardedas essentialto the
new Jewishstate.
Even thoughZionismremaineda secularmovement, Jerusalemcontinued
to be an importantsymbolof holiness forreligiousJews.There was also a
small numberof religiousZionistswhose principalspokesman was Rabbi
AbrahamIsaac Kook, chiefrabbiof AshkenaziJewsinJerusalemas of 1921.
He believed thatthe messianic Redemptionwas imminentand thatJews
would soon see theirTemple rebuilton the site occupied by the Dome of
the Rock. Duringthe BritishMandateand the firstyears of theJewishstate,
Rabbi Kook and his discipleswere regardedby the overwhelmingmajority
of Jews as harmlesscranks.Israelison the right,such as Menachem Begin
and Yitzhak Shamir,mighton occasion use the WesternWall, the last re-
mainingrelicof theTemple builtby KingHerod in the firstcenturyBCE, as a
nationalistrallyingpoint,but Begin's Herutpartywas in the politicalwilder-
ness afterthe establishmentof Israel in 1948. The new statemade a clear
distinctionbetween religionand politics.Labor Zionism,secularistand so-
cialistand withlittletimefortraditionalreligion,was the dominantstrainin
Israelipoliticallife.Itsheroes were notTalmud scholarsstudyingin theholy
city,but the kibbutzniksin the collectivefarmsof Galilee and the Negev.
Althoughthe Labor Zionistscultivateda devotionto the Land of Israel that
oftenfilledthemwithexaltation,most preferredto live in the new worldly
metropolisof Tel Aviv;manysharedHerzl's distasteforJerusalem,seeing it
as too redolentof a religionthathad failedtheJewishpeople. As the Zionist
theoristNahumSokolov remarked,"The pointofgravity has shiftedfromthe
Jerusalemof the religiousschools to the farmsand agricultural schools, the
fieldsand the meadows."2
This attitudechanged overnightafterthe Israeliconquest of the Old City
duringthe 1967 war. On 5 June,Israelis were reunitedwith the Western
Wall;since thepartitionofthecityin 1948,Jewshad been unable to visitEast
Jerusalemand theOld City,whichwas underJordaniancontrol,justas Pales-
tinianshad been forbiddenentranceto Israeli-controlled WestJerusalem.On
theday oftheconquest,Israelisexperiencedtheirreturnto theWesternWall
withan astonishingdegree of emotion.Atheisticgeneralsembracedone an-
otherbeside the wall; tough young paratroopersclung to the greatstones
and wept.Withinhours,politicianssuch as PrimeMinisterLevi Eshkol and
DefenseMinisterMoshe Dayan were talkingabout the "holiness"ofJerusa-
lem and vowingneverto leave theholyplaces again.By theend ofJune,the

Israeligovernmenthad annexed the city,defyinginternational opinion that

officiallystillheld JeuLisalemto be a corpus separatum according to the
UnitedNationspartitionresolutionof 1947.
Henceforth Jerusalemand itsJewishholyplaces acquired a new centrality
in the Zionistvision.The 1970s saw the riseof a new formof religiousZion-
ism,which has become increasinglypowerful.Based on the once despised
ideas of Rabbi Kook and his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, thismovementis
passionatelyand aggressivelydevoted to sacred space. It is most frillyex-
pressed in the Gush Emunim(Bloc of the Faithful),a group committedto
buildingillegalsettlements in theterritories
occupied by Israelin 1967 in the
beliefthattheywill hastenthe adventof the Messiah and the redemptionof
thewhole world.Gush membersinsistthatLabor Zionism,withitssecularist
ethos,is bankruptand thatit is theirown settlerswho express the old pio-
neeringideals of the kibbutzniks.Gush EmunimattractsmanyIsraelis,who
maynot shareitsreligiousbeliefsbutwho are readyto endorse itshardline.
Nor does the anovementneglectJerusalem:in 1984,itwas discoveredthata
group of extremistGush membershad plottedto blow up the Dome of the
Rock to clear the way forthe rebuildingof the Temple when the Messiah
Such ideas were dismissedby mostIsraelisas madness in 1984,but they
have graduallygained support.GershomSalomon, founderof the Temple
MountFaithful, has campaignedsince 1967 forthe Haram al-Sharifto come
underJewishcontroland forthe Temple to be rebuilton the site of the
Dome oftheRock.A 1996 opinion poll showed thatmorethan30 percentof
the Israeli public supportedhis cause and that3.4 percentwould vote for
Salomon's movementin an election,which would win it fourseats in the
Knesset.3Such views are sharedby Netanyahu,who in 1996 sentby mistake
as a Christmasgiftto the Palestinianhead of the Greek CatholicChurcha
silverreliefmap witha Jewishtemplein place of theDome of theRock.The
presenthad been intendedforsomebody more sympathetic to such a vision
ofJerusalem'sfuture,and the primeministerwas forcedto apologize: "We
didn'tnotice thatal-Aqsa was missingfromthe map."4
In fact,the notionof rebuildingtheTemple used to be taboo. The fanati-
cal devotionof a minority ofZealots toJerusalemand itsTemple had pushed
theJews of Palestineintoa fatalwar withRome in 66 CE, which culminated
in the totaldestructionof cityand Temple in 70. A half-century later,itwas
chiefly devotion to Jerusalem thatinspiredthe Bar Kochba revolt, whichthe
Romans put down in 135 only afterdevastating985 villages and killing
580,000Jewishsoldiers and innumerableJewishcivilians.Given thisunac-
ceptable loss ofJewishlife,the rabbiswho rebuiltJudaismafterthese catas-
trophesfeltthattheirpeople could not affordto dream of rebuildingthe
Temple. Henceforth,belligerenttalk of a new Temple was forbidden.The
task of buildingit was reservedto the Messiah alone, and the attemptto
hastenthe messianicRedemptionby planninga new Jewishsanctuar-y was
regardedas sacrilege.

But taboos can be broken. Since the 1980s, the idea of rebuildingthe
Temple on the Haram al-Sharif, Islam's thirdholiestsite,has been voiced so
oftenthatthe Israeli public has become accustomed to it,and the idea is
giventacitsupportby the establishment. The Temple Institutein theJewish
Quarterof the Old Cityhas on permanentdisplay the vestments,musical
instrnments, and ritualvessels thatwill be used in the new Temple; it re-
ceives grantsfromthe IsraeliMinistry of Tourism,the Ministry of Religious
Affairs, of Education,and JerusalemCityHall.
the Ministry


It is, therefore,
no longerpossible to ignorethe holiness ofJerusalem;it
has now become a key issue in the conflict,and thismeans thatwe have to
understandthe dynamicsof the sacred.The factthat,againstall reason and
prudence,thisdevotion should have surfacedso violentlyin a movement
such as Zionism,which was originallyso firmly committedto the secularist
ideal, shows thatit is neversafe to imaginethatwe have outgrownthe reli-
gious passion forsacred space.
Nor is this the firsttime in Jerusalem'shistorythatsuch a reversalhas
occurred.The earlyChristians, forexample, had also thoughtthattheyhad
gone beyond the need fora primitivedependence upon holy places and
shrines:only pagans and Jews,theyconsidered,claimed to findGod in a
physicallocation. Had not Jesus said thatChristiansno longer would en-
counterthe divineon such holy mountainsas Zion, but could worshipGod
wherevertheyhappened to be in spiritand truth?5 This view changed ab-
ruptly,however,in 325, when EmperorConstantine,recentlyconvertedto
Christianity frompaganism and, not sharingthis loftydisdain for sacred
space, gave Bishop MakariosofJerusalempermissionto dig up the tombof
Jesus,which,it was believed,lay beneatlhthe foundationsof the Temple of
Aphrodite.When, two years later,the pagan temple had been demolished
and a littlerocktombunearthed,thefindstunnedtheentireChristianworld.
Withinsix years,we read of pilgrimswalkingto JeuLisalem fromas faraway
as France simplyto pray at Christ'ssepulcher.Jerusalemveryquicklybe-
came the centerof the Christianworld,as can be seen in medieval maps.
There are similaritiesin these two instancesthatreveal somethingvery
importantabout the devotionto holy citiesand sacred space. But cerebral
considerationsin both the earlyChristianand the Zionistcases were dashed
by an unexpected reunionwitha sacred relicfromtheirpast. Both had re-
centlyemergedfromcenturiesof persecution:the Christiansat the hands of
theRomanempireand theJews in ChristianEurope. Both had suddenlyac-
quireda whollynew politicalimportanceand power:theChristians since the
conversionof Constantineand the Zionistswiththe creationof the Stateof
Israel.Both now had an entirelynew place in the world and had to build a
new identity. Both-and thisis an importantpoint-made a profoundidenti-
ficationwiththeirholy relic.

Thus the Christianscould see themselvesin the littlerock tomb,which

rose phoenixlikefromtheruinsofthepagan temple.The excavationseemed
to repeatthemiracleofJesus'sresurrection, risingagain,as itwere,fromHis
own untimelygrave.As Eusebius,bishop of Caesarea and Constantine'sreli-
gious adviser,explained,the emergenceof the tombfromAphrodite'stem-
ple symbolizedthe Christians'own recentresurgenceand imminentvictory
over paganism.6It was an image of the new Christianidentity. In ratherthe
same way in 1967,the Israelissaw themselvesin theWesternWall. Like the
Jewishpeople who had almostbeen exterminated in Europe,theWall was a
tiin; but,again like theJewishpeople, it was also a survivor,havingman-
aged to withstandtwo thousandyears of turbulenthistoryin Jerusalem.7
Sadly,the construction of a new selfoftenentailsthe destructionof rivals
who appear to threatenit.Eusebius certainlysaw the demolitionof the pa-
gan templeand the buildingof a new Christianshrineon the site ofJesus's
tombas partof a holywar againstpaganism.8The new Churchof theResur-
rectionalso symbolizedthe defeatofJudaismat the hands of Christianity,
and the Christiansthroughoutthe period of Byzantinehegemonykept the
Temple in ruins.So crucialwas thisto theirself-imagethatwhen the Em-
perorJulian,who had abjuredChristianity and embracedthe old paganism,
attemptedto rebuild the JewishTemple in 360 (an
AfterJulian's death, the eventnot mentionedin the Talmud:the greatrabbis
Christians began an maintaineda disapprovingsilence), the Christians
aggressive building were distraught.The presence ofJewishconstruction
program, creatingfacts on workerson theTemple Mountseemed to undermine
the ground to ensure that the foundationsof theirfaith.AfterJulian'sdeath,the
the city would not again plan to rebuildthe Temple was abandoned, and the
fall into rival hands. Christiansof Jerusalembegan an aggressive new
building program,creating Christianfacts on the
groundto ensurethattherewould neverbe any questionin thefutureof the
cityfallingintothe hands of theirrivals.
In theJewishcase, too, identification
withsacred antiquityled to thedem-
olitionof rivalclaims.On the nightof Saturday,10 June1967,afterthe armi-
sticehad been signed,the619 inhabitants of theMaghribiQuarterbeside the
WesternWall were giventhreehoursto evacuatetheirhomes.Then thebull-
dozers came and reduced thishistoricdistrict, one of theearliestof theJeru-
salem awqaf, to rubble.This was onlythe firstact in a long and continuing
process of "urbanrenewal"inJerusalem,a renewalbased on thedismantling
of historicArabJerusalemand in which demolition,archaeology,and a se-
lectivepreservationof antiquitiesall play theirpartin imposinga new Jew-
ish identityon the city. In the holy climate of JeuLisalem, archaeology,
building,demolition,and antiquitieshave neverbeen neutral;theybecome
sacred because theyare symbolsof a self thatis feltto be fragile.This is
especially trueduringperiods of transition, when people are strugglingto
createa new identity.

When people visittheirholyplaces, theynot onlyare encounteringtheir

God but oftenhave what seems to be a movingencounterwiththemselves.
Nor should itbe surprising thatthe devotionto sacred space is bound up so
profoundlywiththe experienceof the self.In all the greatworld faiths,the
divineor the sacred is not somethingexperiencedonlyas transcendent and
"out there";it also is sensed in the groundof the being of each individual.
The devotionto holy places seems to answer some essentialpsychological
need. Historiansof religiontell us thatit is the earliestand most universal
formof religiousexpression,found in all culturesand takingremarkably
similarforms.It seems to be one of the means by which men and women
findtheirplace in theworld,spiritually as well as physically.Turningtoward
a holy place-which is regarded as the center of one's world-in prayer
helps us to orientourselves,findour own center,reorderour priorities, and
remindourselvesof our truedirection.
We have not even managed to desacralize the secular world entirely.
Whateverour theologicalbeliefs,many of us have special places thatare
important to us. These maybe associated witha loved one or an eventwith
far-reaching significancein our lives-places where we feel most intensely
alive and in touch withthe deeper currentsof lifeand thus in some sense
"sacred"to our identity. Nearlyall the greatworld faithshave places, rivers,
or citiesthatin some way definethe sense of the sacred and of the self.For
Jews,Christians, and Muslims,Jerusalemhas been such a definingplace.


The discussionabout Jerusalem'sfutureoftenuses historyas a weapon,

arguingfiercelyabout who was therefirst. Each side has deridedthe histori-
cal claim of the other.Thus, Palestinianspoint out thatoutside the Bible
thereis no evidence thatDavid's Kingdomand Solomon's Temple ever ex-
isted.Israelispour scorn on the storyof the Prophet'sascension to heaven
fromtheHaramal-Sharif and insistthatIslam's real holyplaces are in Arabia.
Butthis,itseems to me, is to missthepoint.Places are holynotonlybecause
a formativeeventhappened there.
It is truethatJerusalemis holyto Christiansbecause itis whereJesuswas
believed to have died and risenagain,thusgivingbirthto the new faith.But
Jerusalemis not connectedwithany of theeventsof theExodus fromEgypt,
thefoundingmythofIsrael.The cityis notmentionedexplicitlyin theTorah,
thefirstfivemostsacred books of the Bible. The firsttimethe cityis specifi-
callymentionedin the Bible, it appears as enemy territory.9 Jerusalemdid
not figurein Israelite religion until King David conquered it fromthe
Jebusitessome threethousand years ago. In the same way, the formative
eventsof Islam happened in Mecca and Medina in theArabianHijaz. But for
all this,Jewsand Muslims,as well as Christians,foundtheirGod inJerusalem
and itbecame holy to them,expressiveof theirreligiousand physicaliden-
tityand place in the world.

It is noticeable in Jerusalem'shistorythatthe citybecame especiallyim-

portantto a people aftertheyhad lost it.Thus,Jerusalemdid not become
reallycentralto the religionof Israel untilthe cityand itsTemple were de-
stroyedby Nebuchadnezzarin 586 BCE and itspeople were deportedto Bab-
ylon.Untilthattime,ithad not been the onlyIsraelitecapital,and some had
feltitwas taintedby pagan practice.But when theJewswere permittedby
King Cyrusof Persia to returnto theirruinedcityin 539 BCE and to rebuild
theirTemple,Jerusalemgraduallybecame thespiritualfocusofJewsall over
the world, even though most Jews elected to continue to live in the
Similarly, althoughJerusalemhad been the firstqibla of Muslimprayer
and had always been of great spiritualimportanceto Muslims,especially
underthe Umayyads,therewas a new upsurgeof devotionto al-Quds after
Saladin won the cityback forIslam in 1187. The extraordinary beautyand
architectural brillianceof the great madrasas built around the Haram al-
Sharifby the Mamluksmade this holy place an intensivecenterof study,
prayer,and philanthropy in quite a new way. Butwhile the madrasas yearn
architecturally towardthegreatholinessoftheHaram,10theyalso reflectthe
new fearthatcharacterizedthe Muslimlove ofJerusalemafterthe Crusades.
Crouchingprotectivelyround the Haram, the madrasas can be seen as a
bulwarkbetween itsvulnerablesanctityand a hostileworld.
This,perhaps,explains the intensity of the struggleforJerusalemtoday,
when two peoples who recentlyhave faced immensethreatclingtoJerusa-
lem more tenaciouslythanever.Having narrowlyescaped extermination in
the death camps of Europe,Jews see JewishJerusalemas a symbolof their
revivedbut stillfragileself.ManyJews,stilltraumatizedby the Holocaust,
cannotbelieve thattheyare witnessingthe heightofJewishpoliticalpower.
Some behave as though it were still 1939, the period of greatestJewish
weakness. Like theirforebearsin 539 BCE, theyare in the firstflushof their
returnto Zion and are as antagonisticas theirancestorsto any perceived
In a verydifferent way,the Palestiniansalso have experiencedan annihi-
lation,havingbeen wiped offthe map. For the restof the Arab and Muslim
world,the disasterof Palestinesymbolizestheirongoing,humiliating defeat
at thehands of theWesternworld.Havinglosteverything else, theloss ofcal-
Quds becomes an unthinkablecatastropheforthe Palestinians.Further, sur-
rounded by the Jewishsettlementsbelligerentlyplanted on expropriated
Arabland,Jerusalemand the Haram al-Sharifhave become a syinbolof the
beleagueredPalestinianidentity. There is thusa profoundidentification with
the threatenedcity.Feeling Jerusalemslippingdaily fromtheirgrasp, the
holy city has become more "sacred" to Palestinians-be they Muslim or
This was veryclear duringthe "tunnelaffair"in September1996, when,
againstthe recommendationof his securityadvisers,Netanyahugave per-
missionfora new entranceto an archaeologicaltunnelrunningalongside

the Haram al-Sharifto be cut, leading directlyin the heartof the Muslim
Quarterof the Old City.Therewas immediateoutrage,violence,and riotsin
whicheighty-five people died and 1,500were injured.There was talkof the
tunnelviolatingthevery"soul of Palestine."Israelispokesmentriedto make
lightoftheaffair, pointingout thatthetunneldid notencroachon theHaram
itself.But,as we have seen, archaeologyhas not been a neutralactivityin
Jerusalem:since thetimeof Constantine, ithas been a way of stakinga claim
in the cityand underminingthe presence of a rival.
The Palestiniandistressshould have remindedIsraelisof the behaviorof
theirown ancestors,who had reactedin exactlythe same way when their
foreignrulershad violated theirholy places in the past. When the Syrian
kingAntiochusEpiphanes had enteredtheTemple's innersanctumand ran-
sacked the Temple treasury,thisled to full-scalerevolt.When the Roman
prefectPontiusPilatebroughtmilitary standardssportingthebustof theem-
peror,who was reveredas a god, intothe Holy Cityin 26 CE,Jewsmarched
in a body to his residencein Caesarea and proved thattheywere readyto
die ratherthanpermitthisinsultto theirTemple. It was in vain thatthe Ro-
mans pointedout thatthe offendingstandardsonly had been parked in the
AntoniaFortress-beside but not actuallyin the sacred precincts.So deep
was the identification of the Jewishpeople with theirsanctuarythatthey
experiencedany penetrationof theirsacred space-however proximate-as
a rape of the nation.
The factthatthe connectionbetweenJewishand Palestinianexperiences
was notmade is significant. In theTorah,theholinessof theTemple and the
Land of Israelis seen as essentiallybound up withthesanctityoftheindivid-
ual, even the "stranger" who does not belong ethnicallyor religiously.Thus
in the Holiness Code of Leviticus,amidstall the regulationsabout the Tem-
ple cultand the farmingof the sacred land,we findsuch sternadmonitions
as this:"Ifa strangerlives withyou in your land, do not molest him.You
musttreathimas one of yourown people and love himas yourself,foryou
were strangersin Egypt.""1 Jews are commandedto use theirown past suf-
ferings(as strangers Egypt)to help themto identifywith others,not to
justifycommitting furtherinjustice.


Instead of continuingthe fruitlessdebate about the historicity of King

David or who was in Jerusalemfirst, it mightbe helpfulto considerexactly
whatthevarioustraditions have meantwhen theyhave claimed thatJerusa-
lem is "holy"to them.Religionis not simplyabout experiencinga warm
glow when visitingsacred shrines,nor is itsolely about buildingan identity.
Religionmusthave an ethicaldimension.All thegreatworldfaithsinsistthat
is thatitissue in practicalcompassion,a
theonlyvalid testof truereligiosity
virtuewhich,farfrombuildingup a sense of self,forcesus to modifythe
demands of the clamorous,grasping,and frightened ego. The Buddha said

that the adept, after achieving enlightenment,must not linger on the

mountaintop, relishingthesensation,butmustreturnto themarketplaceand
therepracticecompassionforall livingbeings.The monotheisticfaithshave
also stressedthe paramountimportanceof love of neighborand respectfor
the sacred rightsof others.This virtuealso has been centralto the cult of
Fromthe veiy earliesttimes,possiblyeven beforethe conquest by King
David, Jerusalem'sholiness was inextricablybound up with the quest for
social justice.This was the case throughoutthe ancient Near East. At the
dawn of civilization,everycitywas in some sense "holy."Its god was be-
lieved to dwell in thetemple;therehe or she establishedthe divineorderof
peace and securitywithinthe citywalls. One of the king'ssacred dutieswas
to fortifythe cityagainstitsexternalfoes,but thiswas pointlessifiniquitous
governmentscreatedinternalenemies.Thus,the king'schiefjob was to es-
tablishon earththe justice and order thatcharacterizedthe divine realm,
where the gods dwelt.He would thusbringheaven to earth.In his code of
law, Hammurabiclaimsthathe was appointedby the gods "to cause justice
to prevail in the land, to destroythe wicked and the evil, thatthe strong
mightnot oppress the weak."12
This ethos also can be foundin the Hebrew psalms,manyof whichwere
connectedto theJerusalemcult.The KingofJudah,who was crownedin the
Temple, had to swear on his coronationto "defendthe poorest,save the
childrenof those in need, and crushtheiroppressors."13His taskwas to im-
pose the rile of God and to ensure thatGod's own justiceprevailedin the
land. If therewas justice in the kingdom,therewould be peace, harmony,
and fertility.14
God would thenprovidethe people ofJerusalemwithall the
securitythey needed; the citywould be "God-protectedfor ever."15But
therecould be no security,no peace (shalom) iftherewere no "righteous-
ness" (tzedek) in Israel.
The sages, prophets,and Psalmistsconstantlyremindeclthe people that
Jerusalemcould not be a holy cityof peace if it were not also a cityof
tzedek.Thus, fromthe veryearliestdays, the cult of
The sages, prophets, and Jerusalem'ssanctitywas bound up withthe quest for
Psalmists constantly social justice.Nobody could have been moredevoted
reminded thepeople that to Jerusalemthanthe ProphetIsaiah,who was active
Jerusalem could not be a in the holy city in the eighthcenturyBCE. Yet his
holy cityofpeace if it were prophecy,as it has come down to us, begins with
not also a city of what seems like a denunciationof the whole Jeitisa-
righteousness. lem cult.Isaiah imaginesGod complainingthathe is
weaiy of the endless sacrifices,sickened by the
stenchof the sacrificialvictims,irritated
by the endless throngof worshipers
trampingthroughtheTemple courts.Why?Because thepeople ofJerusalem
were not takingcare of the widows, the poor, the orphans,and the op-
pressed.16No decorous liturgyor elaboratebuildingscould compensatefor
the lack of justicein Zion.

The worstatrocitiesin the histoiyofJeutisalem have occurredwhen peo-

ple have put the desire to possess the holy cityand gain access to its great
sanctityahead of the paramountdutyof social justice and respect forthe
rightsof others.This is particularlyevidentin the various conquests of the
city.The name Rushalimumfirstappears in an Egyptiantextin about 1800
BCE; it probably means "Shalem [the Syriangod of the settingsun] has

founded."Beforethe citywas dedicated to the God of historicalmonothe-

ism,itwas a centerof pagan worshipforthe indigenouspeople of Canaan.
Thus, eveiy timeJews,Christians, and Muslimsutterthe word "Jerusalem,"
theyshould rememberthatthe citywas holy to otherpeople beforethem,
and, because theyare all committedofficially to the ideals of compassion
and justice,the integrity
of theirtenurein theholycitywill depend upon the
way theytreattheirpredecessors.
The nadirofJeiusalem'shistoiycame in 1099,when the Crusadersfrom
WesternEurope conquered the cityin a ghastlybloodbath. Some 30,000
Jewsand Muslimswere killedin two days.One admiringeyewitnessrecords
thatblood came up to the horses' knees in the Haram al-Sharif. Perhapsthe
mostexemplaryconquest occurredin 638 CE, when Caliph 'Umartook pos-
session of the holy cityforIslam. Mindfulof the Qur'anic injunctionsto re-
spect thePeople oftheBook, he ensuredthattheChristians remainin secure
possession of theirholy places and enjoy fullreligiousliberty.'Umar also
invitedtheJews,who had always been forbiddento reside permanentlyin
Jerusalemwhile itwas underChristianrule,to returnto theirholy city.Sev-
entyfamiliesfromTiberiascame to settleinJertsalem,establishinga quarter
forthemselvesbeside theMuslimcommunityat the footof theirold Temple
Mount.'Umaralso purifiedthe site of the ancientJewishTemple,which,as
we have seen, had remainedin ruinsforneariysix centuries;in recentyears,
the Christianshad used it as the citygarbage dump. 'Umar builta simple
wooden mosque at the southernend of the cleared platform, where al-Aqsa
Mosque now stands.For thispiety,the Muslimswere hailed by some Jews
duringthe seventhcenturyas the precursorsof the Messiah.


'Umar'sconquest shows thatfromtheveiy beginningtherewas a critical

differencebetween theMuslimconcept of holinessand thatof theJewsand
Christians,whose cult of Jerusalem'ssanctitywas essentiallyexclusive.As
we have seen, Christianswould not allow theirrivals,be they pagans or
Jews,eitherto live in the cityor maintainholyplaces and shrinesthere.In a
verydifferentway,thecultofJei-tsalem'sholinessbecame exclusiveinJuda-
ism.The Hebrew word qaddosh, which is usuallytranslatedas holy,means
separate, other.Jews were to be a holy people because theydwelt apart
fromnon-Jews;theycelebratedthe sanctityof somethingby markingit off
fromeverything else; thus,in dietarymatters,milkmustbe separatedfrom
meat,the Sabbath fromthe restof the week. By thisritualisolation,Jews

would symbolicallyplace themselvesnear to the holy God who was utterly

"other"(qaddosh) and separatefromall otherrealities.Thus,the sanctityof
the Temple was celebratedby a series of separationsand exclusions;each
one of its courtswas holierthanthe last and thereforeforbiddento an in-
creasingnumberof people. Gentiles(non-Jews)could enterthe outermost
courtbut a balustradeforbadethem to go further on pain of death.Jews
could go further towardthe centerof holiness,but women and men sepa-
rated;women had a precinctof theirown on the outskirtsof sanctity, close
to theCourtof theGentiles.Male Jewscould entertheCourtof theIsraelites,
butnottheCourtofthePriestsnortheHekhal,theCultHall. Finally,onlythe
highpriestcould enterthe innersanctum,the Holy of Holies, and thatonly
once a year,on Yom Kippur.
Muslimshave a moreinclusivenotionof holiness.The mosque is not sep-
aratedfromordinarylifeas the Temple was: it is also a centerforpolitical,
military, and social life.Trees,forbiddenon theTemple Mount,are grownin
Muslim sanctuaries,birds can flyinto the mosque, which welcomes the
world intoitsprecinct.This is partof tawhid,the sacralizationof the whole
of existence:all thingsmustbe broughtintotheambitoftheholy.In thecase
ofJerusalem,thisholinessmeantthatotherpeoples mustbe welcomed. The
storyoftheProphetMuhammad'sNightJourneytoJerusalemand hisAscen-
sion to the Divine Throne fromthe Haram al-Sharifis a storyof pluralism.
Firstrecountedin the Sirah of Muhammadibn Ishaq (d. 767), ittellsus that
theProphetwas conveyed-probably in spirit-fromtheKa'bah in Mecca to
the site of the old JewishTemple in Jerusalem.There he was welcomed by
all the greatprophetsof the past, and Muhammadpreached to them.Then
he began his ascent to the Divine Presence throughthe seven heavens. In
each heaven, he met propheticpredecessors:Moses and Aaron,Jesus and
JohntheBaptist,Enoch,and, at thethresholdof thedivinesphere,Abraham.
Muhammadtalkedwiththese prophets,took advice fromthem,especially
fromMoses. It is a storyof religiousunity,dialogue, and respectforother
traditions. as the firstqibla,
It also shows, as does the adoption ofJerutsalem
Muhammadyearningto bringhis people intothe heartof the monotheistic
familyfromwhat was at thattimethe pagan isolationof Arabia.This plural
vision was preservedin the devotionon the Haram al-Sharifwhere,by the
ninthcenturyCE, therewere shrinesdedicatedto David, Solomon,andJesus,
as well as shrinescommemorating Muhammad'sNightJourney.
The storyalso shows Muhammadlinking,in his own person,the sanctity
ofMecca withthatofJerutsalem. When people objectthatJertsalemis not as
holyto Islam as Mecca or Medina,theyfailto understandtheMuslimnotion
of sacred space. In the Qur'anic vision,thereis only one God and one reli-
gion made manifestin many forms.So, too, there is one sacred place-
Mecca-from which all subsequent holy places derive theirsanctity.The
Prophet'sjourneyfromthe Ka'bah to Jerusalem,al-Aqsa Mosque, symbol-
ized thisdivinelyestablishedconnectionbetween the two holy cities.This
linkwas celebratedin thefada'il al-Quds, the traditionspraisingthe excel-

lence ofJerusalem,whichbegan to be collectedduringtheUmayyadperiod.

Maximsattributed to the ProphetMuhammadsay thaton theLastDay, para-
dise would be establishedinJerusalemlike a bride,and theKa'bah and the
Black Stone would come fromMecca to Jerusalem,which was the ultimate
destinationof the whole of humanity.17 In Abbasid times,the linkbetween
thecitieswas celebratedin local lore.Duringthemonthof thehajj to Mecca,
on thenightof thevigilon theplain ofArafat, itwas said thatthewaterfrom
theholywell of Zamzam,near theKa'bah, came undergroundto thePool of
Siloam,in Jerusalem,and therewas a special festivaltherethatnight.In the
earlyeleventhcentury,Muslimswho could not make the hajj would gather
in Jerusalemduringthe days of pilgrimage.
It is sometimessaid thatMuslimsdid not value Jerusalem;they never
made it theiradministrative capital.But Muslimshave usuallykept adminis-
trationand holiness separate.Medina remainedthe firstcapital of the Mus-
lims, not Mecca. In any case, Jerusalemwould have been an unsuitable
capital because untilthe Crusades it remained a predominantlyChristian
city,albeit with an importantMuslimshrine.This was due not to Muslim
indifference but to Muslimtolerance.
An arrestinginstanceof Muslimrespectforthe holy places of the other
monotheistictraditionsconcerns the WesternWall, which had not been a
holy place forthe Jews untilthe sixteenthcentury.Jews may have had a
smallsynagoguein thevicinityof theWall duringtheUmayyadand Abbasid
periods,but untilthe end of the Mamlukera, the main focusofJewishpiety
in Jerusalemwas the Mountof Olives.Jews would hold big ralliesthereon
the principalfeastdays. The ProphetEzekiel had seen the Divine Presence
leave Jerusalemover the Mountof Olives afterthe destructionof the cityby
Nebuchadnezzar,and theJewswould praythereforthisPresence to return.
We hear of no devotionsat theWesternWall.When theItalianJew Obadiah
da Bertinerovisitedthe Holy Cityin 1487,he was impressedby the massive
stones in the Wall but feltno special religiousemotion.18
The gradualcollapse of the Mamlukempire,however,initiateda change.
In Palestine,the authoritiesno longer could controlthe bedouin, and it
probablybecame unsafeforJewsto congregatein the open countryon the
Mount of Olives. During this time,Jews may have begun to gatherat the
WesternWall instead,a suitablesite since itwas a lastlinkwiththeTemple.
We do know thatduringthe 1530s,while the OttomanSultanSuleimanthe
Magnificent was buildingthe magnificent walls aroundJerusalem,he issued
an edict permitting Jews to have a place of prayerat the WesternWall. It is
said thatthe courtarchitectSinan,who was workingon the Damascus Gate,
designed the small prayerenclave, excavatingdownward to give the Wall
heightand buildinga wall parallelto it to separatetheJewishoratoryfrom
the MaghribiQuarter.19
Suleimnan was praised in Jewishlegend forthisgood deed. His motives
were notentirelydisinterested, however.Therewas bellicose talkin Europe
about a new CrulsadeinJerusalemat thistime,and the sultanwantedto for-

tifythecity(hence, theconstruction ofnew fortifications)and attractfriendly

inhabitants, such as theJews,to help defendit.Nevertheless,his giftto the
Jewishcommunity is an example of cooperationbetweenJudaismand Islam
thatwould be unthinkabletoday.
A rathersimilarspiritmay, perhaps, be discerned in the storyof King
David's conquest ofJerusalem.The Israelitereligionpracticedby David had
notyetdeveloped theexclusivenessthatwould characterizesome aspects of
the laterreligionof Judaism.In 1996, the Israelis decided to celebratethe
3000thanniversaryof King David's conquest ofJerusalem.This was widely
seen as a blatantpublicitystuntto advertisetheJewishclaim to JerlLsalem.
The celebrationsfell flat.But in fact,the biblical account of David's con-
quest20is notso antithetical to thePalestiniancause as manypeople assume.
David, who was famousforhis wholesale slaughterof such peoples as the
Edomitesand the Philistines,seems to have been a just and mercifulcon-
queror ofJerusalem.We read of no massacresof theJebusiteinhabitantsof
the city,no destructionof theirproperty,no attemptto interfere withtheir
religiouspractices.The Bible carefullyrecordsthatDavid simplyconquered
the citadel of Zion, in what amounted to a palace coup, leaving the town
beside the citadelintact.The firsttimewe read aboutJerusalemin theBible,
we are told thatthe people ofJudahstill-some timeafterDavid-lived side
by side with the Jebusites.21David's wife Bathsheba may have been a
Jebusitewoman, and, ifso, theirson, the greatKing Solomon, would have
had Jebusiteblood: itwas onlylaterthatJewswere forbiddento intermarry
withgentiles.22When David decided to build an altarto his God on the es-
tateofArauneh,who mayhave been thelastjebusiteking,he did not simply
expropriatethe land, but gave Arauneha fairprice,and Araunehprovided
the firstsacrificethere.23Thus the holy place, which todayis so bitterly dis-
puted byJews and Muslims,began withan act of cooperationbetween the
Kingdomof Israel and the indigenouspopulationof the holy land.
Today Jewishfundamentalists who claim thatthe land is so "holy"that
theyneed not respectPalestinianand Muslimrightsare flyingin the face of
theirown most sacred traditions.They have forgottenthe elementaryreli-
gious principlethatthe holiness of a citydoes not depend solely upon the
sanctityof itsshrinesbutalso on thebehaviorofitsinhabitants. A citycannot
be holyifitis notruledwithjustice.Expropriating land,torturing,destroying
property, threatening otherpeople's holy places, ejectingpeople fromtheir
ancestralhomes, and deprivingthem of essentialhuman rightscannot be
justifiedin Jewishtraditionby the overridingsanctityofJerusalem,because
holinessis also and inescapablya moralimperativeto justice.A citycan be
made holy or unholyby itscitizenseveiy day. Today, the violationof basic
principlesof Israeliteand Jewishreligionis a desecrationindeed.

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5. John4:19-24. 19. Ben Dov, The WesternWall, pp
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8. Eusebius,TheLifeof Constantine, 20. See 2 Sam. 5:6-10;1 Chron. 11:24.
3.27. 21. Josh. 15:63; Judg. 1:21.
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10. MichaelHamiltonBurgoyneand 1000to 63 B.C.E." in A. J. Asali,Jerusalem
D. S. Richards,
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lam FestivalTrustwithScorpion toryof Ancient Palestine (Minneapolis:
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11. Lev. 19:33-34. W. Rowley, Worshipin Ancient Israel. Its
12. J.B. Pritchard,
ed.,AncientNear Forms and Meaning (London, 1967), p.
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