Jewish Journal

Diaspora must face painful realities in Jerusalem’s future

by Michael Berenbaum

Posted on Jan. 24, 2008 at 7:00 pm

The 'emotional approach': Ofra Haza: Yerushalyim Shel Zahav
So in the end, it has come down to Jerusalem.

The Jewish community is now openly discussing whether Jerusalem should be on the negotiating table for a Palestinian-Israel peace agreement.

  • Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky was widely criticized in the Orthodox community and quietly supported elsewhere for even mildly raising the possibility of such a consideration. His modest proposal got headlines in the Los Angeles Times and triggered a nationwide discussion.

  • Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, has written an open letter to Israel's prime minister insisting that the views of the Diaspora be taken into consideration on the question of Jerusalem. He is confident that the Diaspora would support his view but insistent that the views of the Diaspora need not be taken into consideration on withdrawal from the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), the Golan Heights or even Gaza. Jerusalem is different he argues.

  • The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has reissued its resolution stating that Jerusalem is the "eternal, indivisible capital of the Jewish people."

  • The Union of American Orthodox Jewish Congregations, which for a generation treated all criticism of the democratically elected government of the State of Israel as nearly traitorous, now calls for opposition to that very same democratically elected government on the issue of Jerusalem and presumably on the West Bank, as well.
The issue is far more emotional than it is rational.

I must confess that it would be easy to get carried away by my emotions. I lived in Jerusalem when it was divided, when a wall blocked Jaffa Street, when one needed to go up to Mount Zion to catch a glimpse of the Old City and when Jordan barred all Jews from visiting the Western Wall, then called the Wailing Wall. I remember the days when the only chance to see the Wall was to obtain false papers, indicating that you were not a Jew, to go through the Mandelbaum Gate to the Old City, then under Jordanian control.

I was in Jerusalem as a volunteer for the Six-Day War, when the city was reunited. I remember the excitement and the tears in the eyes of even the most hardened and cynical of Israelis when the 11 o'clock news began with the words:

"An IDF spokesman has informed us that the Old City is ours. I repeat, An IDF spokesman has told us the Old City is ours."

No one heard the rest of the news, and no one who heard that news can ever forget where they were when they heard those magical words.

My role in the Six-Day War was comically nonheroic. I drove a garbage truck, replacing the ordinary sanitation workers who were called up for duty, as the entire male Israeli population 18-45 was mobilized for war. In that role, I literally participated in the reunification of Jerusalem by knocking down the Mandelbaum Gate and picking up the rubble of its destruction. Later that week, I helped clear the rubble around the Western Wall, as homes were demolished to clear the area for the influx of pilgrims.

And I was there on the first day of Shavuot when 100,000 Jews -- young and old, religious and secular, caftan-clad men and miniskirted women -- walked up to Mount Zion and walked down the Pope's Path, which only had been built because Pope Paul VI would not enter Israel through a government-sanctioned border crossing, to enter the Old City for the very first time. We were exultant, hopeful, thankful.

As a religious Jew, I pray facing Jerusalem. I pray of being there next year at the end of the seder and at the very last moment of Yom Kippur. I sing of Jerusalem on Shabbat evenings and yearn for Jerusalem on Shabbat afternoons.

The attachment to Jerusalem is deep, profound and visceral. It touches my soul. It is part of my being. To be Jewish is to be attached to Jerusalem, the Jerusalem on high and the Jerusalem below.

But, let's face it. If the future of the peace process -- more correctly the divorce process -- is going to be decided emotionally or religiously, it will never be decided; it can thus never be settled.

Settlement is in the interest of a Jewish state because without some form of national separation, a one-state solution is almost upon us, one in which Jews could soon be a minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and a Jewish state or even a state of the Jews would be replaced by a state of its citizens.

It would be no small irony if the Orthodox Union, whose Zionist wing has long advocated "the Land of Israel for the people or Israel according to the Torah of Israel," was the militant advocate for policies that led to the dissolution of the Jewish state. But religious zealotry has led to Jewish defeat in 70 and 135, and rabbinic Judaism was politically quietistic as an alternative to such policies. Jews are the descendants of Yochanan ben Zakkai not of Eliezer by Yair and those who committed suicide at Masada.

So let us face some painful realities.

With all due respect to the collective wisdom of our presidents and to the Israeli hasbara efforts that originated the phase, Jerusalem was not the eternal, invisible capital of the Jewish people. Nothing in history is eternal. By its very nature, history is temporal.

Jerusalem only became the capital during the time of David; Joshua had brought the ark to Shiloh. After he conquered Jerusalem, David brought the ark there from Kiryat Yearim. Jerusalem was one of two capitals during the period following King Solomon, when the Northern Kingdom seceded. The Babylonian Talmud is more authoritative for rabbinic Jews than the Palestinian Talmud, more central.

Jerusalem became the capital of the Jewish people when we were in exile, yearning for the elemental dignity that independence could provide and yearning for the majesty of an earthly city that could bear the weight of our aspirations.

There is nothing eternal or sacred about the political boundaries of Jerusalem. They have been adjusted time and again, even since 1967, as the politics of Israel had to absorb the changing demographic and political reality. The City of David is outside the current walled city.

People living in Jerusalem and people visiting Jerusalem know that it is a divided city. Teddy Kollek dreamed of a unified city of tolerance, pluralism and peace. He worked for it day and night, but despite his best efforts, such a city has not materialized. His successors barely tried. There are places one does not go; villages one does not visit. Israeli sovereignty has not made for unity.

With all due respect to my respected friend Lauder, the Diaspora is entitled to a voice but not a veto. Israelis pay taxes, serve in the army and the State of Israel is a democratic state that governs with the consent of its people. Israeli leaders will always pay attention to their supporters overseas, but they must act in the interests of the state as they perceive them.

There is no mechanism in the United States -- and not in the entire Diaspora -- for democratic consensus among the Jewish people. Lauder, whose service to the Jewish people is admirable, well knows that we live at a time when there is a major disconnect between Jewish organizations and the Jewish people.

Every piece of empirical research indicates that the institutions do not hold the allegiance of the younger generation, nor do they represent the views of the Jews in the United States who are far more dovish, peace oriented and in favor of territorial compromise, than the Jewish organizations that claim to represent them.

As to the debate over Jerusalem: It is too early.

Israel has made a decision on the West Bank; it has given up the illusion of the greater Israel -- the complete Land of Israel, which has conveniently forgotten about the other side of the Jordan -- understanding that it cannot absorb the large Arab population and still remain a Jewish state.

No one knows if there can be an agreement, and even if there is an agreement, whether it can be viable, adhered to by the Palestinians -- or by the Israelis. No one knows what it will call for in terms of division -- political or actual.

It is clear that Israelis will not give up access to the Western Wall or the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus, as was the case between 1949-1967, or to the many neighborhoods that have been developed to ring Jerusalem. But to take any discussion of Jerusalem off the table before one learns the details is to rule out the possibility of an agreement.

And to argue among ourselves about it before we know what is being offered -- in return for what; with what guarantees; with what mechanisms for enforcement -- is to conduct an inconsequential monologue. Only negotiations will reveal if there is anything to discuss. And they must proceed for the good for Israel, for the wellbeing of the Jewish people, for the peace of Jerusalem.
Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor of theology (adjunct) at American Jewish University. Tracker Pixel for Entry


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