The affirmation of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a “grievous mistake,” to quote the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). His statement reflected long church policy. Jerusalem is “not a thing to be grasped,” because it can never be simply an earthly capital. Jerusalem still has a mystical value, a multi-dimensional identity that resists the ownership claims of Zionists, both Jewish and Christian, who would clasp and remold it by military power. If the city is not shared, I believe the warnings and even curses of Amos and Zephaniah are re-charged and the words of assurance added to the ends of those books upended. “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion…,” says Amos 6:1. “Woe to her that is rebellious and defiled, the oppressing city,” says Zephaniah 3:1.
Jerusalem still has a mystical value, a multi-dimensional identity that resists the ownership claims of Zionists, both Jewish and Christian, who would clasp and remold it by military power.
Yes, this is a Christian invocation of those texts, but I pray that it is also one faithful to the prophetic monotheism that touches all the world. How dangerous it is to repress the sacred itself that is spring of moral life, a sacredness that still lives in the symbolic spaces of Jerusalem. To claim or ratify Jerusalem as the political capital of one nation is to license the modern state of Israel’s re-making that space in its own domineering and exclusivist image. That process of displacing other people and their history is described on the website Terrestrial Jerusalem. To treat that city as a prize of the 1967 war carries the spiritual and physical consequences of resentment among peoples, as well as the haunting by truth itself of all towers and walls built on falsehood.
Many Israelis do not see Palestinians in their everyday commutes and thus find the process of steady ethnic cleansing to be acceptable. This is more than a lack of awareness; it is a form of denial. No amount of hi-tech boasting can obscure the brutal reality that—due to Israel’s conscription policy—most young Israelis spend at least a year of military service pointing guns at unarmed Palestinians, humiliating men and women, herding them through checkpoints barred like cattle pens, knocking down homes, bulldozing olive trees, and protecting the shameless state enterprise of taking everything of value in the West Bank. One Israeli woman dedicated to real cooperation between Arab and Jewish Israelis referred to her son having done undefined “terrible things” in his military service, but said that most Israelis did not see the situation of Palestinians, hidden as they are behind a massive concrete separation wall.
Who would want to drive into their poor enclaves, anyway?
When Donald Trump announced that he would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US embassy there, without mentioning the reality of a divided city, he was endorsing that official blindness to the claims of others. Israel’s annexation of the land and holy sites it contains is what it means to endorse that city as the capital exclusively for one people. Our President did not recognize East Jerusalem as the Palestine capital. Further, in stating that Jerusalem’s boundaries still remain up for negotiation, he was allowing for the Israeli strategy of re-classifying areas of Bethlehem and other West Bank towns as part of Greater Jerusalem. The beginning of that expansion is mentioned in the same Israeli law that claims Jerusalem as “complete and united.”
The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches, and almost all mainline or ecumenical Protestant churches are concerned about the fate of Jerusalem not only for historical and theological reasons but because a living Christian community still lives there. They are steadily being pressured out, primarily by Israeli policies designed to reduce the percentage of all Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, in Jerusalem (it is not Islamic extremism that drives out the Christians). The recent decisions of certain Orthodox Churches to sell property to Israeli interests show the pressures that most Christian and Muslim institutions steadily resist to maintain their presence as Israeli settlements are constantly subsidized to take over more of East Jerusalem.
Mr. Trump reduced a place of history and awe to a geo-political trophy.
In remarks that celebrated the State of Israel’s facts on the ground, and left out the aspirations of an entire people who have been there far longer than most Israeli settlers, Mr. Trump reduced a place of history and awe to a geo-political trophy. He was awarding the beauty contest ribbon to Benjamin Netanyahu and his ultra right-wing government. Netanyahu followed Trump’s remarks with wildly ahistorical claims about Jewish presence in Jerusalem, ending with the claim that this recognition by America would stand with great moments of the Jewish people. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority head, was left to point out that this meant the effective death of any peace negotiations since the status of Jerusalem is one of the key things Israelis and Palestinians were to negotiate.
Morally the denial of Palestinian human rights stands as an enormous dark shadow over the shining new settlements on all the conquered hills of the West Bank and the new monuments to Jewish heritage in Jerusalem. Psychologically, the word, ‘shadow,’ points to unacknowledged and unconscious or semi-conscious material, not all bad, but often requiring steady effort to suppress. In Israel’s education system today, great emphasis is put on the historical traumas Jews have suffered, with extensive student trips to see the Holocaust concentration camps in Poland and implicit messages of moral superiority. Avraham Burg, onetime speaker of the Knesset, speaks critically about the spiritual effects of this trauma programming.It is not designed to create empathy for others, but rather a defensiveness that leads more to theocracy than democracy.
Today’s political winds of ethno-centric nativism and authoritarianism in the United States and parts of Europe are comparable to the conservative and neo-conservative elements in Israel.
Years ago, Burg warned not to idealize Western democracies, even while warning of the non-democratic background of most Israelis. Today’s political winds of ethno-centric nativism and authoritarianism in the United States and parts of Europe are comparable to the conservative and neo-conservative elements in Israel. For US citizens concerned that democracies depend on the equal protection of citizens with safeguards against gross inequality and corruption, Israel is a kind of mirror to flaws in our own state, though its treatment of the Palestinians is unique in the world, if not the most horrific. And, to be fair in deploring the declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel: Democrats originally voted with Republicans for the embassy move, fully aware that it violated international law and increased US responsibility (and complicity) for the occupation. And, though the past three presidents have each signed national security waivers to delay the political disaster, Democratic leaders celebrated the Trump Administration’s move.
The concern of this editorial is not only about democracy, though democracy and equal rights are quite important to Reformed Christians. As noted in many church studies, the Palestinians do not even have citizenship, which is the usual anchor for the range of rights as well as self-government. Elsewhere in Unbound’s Epiphany Symposium, we will look at a spectrum of voices concerned with the struggle in Israel and Palestine, as well as with similar struggles elsewhere in the Middle East. The nature of Jerusalem, however, would be a unique concern even if all its inhabitants could be voting citizens. The three Abrahamic traditions are not just spiritualities; they have landmarks, symbols, and an intertwined heritage represented in a concentrated space. Unilaterally re-shaping that space violates a sense of identity that is not about ownership but about the stewardship of things that no one can own.
For the sake of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others who should judge us by our works, the sites of highest worship should point to a transcendent justice and peace in the presence of God, with mutual respect among all believers.
To invoke the sense of a curse is not to invoke the magical archeology of Indiana Jones movies. Rather, it is to try to reflect deeply on the shadow, the on-going oppression in a place that should embody so much human hope. For the sake of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others who should judge us by our works, the sites of highest worship should point to a transcendent justice and peace in the presence of God, with mutual respect among all believers. Yes, Jerusalem as a city will still need garbage collection and parking laws, and the devout Orthodox will protest even parking on the Sabbath. But no one in the Holy City should be treated as garbage and no embassy should be parked there as long as human dignity is violated on a systemic scale.
Author Bio: Chris Iosso is Senior Editor of Unbound and a minister in the PCUSA. He has served as a pastor and as an ethicist staffing the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. In Palestine at the time of President Trump’s announcement, he is always moved by the strength of those who endure occupation and the courage of those of all faiths who work for peace.