Jerusalem Divided Between Hats and Hearts

JERUSALEM – There’s a Jerusalem saying that the city wears too many hats – Jewish hats, Muslim hats, Christian hats – so it’s difficult to get at its brain.

As Israelis and Palestinians wrestle for the right to wear the prime Jerusalem hat, U.S. President Barack Obama is being made aware that his special envoy George Mitchell might be required not just to get under the city’s hats to reach its brain, but to find a way to its heart.

Blessed, but also cursed by its own holiness, this city could yet scupper the president’s peace goals.

Back in March, Netanyahu’s government had approved the building of 1,600 new homes in a settlement in occupied East Jerusalem. As a consequence, Jerusalem has from the outset, in contrast to Netanyahu’s will, been thrust to the forefront of the discussions.

But even as Obama keeps tabs on what Netanyahu is doing in Jerusalem, he also has to look into his own backyard. There, the Israeli leader’s supporters are insisting that the U.S. does not ignore the Israeli concerns about the fate of Jerusalem.

The pressure on White House has been applied most strongly by Elie Wiesel, the famed Nobel peace laureate and Holocaust survivor.

Last month Wiesel published a full-page ad in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times and its international edition in a bid to reduce the U.S. pressure on Israel to halt all new building in East Jerusalem.

“Pressure will not produce a solution,” wrote Wiesel. “Why tackle the most complex and sensitive problem prematurely?”

For Jews, Wiesel insisted, the city’s importance is above politics: “Jerusalem is mentioned more than 600 times in Scripture and not a single time in the Koran,” he argued. “It belongs to the Jewish people, and is much more than a city. Jerusalem is the heart of our heart and the soul of our soul.

“Today, for the first time in history, Jews, Christians, and Muslims may all worship at their shrines,” Wiesel maintained. “Jews, Christians, and Muslims are allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city. The anguish over Jerusalem is not about real estate but about memory.”

His emotional plea echoed another prominent U.S. Jewish figure – like Wiesel, a major Netanyahu supporter – Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. In his letter, published in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, Lauder even went so far as to question Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security.

Many Israelis, especially hard-liners in the Netanyahu administration, insist Obama is making a mistake to push Jerusalem to the fore.

Other Israeli voices (like Wiesel, carrying a moral mantle) are, however, willing to lock horns with the “leave Jerusalem alone” plea.

In a column in Ha’aretz, Yossi Sarid, a former minister in pro-peace Israeli governments, hung Wiesel on his own words: “Reading your letter, an outsider would probably conclude that in Jerusalem, Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship their God unimpeded, that ‘all are allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city.’

“Someone has deceived you, my dear friend. Not only may an Arab not build ‘anywhere,’ but he can thank God if he is not evicted from his home and he and his family thrown out onto the street.

“Jerusalem is holy to everybody,” Sarid continued. “That’s why a solution can’t wait for the end of the conflict. It will have no end if resolution is postponed until, as you say, ‘Israelis and Palestinians find ways to live together.’

“You write, ‘Jerusalem is above politics.’ Is it not politics that deals with mankind’s weightiest issues, with matters of war and peace, life and death? Is life itself not holier than historical rights, than national and personal memory – holier even than Jerusalem?”

Sarid says religious claims must not be allowed to dominate: “Our worst enemies would be glad to dress this epic conflict in the garb of holy war. Let’s not join their ranks, even if unintentionally.”

Sarid defends the president’s approach: “Obama is well aware of his obligations to try to resolve the world’s ills. Let’s allow him to use his clout to save us from ourselves. He can push both sides to agree to divide the city into two capitals – to give Jewish areas to Israel and Arab areas to the Palestinians – with the Holy Places under an agreed international authority.”

Also in Ha’aretz, Zeev Sternhell, a prominent Israeli political historian, warns specifically of the consequences of going on allowing ultra-nationalist religious Israelis to make inroads into Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Sternhell writes: “Jerusalem is not a settlement, but those who are turning it into a settlement … will only fan the growing flames of the de-legitimization of Israel.

“The attempted settler takeover of the Sheikh Jarrah quarter has become a microcosm of the poisoning relations between Jews and Arabs. The existential aim of the settlers is continued conquest of the land. How is it possible that our own government lends a hand to actions that cut the very land from under our own feet?”

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.