It has often been assumed that the problem of Jerusalem is exceptionally difficult because of religious claims made upon the Holy City and its holy sites by members of the three monotheistic religions. But the current mood of optimism in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a good reason for us to take a new look at the issue of Jerusalem.
It is true that often exclusive claims have been made, and many wars have been fought to "liberate the holy sites" or rid the Holy City of the infidels (being a reference to the adherents of the other monotheistic faiths), yet this did not necessarily have to be the case. Within each religious tradition, there has always been a strain of openness, tolerance, and acceptance of the other monotheistic faiths, as well as a rejection of the idolatry of concentrating one’s faith and religion on temporal sites viewed as holy.
Without denigrating the important emotional, and indeed spiritual, significance of holy sites and shrines, and pilgrimage to them, one can still find within each of the three monotheistic faiths religious principles that reject as idolatrous the adamant exclusivity regarding the holy sites in Jerusalem.
The clearest example of this is found in Christianity. The historical memory of Middle Eastern people concentrates on the Crusades and the brutality with which crusaders massacred members of the other faiths and destroyed their places of worship by using religious sentiments to mobilize soldiers to conquer and hold the Holy City, particularly the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Yet a strong argument can be made that such sentiment was in direct contradiction to the teachings of Christ.
In a significant episode in the New Testament, Jesus was asked by the Samaritan woman at the well, "Where is the true place for worship: here in Samaria or in Jerusalem, as the Jews say?". Jesus replied to her, "Neither here nor there. God is spirit, and those who worship him, must worship him in spirit and in truth."
These profound words, given within a Jewish religious context, but which became normative for Christians, indicate that God is in fact divine and universal, and need not be confined to one geographic location, as the idols and tribal gods of the ancient world were. Christians, with the exception of those in the Crusader period, have repudiated exclusive religious claims over Jerusalem, and have insisted that true spiritual worship of God can be conducted in any part of the world, and not only in the Holy Sepulcher, the Holy Land, or in other religious shrines; God is enshrined in our hearts, and any attempt to insist on the sanctity of a particular place or shrine or location has been suspect in Christian theology.
A similar movement can also be found in Judaism, after the destruction of the Second Temple. The Temple was the place where ritual sacrifices were made and where the Chief Priest once a year would enter the Holy of Holies to atone for his sins and the sins of the people. With the utter destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., these rituals ended, resulting in a major spiritual crisis. Yet, after time, Judaism developed to the point where the Torah and the synagogue became the center of religious and community life for Jews, and the significance of the temporal Temple receded into mythological and distant significance. It is true that the hope "next year" has been maintained over the years, but in real, practical, as well as spiritual terms, emphasis shifted from Temple-centered sacrifices to a broader faith, until the twentieth century, when the secular movement of Zionism tried to revive the centrality of Jerusalem and Zion in its temporal aspect. In the present day, only a very small and marginal minority of Jews seriously contemplates the reestablishment of Temple worship. This dangerous element openly plots the destruction of the Haram al-Shareef for this purpose. Although a number of attempts and conspiracies toward that aim have been unearthed, the clear consensus of the Israeli population and of Jewish rabbis and spiritual leaders is in opposition to this extremist minority, and the emphasis remains, as it has been for the last two thousand years, on the universal aspects of Judaism, rather than the temporal one.
With Islam, mainstream thought is also in favor of the more universal aspects of the religion, including respect for the other two monotheistic faiths. Jerusalem has great spiritual significance for Muslims, with both the Burak Wall (The Jewish Western Wall) and the Harm al-Shareef, which is the third holiest site in Islam. Yet Islam, perhaps more so than Judaism and Christianity, has always emphasized its universal nature and its openness to all people throughout the world. Some argue that, coming chronologically after the first two monotheistic religions, it has accepted, legitimized, and shown more tolerance to the other monotheistic traditions than they showed to Islam. In Jerusalem itself, Muslim rule has reflected this openness and tolerance more often than not.
These examples are sited because it is all too often claimed that religion is a divisive factor in the politics surrounding Jerusalem. It does not have to be so. There is enough within each of the three religions to generate a different interpretation, and it is perhaps incumbent upon religious leaders from each religion to emphasize these tolerant elements and to insist that true spirituality does not come with specific, much less exclusivist, territorial claims over Jerusalem or its religious shrines, but, as Jesus said, through worship in spirit and in truth of the one single God worshiped and revered in the three monotheistic religions.
The current atmosphere of optimism requires a fresh look at the question of Jerusalem. It is up to the religious leaders of all three religions to emphasize those elements of tolerance and spirituality in their respective traditions, and thereby neutralize the religious fundamentalists who promote exclusivity, hatred, and violence in the name of God.
* Jonathan Kuttab is a Jerusalem-based Palestinian human rights lawyer and peace activist. This article is part of a series of views on “Enlarging the window of opportunity”, published in AMIN in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).