By David K. Shipler
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
The city of Jerusalem, whose sandstone facades glow ethereally in the slanting light of dawns and dusks, stands on a spine of hills along the lands of milk and of honey. To the east, the land plunging down into the Judean Desert has been traditionally hospitable to milk-producing goat herds. To the west, the fertile coastal plain along the Mediterranean has been sweet with orchards.
That is the basic biblical geography. At this intersection of semi-nomadic peoples and settled farmers, Jerusalem has been enriched and burdened by ancient affinities and faiths. Its map today is enhanced and scarred by the overlays of history, religion, and nationalism, a treacherous landscape into which President Trump has now stumbled clumsily.
What forces he has unwittingly set loose we do not yet know; predictions in that part of the world are for prophets or fools. But his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State alone, without also recognizing the Palestinians’ yearning for Jerusalem as the capital of their aspirational state, surely diminishes America’s maneuverability.
It’s hard to see what the United States gains from Trump’s move. For the limited profit of catering to his big donors and his narrow base, Trump has tossed away the American coin of neutrality—as tarnished as it was by years of tilting toward Israel’s interests. Not many Palestinians thought of Washington as truly unbiased, since no previous administration did more than use strong words against Israel’s confiscation of territories for Jewish settlement in the mostly Palestinian West Bank and the eastern districts of Jerusalem. No penalty was exacted: no withholding of aid, no reduction of military support. And now Trump has asked nothing from Israel in exchange for his endorsement.
Jerusalem’s fate was supposed to be left open, according to international law and consensus, pending a final Israeli-Palestinian peace. But formal American policy and high-sounding pronouncements have never thwarted persistent Israeli encirclement and fragmentation of the city’s Palestinian areas, especially under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Contrary to Israeli claims to possess a unified Jerusalem, the city is more severely divided by culture, language, identity, religion, and fear than at any time since it was reassembled under Israeli control in the 1967 war.
The walled Old City, whose courses of stones date from Herod up to the Ottomans, contains the distillation of the world’s three monotheistic religions. But few Israeli Jews dare roam the vibrant, cobbled alleys of its Muslim Quarter, thick with the pungent smells of coffee and cardamom, to bargain for carpets or buy honeyed pastries. Few Palestinian Arabs venture into the guarded Jewish Quarter or into mostly Jewish West Jerusalem. Israeli Jews don’t generally shop on Saladin Street, and Arabs don’t frequent stores near Zion Square.
A couple of previous Israeli governments floated ideas for sharing Jerusalem, but the Palestinian leadership either rejected or ignored the offers. Radicalization, eating away the middle ground of compromise, has fostered absolutism, and neither side is now inclined toward division or joint jurisdiction.
The intransigence is a hallmark of the conflict’s evolution from a clash of nationalisms with competing territorial claims to the less easily negotiated clash of historical and religious identities. Leaving the Christians aside—the Church of the Holy Sepulcher stands where the oldest denominations believe Jesus was crucified and buried—the knottiest religio-historical entanglements are on the manmade plateau in the Old City known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary.
There, an outcropping of bedrock was believed, in ancient Jewish tradition, to be the core around which God created the earth. It is that rock on which the Prophet Abraham is said to have prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. It figures in Islam as the spot from which the Prophet Muhammad left on his horse for his night journey to heaven.
Modern Israel is probably the only conqueror, besides Britain after World War I, that has not put its own religious shrine on the mount. In ancient times, the First Jewish Temple of Solomon stood there until the Jews’ exile into Babylon in 587 B.C.E. The Jews’ Second Temple under Herod was plundered by the Greeks, who installed an image of Zeus, and the Romans burned it down in 70 C.E., replacing it with a temple to Jupiter and statues of their emperors. In 638, Muslim conquerors built a mosque on the site, which the Crusaders converted into a church. It was restored as a mosque—now the third holiest site in Islam—when the Muslims ousted the Crusaders at the end of the twelfth century.
When Israeli soldiers captured the Old City from the Jordanians in 1967, an advance unit climbed into the golden Dome of the Rock, which encloses the sacred outcropping, and hoisted an Israeli flag at its top. Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defense minister, immediately ordered it removed, lest the Muslim world be set aflame. Israel then left the holy places in the hands of the respective religions; only the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount is accessible to Jews for prayer, a vestige of the holiest Jewish site.
In a world of perfect tolerance, the intricate interactions and overlapping beliefs of Judaism and Islam, and their reverence for that special space, might be expected to bring harmony and mutual respect. Instead, more and more Palestinians deny even the existence of the Jewish Temples in ancient times, arguing that these are Israeli fabrications to assert possession. Indeed, conspiracy theories abound that Israel seeks ultimately to destroy the Muslim shrines there and build a Third Temple.
Notwithstanding the Israeli government’s consistent denials of any such plan, a small but increasingly active group of Jews has mobilized to advocate the construction of a Third Temple. They run a center in the Jewish Quarter containing artifacts to be used in the forthcoming temple, albeit to be built only when peace reigns. It seems likely that Trump’s blundering into this morass will only fuel those conspiracy theories among Muslims, and that the lip service he gave in his speech about Islam’s attachment to Jerusalem will go unheard by those who now see the United States as an Israeli collaborator.
No peace negotiations can be successful without resolving the Jerusalem impasse. While negotiators have repeatedly kicked Jerusalem down the road and focused instead on boundaries between Palestinian and Israeli jurisdictions, security arrangements, Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and other temporal matters, the place supposedly closest to God continues to seethe.
As the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote in Jerusalem, 1967:
And already the demons of the past are meeting
with the demons of the future and negotiating about me