Jack Van Ens: Whose holy land is Jerusalem?
July 17, 2010
Which people has God given Jerusalem as a special gift? The three Abrahamic religions-Islam, Judaism, and Christianity-clash because each sees Jerusalem belonging to its faith tradition. The Koran doesn’t once mention Jerusalem. Muhammad, who founded this religion in 622 A.D., never visited it. Still, Muslims revere this city because they regard it as their future independent Palestinian homeland’s capital. East Jerusalem encompasses some of the holiest shrines in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War won convincingly against a coalition of Palestinian forces and wrested control of Jerusalem from Jordan. Palestinians have vowed to fight a holy war whenever Israel plants settlements in East Jerusalem. “Settlements” is a euphemism because these new clusters of Israeli residences aren’t lonely outposts where a few Jews decide to camp. Leaving dense housing in central Jerusalem, Jews erect bustling suburbs in areas Palestinians consider their sacred space.More than population shifts motivate Jews to build homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Palestinians prize as their homeland. Jews read their Torah. It announces an irrevocable promise God gave to their ancestors through Abraham. This sacred covenant is repeatedly announced in the Torah. “Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your descendents I will give this land'” (Genesis 12:7). Scripture affirms this promise never lapses. God announced to Abram, “…for all the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants for ever (Genesis 13:15).Can the Lord’s word be clearer? The Torah’s theme first announced in Genesis can’t be debated, insist contemporary Jews. God gave Jerusalem and its surrounding territory to Israel, His chosen nation, in a deal without time limits because its effect stretches into eternity.Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman and editor in chief of U.S. News & World Report, in a Wall Street Journal commentary (April 28, 2010, p. A17), reveals why Jerusalem stirs ardent commitment from Jews. “Jerusalem is not just another piece of territory on a political chessboard. It is integral to the identity and faith of the Jewish people,” declares Zuckerman. “Since the city was founded by King David some 3,500 years ago, Jews have lived there, worked there and prayed there.”Jerusalem functions as a non-negotiable prime symbol of Jewish identity. Its melded to their souls. When Barack Obama and Bibi Netanyahu met for the first time as president and prime minister on May 18, 2009, the president asked him to uproot some existing settlements and pull back on plans to build more. Palestinians, who claim this land as their capital, refused to sit down at the negotiating table if the pullbacks weren’t a precondition for peace talks. Restored to office by a right-wing government, Netanyahu declared no support whatsoever for Palestinian statehood rooted in East Jerusalem. After his confrontation with Obama, he declared what the Torah clearly teaches, “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, a city reunified so as never again to be divided.”On Tuesday, July 7, 2010, after declaring a partial freeze on building settlements in the West Bank that runs out this month, Netanyahu met in Washington, D.C., with Obama. This time they posed for conciliatory photos. These leaders avoided specifics of how to divvy up Jerusalem between Jews and Palestinians.Christianity makes a third claim for Jerusalem that supercedes divine covenants to Jews and Muslims. Yes, God initially focused his divine plan for the ages by promising Abraham land in which Jerusalem is located. But God is always on the move, refining and broadening his intent. God pinpointed his divine blessing in a person-Jesus, the Christ-not a parcel of land. He has broadened the promise of divine blessing to Jews, Muslims and Gentiles alike. Jerusalem is an open city for the nations of the earth, not a private domain Jews or Palestinians takeover because of competing territorial claims. Determining to whom Jerusalem belongs gets dicey when ancient religious promises are superimposed on contemporary nation-states. Bernhard W. Anderson, my teacher of the Torah at Princeton Theological Seminary, cautioned students that much of scripture is time-conditioned, provisional and speaks to specific historical eras. Professor Anderson writes, in “Contours of Old Testament Theology,” that the promises of land were given to ancient Israel. They “should not be construed as a divine mandate for other peoples in other times and historical situations to engage in territorial expansion or cultural domination at the expense of native populations.”Doesn’t it make sense that God grants space in Jerusalem to each of the three faiths rooted in the Abrahamic tradition, rather than showing preference to one? The Rev.Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.