Ira Chernus  


The Israelis and Palestinians are inching along a narrow ridge toward peace, trying to avoid a fatal fall into violence. The main stumbling block to peace seems to be Jerusalem. "The questions around Jerusalem go to the core identity of the Israelis and the Palestinians," President Clinton said, explaining the recent Camp David failure. But a shared Jerusalem need not threaten the core identity of Israelis.

Why is full rule over an undivided Jerusalem said to be at the core of Israeli identity? The Bible tells us that Jerusalem was the divinely ordained capital of the first Jewish state, the empire of David and Solomon. When Jews captured Jerusalem from the Jordanians in 1967, they regained their age-old site and symbol of holiness. Since then, religion has overridden political pragmatismóor so goes the usual explanation.

In fact, though, Jews have not always agreed on the central role of Jerusalem. Even before King David conquered Jerusalem (around 1000 BCE), his people were divided about the need for a capital city. Jerusalem symbolized the transformation of a group of loosely affiliated clans into a monarchy. According to the author of the biblical book of 1 Samuel, chapter 8, the monarchy and its capital symbolized not holiness but rejection of God and human justice.

An anti-royalist strain runs throughout the Hebrew Bible. Although it is a minority strain, it insists that Judaismís center is not Jerusalem but Sinai; Judaismís central value is not political sovereignty but obedience to the Torah, Godís teaching.

That minority view allowed Judaism to survive when the Jews lost their political independence and control of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Could they still worship their God, whose "home" was in Jerusalem, without sovereignty? Some Jews doubted it. If their opinion had prevailed, Judaism would have disappeared. It survived because most Jews, and most of their rabbis, insisted that God could be worshiped and His Torah obeyed anywhere. They denied the need for Jewish control of Jerusalem, in order to save the religion that began at Sinai.

In the great Hasidic revival of the 18th century, Jerusalemís central importance was again debated. Some Hasidim still cherished the ideal of returning to Jerusalem. Others said that as long as they could be in the presence of their leaders, their rebbes or tzadikim, they had no need to journey to the holy city.

Even today, there is no unanimous opinion among Jews about Jerusalem. In the U.S., polls consistently show that only about 60% of Jews insist on full Israeli sovereignty over the entire city. The number may be somewhat higher in Israel. But there, too, a substantial minority is willing to trade full sovereignty for peace.

What is new today is the sizeable number of Jews, especially in Israel, who call themselves "non-religious." Their claim on Jerusalem is not rooted in the bible or religious belief. They cling to Jerusalem partly for the same reason that Americans would cling to Washington, DC: it is their prime symbol of secular national revival and political power.

These secular Jews may actually be practicing a new form of Judaism. The eminent historian of Judaism, Jacob Neusner, calls it the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption. Its fundamental commandment is Jewish survival. Its fundamental memory is the Nazi Holocaust. Its fundamental symbol is the reunified Jerusalem, the proof that Jews will survive by any means necessary.

The Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption has the allegiance of a majority of Jews, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or secular. It is so appealing because it gives Jews, not a justification or explanation, but some positive response to the otherwise paralyzing memory of the Holocaust. A shared Jerusalem would call into question this new foundation of Jewish identity and open many Jews to troubling questions about the Jewish past and future.

The great paradox is that a shared Jerusalem would now be the greatest step toward the goal of the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption: assured Jewish survival. As long as Jerusalem is contested, there will be a growing possibility that frustration on all sides will spill over into violence that threatens Jews as well as their opponents.

The Jewish community faces a profound choice. Enhanced physical security is pitted against political pride and the emotional security of a familiar psychosocial identity. Jewish religious tradition does not dictate any particular response. It can bend to accommodate new arrangements for Jerusalem in the future, as it has in the past, without any fundamental harm to Judaism.

It remains to be seen whether todayís Jews can match the courage of their ancestors by risking a new arrangement that seems, right now, too radical to contemplate. Once again, as in the past, a radically new step may be the best way to preserve both Judaism and the Jews.