Office of Government Relations

EPPN Lenten Series Part 6: Spotlight on Jerusalem

April 9, 2014
Office of Government Relations

“The phrase “Holy City” is constantly used to describe the reverence for her shrines, but what it really means is that Jerusalem is the essential place on earth for the communication between God and man.” –- Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, the Biography

Dear Fellow Advocates,

Just as Jesus’ earthly ministry found its climax in Jerusalem, so too has our journey through Lent and toward Holy Week led us there.   The status of Jerusalem is perhaps the most difficult contemporary issue for Israelis and Palestinians working toward a peace deal, and just as it has through centuries and even millennia, it continues to vex even those who have spent a lifetime working toward peace.

On one hand, Jerusalem is a study in historical and contemporary paradox.    Landlocked and set on a hill, its practical and strategic value to any state has never been particularly high.  Yet, more than any city in the history of civilization, Jerusalem has captured the imaginations of those who crave it, none more so than the adherents of the three great Abrahamic faiths.    The Jewish tradition that included Jesus saw Jerusalem and its Temple as the literal dwelling-place of God on earth, and until Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD, it was impossible to understand the faith of the Israelites apart from the physical residence of God on Mount Zion.    For Christians, Jerusalem is of course the place to which Jesus’ entire earthly ministry slowly marched, his sacrifice at Calvary being rich with symbolism of the sacrifice of the Passover lamb at the Temple in the sight of the Divine Presence.   For Muslims, Jerusalem is the location of Mohammed’s Night Journey and the site of Islam’s third-holiest site, Al Aqsa mosque, and the great Dome of the Rock that was built atop the Temple Mount (called the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims) that once held the Temple.  Each tradition has experienced periods of proximity and exile, and always longing, for the courts and citadels of the Holy City.

On another hand, the issues related to Jerusalem today might be seen as fairly straightforward.   The modern city of Jerusalem, built around the Old City that still stands at its core, is a thriving metropolis of 800,000 people.  Jews and Arabs in the modern city live largely separate, but sometimes overlapping, lives.   While neither side can envision a future in which the other has permanent control of the full city, the question of territorial disposition in some ways becomes much easier once historical and religious claims to the Old City are dealt with separately.   Strict territorial division of the city, as existed from 1948 to 1967, is of course one option, though many believe this to be an undesirable course for a city the Psalms describe as being “at unity with itself.”   Since prior to the end of the British Mandate in 1947, international thinking about Jerusalem centered on ways it might be shared between Jews and Arabs as a capital for two states, a position consistently supported by The Episcopal Church.  Still, the present status quo has not been good for the prospect of sharing Jerusalem.  As last week’s rupture in the U.S.-brokered negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians revealed again, the question of construction on land perceived to belong to another is even more volatile in Jerusalem than the West Bank.  

What is abundantly clear is that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that does not involve agreement on Jerusalem is no solution at all, and no matter how vexing the issues we will explore seem, the spirit of negotiation must produce compromise.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” cries Jesus as he moves to the final fateful moment of his passion, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”  It is not difficult to imagine Jesus speaking those same words today as he beholds Jerusalem fraught with such complexity, but also such promise.

Next week, in Holy Week, we will conclude our Lenten series as we began it, by considering reconciliation.   Today, let us pray for the peace of Jerusalem.


What is the central issue and why is it important? 

Both Israel and the Palestinians have important historical and contemporary claims to Jerusalem.  Each side in the present Conflict sees Jerusalem as its capital.  The Old City – the most ancient and historic segment of Jerusalem – is today a tiny segment of municipal Jerusalem, but contains some of the holiest sites in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Israel has primarily administered the full city since 1967, a complicated and controversial 47 years, but Palestinians and Israelis alike continue to see the status of Jerusalem as critical to a final-status agreement.   Modern Jerusalem, which is built out from the Old City, is a sprawling metropolis of approximately 800,000 people, and is extraordinarily diverse.   Approximately 63% of the city’s residents are Jewish, with Muslims and a very small number of Christians comprising the bulk of the rest of the population.   The vast majority of Jews live in Jewish neighborhoods and the vast majority of Arabs live in Arab neighborhoods, with economic and community life being largely separate.  

What is the history?

As discussed above, international proposals for partition of Palestine during the final years of the British Mandate envisioned international administration or some other sort of sharing of the Holy City of Jerusalem. Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, however, Jerusalem was partitioned into two cities.  West Jerusalem, on the Israeli side of the Green Line, became part of the new State of Israel, while East Jerusalem, including the Old City, became part of the Kingdom of Transjordan (now Jordan).  This situation held until the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel won control of East Jerusalem (along with the full West Bank) and reunified the city under Israeli administration.  In 1980, the Israeli Knesset formally took control of East Jerusalem, an action disputed still by the United States and most other international observers.  The construction of Israeli housing in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem has complicated the matter further in the years since.

What is the Israeli position?

Israelis hold that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel, that its division between 1948 and 1967 was tragic, and that it should remain unified forever.

What is the Palestinian position?

Palestinians too understand Jerusalem as the capitol of a future state.   Palestinians believe that they must have sovereignty over at least the portion of the city that was under Jordanian control prior to 1967.

How has each side approached the claims of the other?

This is a complicated question.   Historically, each side has viewed the other’s history and present claims in Jerusalem with skepticism.  This is particularly true where the holy sites in the Old City are concerned.  Yassir Arafat, in his years as Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, denied that a Jewish Temple ever existed in Jerusalem, a claim that historian Simon Montefiore has noted even Arafat’s own historians disputed privately.   Similarly, today, some far-right elements in the Israeli Knesset support an assertion of Jewish sovereignty over Temple Mount, whose Muslim waqf control of many centuries has been let stand by Israel since winning the Old City in 1967.  

These voices, however, are out-of-step with the mainstream on each side.   Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas spoke recently of his belief that Jerusalem should not be re-divided, and while Palestinians never have formally agreed to share the city, Palestinian negotiators reportedly agreed to these terms during 2006-8 talks.   Similarly, while Israeli leaders insist that Jerusalem should never be divided, Israeli negotiators did offer Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem during multiple past peace negotiations.

Is it possible to share Jerusalem without dividing it?

Yes.  As numerous proposals have made clear, it is possible for Jerusalem to exist as a unified city (or an “open city,” as some call it) with both Israeli and Palestinian civil control over respective neighborhoods, without providing a stark division of the City as existed from 1948-1967.   This is essentially what Israeli and Palestinian representatives have discussed during past negotiations.  Particular challenges under such a scenario would include shared administration of the Old City, security around the full city, a shared economic life, and smooth cooperation between two municipal and two national authorities.

What is The Episcopal Church position?

The Episcopal Church has been clear for approximately three decades that a shared Jerusalem must be the capital of both Israel and a future Palestinian state, that access to the holy sites must be protected for all people, and that – as with all other issues dividing the Israelis and the Palestinians – negotiation is the only way for the parties to reach agreement.

What might a final agreement look like?

As always, it is important to emphasize that only the parties themselves can determine the outcome of this issue through negotiation.   Still, past negotiations point us to what tenets might be included in a future agreement.  These include:

  • An open and shared city in which Arab neighborhoods, primarily in the eastern part of the city, come under Palestinian civil administration while Jewish neighborhoods remain under Israeli administration;
  • Cooperation in civil administration, economic life, and protection of the security of the city;
  • A true capital for both Israel and a future Palestinian state in the portions of the city under the respective administrative control of each;
  • A special agreement for administration of the Old City that ensures that people from both sides, and all religious traditions, have open access to the holy sites.


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