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Religion, Politics and Jerusalem

To half the people on the earth, Jerusalem is the Holy City – and the truth makes a world of difference.

by Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern

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There are key words that describe the psyche of a people. For example, “freedom” is a key to understanding the American mentality. In Israel, I believe it is “security.” For Arabs, especially Palestinians, it is “respect.”

Embedded in the pavement of the Greek Orthodox parish church in the town of Madaba in the highlands east of the Jordan River are two words that illuminate the anguishing problem of Israel and Palestine today. They are ancient Greek words, for they have been in place for over 1,400 years. They label a representation of Jerusalem, part of a mosaic map of the region: HAGIA POLIS (Hagia Polis), the Holy City.

From the beginning of Christian times, this was the proper name of Jerusalem, the only city in the Western world that was called the Holy City. Today Arabs still call it El-Quds, which in Arabic means “the Holy.”

Polis, the Greek word for city, is the root of our modern English word “politics.” Politics refers to guiding and managing the life of the city and, by extension, of the city-state or nation-state.

This unique title, Holy City, spells out the paradox and the problem of Jerusalem – the inseparability of the spiritual and political. With all due respect, sometimes political leaders are naive in thinking they can deal with the challenge of Jerusalem merely in political terms, as though its spiritual aspect were nothing but some historic connection with barely any modern significance.

How foolish, flawed and failed is such a policy was made clear by the tragic events of the past months.

In part, the present crisis in the Holy Land stems to the second Camp David discussions. Until then, Jerusalem was such a delicate topic that everyone agreed to postpone talking about it. For better or for worse, President Bill Clinton, in seeking a final resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, explicitly and formally put on the table the status of Jerusalem – the hottest topic of all.

When at the end of September the Israeli Likud party leader and former general, Ariel Sharon, accompanied by Israeli security, made a visit to the Temple Mount (the Temple Mount refers to a vast elevated plaza in Jerusalem on which the biblical Temple once stood, but which has been a Muslim sanctuary since the seventh century; its exterior western retaining wall is the great holy place for Jews), he did something in itself simple and ordinary, but whose symbolism was powerful and inflammatory.

His stated purpose was to demonstrate that a Jew may freely go anywhere in Israel, but this particular “anywhere” is a holy place of Islam. General Sharon wished to assert the political sovereignty of the State of Israel over all of Jerusalem, but he was perceived to be asserting sovereignty over the hagia as well as the polis.

The violence that followed soon after cannot be justified, but can be understood. The presence of this Israeli politician in a holy place not only heightened tensions between two nationalisms, Israeli and Palestinian, but also between the Jewish State and the religion of Islam. It convoked that tremendous clash and convergence of the holy and the political that is at the heart of the problem of Jerusalem.

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