WASHINGTON (JTA) — Among his many statements related to Israel in the last couple of weeks, President Obama got at least one thing right when he said at a London news conference that Jerusalem goes deep into how the Jewish people think about their identity.
As we mark 44 years of a reunited Jerusalem this week, we should appreciate the centrality of Jerusalem to Jewish identity.
This is why most Israelis and American Jews consistently reject the idea that Israel surrender swaths of the holy city as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Jerusalem has been a touchstone of our identity throughout our history, and our contemporary experience gives Jerusalem a central place in our faith today.
From the religious perspective, when Jews pray, we face toward Jerusalem — and the Temple Mount in particular — no matter where we are in the world. We pray each day for the welfare of Jerusalem, and we conclude our most sacred services, the Passover seder and Neilah on Yom Kippur, with the pledge and prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Historically, we regularly read biblical accounts of our forefathers and mothers that take place in and around Jerusalem. King David made the city his capital 3,000 years ago, and it has been the national capital of the Jewish people — and no other nation — ever since.
Only brute force has kept us out. Such was the case, we must still recall, from 1948 to 1967, when Jews were barred entry to the Old City and denied worship at the Western Wall during the time that the West Bank was controlled by Jordan.
Since Jerusalem’s reunification in 1967, the city has been open to all. As noted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his recent address to Congress, “Only a democratic Israel has protected freedom of worship for all faiths.”
Moreover, reunification has enabled Jerusalem to flourish economically and culturally. While it is a poorer city than Tel Aviv, Jerusalem has a vibrant tourist trade, entrepreneurial businesses and first-rate theater and museums.
Some, in Israel and elsewhere, assert that Jerusalem can be easily divided with minimal impact upon the life of the city, let alone the sanctity and safety of its holy places. Indeed, there are neighborhoods, especially those to the east of the West Bank security barrier, where Jews seldom venture.
But modern Jerusalem is far more an interwoven checkerboard of Jewish and Palestinian areas than starkly segregated enclaves. The Arab area of Beit Safafa lies between the Jewish neighborhoods of Talpiot and Gilo, while the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah lies between the Old City and the Jewish neighborhood of French Hill. Moreover, an area like the City of David or Silwan may have more Palestinian than Jewish residents, but it is deeply connected to Jewish history.
It is no more feasible to separate the Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem from one another than to ethnically divide the neighborhoods of Manhattan.
Proponents of a “two-state solution” are wont to say that “everyone knows” what the details of a deal are. Those details often include the presumption that Jerusalem will again be divided and will serve as the capital of two states: Israel and Palestine.
It is high time to repudiate this presumption. The international community would never expect the Muslims to cede sovereignty over Mecca, the cradle of their faith and history, any more than Americans would be asked to return Philadelphia to the queen of England. The Jewish people should be afforded no less respect. Jerusalem must remain united under Jewish sovereignty.
Days after the 1967 Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem, one of the great leaders of religious Zionism, Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriah, wrote that the Jews were not worthy to hold onto Jerusalem in 1948 because they were divided into many factions.
“In 1967,” he wrote, “we entered the city through one gate, the Lions’ Gate, with one army, the IDF, under one flag.”
Of course, we Jews find ourselves in many factions today. We must fight on many fronts to assert the Jewish heritage of Jerusalem. On this Jerusalem Day, or Yom Yerushalayim, we must commit ourselves to confronting those who would redivide our capital from without and to working to unify the Jewish people from within.
We must do it for the sake of Jerusalem.
(Nathan Diament is the director of public policy at the Orthodox Union.)