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Owning Jerusalem: Identity and Borders in the Holy City

June 4th, 2008by Haim Watzman · 6 Comments · Judaism and Religion, Politics and Policy

Haim Watzman

I recall a gathering of journalists once many years ago at which a well-meaning but clueless intern told me that she worked in “Jerusalem, Israel” and then quickly corrected herself: “I meant just Jerusalem. I believe it should be an international city.”

In response to my Jerusalem Day post earlier this week, DanH asks a related question:

It has always seemed to me that, given the claims of both sides, the only long-term solution for Jerusalem is joint or autonomous administration, not just of the holy places, but of the whole city.

To idealists, and to some overwhelmed by the intractability of the Jerusalem problem, internationalization and joint Israeli-Palestinian rule over the Holy City sound like wonderful solutions. But, quite aside from the practical problems (recall Danzig, recall Trieste), they are wrong in principle.

Why? Because they give neither the Jews nor the Arabs what they want and need-ownership and sovereignty in the city they see as their capital.

Those two words, “ownership” and “sovereignty,” sound primitive and selfish to idealistic peaceniks. But that’s only because such people think the whole concept of national and religious identity is primitive and selfish. Enlightened humans, such people believe, don’t need such divisive things as religious belief and national affiliation. They don’t need blood and soil.

True, religious fundamentalism and hypernationalism can be a cause of conflict. But so can disregard of the natural human trait of identifying with and taking pride in one’s native culture, faith, and land. One reason (not the only one, of course) that sub-Saharan Africa is such a mess today is that the colonial powers disregarded ethnic affiliations and territories in drawing their boundaries. And self-styled trans-national states (Austria-Hungary, the Soviet Union) always end up imposing a dominant culture on their minorities, leading to resentment and rebellion.

But the diversity of human culture, language, historical narrative, and paths to God is a gift and an asset. Who wants to live in a world where everyone thinks, talks, remembers, and worships the same? Instead of ignoring or dismissing particularistic identities, we need to strengthen them. It’s when people feel that their national and religious identities are under threat that they take up arms to defend them–and justly so.

A nation strong and secure in its identity can afford to give up some of its native territory and accept and acknowledge that other nations have other beliefs and narratives. When a people feels secure–not just militarily, but culturally as well–they can compromise.

Making both Palestinians and Israelis feel secure in their identities is thus essential for any peace plan. Given the centrality of Jerusalem in both Palestinian/Arab and Israeli/Jewish history, belief, and myth, it’s important that each nation have its own stake in the city. It’s not enough to hand it over to some vague international administration, or to share ownership. Each nation needs and deserves to have a part of it for its own. With firm and unchallenged sovereignty for both nations, Jerusalem can indeed become a city of peace.

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