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Israelis and Palestinians Strive For Spiritual and Political Home

`PRINCE or people, everyone has his home in thee....'' When the Psalmist wrote these words about Jerusalem 2,700 years ago, he caught something of the emotional and spiritual pull this city has had on generations of faithful - Jewish, Muslim, and Christian.

But if Jerusalem has been the focus of intense religious devotion, it has also been the object of intense political strife. As one Israeli writer, Amos Elon, says, politics and religion have fused to form a kind of ``religious territorialism'' or ``holy nationalism.''

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In modern times, the struggle for Jerusalem has pitted Israelis against Palestinian Arabs, whose 28-month uprising against Israel has only heightened the emotional debate, based on religious and historic claims, over who should rule.

Jews believe that an undivided Jerusalem must be the eternal capital of Israel. Palestinians rejoin that ``Arab Jerusalem,'' the half of the city annexed by Israel following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, must be the capital of an eventual Palestinian state. Many outsiders speak of placing Jerusalem under United Nations control or sidestepping the issue altogether until other aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been resolved.

The debate was enlivened last month when United States President Bush questioned Soviet Jewish immigrants' right to settle in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem. Though partially retracted, the statement resurrected the controversial issue over who rules Jerusalem.

To learn why Jews and Arabs feel so strongly about Jerusalem, turn to the next page, where the Monitor speaks with Shlomo Riskin, a prominent Israeli rabbi, and Sari Nusseibeh, a leading Palestinian activist.

Shlomo Riskin

For every Jew, faith and politics, history, and the promise of salvation converge in Jerusalem, producing emotional commitment to the city unmatched by any other religion, says Rabbi Riskin.

``In terms of Jewish history and the sanctity of the place, Jerusalem belongs to the Jews,'' says Mr. Riskin. He left his post as chief rabbi of one of New York City's largest synagogues to settle in Israel seven years ago.

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The wellspring of Jewish belief is the 35-acre threshing floor, known as the Temple Mount, that is the spiritual and symbolic center of Jerusalem.

There, 4,000 years ago, the patriarch Abraham offered his son Issac as a sacrifice to God. And there, because of Abraham's devotion, says Riskin, Jews built the great temples of Solomon and Herod that remain ``the symbol of the unity of the Jewish people.''

Today, Jews believe that worshiping in Jerusalem is essential to serving God, many of whose 613 Biblical commandments can be fulfilled only here.

``Jerusalem has a greater quotient of divinity than any place on earth,'' says Riskin. ``Jerusalem from our point of view means standing in the presence of God in a way you cannot anywhere else in the world.

``It's our Mecca,'' he adds, referring to Islam's holiest city, in Saudi Arabia.

Politically, notes Riskin, it was here that David forged unity out of 12 disparate tribes, providing the symbol which, ever since, has enabled Jews to think of themselves as one people. In every prayer, in every ceremony, says Riskin, it was the name of Jerusalem that sustained Jews through the hardships of centuries in exile, begun after Roman soldiers destroyed Herod's temple.

The right of Jews to control Jerusalem is strengthened by continuity, Riskin adds. At least a remnant of Jews have lived continuously in Jerusalem since the time of Abraham, while Muslim conquerors, the precursors of today's Palestinian Arabs, arrived only in the seventh century. Nor has any Arab ruler made Jerusalem his capital.

When Jordan controlled Jerusalem's Old City between 1948 and 1967, it excluded all Jews from their holy places and allowed acts of desecration at significant Jewish sites.

Riskin says Jordan's policy is the strongest argument for permanent Israeli control of the city.

``The Arabs turned Jewish holy places into donkey stalls,'' says Riskin. ``But after 1967 we gave the keys to the mosques to the Arabs. No one called for internationalizing Jerusalem when it was under Arab rule; now suddenly the world says to internationalize the city. It's so unfair.''

``The Arab world has proven to us that wherever we don't have sovereignty we can't function,'' adds Riskin. ``We have proven to Arabs that they don't need sovereignty to function politically or religiously. Without sovereignty, we have nothing.''

Sari Nusseibeh

There is no such thing as an exclusive Jewish right to Jerusalem, whether historically or religiously, explains Sari Nusseibeh, a professor of philosophy at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank.

Professor Nusseibeh says the ancestral roots of today's Palestinian Arabs precede the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and have never been interrupted.

Moreover, Jerusalem has been a focus of religious devotion for thousands of years, going back to the ancient Caananites.

``When Abraham came, Jerusalem was already a center for religious devotion,'' says Nusseibeh. ``When you study the claim to Jerusalem, there's no reason why the Palestinians, who have always been here one way or the other, should have less share of the country and the capital than Jews.''

``Jerusalem's centricity from a cultural point of view is something that belongs to all people independent of Jewish and Muslim claims,'' he adds. Nusseibeh says Palestinians also have a claim to Jerusalem as Muslims. For 13 centuries, Jerusalem has been Islam's holiest site after Mecca (the Prophet Muhammad's birthplace and site of the annual Muslim hajj, or pilgrimage) and Medina (Muhammad's burial site).

So sacred is Jerusalem, Muslims believe, that a good deed committed here has 1,000 times the normal weight, while a sin committed here has 1,000 times the normal gravity.

Like Jews, Muslims venerate the Temple Mount because of Abraham, though in Islamic tradition the object of sacrifice was not Issac but Ishmael, the patriarch of the Arabs.

In addition, the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount honors the spot from which the Prophet is said to have ascended to heaven to talk to God. His only recorded miracle, the event is as central to Islam as the Exodus is to Judaism or the resurrection of Jesus to Christianity.

Whether real or visionary, says Nusseibeh, the visit heightened the significance of Jerusalem as the place from which man was allowed to ascend to God.

``Why did he see God from Jerusalem and not Mecca?'' Nusseibeh asks rhetorically. ``It gives Jerusalem a special status as the gateway to divine knowledge.''

Ultimately, says Nusseibeh, the Arab claim to sovereignty over Jerusalem is political, not religious.

Until now, Arabs have never placed their capital in Jerusalem precisely because it is a holy city. But with Israel threatening Arab rights to the city, the issue has been forced. ``Since I have a challenger to my rights and since it threatens my very existence, there is a rise in Palestinian Arab consciousness with Jerusalem as its focus.''

``In the end, our claim to Jerusalem is not based on Islam but on national grounds,'' says Nusseibeh. ``We see Jerusalem as the capital of the country of which we are the indigenous inhabitants.''

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