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A holy city's peaceful purpose

Centuries of religious tension in Jerusalem must yield to an inspired vision.

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While revolt across the Arab world makes the process of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians less certain, it makes their outcome more urgent. Can the revolutionary spirit sweeping the region open the door to fresh ways to resolve the Middle East’s most troublesome conflict? This is the third essay of "Peace within Reach," a three-part commentary series that explores why peace may be closer than you think.

Photo Illustrations by John Kehe/Staff; Photos by AP

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To the Gospel writer John, it was "the great" and "holy" city. To the writer of Hebrews, it was "the city of the living God." To the poet Dante, it was "the city where God dwells and reigns."

Of Jerusalem it is safe to say that no city has ever been the object of such heavenly visions – or such earthly discord. At the confluence of the world's three great monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – Jerusalem has long been, in the words of author David Shipler, "an arena for the conflict of certainties." Faith, politics, and the promise of salvation converge in Jerusalem to produce unyielding emotional and spiritual attachments that test the very limits of peacemaking.

At issue is whether Jerusalem is to be the undivided capital of Israel, the home of two capitals in the event of Palestinian statehood, or the object of international jurisdiction.

Deep attachments to sacred space

For a place where God is presumed to be so immanent, religious history has proved more a barrier than a bridge to peace.

It was here that David united the disparate tribes of Judea and Samaria into a united kingdom. It was here that Jeremiah thundered against the backsliding of the Jews and called for a more exalted worship of God. It was here, atop the Temple Mount, that Solomon built the first great Jewish temple, and where, centuries later, Herod built another.

And it is Jerusalem – the city and the ideal – that provided the most durable symbol of unity for the millions of Jews forced into 2,000 years of exile after Herod's temple was destroyed by Roman legions in AD 70. For Israelis, history leads to only one conclusion: Jerusalem belongs to the Jews.

Not so, say Palestinians, who reject Israel's demand for exclusive control of Jerusalem. The ancestral roots of today's Palestinians precede the Jewish presence in Jerusalem, they insist. For 14 centuries, Jerusalem has been one of Islam's holiest sites. Islamic tradition has it that it was from the Dome of the Rock, a shrine erected on the spot where the temples of Solomon and Herod once stood, that the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven one night to talk with God.

The unique hold Jerusalem has on the religious imagination is reflected in the concept of sacred space. Jews believe that Jerusalem is where divinity comes closest to humanity. Muslims believe that any good deed done in Jerusalem has a thousand times the normal weight, while any sin, a thousand times the gravity.

Such deep attachments have magnified the impact of historical injustices, ancient and modern. Israelis remember with considerable bitterness that between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan controlled the Old City of Jerusalem including the Temple Mount, they were barred from the holy places, some of which were desecrated. For Jews, this is the ultimate argument for maintaining exclusive control of Jerusalem. Just as bitterly, Arabs complain that Israel has seized entire Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and replaced them with their own, in violation of international law. For Arabs, this is the ultimate argument for demanding that the city be divided into Arab and Jewish jurisdictions.

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