Each year, Jews, Christians, and Muslims come to this city to join in speaking of peace. This is the 20th annual theological conference at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Year by year, however, peace seems increasingly impossible, which chastens us because religion adds more to the problem than to the solution.
Last week, the bad news of Jerusalem centered on an Old City ramp up to the sacred precinct that Muslims revere as Haram al-Sharif and that Jews call the Temple Mount. The ramp was damaged in a storm. The Israeli government, in the way it began the repair, sparked Muslim fears and protests, which in turn led many Israelis to see deliberate provocation.
Alas, it does not take a Muslim nutcase to think Jewish and/or Christian nutcases have messianic designs on the blessed compound. Israelis and Palestinians alike fear an onslaught of fanatics, and who can say it will not come?
That is the narrow context. The parameters of the broader context were defined last week by the visit to Jerusalem by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which did nothing for the conflict but highlight the impotence of the three responsible powers: the Israeli government crippled by last summer's war against Hezbollah and this winter's high-level criminal cases; the Bush administration self-imprisoned in Iraq; and Palestinian authorities paralyzed by incipient civil war.
Rice came and went like the unexpected hailstorm that blew through on my first day, leaving Jerusalem colder and more slippery.
Meanwhile, Jews in Israel hear a newly legitimate discourse about the illegitimacy of the Israeli state. (If "apartheid" is an unacceptable reference in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is not because analogies with Bantustans are misplaced, but because comparisons to the South African apartheid regime, which had no moral right to exist, attack Israel's moral right to exist.)
In the United States, opponents of the war in Iraq blame an "Israel lobby," while newly self-critical Jewish voices wonder aloud how to protect values of democracy and Zionism both. Such disputes seem abstract to Palestinians, choking as they are on a "security barrier" that closes like a noose.
In Arab Jerusalem, a wall maroons neighborhoods, while the barrier elsewhere isolates West Bank communities from their lifeline to the holy city. The security barrier threatens to shackle the next generation every bit as much as the settlements shackle this one.
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Beyond these local disputes, Israelis and Palestinians have something new in common -- a set of chains yoking them to the much-derided but nevertheless unfolding "clash of civilizations."
Yet here we are listening to a local Jewish leader invoke what he calls "the coalition of civilizations," as if the clash can yet be countered by "the commonsensical lived reality" of life in this city.
Incompatible narratives do in fact unfold side by side; Arabs and Jews do intermingle. The surprise is not this month's argument over the holy place, but that such flashpoints are so rare. Striking an equally positive note, a Palestinian leader tells us, "We believe Jerusalem -- if it lives up to its best history -- can be a motivating element for the reconciliation of the two states. There is no choice but partnership."
Such talk seems cruelly utopian, and sure enough within our theological discussion group, a chasm of anxiety opens as real differences surface. One person's true belief is another person's fundamentalism. Tolerance is proclaimed a religious virtue, but can it tolerate the intolerant? If Jews, Christians, and Muslims, speaking only of ideas, feel the edge of alienation, and even accusation, what hope is there for people at war? And what if the national war between Israelis and Palestinians becomes the religious war between Jews and Muslims, with Christians in the vise?
But war makes the point, for when life and death define the boundaries, to give up hope is not an option. That is what Jerusalem displays. Hope is a political act. Hope is a choice. Hope is an act of resistance, and an act of peace.
On one constant fact rests the diehard hope for Israelis and Palestinians: Even now solid majorities of both communities agree not only on the necessity of compromise, but on its ultimate shape. If otherwise antagonistic populations accept such an outcome in principle, why can it not be achieved?
Answers float in the air -- religious zealotry, the urge to blame, Washington's failure to engage. At the bottom, though, stands the primal question, as old as this city, and as religious: Can we believe in the human future? If not here, then where?