Home > Canada, Israel, Palestinian Authority, Rabbi Dow Marmur, United States of America > The celestial Jerusalem versus the concrete Jerusalem

The celestial Jerusalem versus the concrete Jerusalem

By Rabbi Dow Marmur

Rabbi Dow Marmur

TORONTO, Canada–Elie Wiesel, social activist, celebrated exponent of Judaism and Nobel Peace Prize winner, published a letter in leading American newspapers last month stating that “Jerusalem must remain the world’s Jewish spiritual capital.” It was a reaction to tensions between the United States and Israel, urging the U.S. administration to support Jewish expansion in all parts of Israel’s capital, even though it may harm its Arab population and impede a peace settlement.

Arguing that as Jerusalem is mentioned more than 600 times in the Bible and not even once in the Koran, Wiesel maintained that it shouldn’t be judged by political categories but as “a homecoming” for every Jew. “The anguish over Jerusalem,” he wrote, “is not about real estate but about memory.”

A hundred Jewish public figures and intellectuals, all residents of Jerusalem, reacted sharply against Wiesel’s initiative. In an open letter in the New York Review of Books, they challenged him: “We cannot recognize our city in the sentimental abstraction you call by its name . . . Our Jerusalem is concrete,” they wrote. Alluding to an oft-cited distinction in Jewish sources, they added: “You speak of the celestial Jerusalem; we live in the earthly one.”

They were troubled by Wiesel’s statement because “it upholds an attachment to the other-worldly city which purports to supersede the interests of those who live in the this-worldly one.” They wished to make homecoming available to Jews and Arabs alike: “We prefer the hardship of realizing citizenship in this city to the convenience of merely yearning for it.”

The writers list some of what they see as injustices committed against the Arab population of Jerusalem because it’s “being used as a springboard for crafty politicians and sentimental populists.” Their vision of Jerusalem makes room for all.

As I divide my time between Toronto and Jerusalem, I find myself uncomfortably astride both sides of the argument. As a Jew rooted in my tradition, I know of the centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish consciousness. But as a resident of the earthly Jerusalem, I identify with the concluding affirmation of the critics that “only a shared city will live up to the prophet’s vision: ‘Zion shall be redeemed with justice.’ ” And I agree with their assertion that “nothing can be holy in an occupied city!”

My commitment to Jerusalem would in no way be diminished if in a comprehensive peace settlement part of it would become the capital of a Palestinian state and the rest remain the capital of the sovereign State of Israel. Precisely because Jerusalem “is not about real estate but about memory,” it must make room for both Jewish and Arab memory.

Canada is more than an interested observer in this debate. The Jerusalem Old City Initiative based at the University of Windsor is largely funded by the Canadian government. It has published a lengthy paper on how to deal with one of the most contentious issues in the pursuit of peace: the governance of the area where most of the holy places of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are situated.

The authors seek a workable way of sharing space and overcoming divisions. Therefore, their proposals are bound to raise objections from all sides, because each is adamant about exclusive control. But the fact that a third party is trying to find a solution is indicative of how important the issue is for the international community. The argument between Wiesel and his critics reflects the drama. Perhaps outside experts can help bring it to a happy end.


Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. This column appeared previously in The Star of Toronto

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