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Jerusalem, Our Healing Mother City

This transcendent sense of Jerusalem as our common Mother City, helping us face one another as siblings in the sacred family drama still unfolding in our own lives -- this faith-conviction is what can strengthen our hope for the healing of our world.
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We Jews are in a week-long interlude between two commemorations marking the lowest and highest points of recent Jewish history: Yom Ha-Shoah or Holocaust Memorial Day on Nisan 27/April 16 and Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, on Iyyar 5/April 24. (This year the latter will be celebrated a day earlier so as not to interfere with Sabbath preparations on that Friday).

Also on April 24, Armenians the world over will mark the centenary of the first genocide of the 20th century. Some 1.5 million Armenians were put to death by the Ottoman Turkish regime during World War I. Adolf Hitler, on the eve of his blitzkrieg assault on Poland in 1939, was reported to have said to his generals, "Who today remembers the Armenians?" as he anticipated that subsequent history books would be written by his victorious Third Reich. For their part, Turkish officials continue to deny that the Ottoman campaign of mass slaughter was, in fact, a genocide. This governmental denial stands in the way of Armenian-Turkish reconciliation and the healing grief work of Armenians. For us Jews, the acknowledgement of the Holocaust by the Adenauer regime in Germany, the payment of reparations to Israel, and later acts of contrition by Chancellor Willy Brandt and others were positive steps that contributed to Jewish psychic rehabilitation and helped German-Jewish relations move beyond the horrors of the Holocaust.

For most Jews, the re-emergence of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land after a 2,000-year exile is the fulfillment of the prophetic vision of return to our ancient homeland. But Israel's 67th Independence Day will not be a time of celebration for Palestinians, since the establishment of the state of Israel constitutes a collective nightmare and trauma for them. They will be mourning the Nakba on that day, the national catastrophe that befell them in 1948, when close to 750,000 Palestinians either fled their homes or were forcibly expelled. For decades, as Palestinians languished in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, and neighboring countries, Israeli officials denied that mass expulsions took place, adding insult to the collective injury suffered by Palestinians. More recent historical accounts, and even statements by some government leaders, have acknowledged that up to 50 percent of the refugees from 1948 were forcibly displaced during Israel's War of Independence. But even with this incomplete and less-than-official acknowledgement, most Israeli Jews view what happened then as a military or political necessity, and they justify it as part of a population exchange that included the forced exodus of Jews from Arab countries following the 1948 fighting. How do we move beyond self-referencing historical narratives and victim scripts competing for validation?

As different communities recall moments in time according to their subjective experiences, there is at least one spatial coordinate that offers hope for healing the collective wounds of history: the Holy City of Jerusalem. This may seem strange, given the ongoing dispute between Israelis and Palestinians over control of the city. But my perspective goes beyond politics. Having lived in Jerusalem for most of my adult life, I often reflect on the verses in Psalm 87 suggesting that all believers in the One God are symbolically born in her. The psalmist envisions everyone having, in essence, two birth certificates: one recording the emergence of her or his body into this world, and the other testifying to the birth of the person's soul in Jerusalem eons ago, at the time of Creation.

Within the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, Armenians, Jews and Palestinians live in adjacent quarters. On the level of the physical body, all three peoples have endured massacres in the last century -- two on a genocidal scale. So all are survivor communities, suffering-servant peoples experiencing death and resurrection, and acting as witnesses to the triumph of the spirit over horrific suffering. On the spiritual and emotional levels, all three peoples have experienced exile from their homelands, being refugees or "strangers in strange lands." Can there be some transcendent lesson in this interface of sorrows and of aspirations for homecoming and healing?

The image I have is of three traumatized individuals walking through darkness and holding flickering candles to illumine their way, candles lit by their forebears to get them through the dark nights of the soul; three wandering pilgrims yearning to return home, afraid that out of the darkness some old or new enemy will attack them, afraid of perpetual victimization and the prospect of total annihilation, afraid to trust others who might help them overcome their trauma and dread. And then, suddenly, the three frightened pilgrims converge in Jerusalem, the light of their candles revealing each other's faces, as each experiences the shock of mutual recognition. For in the human faces is the reflection of something mysteriously Divine. Each of them can echo to the others the exclamation of the wounded Jacob, renamed Israel, as he was reunited with his estranged brother Esau: "I see your face as though I am seeing the face of God."

This transcendent sense of Jerusalem as our common Mother City, helping us face one another as siblings in the sacred family drama still unfolding in our own lives -- this faith-conviction is what can strengthen our hope for the healing of our world and the realization of true Shalom, Salaam, Peace.