Obama's Theological Mission

A US peace initiative must be break the tradition of filial sacrifice associated with Jerusalem

The press and the blogosphere keep restating that the Obama administration considers launching its own peace initiative. The details mentioned are either new or surprising: Israel should live alongside a Palestinian state; the Arab parts of Jerusalem will be the Palestinian Capital, and there will be a land-swap to compensate the Palestinians for the major settlement blocs. Zbigniew Brzezinski has recently fleshed out some details of this proposal and has added a crucial element that I have advocated in the past: Obama should come to the Knesset and present his peace proposal in person, because this, since Sadats historic visit, has proven to be the way to the heart of Israelis.

But any peace initiative faces one ultimate stumbling stone: the holy basin, the area of Jerusalem that includes the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, Mount Zion all places of high religious significance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Nowhere on the planet is there a piece of real estate as laden with symbolic significance as these few square kilometers in Jerusalem; and there is no piece of land that is more prone to generating insoluble conflict and interminable bloodshed. To understand the depth of this symbolism, and the weight it carries, it is important to remember that the unconscious of the Middle East is formed by Biblical Myths.

Both Judaism and Islam assume that the Temple Mount (called 'Mount Moriah' in the book of Genesis) was the sight of one of the most problematic scenes in Biblical theology. According to the Biblical text, God requested of Abraham to take his son, Isaac, and to sacrifice him on Mount Moriah. Abraham did as told, and only when he was about to slaughter his son, God intervened and told Abraham to sacrifice a ram caught in the bushes instead. There is a Muslim tradition that claims that Ishmael was really the son that Abraham almost sacrificed on the Temple Mount. Paradoxically, Judaism and Islam compete with each other which of the two sons was subjected to this traumatic ordeal - obviously seeing great value in this act.

In Christianity, the motif of filial sacrifice is no less strong. Depending on the specific theology, Jesus is either seen as God incarnate who sacrifices himself to atone for the sin of humanities, or as God's son sacrificed for the same purpose. Once again the scene of the sacrifice is Jerusalem's old city: the Via Dolorosa follows the road of Jesus' suffering on the way to the ultimate sacrifice, his death at the cross.

Filial sacrifice epitomizes one of the most problematic aspects of the monotheistic traditions. There is supposed to be one theological truth, and it is a truth worth killing and dying for, unfortunately to this very day, and the reality of the Middle East is shaped by it. At its most extreme, the power of the myth of filial sacrifice is exemplified in the sanctification of Shaheeds, those willing to sacrifice their lives to kill unbelievers ranging from suicide bombers in the Middle East to the perpetratorsof 9/11.

This terrible phenomenon is only the last incarnation of a long history of willingness to shed blood and to die for the holy city throughout the last Millennium: for two centuries, Christian Crusaders killed tens of thousands in the attempt to gain control over the holy land, the place where Jesus had lived, prophesied and died. After this, historical Palestine was under Islamic rule until the 20th century when the Turkish Empire was dismantled. But since the dawn of Islam, the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are the most sacred places to Islam after the Kaaba in Mekka, and Islamic sovereignty over these sights is God-given.

After the establishment of the state of Israel, the old City remained under Jordanian rule until the Six Day War in 1967, when it was conquered by Israel. The photograph of Rabbi Goren blowing the Shofar (the traditional ram-horn used in Jewish New Year celebration) at the Western Wall has been etched deeply into the consciousness of all Israelis and most Diaspora Jews. Many saw this as the onset of the Messianic Age, and Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount is, for them, a non-negotiable religious truth. For Orthodox Jews the Temple Mount is not only site of the first and second temple, but it is supposed to be the site of the Temple in Messianic times.

Sovereignty over the Holy Basin and the Temple Mount has acquired the type of mythical power that only religious dogma can generate, and there is no way in which it can be resolved within the confines of monotheistic discourse.

If the truth is ONE, and if sovereignty over the Temple Mount reflects this truth, the sovereignty of any of the three Abrahamic religions will, of necessity, continue the horrible tradition in which parents will keep sending their children into death, fighting for the one theological truth they believe in.

The only solution for the holy basin is, as Bill Clinton already proposed in the 1990s, internationalizing it, thus avoiding a 'victory' of one religion over another. Obama will have to address the humanity common to believers of all faiths. He will have to urge them to break the horrible link of filial sacrifice associated with the Temple Mount and Jerusalem's old city. In doing so, he will have to receive the imprimatur of the Arab League in general and Saudi Arabia in particular.

Hence Obama's mission, if he indeed wants to take it on, to resolve the Middle Eastern conflict, is of an almost meta-historical magnitude. It means that he must cut through the tangle of the conflict between monotheisms that been going on for Millennia. The reason Obama might be able to pull this off, is that he is perceived as a truly global figure: his African father, is partially Muslim origins make him the first US president who might be trusted by the Islamic world.

This seems to leave out a final question: will Israeli Jews accept the internationalization of the Holy Basin? Obviously the Messianic Orthodoxy will not accept it, but according to all polls, this is a small minority. But history shows that the willingness of the majority of Israelis to compromise on Jerusalem depends on the extent to which they believe that such compromise will lead peace and lasting security for Israel. During the late nineties, when hope for peace was high, a high percentage of Israelis were willing to accept the partition of Jerusalem. As recent polls show, seventy percent of Israelis continue to favor the two state solution, but the same proportion believe that this solution is not attainable in the foreseeable future. Correspondingly the willingness to compromise on Jerusalem is low.

To change Israelis pessimism about the possibility of peace, Obama will have to heed Brzezinski's advice: he will have to bring central figures of the Arab League to Jerusalem; they will have to address the Knesset, thus showing that they truly accept Israel's existence. This is, no doubt, a tall order. But nothing less will do, if Obama wants to fulfill his strategic goal of moving the planet from a clash of civilization to a more peaceful global order.