11/19/2012 10:53 am ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

Why Jerusalem Rocket Attacks Change Everything

My husband entered the kitchen last night, his face ashen. I was unpacking my suitcase after a trip to Jerusalem, pulling out bargained-for spices, recycling drafts of a talk I gave at a conference on peace and reconciliation.

"Hamas sent missiles into Jerusalem," he said. "Three missiles."

"That's not possible," I told him. "Hamas can't fire rockets that far."

"But they did fire rockets that far," he said.

As many of you know by now, I was wrong in fact, though correct in precedent: Hamas did fire missiles that reached Jerusalem, though they'd never done so before. Previous missiles launched from Gaza either didn't make it over the border or only reached southern Israeli towns like Ashkelon and Ashdod. Many thought Hamas didn't have the technological ability to send missiles soaring over the 48 miles of land it would take to reach Jerusalem. Many others believed that Hamas would never fire missiles on the city because it houses Islam's third most holy site as well as a large number of Palestinians.

But those assumptions can no longer be assumed. Or, as Yeats famously wrote, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold."

And the consequences of that center collapsing in on itself could be disastrous.

Let me explain what I mean: Perusing the Internet last night for more information, I came across an article published by National Public Radio about the attacks, and while scanning the comments, my eye caught this one, composed by Tina B:

"I will never understand why of all the Earth and better land available, they choose to fight over this horrible little piece of desert."

Yet understanding why this "horrible little piece of desert" is so important is the key to understanding why an attack on Jerusalem could be catastrophic.

It all begins with the significance of a 187-foot wall. The Kotel, or Western Wall, is perhaps the holiest site in Judaism, and the Jewish people revere it as the surviving remnant of an ancient Temple. That Temple was composed of a series of courtyards, and the closer one got to the center, the more access was restricted. Only the High Priest could enter the innermost structure -- the Holy of Holies -- inside of which the Jewish people believed God dwelled.

The Babylonians destroyed a first temple in its entirety back in 586 B.C.E. and exiled the Jewish people away from their land, away from the site of their God, for 70 years. This inaugurated a collective crisis of faith that led to the composition of some of the most foundational writings in both Jewish and Christian thought: biblical books including Isaiah, Ezekial and Micah.

And over time, it led to the building of a second temple, that is, until the Romans destroyed it after the death of Jesus in 70 C.E., leaving only the Western Wall behind.

Fast-forward in history to through the life of Muhammad and to the conquest of Jerusalem by Islamic soldiers in 638 C.E. Sixty years later, Muslims built Al-Aqsa Mosque (aka the Dome of the Rock), enshrining the rock upon which they believed Muhammad ascended to the Heavens.

That site is likely situated on the spot where the Jewish people believed God dwelled in the Holy of Holies.

So you can see where this is going: The third holiest site in Islam (the first two being mosques in Mecca and Medina) rests upon land and adjacent to a wall that composes the Jewish people's holiest site.

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed."

Now, I am not a Middle East expert. I am a scholar of Christian thought who has had the privilege of spending five months in the Holy Land over the course of three trips taken since 2008 and who speaks Hebrew poorly and a dialect of Arabic in which Palestinians don't converse. But I can say with relative certainty that the destruction of the Western Wall/Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock complex would be catastrophic, as pivotal to modern history as the attacks on the World Trade Center or the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife.

It is perhaps the most fragile 37 acres of the land on earth.

And if anything happened to it, the center would not hold.

Now, it stands to reason that Israelis wouldn't voluntarily destroy their holiest site, and even Hamas wouldn't aim a missile directly at the Temple Mount. And yet, Hamas doesn't seem to have the capability of aiming its long-range missiles, and one can't predict what Jewish leaders might need to do to defend the existence of their nation.

And that is why "this horrible little piece of desert" is so important. That is why the world needs to help the Israelis and Palestinians find a more constructive way forward.

Because if they don't, this horrible little piece of desert could easily become a horrible little piece of bombed debris.

And the consequences of that, I believe, would be unspeakably horrific. The center would be no more.