May 24, 2019

City of Peace

“This sacred city,” declared President Donald Trump last week, “should call forth the best in humanity.”

It was somewhat of a Nixon-in-China moment, as Trump is not exactly known as a beacon of moral clarity. And yet it was very much a moment of essential truth. Not just that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel, but that Jerusalem — Israel — can arouse the best within us.

In the days that followed, despite fervent calls for mass hysteria, mass hysteria did not ensue. Could some Arabs and Muslims actually have been inspired by Trump’s words, which were notably translated into Arabic on the White House’s website? Are they finally beginning to see that they’ve been exploited by their leaders for nearly a century?

The fact is, no one is born with hate in their soul.

Perhaps this moment of truth will ignite a new beginning for the Arab world — a time to move beyond hate, to get their own houses in order, to begin creating magnificence again.

As we know in our own politics, the loudest voices don’t necessarily represent the majority, and the extremes are rarely sane. My three closest Muslim friends — two Egyptian, one American — are more than ready to get beyond this achingly difficult place. They scoff at the left’s bigotry of low expectations: They don’t want to be seen as victims or conquerors.

In stark contrast to the fanatical statements from Turkish, Iranian and Palestinian leaders, Muslim reformer Zuhdi Jasser had this to say about Jerusalem: “The path to peace will always be through treating Arabs and Muslims as adults, without appeasing the militant Islamist hectoring veto.”

On a micro level, I have been watching this play out on the Facebook page of my book and exhibition “Passage to Israel.” Nearly one-third and sometimes one-half of the “likes” on the photos I post are from people with Arabic names. Even when I explicitly write “Jerusalem, Israel,” or “Hebron, Israel.” Even when I post photos of the Israel Defense Forces.

Beautiful imagery, of course, can bypass ideology and make a beeline for the soul. I carefully chose photos that are emotionally captivating. But my primary intent had been for Jews in the Diaspora to reconnect with Israel, for everyone to see the inherent beauty and diversity of the country that the mainstream media rarely shows.

At some point, enough Muslims will say to their leaders: “Stop treating us like children. Stop teaching us to hate.”

I have been surprised that Arab Israelis are responding so positively, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. We are all human. Just as I am moved by Islamic art and design — even after a terrorist attack — so, too, the layered beauty of Israel cannot easily be ignored, no matter how much hate you’ve ingested since birth.

We each rise and fall to the expectations of others. When you treat a group of adults like toddlers, unable to control themselves, they will act like toddlers. At some point, enough Muslims will say to their leaders: “Stop treating us like children. Stop teaching us to hate.” That will be the day the Muslim world begins to blossom again.

The night of Trump’s speech, I posted on Facebook a beautiful rendition of “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.” A spiritual song of peace and hope, its soulful melody brilliantly tears down all defenses, clears out negativity and anger. One of my Egyptian friends was the first to “heart” it.

In my book, I wrote that Israel is a mirror to one’s soul. Despite the anti-Semitism that permeates the Arab and Muslim world, I do believe there is a familial love underneath the anger and frustration. A love that can be tapped through personal connections, shared experiences and raised expectations. A love that could flourish through rational compassion — a compassion that’s not self-denigrating.

In the Talmud it is written: “Ten measures of beauty descended upon the world, nine were taken by Jerusalem.”

Can an undivided Jerusalem — a city that’s been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times — ever be the City of Peace, as it was once called, ever be our true connector to God, one another and the best within us?

Perhaps the better question is: How can it not be?

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and author. Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.