Why a hilltop fortress taken by King David three thousand years ago should occasion so much turmoil in world politics is a source of wonder, and wondering about it helps makes sense of politics as they really are, and not as the Enlightenment presented them to us. Today on the Hebrew calendar is the 28th of Iyar, a minor religious holiday proclaimed by the Israeli rabbinate after the unification of Jerusalem in 1967.

Jerusalem is a beautiful city, not least because the British Mandate had the aesthetic sense to insist that all construction employ Jerusalem stone, a pinkish granite that in the sunset produces the tones of gold and copper celebrated in the city’s famous anthem. What is most beautiful about Jerusalem is the people of Jerusalem who have returned after so many years. It is a religious city, quieter and more modest than raucous Tel Aviv, but with a glow and intensity that I have seen nowhere else.

States are not founded on social contracts, protection of the individual, or any such idiocy handed down from Hobbes; they are founded upon congregations, as Augustine explained in the City of God. It is not common interest but common love that defines states. We do not have a “self” interest as such; our “self” belongs to our ancestors and our children, unless, of course, we are contemporary Europeans, who despise our ancestors and have no children, and hope to pass into extinction with the minimum of bother.

From Jerusalem came the most persuasive promise humankind had ever heard, namely the promise of eternal life—not the fragile immortality of the pagan gods, whose doom already was sealed by fate in the myths of all the peoples, but life with God past the dissolution of the physical world. The world will wear out and God will discard it like a cloak, Psalm 102 sings, but the Lord will establish his servants forever.

The history of Israel is the history of the world, said Franz Rosenzweig, for as soon as the peoples learned that the God of the Jews had promised them eternal life, they considered how they, too, might become part of this covenant. The Christians emulate us and the Muslims parody us. I use the word “emulation” with respect: as Jacob Neusner observes (and Benedict XVI quotes him), when Jesus declares himself to be Lord of the Sabbath in Matthew, he in effect proposes to make Temple and Sabbath accessible to non-Jews. The truth of this proposition or its ultimate efficacy is another matter, but there is no doubt in my mind that orthodox Christians seek the loving Creator God of the Jews. Islam is a different issue: it maintains outward forms similar to Judaism which enclose an inner pagan content, in Franz Rosenzweig’s view, which I have presented in detail elsewhere.

The passions that rage over Jerusalem reveal the desire for immortality that underlies all of politics. Humankind does not want safety, security, sustenance as much as it wants to cheat death. Islam’s claim to credibility is that it represents the final prophecy, which has corrected falsified and distorted Scriptures prepared by those sneaky Jews and Christians. It does not want to appropriate the Bible, but rather loot it and leave the discredited shell behind.

As my friend Daniel Pipes wrote years ago:

What about Muslims? Where does Jerusalem fit in Islam and Muslim history? It is not the place to which they pray, is not once mentioned by name in prayers, and it is connected to no mundane events in Muhammad’s life. The city never served as capital of a sovereign Muslim state, and it never became a cultural or scholarly center. Little of political import by Muslims was initiated there.

One comparison makes this point most clearly: Jerusalem appears in the Jewish Bible 669 times and Zion (which usually means Jerusalem, sometimes the Land of Israel) 154 times, or 823 times in all. The Christian Bible mentions Jerusalem 154 times and Zion 7 times. In contrast, the columnist Moshe Kohn notes, Jerusalem and Zion appear as frequently in the Qur’an “as they do in the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, the Taoist Tao-Te Ching, the Buddhist Dhamapada and the Zoroastrian Zend Avesta”—which is to say, not once.

As Dr. Pipes explains in the linked article, Muslim interest in Jerusalem rose with political need; otherwise the city was neglected. Under the Ottomans Jerusalem dwindled to a town of 9,000 residents in 1809. During the two decades of Jordanian rule of Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967,  an Arab couldn’t renew a driver’s license or get a bank loan in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem had served as the British administrative capital, but now all government offices there (save tourism) were shut down; Jerusalem no longer had authority even over other parts of the West Bank. The Jordanians also closed some local institutions (e.g., the Arab Higher Committee, the Supreme Muslim Council) and moved others to Amman (the treasury of the waqf, or religious endowment).

Jerusalem, in short, is only important to Muslims because allowing others to have it would undermine the credibility of Islam as the final prophecy. To have the Jews as despised dhimmi among them assured Muslims that Allah favored them; to have the Jews in control of their capital after an absence of two millennia calls this into question.

The Shekhinah went into exile with the Jewish people and with them it has returned to Jerusalem. I do not mean to sound a messianic note; the Temple only can be rebuilt by the heir of King David by the will of God. But something of this enormous and unique holiness still pervades the city, an echo of the future, perhaps.