Thoughts on the Western Wall, Fifty Years Later

George Weigel

Photographs can capture exceptional moments in an iconic way, making the original experience “present” emotionally as well as pictorially.

The photo of U.S. Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi “means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years,” Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal said in 1945. The image of John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s boyish salute as his father’s casket left Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral in 1963 helped cement the “Camelot” myth into its seemingly impregnable place in American public life. The “Earthscape” pictures shot by Apollo 8 astronauts at Christmas 1968 continue to play a not-insignificant role in today’s environmental movement.

And then there is David Rubinger’s iconic photo of young Israeli paratroopers at the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem on June 7, 1967. The faces of those young soldiers, their expressions conveying surprise, awe, and wonder, tell a tale of national regeneration that stirred my heart when I was a teenager – a story that continues to inspire today. Yet the reunification of Jerusalem fifty years ago almost never happened.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan had controlled East Jerusalem since 1948. The Jordanian king, Hussein, was a serious man with little reason to esteem the volatile Egyptian strongman, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was busily trying to undermine Hussein’s rule. And despite the depredations Jordanians had committed in the parts of post-1948 Jerusalem under their rule – including turning Jewish gravestones into latrine pavements – relations between Israel and Jordan were far more rational than between Israel and Egypt. Yet when the crunch came in late May 1967, Hussein, under enormous pressure, signed an alliance with Egypt and joined the Arab assault on Israel – a mistake that cost him the West Bank and the eastern sectors of Jerusalem.

As a result, Israeli paratroopers stood at the Western Wall. And a Jewish polity was in charge of the most sacred of Jewish sites for the first time since Titus destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D.

I’ve been to Jerusalem four times, most recently in November 2015, and on each occasion I’ve visited the Western Wall and prayed there: for the “peace of Jerusalem” of which Psalm 122 speaks; for Jewish friends throughout the world; for my own family and friends, especially those in particular need. My 2015 visit to the Holy City was especially encouraging, though, because it suggested that something resembling a real religion-and-society debate is finally emerging in Israel.

On previous visits, beginning in 1988, I lectured at Hebrew University and spoke on programs organized by scholarly and civic organizations, the discussion always being about religion-and-society. Except it was a non-discussion, or at least a non-starter, for until recently, the religion-and-society debate in Israel meant ultra-orthodox Jews vs. thoroughly secularized Jews, which didn’t leave a whole lot of room for serious conversation.

November 2015 was different. While leading a week-long seminar on deep secularization and its effects in Europe (and on the democratic project throughout the world), I met younger Israeli scholars, deeply immersed in their Judaism and keen students of political philosophy, who were trying to articulate a Jewish theological rationale for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and so forth. They were, in the main, Modern Orthodox and I thoroughly enjoyed our exchanges, one of which can be kibitzed on YouTube [weigel.link/50years]. Their work represents the possibility of creating something missing from Israeli society and culture for too long: a religiously-informed public philosophy for shaping the typically-raucous Israeli debate over the country’s present and future. Developing that body of thought is not going to be easy. But it wasn’t going to happen at all when the only actors on the stage were the ultra-Orthodox and the hard-core secularists, so now there is a chance.

On this fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, thanks are also due to the Israeli authorities for the care they have taken to make genuine pilgrimage possible throughout the Holy City, which is far more open to people of all faiths today than it was when the city was divided between 1948 and 1967. Israel’s admirable stewardship of Jerusalem is too infrequently acknowledged; it’s both a duty and a pleasure to acknowledge it here.

To return to the psalmist, “For the peace of Jerusalem, pray.…May peace reign in your walls/in your palaces, peace!”

COMING UP: Interreligious dialogue with edge and purpose

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The evening of September 12, 2006, was, in a word, memorable. My wife and I were having dinner in Cracow with two of John Paul II’s oldest friends when my mobile phone rang and an agitated Italian journalist started hollering in my ear, “Have you zeen zees crazee speech zee Pope has given about zee Muslims? What do you zay about it?” I replied that I wasn’t in the habit of commenting on papal texts before I had read them, which only drew the further plea, “Yes, yes, but what do you zay about it?” I finally asked my caller to e-mail me the text and call again the next day.

The “crazy speech” was, of course, Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address, which, far from being crazy, was a lucid, penetrating description of the challenges facing Islam in late modernity – an analysis lost in the media scrum over Benedict’s (arguably imprudent) quoting of a robust exchange between an Islamic ruler and a Byzantine emperor, many long years ago. What Benedict outlined in 2006 remains true eleven years later, however: In order to live in peace with “the rest,” Islam must find within its own religious and intellectual resources a way to affirm religious tolerance, and to distinguish between the institutions of religion and the institutions of politics; Catholicism took several hundred years to traverse that path; reflecting on that Catholic experience of finding a Catholic rationale for religious tolerance and free politics might help Muslims who wish to move beyond the intellectual stagnation in which they find themselves on these crucial questions; a conversation exploring how Catholicism’s wrestling with political modernity may or may not be applicable to Islam should focus the Catholic-Islamic interreligious dialogue for the foreseeable future.

There was no media blowback after Pope Francis’s fine address at Cairo’s al-Azhar University on April 28. But the money quote from the Holy Father’s speech fit neatly with what Benedict said at Regensburg in 2006:

“As religious leaders, we are called…to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the ‘absolutizing’ of selfishness than an authentic openness to the Absolute. We have on obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God: Holy is his name, he is the God of peace, God salaam. Peace alone, therefore, is holy, and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God for it would profane his name.”

What kind of Islam could “unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity” – and more than “unmask” it, condemn it and drive it to the peripheries of the Islamic world? Precisely the Islam that had taken Benedict’s Regensburg advice: that had dug deeply into its religious, philosophical, and legal traditions and had found there warrants for religious tolerance and a clear distinction between religious and political authority.

This approach differs in kind from suggestions that jihadist terrorism will only cease when Muslims become good Western liberals – which too often means good secular liberals. That just isn’t going to happen across a complex religious world that now numbers more than 1.6 billion souls. Moreover, secular warrants for religious freedom are not as sturdy as religious warrants, as we’ve discovered in the West in recent years. The secular defense of religious freedom crumbles when lifestyle agitations (“gay marriage,” the LGBT agenda) reach critical mass politically. By contrast, people who believe it’s God’s will that they be tolerant of those who have other ideas of God’s will are more likely to defend the religious freedom of the “other” when social and cultural pressures for intolerance (and political correctness) intensify.

Catholicism didn’t embrace religious freedom as a fundamental human right by surrendering core Catholic convictions to secular liberalism; Catholicism came to affirm religious freedom by recovering an ancient conviction that had gotten encrusted with political barnacles over the centuries: the conviction that (as the 1986 Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation put it, luminously) “God wishes to be adored by people who are free.” Can Islam make such an affirmation? That is the Benedictine/Franciscan challenge to 21st-century Islam, and it ought to frame the future of the Catholic-Islamic dialogue.