Rev. Russell O. Siler
There was a story told years ago by a man sitting for the first time as a judge. As he listened to the prosecution present its case, he kept a calm, attentive pose, but inwardly he was overwhelmed by how guilty the accused man was. “How ignorant the defendant must be to believe that he could get away with such evil.” Then it was the turn of the defense to offer its opening. Again his face betrayed nothing of what he was thinking and feeling, but this time, as the judge heard first one piece of evidence, then another, explained away, he exclaimed to himself, “No! It is the prosecutor who is ignorant. How could he not know the truth of these unjust allegations?” Then came the parade of witnesses for both parties and, finally, the verdict. As the judge listened to the jury foreman recite its finding, he admitted to himself, “It was I who was ignorant all along when I thought that I could render a judgement before I had considered all the facts and circumstances.” In that instance a learned person began his journey to wisdom.

That story came immediately to mind last week as my wife Anne and I began our three-month stay with the people of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. I am serving as the summer supply pastor for the English-speaking congregation here in the Old City of Jerusalem. As we approached the city from the west, I was flooded by thoughts and memories of our years spent here: the warmth of so many people, the places and sights, but also the suffering, fear, and pain. But, in addition, I was surrounded by the recollections of those I have met and heard who have formed judgements about the struggles here when they have not yet learned enough on which to base such judgements. Let me be clear. Even after all my years of living and learning about the land and the people of the Middle East, I am still just beginning. However, I am convinced that there are certain facts that are essential if one’s opinions are to be grounded in reality. Since Jerusalem is at the heart of the matter here, I will offer a few things I have learned with regard to this city.

It is well known that the United Nations passed in 1947 a resolution dividing Historic Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. It has also been widely told that the pre-state leaders of what would become Israel promptly accepted the partition, while the Arab leaders rejected it. What is often omitted in this narrative is that the U.N. did not award either Jerusalem or Bethlehem to one side or the other. Because of the international religious significance of these two, it was decided that they should become a corpus separatum, a separate entity to be administered by a neutral entity. When the pre-state Israeli leaders announced their acceptance of the U.N. resolution, they specifically excluded Jerusalem, making it clear that it should belong to Israel alone. This exception puts their agreement with the United Nations in an entirely different light. In fact one could argue that the exception was so large that it could be regarded as a rejection.

Writers, reporters, and commentators commonly refer to the Occupied Palestinian Territories as the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. One of the first things I learned about the land here is that the area known as East Jerusalem has always been a part of what is known as the West Bank. Even though the three locations are spoken of as three entities, it is more for clarity of the geography than it is for accuracy. The unfortunate consequence is that many casual observers now think of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as entirely separate. They are not.

When the 1967 Six-Day War ended, Israel quickly moved to annex what it referred to as East Jerusalem. Although the rest of the world–including the U.S.–hold that annexation to be illegal in terms of international law, the reality has persisted to this day in terms of Israel’s administration and total control of the entire city and all its peoples. What is often missing from the understanding of this transaction is that in 1967 East Jerusalem consisted of six square kilometers, including the Old City. What Israel annexed was a total of 70 square kilometers. Older Palestinians tell me how residents of the villages in that extra 64 km2 would laugh at the ridiculous idea that they now lived in Jerusalem. They, of course, had not moved one inch.

Perhaps the saddest moment I have had in recent months came in April when the famous Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel took out a full-page ad in the New York Times and the Washington Post, teling of his great love for Jerusalem. I would never question the sentiments of such a revered figure, but I do believe it necessary to point one glaring misperception. Wiesel said at one point that Jews, Christians, and Muslims can live anywhere in Jerusalem–East or West–that they choose. That is simply not true. His ad was answered by a professor at Hebrew University in a letter to the editor of the Times two days later. The professor, who resides in Jerusalem, challenged Mr. Wiesel to identify three Muslim families who live in Jewish West Jerusalem. By contrast East Jerusalem has thousands of Israeli Jews, both secular and religious, who have found it quite easy to move there.

You will–and you should–form your own opinions and positions. My hope is that you will be open to as many facts as you can gather…from a variety of perspectives. Such is the stuff of sound judgements.


For Peace with Justice!

Rev. Russell O. Siler