As the world reacted to the United States’ decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, residents of the South Hills gathered to discuss the history of the city and take a look at some of the factors that have led to so much unrest and conflict.
A day after the official embassy move and the protests at the Gaza border that led to dozens of Palestinian deaths — mostly Hamas operatives — about 35 people gathered at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library to hear from Pittsburgh resident and Israeli native Samuel Kayam.
Kayam, who is an adjunct physics and math instructor at the Community College of Allegheny County, talked about the many different empires that have controlled Jerusalem, the religious significance of the city for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and past attempts to foster peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
“I think everybody must understand the history of Jerusalem,” Kayam said. “When you watch television, they don’t talk too much about the history, they don’t talk about the holy places.”
Kayam did not originally intend for the discussion, which was organized by Beth El Congregation and the library, to have any connection to the embassy move. But, for many members of the audience, the history of the city and the reaction to the move could not be separated.
Judy Sutton, a Presbyterian who attended the event, said there is not a “simple answer” to the conflict in the Middle East. While she believes Israelis have a right to be in Jerusalem, she also sympathizes with Palestinians who she says were told they needed to leave their land when Israel was established.
Based on the most recent protests, she said she “can’t see peace happening” with the current cast of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. “I think you need people with fresh ideas, and it’s hard to have fresh ideas because they’ve been building on hatred.”
Linda Scott, a member of Temple Emanuel who is also active with Chabad, is more optimistic.
“I think this is going to come to peace,” she said. “I think it had to come to a head, but it’s going to come to peace much quicker than before.”
According to Kayam, several countries had their embassies in Jerusalem in the past.
That changed in 1980, when Israel enacted a law declaring the city, which had until 1967 been split between Israeli and Jordanian-controlled sectors, an undivided part of the Jewish state. The United Nations said the law was null and void, and countries began moving their embassies out of Jerusalem shortly after.
For Kayam, the subject of how to divide Jerusalem — the holiest city in Judaism and historic site of the two Temples, but revered by Muslims and Christians alike — is at the heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. While he supports the decision to move the U.S. Embassy, he doesn’t think Israel needs to have sole control of the entire city. (The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their future capital.)
“Of course I’d like an undivided Jerusalem to be part of Israel, but how can you make peace with Palestinians without giving them [the Arab portion of] east Jerusalem?” he said after his presentation. “Palestinians can have a state in my opinion.”
Despite recent events, Kayam said he sees “good signs” pointing to peace in the future and is able to address the history in an optimistic, sometimes lighthearted way.
Talking to the audience, he said, jokingly, “Jerusalem, pronounced yerushalayim, which means city of peace, actually is not really a city of peace.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.