Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Jerusalem and the Jewish People: Unity and Division

Why are Jews connected to Jerusalem? Of course, there is no single component that explains the connection of all Jews. Jerusalem has historical and religious value, it is the capital of the Jewish State, and it is a vibrant, diverse city with unique scenery, scents, colors, weather.

A majority of Dialogue participants agreed with the statement: “Visiting Jerusalem I feel uplifted.” Fifty-eight percent “completely agreed”, and 28 percent “somewhat agreed” with it (compared to 11 percent who “somewhat disagreed” and only 3 percent who “completely” disagreed). This sense of emotional elevation was reiterated in the way participants described their connection in Dialogue sessions. “Some participants described an overwhelming emotional response upon visiting for the first time,” reported the community in Melbourne, Australia. “Jerusalem is the emotional focal point of Israel. It’s the phoenix of our people going back to 1948 and the Zionist era,” argued a participant in St. Louis, Missouri. In Washington DC, a participant articulated something many other participants also stressed – the challenge of reconciling the idea of Jerusalem with the actual place they have come to know. “When I think of Jerusalem I combine the heavenly and earthly city. But when I am there I get wrapped up in the mundane daily life which makes it real.”

Dialogue participants were asked to rank on a scale of 1-4 the significance of many aspects of how they view Jerusalem (graph 6); history (ranked first), and spirituality/religiosity (ranked second) beat all other components. “I think of history as what makes it special,” said a participant at Hebrew Union College, New York. “If you go back to the timeline of Jerusalem, it is one of the most ancient cities in the world; diverse history; Jewish story is powerful, important, significant”, said another participant. “Also chose history. Other aspects don’t seem necessarily unique. City life exists in other places in the world. Obviously, history is uniquely the city of Jerusalem, just like my biography is my biography, and it is very present in the everyday life,”, said a third participant in this discussion seminar.[1] “Historical and political phenomena transformed Jerusalem into a ‘sacred city’, not religious one,” argued a participant in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

That history was the most frequently mentioned aspect should not come as a big surprise. Jews today relate to their Jewishness more as a culture, and as a people, than as a religious sentiment. Last year, in the final report on the Dialogue, The Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity, a full chapter was devoted to the “main components of Judaism,” in which we highlighted data from many studies confirming this finding.[2]

In both JPPI’s 2017 Dialogue survey and its 2017 survey of Israeli attitudes (executed as part of JPPI’s Pluralism in Israel project), respondents were asked to rank the importance of four definitions that could explain what Judaism means to them. The exact question in the Dialogue survey was: “To what extent is each of the following aspects of Judaism a primary component of Jewishness: Religion; Culture; Genealogy; or Nationality\Peoplehood? (1 designated “not at all” a primary component of Jewishness, and 5 designated “very much so” a primary component of Jewishness).

Dialogue participants ranked these four terms as follows: “culture” and “nationality\peoplehood” ranked highest; the more traditional definitions – religion and genealogy – lagged behind. Clearly, Dialogue participants felt more comfortable with definitions of their Jewishness that were compatible with non-religious, non-traditional lives. And as a Dialogue participant from Philadelphia remarked last year, even when they adhere to criteria of belonging to Judaism was religious in nature: “We are using religious definitions to be a part of a nation of a people. Yet many are part of this people, who have no feeling of religion.”

Still, as JPPI searched for the components that make Jerusalem special for Jews, there were detectable differences between Jews of various streams and viewpoints. For example, for self-identified “secular” Jews – as one might expect – “spirituality” and “religious significance” ranked relatively low in their connection to Jerusalem (on a 1-4 scale, these ranked 3.09 and 3.01 respectively, compared to 3.73 for “history”). Reform Jews ranked Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital low – 2.84 – compared to a much higher rank for “religious significance” (3.36). There was agreement between all groups of Jews that Jerusalem’s “city life” and “social fabric” are the least important components of Jerusalem’s specialness. All groups agreed that “history” is the most valuable component.

In this year’s discussion seminars, participants were shown a set of photos from Jerusalem, one emphasized the cultural side of the city, one the religious side, one highlighted the Jewish-Arab conflict etc. Participants were asked to identify “their” Jerusalem among these photos, and although some of them had misgivings about the question itself (we “do ourselves a disservice by trying to rank them,” a participant in Cleveland, Ohio said[3]) in most communities the response was similar, with a majority opting for a photograph of the Kotel, or one showing the Old City as a whole.

In the Adelaide, Australia seminar, “the strongest pictorial image was the Dome of the Rock and the Kotel.”[4] In Sydney Australia, a participant said that “Jerusalem = The Western Wall. The rest are just areas of Tel Aviv.”[5] In Minneapolis “the image that portrayed the Kotel, Dome of the Rock, and Jerusalem skyline together… evoked positive feelings of Jerusalem at its best, a city that is accommodating to people of different faiths.” In Paris, it was “the Kotel and the Knesset” – one of few places where the image of the Knesset, representing Jerusalem’s status as the capital of the modern Jewish state, was the participants’ top choice. In most other communities, the Knesset was not an image that elicited a lot of positive (or other) reaction. The “Knesset is alive, aspirational,” was a notable exception from New York. But groups like the one in Cleveland in which participants mentioned, one after the other, “history”, “spirituality”, “spirituality”, “spirituality”, “history”, “history”, “religious”, “history”, “uniqueness of the city”, “history”, “history” – as their main components of connection were more the norm.[6] Thus, the Knesset as a manifestation of Jerusalem’s status as capital – the official-political component – was not mentioned as much when the photos were shown.

Moreover, Jerusalem as an official capital seems to be losing significance with the passage of since its establishment as the capital of modern Israel. In JPPI’s survey of Dialogue participants it is notable that the younger the respondent, the less they attribute significance to “Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital.”  Among the youngest cohort of Dialogue participants (7.4 percent of all participants) Jerusalem’s status as capital is dramatically less important than it is to older groups, with less than half of them calling it “significant” or a “highly significant.” It is also noteworthy that Reform Jews in general attribute much less significance to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital than do other groups. Thirty-seven percent of Reform Jews attribute a “highly significant” meaning to Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital, while secular, Conservative, traditional and Orthodox Jews rank this component as highly significant at a much higher rate – 48, 55, 72, and 63 percent respectively.[7]

[1] Hebrew Union College, NY, Dialogue. March 15, 2017, Moderator: John Ruskay.

[2]  You can read the full chapter here:

[3] March 30, 2017, group 8.

[4] April 2, 2017. Moderator: Alison Marcus, note taker: Merrilyn Ades.

[5] Sydney, Australia. May 15, 2017. Moderator: Dr Ron Weiser, note Taker: Hayley Hadassin.

[6] Cleveland, group 6.

[7] Note that Reform Jews ranked many of the components lower than Jews who self-identify with the other groups. So the difference in this case (status as capital) is just another case showing less inclination to rank any aspect of the connection to Jerusalem relatively high. See, for example, this comparison between Reform and Conservative survey respondents, and how their average ranking of the components differs (the average ranking of Orthodox participants was higher than Reform and lower than Conservative, at 3.2625, the ranking of secular participants is still higher than that of Reform participants with 3.10625):

Reform Conservative
History 3.75 3.85
Religion 3.36 3.55
Spirituality 3.34 3.6
Culture 3.04 3.3
Landscape 3.02 3.34
Capital 2.84 3.31
Social 2.43 2.63
City Life 2.33 2.74
Average 3.01375 3.29