The line has been crossed. The announcement by US President Donald Trump on the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has ignited protests worldwide.
Where none of his predecessors dared to venture, Trump has done otherwise. He is sending a strong message to his voters – especially the evangelical Christian community – that he understands their religious aspirations.
To many, Trump’s antics are yet another anomaly in contemporary US politics. But from the perspective of longue durée history, he is just another calculated political actor who knows how to leverage a long-standing and intimate object in US statecraft: the centrality of Jerusalem in Western geopolitical thought.
Symbolic, iconographic value
According to Jean Gottmann, the late Oxford University geography don, the capital of a particular nation not only serves and functions as its political center, but also has a deep symbolical and iconographic value. A capital city, says Gottmann, behaves as a hinge in the relations between its country and the outside world.
It acts like a gate in navigating the flow of people, goods and ideas between different spatiality.
The great ancient capital Constantinople (now Istanbul), for example, has long endured as a continental hinge between Europe and Asia. Modern nation-states such as Greece and Italy have retained their respective ancient capitals Athens and Rome, because of their role as the historical hinge that links the present to their great pasts.
The same can be said about Jerusalem. Its mystical and sacred aura as the capital of civilizations of Islam and the West – both Christendom and Judaism – endures to this day.
The selection of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is not solely made on a merely secular and practical ground. It must be viewed in relation to the narrative of Israel’s raison d’etre in a Zionist world view: the concept of ‘promised land’ as God’s providence for the Jews
The selection of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is not solely made on a merely secular and practical ground. It must be viewed in relation to the narrative of Israel’s raison d’etre in a Zionist world view: the concept of “promised land” as God’s providence for the Jews.
Israeli leaders, even when they appear on a secular platform, have never failed to articulate Jerusalem’s importance for Israel using religious terms. Past leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin often described Jerusalem as the “eternal capital” of Israel and the Jewish people. The word “eternal” is not a mere figurative expression, as it is imbued with the uninterrupted narrative of Judaic civilization since the biblical days of King David’s and his son Solomon’s reigns in Jerusalem.
This message was made clear again recently when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Trump’s decision. He affirmed, “Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years.” Like his predecessors, Netanyahu is cognizant of the Israeli government’s long-standing official narrative of Jerusalem’s centrality in the Jewish people’s history.
The same is true in Christianity. One of the oldest surviving medieval world maps, the Hereford Mappa Mundi, has almost the same iconographic meaning as the Zionist “eternal capital of Jerusalem.”
The map as a whole is steeped in Christian symbolism. It embodies a terrestrial paradise where the Garden of Eden lies just beneath the figure of Jesus Christ, who sits on top of the map.
As a Christian world map, it is surprisingly Jerusalem rather than Rome that is depicted as the center of the world. This cartographic vision of medieval Christianity is a reflection of its cosmology where the centrality of Jerusalem in the world matters, as how it has been feverishly embraced by evangelicals worldwide.
Some might think these earlier examples are anachronistic to our time, but the medieval spirit of Jerusalem has never waned in the modern and secular West.
To understand Jerusalem’s enduring geo-strategic value in modern statecraft, one has to appreciate the ideas of Halford Mackinder, one of the most influential geopolitical thinkers in the 20th century.
His ideas have influenced and tremendously shaped modern geo-strategic thinking, especially within the circle of top US foreign-policy thinkers and practitioners such as George F Kennan and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
In his “heartland theory,” Mackinder posits Eastern Europe as a key domain to secure the Heartland – the largest landmass on Earth, where Russia currently sits.
Having hold of the Heartland will allow any global power to rule the “World-Island” – the intercontinental congruity of Europe, Asia and Africa – where the largest, most populous and most productive area on Earth is arguably situated. Ruling the World-Island, in the theory, is a prerequisite to global domination.
In his Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), Mackinder squarely argues for the geo-strategic value of Jerusalem in that context:
If the World-Island be inevitably the principal seat of humanity on this globe, and if Arabia, as the passage-land from Europe to the Indies and from the Northern to the Southern Heartland, be central in the World-Island, then the hill citadel of Jerusalem has a strategical position with reference to world-realities not differing essentially from its ideal position in the perspective of the Middle Ages, or its strategical position between ancient Babylon and Egypt.
The centrality of Jerusalem, as Mackinder sees it, is a logical culmination of geo-strategic thinking that has beset Western minds since the medieval period. It can be understood better from the perspective of Western Europeans’ preoccupation with the Mediterranean (known in Latin as mare nostrum, which means “our sea”).
The Arab expansion and conquest of Mediterranean states of North Africa and Anatolia left an indelible mark in the development of the medieval European Christendom. Under the shadow of the Crescent, the Mediterranean became a barrier to Western Europeans, limiting their trading accessibility with the Orient.
The deprivation was historically monumental, and it is best captured in the words of a famous Belgian historian of the Mediterranean, Henri Pirenne: “Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would probably never have existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable.”
This shows that Jerusalem, a capital that straddles the Mediterranean and Dead Seas, is not only central to the matter of religious devotion but also on the ground of geopolitical contestation between the Western and Islamic polities.
Civilizational, not just political
We still do not know for sure the exact reason Trump made his controversial pronouncement, but one thing is certain: Jerusalem, no matter who is in charge of the White House, will always be something bigger than just a political bargaining chip in resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
It will eternally remain – to borrow Netanyahu’s phrase – as a geo-strategic locus not only for the Western but also Islamic civilizations. To lower the simmering tension, we must first elevate this issue to a different vantage point – a point where diplomatic exercise is girded with a strong impetus for a civilizational dialogue between the two civilizations.
With the failure to do so, the world will witness yet another repeat of the cycle of violence that has colored the iconography of Jerusalem since time immemorial.