The rational mind has always had reservations about Jerusalem. In 1930, Sigmund Freud wrote Albert Einstein: “I can muster no sympathy whatever for the misguided piety that makes a national religion from a piece of the wall of Herod, and for its sake challenges the feelings of the local natives.” Freud was attached to the Jewish world with ties he knew to be indestructible and is even said to have contemplated briefly, in 1922, settling in Palestine. Yet a few years later he told his friend the novelist Arnold Zweig, who had just returned from a visit to Jerusalem:
How strange this tragically mad land you have visited must have seemed to you. [It] has never produced anything but religions, sacred frenzies, presumptuous attempts to overcome the outer world of appearances by means of the inner world of wishful thinking…. And we hail from there!
The early Zionists by and large tended to share Freud’s wariness of religion. Theologically, Zionism was the great Jewish heresy of the nineteenth century. The early Zionists were sober men, more realistic than most in their fears of an imminent collapse of civilization in Europe, and eager above all to save lives. Like many national leaders of the liberal European school, they were anticlerical if not outright secular. The idea—even more so, the reality—of Jerusalem frightened or repelled them. The Zionists were, for the most part, future-oriented men and women. Jerusalem incarnated most things they had scorned and rejected: superstition, backwardness, and theocracy.
Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, envisaged the capital of his proposed state on a new site, the western ridge of Mount Carmel, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. “When I remember thee in days to come, O Jerusalem, it will not be with pleasure,” he wrote after a visit in 1898:
The musty deposits of two thousand years of inhumanity, intolerance, and uncleanliness lie in the foul-smelling alleys…. The amiable dreamer of Nazareth has only contributed to increasing the hatred.
Try as he might, at the Wailing Wall no “deeper emotion” came. “What superstition and fanaticism on every side!”
Ahad Haam, the leading Zionist thinker of his time, experienced a similar sensation in 1891 after inspecting what he called “the terrible Wall” and the ultra-Orthodox men worshiping it.
These stones bear witness to the ruin of our land, and these men—to the ruin of our people; which is the greater of the two ruins? Which should we deplore more? A ruined country…can be rebuilt; but who can help a ruined people?
He would not cry for Jerusalem, he announced, but for the Jewish people. David Ben-Gurion, the future prime minister, who arrived in Palestine as a Zionist pioneer in 1906 and during the next decade thoroughly explored the entire country, from Galilee to the south, mostly on foot, seems to have avoided Jerusalem almost deliberately. In his diaries and letters, so rich in impressions of other sites, there is hardly a word about Jerusalem. Like most pioneers of his generation, Ben-Gurion was more interested in building a new socialist society of free men and women than in national icons and religious relics. The Zionist pioneers, writes Anita Shapira, a leading historian of the period, regarded sentiments for Jerusalem as simply “reactionary.”
Chaim Nachman Bialik, the great poet of the Hebrew literary revival early in this century, avoided modern Jerusalem as a theme. He felt ill at ease there. No one before Bialik or after expressed the Jewish will to live in words and rhymes of such beauty and poetic force. He borrowed a well-used biblical image of Jerusalem—“joy of many generations” (Isaiah 60:15)—and applied it to Tel Aviv, the new city on the sea, where, like Ahad Haam, he chose to settle. He preferred Tel Aviv, he said, because “our hands have built it from its foundation to the roof. This after all is the purpose of our national renaissance: to cease being indebted to others, to be our own masters, in body and spirit.”
On a different, purely political level, it is noteworthy that Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader who became Israel’s first elected president, was known throughout his life to harbor ambivalent feelings about Jerusalem. He first visited the city in 1910—“not without misgivings,” he wrote in his memoirs in 1949. “I remained prejudiced against the city for many years and even now I still feel ill at ease in it, preferring Rehovoth [where he had built his home in 1938] to the capital.” In 1937, when the first partition plans were discussed, Weizmann suggested that only parts of the modern city be included in the proposed Jewish state. As for the Old City, with its hallowed sanctuaries, some of them sacred to or contested by two or more faiths, he said soberly: “I would not take the Old City [even] as a gift. There are too many complications and difficulties associated with it.”
Such sentiments look preposterous today in most Israeli eyes. At the time of the establishment of Israel in 1948, they were still quite common. Most Jewish leaders in 1948 were ready to abandon all of Jerusalem if they could only have an independent Jewish state elsewhere in the country. Internationalization of the city seemed a fair compromise. The 1947 United Nations resolution to partition Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state stipulated the establishment of Jerusalem as a third, internationally administered, separate political body. The resolution was enthusiastically endorsed by the Jewish leaders. The loss of Jerusalem, in Ben-Gurion’s words, was the inevitable “price we have to pay” to obtain a Jewish state elsewhere in the country. Had Israel been born in peace, had the Arabs accepted the 1947 partition resolution, the question of Jerusalem might have been resolved or at least left dormant; as an international enclave it might have thrived as never before or since.
But the Arabs never accepted the UN partition resolution; they declared open war. Israel’s birth came in two stages. The first was a civil war between Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews; it was nowhere as brutal as in Jerusalem. The second was an even bloodier struggle with the regular armies of four neighboring Arab states, which invaded the Jewish-held territory on the day after Israel declared its independence (May 15, 1948). The Jordanian attempt to take West Jerusalem failed after two weeks of heavy house-to-house fighting. By the following month, June, Jerusalem was a city divided, seemingly for all time.
The defense of West Jerusalem was seen by most Israelis at the time as perhaps the greatest heroic feat of the war. It was popularly talked about in near mythic terms. Nevertheless, West Jerusalem was not at this early stage accorded any special role within the new Israeli state. The new provisional government officiated in Tel Aviv. Zeev Sherf, the first cabinet secretary, later remembered that during the first nineteen months of the new state he never met anybody who thought that West Jerusalem should be Israel’s capital: “The subject was never raised.” Other capital sites were proposed: Kurnub in the Negev (by Ben-Gurion) and Haifa on the Mediterranean Sea (by Golda Meir). The majority seemed to favor Tel Aviv. From time to time, voices were raised abroad in favor of the aborted UN resolution on internationalization. But since both Israel and Jordan were now opposed to this and in effective control of their sectors within the divided city, such voices were not taken very seriously. The first elected Israeli parliament held a festive opening session in Jerusalem and then moved to permanent quarters in Tel Aviv. At most, Jerusalem was accorded the role of an educational or cultural center, or as the nominal seat of the Supreme Court. The legislature and the executive established themselves in Tel Aviv.
There things stood at the end of 1949, and there they might have remained had not a new solemn resolution calling for the internationalization of Jerusalem achieved an unexpected majority in the United Nations. It was proposed by Australia, Lebanon, and the Soviet Union. A Swedish-Belgian compromise proposal calling for UN supervision over the holy places only was rejected. Shocked by the sudden prospect of having to face pressure to give up emotion-laden territory over which so much blood had been spilled during the recent war (and by the apparent callousness of an international organization that had done nothing to prevent that war or punish those who had started it), the Israeli cabinet met on the next day and resolved for the first time that Jerusalem was “an inseparable part of the State of Israel and its eternal capital.”
The decision at this stage to transfer the capital to West Jerusalem was reflexive rather than premeditated. There was an element of spiteful defiance in it. The fact that the Vatican had not protested the occupation of East Jerusalem by Jordan but was now resentful of Jewish rule in West Jerusalem gave rise to suspicion that the Catholic Church, reconciled to Muslim rule in Jerusalem from the Middle Ages, found it difficult, for theological reasons, to adjust to Jewish rule there. Had it not, since at least the third century, regarded the banishment of the Jews from Jerusalem as just penalty for the murder, or at least for the rejection, of Christ? And had not a succession of modern popes expressed concern that the holy tomb might fall under Jewish rule?*
Monsignor MacMahon of the Vatican told Ben-Gurion that had the Catholic countries of Latin America, whose vote in the United Nations in favor of the establishment of a Jewish state had been decisive in 1947, known of Israel’s decision to move its capital to West Jerusalem, Israel would never have been established. Ben-Gurion shot back: “I don’t understand you. Jerusalem was Israel’s capital a thousand years before the birth of Christianity.”
Nevertheless, the decision to transfer the capital to West Jerusalem was carried out very slowly. A decade later it was not yet concluded. But in the testy atmosphere of pressure, counterpressure, and heavy theological argument after a costly war, a new, defiant mood was growing in Israel, along with a strong resolve concerning Jerusalem. For Israelis, it all came to a head during the Six Day War—as it did for Palestinians as well.
Nearly a quarter of a century has since passed. The Catholic world no longer presses for internationalization, probably because the United Nations now has a Communist and non-Christian Afro-Asian majority. Young Palestinians born after the reunification of 1967 are generally more radical than their parents and even less inclined to accept the unilateral annexation of Arab Jerusalem by the Israeli state. Among Israelis, there is less readiness than ever to meet Palestinian aspirations in Jerusalem halfway; the slightest expression of Palestinian nationalism in East Jerusalem is seen as subversive. The anger remains, the hatreds and resentments reach out of antiquity into the modern age, recasting ancient prejudice in modern words, dislodging old defenses and assembling them anew.
Copyright © 1989 Amos Elon. Printed by permission of Little, Brown and Co.
The first was Pius X in 1904. He told Herzl that Jerusalem must not fall into the hands of the Jews, who denied Christ and still deny his divinity. "The Hebrews have never recognized our Lord. Therefore we cannot recognize the Hebrew people." Should they persist in their desire to return to Palestine, "we shall keep churches and priests ready to baptize all of them."↩
The first was Pius X in 1904. He told Herzl that Jerusalem must not fall into the hands of the Jews, who denied Christ and still deny his divinity. “The Hebrews have never recognized our Lord. Therefore we cannot recognize the Hebrew people.” Should they persist in their desire to return to Palestine, “we shall keep churches and priests ready to baptize all of them.”↩