Jerusalem: The Future of the Past

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.

Palestinians today make every effort to remember Jerusalem—as the Jews have, for generations—in their customs, their songs, their prayers. Stylized views of the city hang on the walls of countless homes all over the Near East. Muslim religious leaders in Iran habitually call the faithful to prepare for the coming march on Jerusalem to free her sacred mosques from the hand of the infidels. There is a “Jerusalem quarter” today in every Palestinian refugee camp. In Algiers in 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization proclaimed the establishment of a Palestinian state “in the name of Allah, with its capital Holy Jerusalem, al-Quds a-Sharif.”

The declaration was dismissed by the Israeli government as a worthless piece of paper that would soon be forgotten. There was an unexpected irony in the fact that Jews, who owe their present prominence in Jerusalem to their extraordinary memory of their own past, were now counting on the Arabs to forget theirs. The recognition by the PLO of Israel’s “right to exist” came too late and was articulated with too much seeming half-heartedness to cause a quick thaw in Israeli positions that had frozen hard during forty years of ceaseless terror and hair-raising threats. The violence generated by the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank was not conducive to producing more Israeli empathy. In Jerusalem itself, the gulf between Palestinians and Israelis was deeper than at any time since 1967. Palestinians from East Jerusalem continued to work in West Jerusalem in the service industries or in construction, and a few Israelis still went to East Jerusalem—on days when there were no riots or strikes—to sightsee or shop. Otherwise the two communities lived apart.

The Hebrew University on Mount Scopus was one of the few places in town where the lethal barriers between communities and faiths were still sometimes broken down. Few modern universities have been enjoined by their founders to fulfill a nobler or more difficult task than the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was established in 1925 to resurrect Hebrew culture and at the same time, in the words of its first president, Dr. Judah Magnes, to “reconcile Arab and Jew, East and West.” On the staff of the Hebrew University in recent years were a Dominican professor of philosophy and a Muslim lecturer in sociology; Arabs were studying Hebrew and Jews were studying Arabic literature. In 1988 there were about a thousand Arab students (6 percent of the total). All were Israeli Arabs, mostly from Galilee; not a single Palestinian student from East Jerusalem was attending the university.

Parts of the ugly strip of no man’s land that divided the city before 1967 were still bare in 1989, as though in the deeper recesses of their unconscious builders and developers recognized the continuing cleavage. Elsewhere, in and around the reunited city, Israeli and Palestinian builders were continuing the 1967 war by other means. Many building projects were politically motivated and at least partly financed from abroad. Both sides were eager to establish facts and counterfacts on the ground. The hillsides in and around Jerusalem’s historic core were being inundated with the resulting Israeli or Palestinian unsightly suburban buildings. Both sides exhausted every possible resource of law and memory. The city has been overendowed with symbolism. Each side interpreted the other’s building projects, or growing birth rate, as a form of belligerence. Even archaeological excavations were controversial. In Israeli eyes, they symbolized belonging; in Palestinian eyes, they were threatening symbols of power and aggression.

The city was held together by force. “Take away Israel’s coercive power and the city splits on the ethnic fault line,” Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of the reunited city, wrote in 1987. “The Arabs, one third of the population, are unable and will never be able, to acquiesce to the regime imposed upon them. Violence courts violence in a perpetual magic circle. Exotic growths—chauvinistic, fundamentalist—blossom on the rotting soil of atavistic urges,” he observed. “And at its heart, a time bomb with a destructive force of apocalyptic dimensions is ticking, in the form of the Temple Mount.”

This was ethnic tension, but not, as was sometimes claimed, of the kind that today bedevils most heterogeneous cities and many great metropolitan centers. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem were not pressing for equal rights and opportunities, or for a bigger slice of the common cake. They wished to secede; better still, they wanted the Jews to evacuate the entire city or, at the very least, the Arab sector formerly held by Jordan. Let them go back whence they, or their ancestors, had come. Jews and Muslims continued to present historical and literary evidence proving the “centrality” of Jerusalem in their respective religious and national consciousnesses.

The evidence was, almost as a rule, mutually exclusive. From time to time, there were also Israelis and others who raked their minds in attempts to square the vicious circles. The most far-reaching proposals envisaged Arabs and Israelis sharing sovereign rights within a united city, open to all, or, alternatively, two separate sovereignties and a jointly run Old City. Several other schemes had been mooted after 1967. One stipulated continuing Israeli sovereignty over the entire city but accorded special privileges to national and religious groups. Another envisioned a capital district under Israeli rule, providing extraterritorial status to specific Christian and Muslim sites and residents. A third suggested the establishment of a sovereign Muslim enclave on the Temple Mount, like the Vatican in Rome; it might have its own extraterritorial access route from Jericho, in the form of an elevated highway or tunnel. Yet another proposal stipulated several ethnic and religious boroughs under a revolving lord mayor.

Nothing had ever come of any of these schemes. All were stillborn—cast aside for offering too little or too much, too early or too late. To the hard-liners of both sides, the very idea of compromise was repellent. Whenever an Arab was ready to serve on a joint municipal council, he was threatened with death and promptly withdrew. When the first “borough plan” (drafted by a commission of government and city officials) was leaked to the press in 1971, a political storm of so large a magnitude broke loose that it convinced most Israeli politicians to stop raising such hypotheses lest they risk the abrupt end of their public careers. That plan, which the mayor had asked a former Supreme Court justice to draft a constitution for, was shelved. Its author, Deputy Mayor Meron Benvenisti, was lambasted. The graffiti smeared on the walls of West Jerusalem read “Death to the Traitor” and “Let’s cut up Benvenisti, not Jerusalem.” Needless to say, his proposal was also unacceptable to the Arabs.

On both sides, religious fundamentalism has grown considerably since 1967. On both sides it seems to reflect a growing disillusion with politics. The new fundamentalisms make a peaceful resolution of the conflict over Jerusalem even more difficult. Both reject any separation between the synagogue/mosque and the state. Among fundamentalist Muslims, as among fundamentalist Jews, religion is the state. In Islam, the prophet is sovereign; he commands armies and dispenses justice. In every Arab country today, with the exception only of Lebanon, Islam is the state religion. Orthodox Judaism, which evolved after the ancient Jewish state ceased to exist, also postulates the synagogue militant and sovereign as a theoretical possibility for the future. Now that the Jewish state has been reestablished, with Jerusalem as its capital, it is still not certain whether it will succumb to Orthodox pressure or develop along Western lines by adopting a separation of synagogue and state. The disorientations and paranoia generated by continuing wars militate in favor of the former.

The cleavage in the city is deep, and it is made still deeper and more dangerous by the fusion, on both sides, of nationalist and religious metaphors. The futile and often obnoxious debate about who “loves” Jerusalem more is tinged with an element of male chauvinism: love or desire is seen to legitimize possession. Many Palestinians maintain the illusion that if they are only steadfast enough, the Israelis will one day vanish into thin air. Many Israelis cling to a parallel misapprehension that if economic conditions among Arabs of Jerusalem improve, they will, in the end, prefer freedom of speech and freedom of religious worship under a relatively benevolent Israeli regime over the rigid, repressive authoritarianism common today in Arab societies.

It is still sometimes said, hopefully, that the city is a “mosaic.” In a mosaic, the divergent parts at least combine to make up a design; in Jerusalem, they do not. There is not even a common theme. Sensitivities and prejudices run so deep that when the ultramodern Hadassah Medical Center in West Jerusalem started performing heart transplant operations in 1987, the hospital’s director general had to reassure the public that Jewish hearts would not be transplanted into Arab bodies, and vice versa.

The city is sometimes compared to Brussels or Montreal. But the problems in those cities are simpler than the problems of Jerusalem. In Brussels or Montreal, the main problem lies in the realm of language and cultural domination. In Jerusalem, the main issue is religious and political. As in Belfast, national and religious loyalties are interwoven; they overshadow and complicate everything else. The Palestinian minority—roughly 28 percent of the population of the united city—repudiates the legitimacy of the existing government. As a minimum, it claims the right to secede and establish in East Jerusalem the capital of an independent Palestinian state. This is anathema to most Israelis, who persist in a related fantasy that the present situation is capable of continuing indefinitely.

On both sides, people were governed after 1967 not by the strength but by the poverty of their imagination. On both sides, people continue to pray earnestly for “The Peace of Jerusalem,” but, as Meron Benvenisti wrote in 1981, they might have peace or they might have Jerusalem—not both. The former deputy mayor has been warning for years that the conflict will not go away by itself and that its cost will go up in both human and material terms. Teddy Kollek, mayor since 1965, is a mite less flamboyant than Benvenisti but no less persistent. He has repeatedly urged the Israeli government to come up with new constitutional ideas for Jerusalem—only to be rebuffed again and again. Kollek’s influence has never extended beyond the municipality into national politics. The mayor of Jerusalem cannot even move a bus stop from one corner to the next without authorization from the national ministries of the interior and of transport.

Kollek has been complaining for years that there has not been enough consideration and respect for Arab sensibilities. He has asked the government to supply public housing not only to Israelis but to Palestinians, too. When the Jewish quarter in the Old City was being lavishly rebuilt with government funds, Kollek demanded that the adjacent Muslim quarter, one of the worst slums in town, be restored as well. The central government refused to allocate the necessary funds.

Kollek is a secular Jew and a dove in a city that is becoming increasingly Orthodox and hawkish. He is not a political theorist but a man of sound instincts and humane temperament—a practical man in search of practical answers to practical questions. He has never himself managed to work out the specific constitutional proposals he has asked the government to formulate. But he has always been more attuned than most Israeli politicians to the complexities of Jerusalem—to the way the symbolic is intertwined with the real and endowed with a unique power of its own.

Few men have tried harder than Kollek to break down the walls of hatred and suspicion that divide Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, in Jerusalem. He realized early on that as mayor he could not solve the big political and religious conflicts. He has tried to help Jerusalemites in a nonpolitical way to coexist and persevere until a political solution can be found. But in Jerusalem, everything ultimately becomes political—that is to say, adversarial. An American columnist once asked Kollek if he did not sometimes fear that his efforts might be futile. Kollek answered that he felt like an ant that builds and builds: at any moment someone might poke a stick into the heap and destroy it; but he would build it again and again, as beautifully and as well as he knew how. And to Benvenisti, who asked Kollek whether he wasn’t being used” to provide good public relations for what in fact were government policies with which he disagreed, Kollek replied that yes, he did sometimes feel he was being used—“but what else can I do? It serves Jerusalem.”

Kollek has often been attacked by right-wingers who characterize him as an “Arab lover.” On one occasion, he was physically assaulted by ultra-Orthodox fanatics and left lying on a Jerusalem street. But for his fairness and humanity, the civil uprising that rocked East Jerusalem in 1987 might have been worse or might have broken out much earlier. In December of that year, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, long regarded by most Israelis as covertly content with Israeli rule because it afforded them higher living standards and better municipal services, joined Palestinians on the West Bank and rose in revolt. Braving heavily armed police with a tenacity that surprised everyone, perhaps even themselves, Palestinians in East Jerusalem demonstrated almost daily. Pelting cars with stones, chanting slogans, and waving the illegal Palestinian flag, they marched defiantly through the debris, the tear gas, and the black smoke of burning tires. Little boys ran ahead firing slingshots at the troops summoned to disperse them.

For the first time since the reunification of the city in 1967, curfews were imposed on some of the more turbulent Palestinian quarters. The schools in East Jerusalem remained shut for months. Thousands of East Jerusalemites tore up their Israeli identity cards. The commercial strike observed by nearly all shopkeepers paralyzed the Palestinian sections of the city for many months, turning East Jerusalem into a ghost town for many hours of the day. The “united” city seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The old pre-1967 dividing line came into being again. West Jerusalemites, if they could possibly avoid it, no longer crossed into East Jerusalem. They could console themselves that perhaps the city was on the whole still more peaceful than Belfast; but it was not free of fear.

The fears canceled one another out. The city was sometimes said to be poisoned by her past, possessed by it, haunted by demons of superstition—the religion of feeble minds—riveted by tribalism. Nationalism and religion overlapped. On both sides nationalism was a kind of civil religion passionately upheld by people ready to kill and to die for it. Relations between secular and Orthodox Jews in West Jerusalem also deteriorated. Long regarded by most Israelis as a quaint anachronism, the ultra-Orthodox of West Jerusalem in the mid-1980s broke out of their self-created ghettos. They seemed resolved to change—by force, if necessary—the living habits of the nonobservant Jewish majority. Riots by the ultra-Orthodox became an almost permanent feature in the life of the city.

The religious extremists had always had strong convictions. By the mid-1980s, for the first time, their strength was also in numbers. Roughly one third of the Jewish population of the city were now said to be ultra-Orthodox, and 55 percent of all Jewish elementary-school pupils were attending religious schools. Orthodox fanatics broke into Reform and Conservative synagogues, accusing them of “pornography.” The Ashkenazic chief rabbi announced unequivocally that, as he understood it, there should be no “religious freedom” in Israel; Orthodox Judaism was the only “legitimate” creed among Jews. His Sephardic colleague added that Reform Judaism was a plague imported from America that ought to be stamped out. The rabbis could not (yet?) enforce these views, but secular and conventionally religious Jerusalem Jews grew increasingly concerned about their place in the city. The ultra-Orthodox were confident that the future was theirs. Almost a third of the votes cast in the city during the 1988 national election went to ultra-Orthodox religious parties allied with the ultranationalist right wing. Together, the two blocs collected 62 percent of the vote in the city.

The accumulation of so much passion and memory—much of it expressed in religious or quasi-religious terms—made the city seem wondrous and at the same time quite psychotic. Tens of thousands of Jews were said to have left Jerusalem for other cities in the 1980s; most were secular, or conventionally religious, university graduates. Orthodox fanaticism seemed to trouble them more than Palestinian riots.

Kollek for his part has always been wary of the conventional Israeli view of Jerusalem as an exclusively Jewish icon, and has warned Israelis not to forget that Jerusalem is a center of other aspirations as well. In a 1985 speech he said that

in order to preserve peace and justice in Jerusalem we must go beyond the conventional formulas of national sovereignty, beyond the fears and prejudices that drive nations into wars, and search for new forms of freedom and of political organization.

He never specified what these new formulas were. Most recently Kollek has come out in favor of granting the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem the right to vote in any election under Shamir’s plan for limited autonomy for Palestinians of the West Bank. Shamir was vehemently opposed to granting the right which, he feared, not without reason, might be the first step towards a reparation of Jerusalem or a secession of East Jerusalem from Israel. Kollek’s liberal administration proved that conflicts stemming from religious or national differences are rarely, if ever, relieved by fair or good government, or by economic advantages accruing from it. In 1989, Kollek lost his majority in the city council. He is in his seventy-eighth year, embittered by what he has described as the ruin of his life’s work.

The proverbial “Peace of Jerusalem” invoked in Psalm 122 depends, paradoxically, on a waning of religion or of nationalism, if not on the waning of both. At this time, there is little, if any, indication of the waning of either. As in Belfast, peace remains a remote prospect. (Notwithstanding the well-known stereotype, it seems that there could not have been, even in the days of the psalmist, much tranquility in Jerusalem, or he would not have been so persistent in his injunction—endlessly repeated today on municipal billboards all over the city—“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall have quietness that love thee.”)

If anything, Jerusalem is a city loved too well yet never quite wisely. Israelis are repeatedly urged to cede territory in return for peace; but the growing Islamization of the conflict on the Arab side makes it likely that even if territory is given up, the violence, especially in Jerusalem, will remain.

At the meeting point of so many cultures, creeds, images, and counterimages, of saints and of hucksters, the city continues to embody a glorious idea and at the same time a dream found vain, wanting, and destructive. The past seems to have lost little if any of its power to inspire, animate, and provoke. Where there is so much destructive memory, a little forgetfulness may be in order. But unfortunately, there is little inclination for that on either side of the great national and religious divide. On the contrary, almost everywhere you turn, dark chords of memory swell the chorus of nationalism and of faith. A little forgetfulness—or compromise—seems unlikely under these circumstances.

Compromise in Jerusalem does not mean moving a border here or there a little more or a little less. The struggle in the city is not over a part, but over a whole. Primarily, it is over the historic core, within the ancient walls, that includes the three major holy places. One “reasonable” compromise could be the blurring of hard sovereign lines by recognizing two national rights within a united, jointly run municipal area. Even if the protagonists could mutually agree to such a plan (which remains doubtful), it must be noted that never before have two national capitals coexisted within the same city. There is reason to doubt that two nationalisms as raw as the Palestinian and the Israeli would be the first in known history to do so successfully. Another reasonable compromise might be the establishment of new capitals elsewhere by the two nationalities, within their respective sovereign territories. This seems equally unlikely in view of the strong religious component that shapes political attitudes toward Jerusalem.

The issue of Jerusalem is so emotionally charged that none of several wouldbe peacemakers and mediators in recent years has even dared to talk about it. Many diplomats believe that raising the sensitive issue even tentatively during attempts to initiate Middle East peace talks is sure to wreck the negotiations before they start. The subject might perhaps be tackled—very delicately—after successful accommodation has been reached on all other outstanding points, but anyone who broaches it sooner will be suspected of trying to undermine the entire process.

I was watching the sightseers one summer evening a few years ago as they streamed through the narrow gate of David’s Citadel—the hills nearby were turning the color of unglazed pottery—when the idea of writing a book about this tragically mad city first occurred to me. The citadel, in the words of one of the guidebooks, “encapsulates” the city’s history: saints and scoundrels, Hebrews, Hasmonaean kings, Jewish zealots, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, and Turks—not to mention England and modern Israel—have all left their mark on it. No one can enter that gate without experiencing poignant emotion. The citadel’s attraction overwhelms even those who try to resist it. Surely, I thought, watching the sightseers, surely this city has raised far more vexed ghosts of history than can safely be stomached locally. In the high noon of the ghosts, the human dimension is lost.

On the steps by that same gate, Yehuda Amichai, the great poet of the modern city, once sat with two loaded baskets of fruit and overheard a tourist guide saying: “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there is an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.”

I said to myself,” Amichai writes, “redemption will come only if their guide tells them: ‘You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important; but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”’


Jerusalem October 12, 1989

Jerusalem October 12, 1989

  1. *

    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.”