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 …

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Letters

Jerusalem October 12, 1989

Jerusalem October 12, 1989