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The Myth of Jerusalem

When I was a child Jerusalem was more like a large village than a city. As in a village, there were some village idiots walking about, trailed by groups of giggling children. I particularly remember one madwoman with a gaunt, ashen face, her eyes blazing with anger and fear, who was a relative of the great mathematician Abraham Halevi Frankel. She was called “Kesher Le’echad” (tie of unity) because she preached in a babble of languages for the creation of ties of unity among people. One late afternoon I came home from school and was utterly amazed to find Kesher Le’echad sitting in the kitchen with my mother, drinking tea and eating cake. The scene didn’t seem real to me. Prophets don’t have tea with cake. Suddenly she got up nervously, muttered something, stood at the door and said, “We must make peace in Jerusalem schnell, schnell” (quickly, quickly).

Another village idiot called himself King David. He wore a black beret and had a round childish face and blue eyes expressing great innocence. As the King of Israel, he would grant us, his followers, various sections of Jerusalem. One day he decided to appoint me ruler of Mount Zion. He put his hand on my head and was about to bless me with his strange ceremony of investiture. At my side stood an Arab boy named Faras, who worked for a Greek Orthodox priest in our neighborhood.

What about me?” asked Faras.

He’s an Arab,” said one of the children.

King David thought for a moment, reconsidered, put his hand on both our heads, and appointed the two of us, his Jewish and Arab vassals, joint rulers of Mount Zion.

The question is whether it is possible and necessary to make peace schnell, schnell in Jerusalem, with Jews and Arabs as full partners in the ownership and administration of the city, or whether this is a solution only for children and village idiots. Any seasoned bazaar merchant—indeed, any child—will tell you that “the problem of Jerusalem” must be “left for last.” Negotiations between Jews and Arabs cannot begin with a discussion about Jerusalem because this would “blow everything up.” The problems are so complex that anyone who suggests a solution shows he does not understand the problem.

But I intend to suggest a solution: “Jerusalem must be one city and the capital of two states, Israel and Palestine.” In 1973, several months before the Yom Kippur war, three of us, native Jerusalemites, composed a platform for a small leftist party, with the slogan, “One city, the capital of two states,” But this view has never been popular among either Jews or Arabs. All but a small number of the Jews in Israel advocate absolute and exclusivesovereignty over all of Jerusalem. Mainstream Palestinians continue to demand an independent state, with sovereignty over East Jerusalem, which was under Jordanian rule until 1967. How could the suggestion of one city with joint Israeli-Palestinian sovereignty be a solution that is even possible?

In the talks that opened in Madrid in late October, Jerusalem is not being discussed. What is being discussed is something that the Israelis call “autonomy” and the Palestinians an “interim phase.” But the future of Jerusalem is germane even to a temporary arrangement under which Shamir would grant autonomy and Bush would promise that future negotiations would go beyond autonomy. But what kind of autonomy? The Likud government offered the Palestinians “autonomy for persons.” No one knows just what this means. It is, however, quite clear that it excludes control over land and water in the territories. Israel will maintain full control over both, and therefore Israel will decide when and where to establish new settlements. The Palestinians demand “autonomy over land.” This implies, at the least, a freeze both on new settlements and on adding more settlers to existing ones. According to recent public opinion polls, a majority of Israelis are willing to freeze settlements (at least during the negotiations) as long as this does not apply to East Jerusalem. (In a poll of 80,000 people by Na’amat and Yediot Tikshoret, 71 percent of Israeli citizens said that a freeze on settlements now will promote peace.)

If there is no distinction between the status of Jerusalem and that of the territories, then Shamir will have the option of breaking off negotiations at any moment, knowing that Israeli Jews will support him. He will claim that because of the Palestinians’ claims to autonomy, Jews will not be able to purchase apartments in, for example, Ramat Eshkol, a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem that is located beyond the 1967 border. This will win him near total support.

The problem of Jerusalem should therefore be separated from the problem of the rest of the territories. The best way to go about it is to consider Jerusalem as one undivided city and to negotiate how sovereignty over it can be defined and shared. It is a solution in the sense that it would be a just settlement of the claims of both sides—and in the sense that if the two sides were somehow eventually able to accept it, then both of them would be able to make peace on the basis of it.

I begin with the solution, but what is the problem? The problem of Jerusalem is that it is the object of a harsh, cruel, nationalistic competition between the Jews of Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. For both sides, victory in this competition means acquiring unchallenged sovereignty over the city.

What makes the problem of Jerusalem so complex is that the current nationalistic competition over the city takes place against the background of an ancient, blood-soaked religious competition between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. To understand the depth of the nationalistic conflict one must grasp the character of the religious one. And the religious competition for Jerusalem, like the nationalistic one, is not only symbolic and metaphysical. Meron Benvenisti, in his haunting book about Jerusalem cemeteries,1 writes that the Olympic Games slogan, “Higher, faster, stronger,” may be appropriate to Jerusalem. Each side wants to build higher, faster, and more than its opponents. Since 1967, Jewish Jerusalem has been leading the competition, and the record of Teddy Kollek can by now be compared to the great Jerusalem builders—Solomon, Herod, Hadrian, Constantine, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Father Antonine (the Russian priest responsible for constructing Jerusalem’s large Russian complex). And while the mosque minarets once rivaled in height the church steeples in the fight for the control of the Jerusalem horizon, today the clear winners are the towers of the Hilton and Sheraton hotels.

Jerusalem has always had more history than geography. King David’s city, the real one, was less than twenty acres in size. It’s no wonder that the first thing the King saw from his roof was Bathsheba taking a bath. In 1967 the Jerusalem municipality controlled about 10,000 acres, which grew to 27,000 acres after Israel annexed East Jerusalem. Now Ariel Sharon, as housing minister, wants to extend the territory of Jerusalem to include the satellite towns Maale Adumim and Betar in the occupied territories, and it is not clear that anyone can stop him.

No one can say just why Jerusalem is where it is. The location ofancient cities is generally explained by three conditions: roads, water, and defense. But no important road runs through Jerusalem; it has very little water, and the ancient city, even though it was built on a ridge, was not situated in a strong defensive position on the hills. It is thought that Jerusalem was founded about four thousand years ago as a city of ritual worship by the Canaanites, a view strengthened by mention in the Bible of King Melchizedek of Salem, the priest of El Elyon, as having been there. When King David captured Jerusalem and established it as his capital perhaps he did so because it had no history of Israelite worship and could be used to establish a new sacred place. In contrast to Hebron and Beth-El, moreover, it did not belong to the territory of any of the Israelite tribes and therefore could serve as a common ground for all of them. Jerusalem also has an extraterritorial status in Jewish law (although there is a controversy about this) and it belongs to all the Israelite tribes. King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem and concentrated all the ritual worship there, thus setting Jerusalem at the center of the national and religious consciousness of the Jewish people for all generations to come.

After Solomon’s death in the tenth century BC the kingdom was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judea, with Jerusalem as the capital of Judea. In 586 BC Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and exiled many of its residents. Sixty years later, under the Persian patronage of King Cyrus, a group of Jews returned from Babylonia to rebuild the Temple and settle in Jerusalem. They built a small temple, a rather poor substitute for the magnificent one erected by Solomon. The period of Persian rule over the city ended in 333 BC, and Jerusalem came under the rule of Alexander the Great. This marked the beginning of the city’s Hellenistic period, during which the Hellenistic ruler Antiochus Epiphanes forbade Jews to worship in the Temple. In 165 BC the Temple was “purified” by the Maccabees after a civil war against the Hellenist Jews.

In 63 BC Jerusalem entered a period of Roman rule—sometimes direct, sometimes indirect. It was during this period, shortly after Herod had rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem as one of the most impressive structures of antiquity, that Jesus was active in the city. In AD 66 a Judean revolt against Roman rule broke out, and in 70 the Temple was destroyed and burned by Titus. After the great Judean revolt of 132, the emperor Hadrian conquered the city and razed it to the ground, establishing in its place a pagan Roman city called Aelia Capitolina, which Jews were forbidden to enter. In the year 313 Christianity became in fact the state religion in Rome, and Constantine started to build the Holy Sepulchre in the center of Jerusalem, turning the city into a Byzantine Christian city.

In 638 Jerusalem was taken over by a new religion—Islam. The Dome of the Rock was built on the Temple Mount. After 500 years of exile the Jews were permitted to return and settle in Jerusalem. In 1099 the Christians reconquered the city from the Muslims in the Crusade for the “liberation of the holy places.” A Muslim counter crusade in 1187—Saladin’s jihad—returned the city to Muslim rule. Jerusalem flourished during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when it was ruled by the Mamelukes, the slave kings originally imported into the Middle East from Central Asia.

The Turks conquered Jerusalem in 1517, and its splendid city walls were built by Suleiman the Magnificent. The city remained under Turkish rule for 400 years, until 1917, when the city was captured by General Allenby, and Jerusalem became part of the British mandate of Palestine. The British left Palestine in 1948, and in the subsequent war between the Jews and the Arabs the city was divided in two. The eastern part of the city, including the Old City, was annexed to Jordan, while the western part became the capital of the new State of Israel. In 1967 Israel conquered East Jerusalem and annexed it.

  1. 1

    Meron Benvenisti, Jerusalem: City of The Devil (in Hebrew; Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1990).

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