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The Myth of Jerusalem

At any rate, Saladin’s countercrusade—his holy war, or jihad, to liberate Jerusalem—required a great deal of propaganda on behalf of Jerusalem. The old ambivalence was suppressed, and Saladin—not unlike Yitzhak Shamir—wrote to Richard Lionheart, “Let the King not imagine that such a concession [handing over the city to the Crusaders] is possible.” (Forty years after that letter was written the Muslim governor in fact handed the city over to the Crusaders.)

Jerusalem also served as a holy city for Islam in its claim to be the successor of Judaism and the rival of Christianity. Jerusalem was an important city for religious studies and contained large seminaries—it was a holy city in the sense that Kum is a holy city for the Shi’ites in Iran. Jerusalem was also a city that attracted many mystics, “holy men,” apparently under the influence of the Christian monks that lived in and around it. They saw Jerusalem as a place for the purification of the soul and, above all, as the city of the resurrection.

This picture of the three religions wrestling over God’s little acre in Jerusalem obscures the in-fighting that goes on within the various sects of each religion. Jerusalem is the scene of a huge Monopoly game which is being played not only in church courtyards, monastery towers, and grave plots, but also in the “holiest places,” where a struggle goes on over each floor tile, each column, each window. A visitor in the nineteenth century observed that each Christian pilgrim sees the pilgrims from countries other than his own as heretics and scoundrels who have left the true God and betrayed the true church. Muslims and Jews were at least brought up in ignorance, while the rival contesting Christians are liars since they were brought up on the true Bible. Anyone who has seen riots among the people wearing black robes in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as I once did, realizes that the situation has not improved since the nineteenth century. Once the mediator between monks and nuns was the sultan’s representative; now it is Teddy Kollek. An old Arab proverb says that no people are more corrupt than the residents of holy cities; certainly no people are more fanatic.

The Turkish regime in Jerusalem must be credited with the construction of the city’s magnificent walls, but during the Turkish period Jerusalem became a degenerate and dirty provincial town. When Napoleon fought the Turks in Palestine he besieged Acre—then an important naval city—and did not bother to go to Jerusalem. The desire to clean up the city seized many Protestant visitors in the nineteenth century, and Theodore Herzl, the visionary of Zionism, wrote in his diary: “If one day Jerusalem will be ours, then the first thing we must do isclean the city of its filth.” Teddy Kollek, who was born in Vienna, Herzl’s city, can be seen as the Jewish broom Herzl envisioned.

At the end of the Ottoman Turkish period—during the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries—a new, imperial competition for the city took place. Although Jerusalem was ruled by a Turkish pasha who often acted arbitrarily toward the residents of the city (the pasha Abdullah forced Christian women to wear only black and Jewish women to wear only red), the city nevertheless reverted to the political arrangement that had begun in the sixteenth century but became more important than ever when the Ottoman Empire was crumbling. Special privileges—“capitulations”—were granted to the citizens of the great powers, exempting them from the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire and placing them under the authority of the consuls of these powers. Citizens with capitulations had a personal status comparable to diplomatic immunity today. The foreign consuls of Russia, France, England, Prussia, and Italy were, in effect, local governors. Jews coming to Jerusalem who were citizens of any of these countries were granted capitulations when they came to Jerusalem, and, as a result, their numbers in the city began to increase. By the middle of the nineteenth century they had become a majority. At the same time the European powers competed with one another to build up the sites of the holy places as well as construct hospitals and hostels for pilgrims. This was the first period in which there was an active, energetic Protestant presence in the city.

Though the Ottoman Empire contributed very little to the city’s physical development, its political conceptions have had a far-reaching effect on the Middle East in general and particularly on today’s Israel and Jerusalem. The Ottomans conceived of society as composed of religious or ethnic communities rather than individuals. Among these communities, in the Ottoman view, there is one reigning community, and the government exists mainly for its sake. The other communities have the status of minorities and, for the Israelis of today as well as the Ottomans of the past, it is very important to show them, through acts of government, who is the ruling community and who is the government. If, for example, in present-day Israel the Druses and the Circassians, unlike the Israeli Arabs, serve in the army, then they deserve more rights than the Arabs, because they are loyal to the state. The government allows the minorities broad legal autonomy in matters of personal law—marriages are thought to take place within the community rather than between communities, and intermarriages have no legal status. In general the Israeli government, like the Ottomans in the past, does little to interfere in religious matters, which are very important to these smaller communities.

At the same time, members of minority communities are, in a serious sense, second-class citizens, and their status is derived from the secondary, if not marginal, status of their community. In most of the West the notion has taken hold that the state defines one’s nationality, and that, whatever religious or ethnic community a citizen might belong to, he is nevertheless, for example, an American or a Canadian. That political conception is not accepted in the Middle East, including Israel. There the state belongs to the nation that makes up the ruling majority. What is so confusing about Israel is that on the one hand the rhetoric used by its leaders is the American-style rhetoric used in the Western countries, while on the other hand the dominant Israeli views about the rights of minorities, majorities, religion, state, and government are mainly Ottoman. The British mandate, which replaced the Turkish regime after World War I, did not change the basic Ottoman conception.

The prevailing Israeli view concerning Jerusalem is still essentially Ottoman. Of the 504,000 residents of Jerusalem (1988 figures), 361,000 are Jews, part of the nation that rules Jerusalem. The rest of the residents—173,000—are non-Jews, and they are divided into communities, mainly according to their religion. The communities are tolerated, or not tolerated, according to the Israeli government’s judgment of the degree of threat that they pose.

The national movement of the Jewish people—Zionism—displayed from the outset a deeply ambivalent attitude toward Jerusalem. On the one hand, the movement’s name is derived from the word “Zion,” which was originally the name of a fortress (and range of hills) in Jerusalem. From this it became an alternative name for Jerusalem as a whole and even for the whole land ofIsrael. Zionism also took from the holy geography of Judaism the notion that Jerusalem is the highest of all places. Thus immigration to Israel is aliya (literally, ascending), while emigration from it is yerida (literally, descending). The movement translated into political action the yearnings of generations of Jews for Jerusalem which were expressed in the prayers and customs mourning Jerusalem’s destruction.

On the other hand, Zionism had ambitions to create a new Jewish society that would be wholly different from Jewish life in the Diaspora. But Jerusalem was the least appropriate place for the founding of such a new society. Not only was it full of aliens, but it was inhabited by the “old Jewish Yishuv,” or settlement, whose members were in an even deeper state of exile than the Jews in the Diaspora which the Zionists had left. Most of the Jerusalem Jews were part of an ultra-Orthodox community of the sort that the Zionists were rebelling against—a community that lived on donations and did not have the kind of productive life that the Zionist revolution aspired to. There was thus a tension between the desire to return to the nation’s historic capital and the need for a tabula rasa, a clean slate. It is no wonder, then, that the Zionists preferred to build the new Hebrew city in the golden sands of Tel Aviv.

In Jerusalem itself a compromise solution was found between the tabula rasa and the historic homeland—the pioneers settled outside the historic city and built a new Jerusalem, including the first Jewish university—the Hebrew University. The Zionist leaders of Palestine continued to swear by the name of Jerusalem, but they did not live there, and only used it for their official activities. Most of the immigrants to Israel, about 80 percent, settled along the Mediterranean coast, a region that had never been the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Even the Zionists’ speeches about the land of our “forefathers” were not to be taken literally. The early pioneers, particularly the second president of the State of Israel, Yitzhak ben-Zvi, were still capable of considering the Arabs living in Palestine as the descendants of the Jews who had lived there during the period of the second Temple, beginning around the fifth century BC.

This belief was not merely a romantic fantasy. The claim that a Palestinian Arab—say, one living in Anta, which is perhaps the Anatot where the prophet Jeremiah lived—descended from the early Jews is no less probable than that of, say, Menachem Begin or Golda Meir. In the popular and ahistoric version of Jewish history, the destruction of the Second Temple is linked with the exile from the land. But a considerable part, perhaps even a majority, of the Jewish people already lived in the Diaspora before the Temple was destroyed; and after it was destroyed the size of this Diaspora did not increase very greatly. Most of the Jews who survived the Romans’ destruction of the country remained in Palestine. It is not particularly far-fetched to conjecture that they were the ancestors of those inhabitants who accepted Islam many generations later.

Israel’s astounding victory in the Six Day War created a sense of triumphalist history among the Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora. History, after many centuries, seemed “on our side,” and many nonbelievers saw the liberation of Jerusalem as a “sign from Heaven.” This feeling brought to prominence fundamentalist Zionism, a branch of Zionism that is interested in the ancestral homeland but has very little interest in the creation of a new society. Zionism for the fundamentalists has become extremely literal—its followers are no longer content to dwell next to the ancestral city, but insist on dwelling within it; they insist on living in the Old City, in the very heart of the Arab quarter.

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