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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.

Even so sketchy a history shows that Jerusalem, with its changes of rulers and religions, does not belong exclusively to the heritage of any one religion or any one community in the city. To establish its claims, each religion and each nation competing for the city clings to a particular sequence of events inthe city’s history from the Bronze Age onward and sees it as a guide to their present-day activities, while the history of others becomes for them a black hole from which not even one ray of light can escape.

One of the principal notions that has both undergone historical transformation and caused divisiveness is the concept of holiness, which is accompanied by the idea that Jerusalem is a holy city. Different ideas of holiness have given the struggle over Jerusalem its flavor of absolutism—for example, the expression that Jerusalem is Israel’s “eternal” capital. The recurrent pattern with regard to Jerusalem is a subtle one. Each religion and each national ideology started out with deep ambivalence about the city’s importance. The attitude of each group toward the city became one of absolute commitment only as a result of rivalry and conflict with others. The religious competition for Jerusalem, and consequently the nationalist competition as well, were sustained by the idea that the city was a holy place for various religions, an idea that requires clarification.

One day, on a school outing, we went to see a model of Jerusalem at the time of the second Temple, including a model of the Temple itself. This model is located next to a hotel appropriately named the Holyland Hotel. After looking at the model we went down the hill on which the hotel is perched to a valley in which there was an area of high-tension electrical poles surrounded by a high fence with pictures of skulls and crossbones warning against trespassing in the enclosure. Our teacher then explained that this electrical sanctuary works on the same principle as the Temple. The electrical poles are the source of light and energy for the whole city, but anyone who dares to touch them is electrocuted and dies. (Our teacher had apparently been reading Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy.) The holy city is indeed a place fraught with ambivalence: on the one hand, it contains a divine presence that provides it with an abundance of goodness; on the other hand, there is a constant danger of defilement that will alienate the divinity and threaten the city with a curse. This ambivalence between goodness and curse, love and fear, and especially purity and defilement, produces the religious tension expressed in the idea of the Temple as a place that is at once blessed and dangerous.

Biblical Jerusalem and the Temple itself were divided into areas of greater and lesser holiness, where the degree of holiness was reflected in the taboos applying to each area. The Temple Mount was holier than the rest of Jerusalem. No one who was ritually defiled could enter it—including persons suffering from venereal discharge, or women who had recently given birth or were menstruating. The Temple court is yet holier, and heathens were forbidden to enter it. The outer hall of the Temple was holier still, forbidden to anyone not of the priestly caste. Finally, the Holy of Holies, the inner part of the Temple, could only be entered by the High Priest, and only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. (There has been much controversy surrounding this system of holiness. The Judean desert sect at Qumran believed that all of Jerusalem was as holy as the Temple Mount, and that it was forbidden, for example, to have sexual relations in the city. They therefore considered the priestly Jerusalem to be a defiled and dangerous city from which it was necessary to flee to the desert.)

The concept of holiness as the exclusion of the defiled had a historical significance: people who were alien were gradually included in the category of the defiled. The presence of an outsider in the city, especially near the Temple, was “anathema” in the literal sense of the word. The author of the Psalms (79:1) says, “O God, heathens have entered Your domain, defiled Your holy temple.” The Crusaders who besieged the Moslem-ruled Jerusalem adopted this verse from the Psalms as their battle cry. But the view of the alien as someone who defiles is not only something from the distant past. The British consul in Jerusalem, James Finn, reported to his Foreign Minister in England in 1848, the year of “the springtime of the nations,” that a person identified as a Jew had been found in the Latin chapel on Easter. The crowd had been about to lynch him; and only the intervention of the Turkish guards saved him, after a severe beating. Finn thenremarked that this incident was similar to what had occurred to a British doctor who had been caught in the Muslims’ Noble Sanctuary—he too had been severely beaten and rescued only with difficulty. The defiling aliens have not always been rescued, especially not in our century.

While the Temple still stood, the concept of the holy place, whether Jerusalem or the Temple, as the place free of defilement came into conflict with another concept of holiness—the concept of Jerusalem as the place of pilgrimage. The Bible commands Jews to make a pilgrimage on three holidays, Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Hundreds of thousands of people used to come to Jerusalem on these occasions. Flavius Josephus writes about nearly three million pilgrims on one Passover. Even if we remove one zero, the number remains impressive. The vast Temple court in fact had enough room for three hundred thousand worshipers.

Among the pilgrims in the period before the Temple was destroyed were many who came from different foreign countries with different languages. Only thus can we understand the miracle of “speaking in tongues” which occurred on the famous Pentecost described in Acts 2. At any rate, the Temple priests accepted sacrifices as well as other presents from gentiles, even though there were some sages—perhaps influenced by the Judean desert sect—who demanded that such sacrifices not be allowed. With such a large number of visitors, it was very difficult to make sure of everyone’s purity.

Amos Elon, in his wonderful book about Jerusalem,2 summarizes his description of the pilgrimages from all parts of the world by calling Jerusalem “a cosmopolitan city.” But Jerusalem, as my friend the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser once put it, is at the same time the most international and the least cosmopolitan city in the world. People from many different nations have always lived in Jerusalem, and in this sense it has an international flavor; but to be cosmopolitan requires that a stranger’s presence should not only be tolerable but natural and welcome. In this sense Jerusalem is not cosmopolitan in the least but is sectarian in the extreme—and with a large number of sects. These sects live side by side, not together. They are each shut up in their own quarters and courtyards, sometimes behind walls and locked gates.

Jerusalem as a holy city of pilgrimages is common to all three religions, but one sense of pilgrimage is mainly the heritage of Jews and Muslims—the sense of going to Jerusalem in order to be buried there in the belief that when the dead are resurrected those buried in Jerusalem will be resurrected first. This idea is conceived so literally that the grave plots on the Mount of Olives (where Robert Maxwell was recently buried) that are nearer to the Golden Gate, through which the Messiah is expected to pass, are more expensive than those further away. The nearer one is to the gate, the closer one will be to the head of the line at the time of the resurrection. At any rate, Jerusalem is surrounded by a huge necropolis, and the dead can’t be ignored in any vote about Jerusalem’s future.

The war between Islam and Christianity at the time of the Crusades defined Jerusalem as a holy city whose conquerors could claim that their own religion was chosen by God. At first glance it seems as though the holiness of Jerusalem for Christianity is obvious. The Christian drama of part of Jesus’s life and, above all, his death and resurrection, took place in Jerusalem. The “holy archeology” of the Byzantines also guaranteed that every biblical event has a place in the city attached to it. In holy archeology, there are no misses. One digs and one finds. Constantine found Golgotha and the holy cross and built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there.

However, during the Byzantine period Christianity spoke more of holy places than of a holy city. The idea of the Holy Land, and to some degree of the holy city as well, comes from the Crusaders. The difficulty for “learned” Christianity (as opposed to folk Christianity, which is attached to holy relics) is the Pauline doctrine that sees the earthly Jerusalem as a Jewish Jerusalem, a Jerusalem bound to the Law (“the bondsmaid Hagar”), as opposed to the heavenly Jerusalem, which is a Jerusalem freed from the Law (“the lady Sarah”). This approach, which is based on Jesus’s prophecy that no stone structure will remain whole in Jerusalem, as well as on the establishment ofthe church in Rome, cast some doubt on the status of Jerusalem. The triumph of the Crusaders relieved Christianity of its ambivalence toward Jerusalem. Spirituality can be a matter of geography. When the earthly Jerusalem is within reach, its value rises; when one is far away from the earthly Jerusalem, the heavenly one gains more importance. The Crusaders saw themselves as vassals coming to liberate the domain of their Lord, Jesus; and with respect to Judaism, they presented themselves as the spiritual, and therefore the true Israel—that is, the legitimate heir to Jerusalem.

Muslims, too, were ambivalent about Jerusalem’s holiness, for they saw the city as a possible rival for the holy status of Mecca and Medina. According to the Koran the people who first became Muslims prayed toward Jerusalem; but the prophet tested his followers and demanded that they pray toward Mecca. The ideological basis of Jerusalem’s holiness for Islam is found in the traditional interpretation of the account (in Sura 17) of the night journey of God’s servant from the sanctified mosque to the mosque at what was called “the remote end.” This interpretation identified God’s servant with Muhammad, who went from the Ka’bah in Mecca to Jerusalem. The Muslim tradition also sees Jerusalem as the place to which Muhammad went on his wondrous horse Burak. It seems that this interpretation is based on the Talmudic tale (Sanhedrin 98) about the horse (“Susia Burka”) which the King of Persia offers for the Messiah to ride. That is, the night journey to the Temple Mount is the journey of the successor religion (Islam succeeding Judaism and Christianity), where Muhammad is the rider of the Messiah’s horse, which is contrasted with the donkey of Jesus, the poor Messiah.

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.

Zionist leaders of the Jewish community at the time of the British mandate preferred to live in Tel Aviv rather than in Jerusalem; all but a few of their rival leaders in the Palestinian movement lived in Jerusalem. This fact, too, affects what is happening today. One of the recurring obstacles to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians has been Israel’s demand that the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to the conference should not include Arab representatives from East Jerusalem. The Shamir government claims that all of Jerusalem is part of the State of Israel and that allowing Palestinians from Jerusalem to take part in the delegation to the peace conference will undermine the legitimacy of Israel’s annexation ofthe eastern part of the city. Israel has long claimed that residents of East Jerusalem are Jordanian citizens tolerated by Israel; now it is not willing to accept them even in a Jordanian delegation to the conference.

Israel’s argument against the participation of East Jerusalem representatives is a matter of principle, but it is also an attempt to prevent Faisal Husseini, the leader who represents the mainstream of the PLO on the West Bank, from taking part in talks. Husseini is the scion of a family whose members have been Arab leaders since the middle of the seventeenth century. His great-grandfather, Salim Effendi, was the mayor of Jerusalem under the Turkish regime, while his grandfather, Musa Kazim, was its mayor under the British mandate. While Musa Kazim was mayor, the members of the great Jerusalem families became the Arab spokesmen for all of Palestine.

The great Jerusalem families take pride in descending from the family of the Prophet, but in fact they became rich and politically strong mainly under the Turkish regime in the nineteenth century. Some of them acquired both their riches and their power from being tax collectors and officials throughout the Ottoman Empire. Husseini’s grandfather was one of the first to state the Arab position against the Zionist settlement of Palestine, but he was willing to speak to the Zionists, and all the more so to the British. The radicals in the Husseini family were Kazim’s cousin, the notorious Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and Kazim’s son—Faisal’s father—Abd el-Kader el-Husseini. The Grand Mufti, Haj Amin el-Husseini, was mainly responsible for changing the Palestinian position from one that relied on the British for help in opposing the Jewish community to one relying on Hitler’s Germany.

This turn toward Nazi Germany was a fateful political and moral mistake for the Palestinians, and Arafat’s recent support for Saddam Hussein reminds one of it. But other nationalist movements turned to Hitler in the hope that he would secure them national independence. A faction of the Jewish underground, one of whose commanders was Yitzhak Shamir, tried, at the beginning of the war, to make a deal in which Jews would acquire a state, which would then support Germany. However, Shamir’s underground group was on the fringe of the Jewish community, and the Nazis were not interested in it. The Mufti, on the other hand, was the dominant Palestinian leader, and the Nazis were very interested in making a deal with him.

Faisal Husseini’s father, Abd el-Kader el-Husseini, was the greatly admired commander of the armed Palestinian Arabs, apparently the only leader capable of organizing their war effort in 1948. He was killed in a battle on the road to Jerusalem in April of that year, and his death was one of the important factors leading to the disintegration of the Palestinian military opposition. Faisal Husseini inherited his grandfather’s politics—combining antagonism to the Zionists with attempts to speak to the Americans (the heirs to the British in the region) and to the Israelis. Other members of the great Jerusalem families lost some of their standing among the Palestinian public; and some of the Hebron families who moved to Jerusalem during the twentieth century have become more important to the economic life of the city. But Faisal Husseini, as the son of a national hero and the member of a family strongly identified with Jerusalem, is a symbol no less important in Shamir’s eyes than in the eyes of the Palestinians. And Shamir, in addition to his fear of speaking to the Palestinians at all, does not want any Palestinian at the negotiating table who symbolizes Jerusalem.

Still, while Husseini was not at the negotiating table at the Madrid talks, he is a member of the PLO-sponsored committee advising the Palestinian negotiators, who respect him as a natural leader of Palestinians now under Israeli occupation. If they do discuss Jerusalem, what specifically will they be talking about?

One solution, which is little discussed, but is actually being carried out, is that of Ariel Sharon. He wants to push the Arabs out of Jerusalem by taking over buildings and land, mainly in the Muslim quarter (where Sharon himself has moved) and in the area near the Mount of Olives. Such a policy has paradoxically become easier to put into effect since the intifada. The Palestinians, after the misfortune that befell them when they abandoned their villages in 1948 and became refugees, adopted a strategy of clinging to their land (sumud), which involved a considerable degree ofcollaboration with the Israeli government—a government which has often been willing to buy a degree of calm at the price of leaving things more or less as they are. The intifada is partly a revolt against any sort of collaboration with the Israeli government.3 This leads to a weakening of the Palestinians’ ability to hold onto their land, since they cannot, for example, get building permits or work permits and in general are less able to pull strings with the Israeli authorities.

Another solution is Teddy Kollek’s “Ottoman” solution, which Israel can be expected to put forward in any negotiations about Jerusalem, if they ever take place. All of Jerusalem would remain under absolute Israeli sovereignty. The municipality and the central government would guarantee to provide services to all parts of the city, Jewish and non-Jewish, without discriminating against the Arabs. The non-Jewish residents would be given broad autonomy in cultural and religious affairs, and perhaps even a special status in the places that are holy to Islam. The Israelis would guarantee that their life in the Arab parts of the city would go on undisturbed.

As for Palestinians who follow the main political tendency represented by Husseini, they will demand a return to the 1967 borders, even in Jerusalem, with the parts of the city that were under Jordanian control on June 4, 1967 returned to Arab hands. This means that East Jerusalem would be under Palestinian sovereignty. Some Palestinians, of course, reject any division of sovereignty over Jerusalem, and some reject any division of sovereignty over Palestine as a whole, while a good many reject any negotiations with the Israelis. But among the Palestinians who have a plausible claim to representing the majority, some seem willing to accept the idea of one city within which there is a divided sovereignty.

Finally, there is the solution that I am advocating—joint sovereignty over Jerusalem, with Jerusalem remaining one city that could be the home of two capitals, that of Israel and that of Palestine. The apparent simplicity of this formulation clearly contains hidden dangers, but it seems to me workable. As far as I know, however, it has no precedent. There are cities with a special extraterritorial status, such as the Vatican, and in modern history there have been free cities such as Danzig; but no city I know of has had joint sovereignty.

What sort of legal system would the city have? Let’s say two robbers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, are caught breaking into a local bank in Jerusalem. Would they be brought before the same or different judges; and would the same law be applied to each of them? To whom could they bring their appeal and who could pardon them?

Such questions suggest that the solution of one city with divided sovereignty is much simpler than the notion of one city with joint sovereignty. Under divided sovereignty, if the bank robbery took place on the Israeli side of the city then both suspects would be tried according to Israeli law; if on the Palestinian side, they would both be tried under Palestinian law. For municipal matters, on the other hand, there would be a joint city council, and the city’s administrative laws would be those drawn up and accepted by this council. Why not accept the simple solution of divided sovereignty over the city rather than the complex solution of joint sovereignty?

Joint sovereignty is preferable, however, because it provides the strongest guarantee that the city will not once more be divided. In the case of divided sovereignty a conflict in the city is more likely to deteriorate into a physical separation of the city into two parts, much as Berlin was divided by the wall. An agreement on joint sovereignty would explicitly exclude redivision of the city. It is well to remember, moreover, that in East Jerusalem—the part which was under Arab sovereignty until 1967—there are now 120,000 Jews; they will not accept Palestinian sovereignty and a Palestinian legal system. Even an Israeli government willing to freeze settlements, and discourage further settlements on the West Bank, would not force them out.4

What of the inevitable conflict between different legal systems that would arise under joint sovereignty? A breach of contract between two people belonging to two different legal systems (say, British and French) poses the problem of who should try the case and according to which law. This is a relatively simple matter, and international contracts usually include paragraphs determining what should be done insuch cases. The problems that might arise with respect to conflicts of law in a Jerusalem under joint sovereignty are obviously extremely complicated, but they do not seem to be beyond solution. For example, one should distinguish between the question of which court would try offenders in Jerusalem and the question of which legal system would be used for the trial. It is entirely possible that the same court with the same judges could try cases using different legal systems when appropriate.

Judges from the British House of Lords under the Empire served as the supreme court of appeals for the crimes committed, say, in Australia or Palestine. As such they were required to consider each case according to the laws prevailing in each of the countries of the Empire. The flexibility of the House of Lords depended on affinities among the legal systems prevailing throughout the Empire. In Jerusalem as well, the possibility of settling difficulties would depend in part on the affinities between the Israeli and the Palestinian legal systems.

The problem of the conflict of law might be eased if each resident were to be tried according to his or her personal status within the system he or she belongs to. The idea of personal status would continue with respect to martial law among Israel and its neighbors as an inheritance from the Turkish Empire. An Israeli Muslim would be tried in matters of marriage and divorce in a Muslim court according to Muslim law, while a religious Jew would be tried by a rabbinic court according to Jewish law. This idea of personal status could be adapted for the residents of Jerusalem, although I would hope that it would not be applied along the lines of the religious communities, as is now the case in Israel.

It is very likely that a solution of the sort I am suggesting would require, in the last analysis, granting Jerusalem special status, so that it would have its own laws, which would be agreed upon by the parliaments of the two states and would be part of the laws of each one of them. But far more difficult to solve than such legal problems are the political and psychological ones. “How can you expect,” I will be asked, “that after all the intense hatred, suspicion, and rivalry that has existed between the Jews and the Arabs in Jerusalem, they will be able to live within a political system that requires such complex cooperation?” One step that might make this cooperation easier is the old idea of governing the city by boroughs. Each borough would be largely autonomous in determining its character and its leaders. This would protect the national and religious communities in the city. Such an arrangement could be important for the Christian communities and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, as well as for the Muslim Arabs. Thus the solution I suggest for Jerusalem is built upon legitimate separation no less than general cooperation under joint sovereignty.

The psychological problem is how to turn the burning hatred of today into “Platonic hatred,” that is, into an idea of hatred emptied of its emotion. The principle that should be kept in mind is that political steps must lead to psychological reconciliation, rather than vice versa. When, as a result of the Madrid conference, the stone-throwing youth of the intifada felt there was some political hope, they approached Israeli soldiers and offered them olive branches of peace. If political negotiations had been delayed until such a gesture had been made, they might never have taken place.

The Jerusalem of today, under Israeli rule, is practically speaking a divided city. Since the intifada began the city has been divided by boundaries of fear. Jews simply do not enter some districts and Arabs are wary about entering others. Joint sovereignty might be able to truly unite Jerusalem for the first time. The removal of the boundaries of fear is a condition for the real unification of the city.

Letters

An Exchange on Jerusalem March 5, 1992

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    Jerusalem: City of Mirrors (Little, Brown, 1989).

  3. 3

    Useful information and analysis on how this collaboration worked in Jerusalem can be found in Living Together Separately by Michael Romann and Alex Weingrod (Princeton University Press, 1991). Of special interest is the account of how Arab headmen acted as mediators between the city’s Arab population and the political and municipal authorities.

  4. 4

    In their thoughtful new book No Trumpets, No Drums, Mark Heller and Sari Nusseibeh put forward a proposal for Jerusalem’s future that is similar to the one I advocate here. (The book is reviewed in this issue on page 20.) The one matter on which we differ, however, might turn out to be crucial. They too envisage Jerusalem as one city, with a municipal government elected jointly by Jews and Arabs. But they also envisage a city demarcated by “imaginary sovereignty lines.” They speak of “Israel’s” Jerusalem and “Palestine’s” Jerusalem. By imaginary lines they presumably mean boundaries that would have no effect on the city’s daily life; but to have sovereignty lines, even imaginary ones, means that each party can in principle impose its will in times of tension, and thus turn imaginary lines into solid walls. Imaginary sovereignty lines could be used as exit lines. My suggestion of shared sovereignty is intended to block that exit.

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