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Jerusalem Blues

City of Stone: The Hidden History of Jerusalem

by Meron Benvenisti
University of California Press, 274 pp., $24.95

I

Stone cries to stone,
Heart to heart, heart to stone
And the interrogation will not die
For there is no eternal city
And there is no pity
And there is nothing under- neath the sky
No rainbow and no guarantee—
There is no covenant between your God and me.

II

It is superb in the air.
Suffering is everywhere
And each man wears his suffering like a skin.
My history is proud.
Mine is not allowed.
This is the cistern where all wars begin,
The laughter from the
   armoured car.
This is the man who won’t believe you’re what you are….
—from James Fenton’s “Jerusalem” (1988)

1.

Jerusalem is the great sacred cow of Israeli and Palestinian nationalism. Both sides worship the same hallowed ground. Both propagate a myth of divine promise and of Blut und Boden. Learned mullahs or rabbis offer them irrefutable exegesis and support. The terms “holy,” “heavenly,” and “eternal” are bandied about freely. Palestinians demand control of, at the very least, the Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, including the Old City. Israel’s official position, anchored in a law enacted by the Begin government in 1980, * is that Greater Jerusalem is Israel’s capital city “for all eternity.” A few official spokesmen go further and claim it is the very “heart of Jewish identity.”

The two sides remain deaf to each others’ claims. Following Netanyahu’s election, Israeli right-wing politicians and the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, called for new plans to expand the Jewish presence in the Old City; and the government has announced the construction of several large new Jewish neighborhoods, notably at Har Homa, in the periphery of Jerusalem on expropriated West Bank land. Arafat’s minister for Jerusalem affairs, Faisal Husseini, warned that construction at Har Homa would amount to a “declaration of war on the Palestinians.” King Hussein also warned Netanyahu against taking rash steps, and on February 23 Netanyahu made a quick visit to Amman in an attempt to quiet the King’s fears. (In the midst of all this, Netanyahu was questioned by the police about his possible role in a sensational criminal case involving corrupt appointments.)

On the last day of Ramadan this year, close to 250,000 worshippers from Jerusalem and from Palestinian autonomous areas jammed into Jerusalem’s Haram al Sharif, the great Moslem sanctuary platform atop the ancient Jewish Temple Mount. The demonstration was religious as well as political, in support of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and in protest against more Israeli faits accomplis in the “united” city. The Haram had never seen so large a crowd. It filled the great platform, the mosques, and a refurbished, immense, colonnaded underground sanctuary known since the days of the Crusaders as “King Solomon’s stables.”

The sermon read out over new loudspeaker systems was audible outside the walls at a considerable distance. It was said by experts to be reminiscent of arguments first voiced by Moslems in the days of Saladin: the same hadiths as during the Crusades, the same exhortations refuting the rights of non-Moslems to occupy the holy city, the same claims of title for the city antedating the seventh-century Moslem conquest. A few days later, seventeen right-wing members of the Israeli parliament, worried that Prime Minister Netanyahu might give in to US pressure to freeze the settlements, told him that they would bring down his government unless work in Arab East Jerusalem started immediately on large-scale housing projects—some 6,500 units—for Jewish settlers. There were plans to cut new roads—and if need be tunnels—to enable the new settlers outside Jerusalem to reach the city without seeing a single Arab.

No secret was made of the fact that several such plans were afoot within and without the city limits and already past the planning and approval stage. The term “city limits” as applied to holy Jerusalem is elastic in the Jewish religious tradition. The sacred geography of Jerusalem nowadays covers much more than the Old City. It has considerably grown and expanded in recent years—much as the True Cross grew and expanded in the Middle Ages when, thanks to the Miracle of Multiplication, no matter how many chips were cut off it by pilgrims it remained wondrously whole. In the Jewish tradition, all continuously built-up areas, or those visible from Jerusalem, partake of the city and its holiness. The current assertion, however, that the holiness of a site makes it imperative that it be under Israeli sovereignty is a novelty in Jewish religious thought.

2.

Meron Benvenisti’s City of Stone is a history of this novelty and of Jerusalem in this century; it is especially thorough and informative on the years after the 1967 war, when the former Jordanian sector of the city was “liberated” by Israeli troops and then “re-united” with the Israeli sector under Mayor Teddy Kollek. It is the best book so far on a cliché-ridden, many-sided subject, long monopolized by propagandists, ideologists, and hucksters. Benvenisti is eminently qualified for his task. A former deputy mayor of “reunited” Jerusalem, a geographer and historian by training, he has a grasp of the bloody poker game played out during the past thirty years and of the human and geographic landscape. He has read everything and has missed nothing.

He covers the disastrous intertwining in the city’s history of nationalist and religious passions. In this light, he chronicles major developments before and after the partition of the city during the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948: the easy evasions on both sides, the rewriting of history in the interests of politics, the political and demographic shortsightedness of urban planning in Jerusalem after 1967, and the grave urban, ecological, and aesthetic problems that arose as a result. Thirty years after reunification the city is still without a master plan. In its absence it has become the prey of real estate developers and politicians anxious to “Judaize” it. The book is also noteworthy for its criticism of the administration of former Mayor Teddy Kollek, who, even though universally hailed as a liberal, was guilty in Benvenisti’s view of “shocking neglect” of the Palestinian population, which was subject to gross discrimination under Kollek (as it still is under his successor). Whether in the allocation of housing or municipal expenditures, this was done, Benvenisti shows, in the interest of accelerating what is often referred to as the “Judaization of Jerusalem.”

A relatively new player in this field is a pious American Jew named Irving Moscovitz. His story reveals much about the ruthless game that is now being played out in the city. He has become involved in it for reasons of both profit and piety. A multimillionaire who made a fortune running bingo parlors in California, Moscovitz is a major investor in Jerusalem real estate across the old demarcation lines. He has tentatively been granted building permits on terms far more profitable than those allowed to Palestinian builders. Moscovitz is also interested in accelerating the coming of the Messiah and in rebuilding the Jewish Temple. For this reason, he gives large sums of money to extreme right-wing Israeli groups. Like other Americans in the messianic fringe, he promotes a vicarious Zionism that cannot be made obsolete by success, since it sets itself supernatural goals beyond the reach of politics.

Last September, the mayor of Jerusalem held a midnight opening ceremony in Moscovitz’s honor inside the notorious Hasmonean Tunnel (actually a Herodian sewer). Moscovitz had given the city a large contribution for its excavation. The tunnel runs flush alongside the ancient Temple Mount (according to Moslem clerics it runs directly under it). Moscovitz did not stay long enough in the country to witness the bloody results. Rioting broke out within hours of the opening ceremony, both in Jerusalem and the Territories, causing over a hundred Palestinian and Israeli casualties.

Moscovitz is also a major supporter of an ultra-Orthodox organization named Ateret Cohanim. Through dummy companies in Vaduz and Liechtenstein, and other arcane devices, he buys up houses in the Arab quarters and makes them available for Ateret Cohanim’s Talmudic seminaries. One of these claims that it is training priests to officiate at ceremonies, including animal sacrifice, at the Third Jewish Temple to be rebuilt shortly, whether by human or divine intervention, on the Haram al Sharif. Moscovitz has been quoted as saying that

Jewish control of Jerusalem, of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, is more important than peace. When Jews throughout the ages prayed, they did not pray for peace with the Arabs. They prayed for Jewish control of Jerusalem.

3.

Spinoza wrote that of all hatred none is deeper and more tenacious than that which springs from extreme devotion or piety, and is itself cherished as pious. Talks on the final status of relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are scheduled to begin in March. On the eve of these talks, Jerusalem appears yet again as the great, perhaps the greatest, stumbling block to peace. In theory Israel is committed to “negotiate” the future of Jerusalem; in practice it tries hard to keep it off the agenda. Netanyahu and his ministers, who were forced, grudgingly, to confirm this commitment first assumed by the Rabin government, make no bones over the fact that there is nothing to negotiate about. Their minds are made up. Israel will not concede an inch of the city, let alone allow East Jerusalem to become the capital of a Palestinian state, as Arafat’s Palestinian Authority is demanding. Faits accomplis are continually being established in the city and in a ring of new satellite towns in the West Bank at a radius of between five and twenty-five kilometers from the city limits. Jerusalem, Netanyahu insists, is “the foundation rock of our national being.”

In nearly every public speech he has given in recent months, Yasser Arafat raises similar claims with remarkably similar passion. He no longer speaks as often, as in years past, of waging a jihad over Jerusalem; he now emphasizes the need to liberate East Jerusalem, where the Haram is located, by political means. The city must remain open and undivided under two sovereigns. He says he cannot give up this Jerusalem, not as an Arab, not as a Moslem, and certainly not as a Palestinian. Jerusalem is the site of the isra or miraj, Muhammad’s journey to heaven, one of the formative myths of Islam, and of the masjid al aqsa—the “most distant Mosque,” of the Koran 17:1—from which the journey began.

In a recent poll, 40 percent of secular Israelis in Jerusalem were ready to envision a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. But the percentage of secular Israelis in Jerusalem is sinking, and among religious Jews, according to the same poll, eighty percent are opposed. Arafat continues to say that the capital of the independent Palestinian state will be established “in the name of Allah, in Holy Jerusalem, al Quda a-Sharif.” Assuming control of Hebron early last January, he told the ecstatic crowd that had come to welcome him: “Next year in Jerusalem!” Governments throughout the Middle East promised him their support. Jerusalem, they say, is dear and sacred to every Moslem heart. Let their right hand wither if they forget Jerusalem.

  1. *

    To protest this law, thirteen nations who until that time had maintained their embassies in Jerusalem removed them to Tel Aviv. The UN Security Council voted thirteen to nil in favor of a resolution denying Israel’s right to unilaterally change the status of Jerusalem.

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