Meron Benvenisti
Meron Benvenisti; drawing by David Levine


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.


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)


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.


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.


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.

Israeli spokesmen often wave these claims aside, saying that they’d been there first. Doesn’t Islam have at least two other holy places, Mecca and Medina, more important to them than Jerusalem? In Islam, according to this argument, Jerusalem ranks only third. But Jews have only one Jerusalem. And isn’t it true that Jerusalem has never been an Arab capital? The only city the Arabs ever built in Palestine, which at one time they made their regional capital, is Ramle, down in the coastal plain.

Such bookkeeping and counter-bookkeeping has of course been going on for years. It is not always as tedious as when Israeli invocations of “a 3000-years-old legal title”—from the days of Abraham and King David down to our own days—are countered by Arab protestations that Abraham had been an “Iraqi,” David a “Palestinian king,” and Jesus a “Palestinian martyr.” And yet, quite apart from countless Moslems, Jews, and Christians throughout the world, the fact remains that five million Israelis and an equal number of Palestinians (in the Occupied Territories and in the many lands of their diaspora) feel very strongly about Jerusalem.

Both nationalisms postulate a kind of Zionism—“Zion” is one of the many names of the city. Like the Zionism of the Jews, the Zionism of the Palestinians is driven by memory, by the myth of a lost city and the bitterness of defeat and dispersion. Both peoples are nations delayed. Both struggle with identity problems. Both mourn a great disaster. Both tend not to distinguish between nationality and religion. On both sides fundamentalists insist that religion is the state. Both pray for “the peace of Jerusalem.” But as Benvenisti has been arguing for years, they can have peace or they can have Jerusalem. They can’t have both.


In Jerusalem the Wars of Religion continue under another name. Peace, including peace in Jerusalem, can’t happen unless the two sides agree to treat each other as equals; and it won’t happen if “holiness” is seen by one, or both, as justifying a claim for exclusive sovereignty over the historic core of the city. They could both, perhaps, have peace and Jerusalem if Israel and the Palestinians built their capitals elsewhere. But this is not realistic in view of the strong religious component of Israeli and Palestinian nationalism. Or if they agreed to share sovereignty in a united capital city, which no two nationalities have ever successfully done before.

The historic core—the Old City—is less than one percent of the entire city. It includes most of the Jewish, Moslem, and Christian holy places. The most important Jewish and Moslem holy places are a mere stone’s throw from one another. This is not the only reason why they have been the scene of nasty skirmishes over the years. The Old City is surrounded by grim medieval walls, which the Israelis breached during the 1967 war not far from the spot where the Crusaders stormed them in 1099. Edward Gibbon, always dubious of higher goals, must have had these walls in mind when he said that Jerusalem derived its reputation from the number and importance of its “memorable sieges.”

He was not the first or the last to wonder how, in the discourse of the three religions, Jerusalem became the proverbial City of Peace. For much of its existence it has been a city of contention and strife. Even in the city’s cemeteries, Benvenisti observes, there is no tranquility. Reverence and love for the city, he complains, became a force for conflict and divisiveness. In the Old City today all extremes of nationality and religion intersect but rarely, if ever, meet. The sanctities overlap. The city demonstrates the narrowness of a piety that regards political possession of a holy place as an end in itself. Here the crowds fill the mosques, the synagogues, and the churches on their respective Sabbaths and holidays, and there is always the prospect of a defiant flag-raising, a nationalist pageant, or a riot. Hatred can be a form of prayer. In Jerusalem this has nearly always been so and never more than when knives are pulled, stones fly, and bombs go off.

Walking through the Old City today you sometimes have the strange feeling that you are both inside a prison or a fortress and also on the edge of an abyss. The air breathes conflict. The civil unrest affects the influx of pilgrims only marginally. More arrive every year, attracted by the purple-gold glamour of Jerusalem’s name. They are the absurd heroic fools in the history of the city. After every knifing, after every hand-grenade explosion, municipal workers in pickup trucks marked JERUSALEM—CITY OF PEACE in three languages arrive on the scene with rags and brooms and wash the bloodstains away. Minutes later, pilgrims and tourists pass by, hardly aware of what happened. They crowd the bazaars, wander past walls filled with Palestinian and Israeli nationalist graffiti—jihad jihad and mavet laaravim (Death to the Arabs)—past commemorative stones that say so-and-so died here at the hands of villains and May God avenge his blood.

Pictures of Netanyahu and Arafat are on sale in the bazaar along with the usual printed T-shirts, mezuzot, fake antiquities, plastic crucifixes with built-in thermometers, battery-lit menorahs, and other religious kitsch. Hassidic militants, many of them Americans, urge tourists to put on teffilin (philacteries) and proclaim the imminent arrival of the Messiah. The tourists, dazed from the heat or from so much holiness, wander from synagogues to mosques to churches, never quite sure, as Edmund Wilson wrote, whether to take off or put on their hats or their shoes. Some of the holy sites adjoin one another. Others are jammed one atop the other, Christian, Jewish, and Moslem in the same building. Everything is tight and crowded and intertwined. Byzantine arches span Mamluk townhouses built on Roman baths or Jewish foundations antedating Nebuchadnezzar.

The rugged topography reflects the cleavages among the inhabitants. They are made still deeper and more dangerous by the fusion—and political manipulation—on both sides of nationalist and religious metaphors. I would have liked to read more about this in Benvenisti’s otherwise exhaustive account. In monotheistic terms it is probably idolatrous to consider a shrine or a city—let alone the preservation of a national or ethnic identity—as the ultimate goal of a religion. Politicians and their supporters among the fanatic, small-minded clergy see it differently. The harsh discord between the communities is as merciless and uncompromising as in Belfast or in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The city is often said to be poisoned by its past, possessed by it, paralyzed by fear, prejudice, and tribalism. At stake is the unchallenged sovereignty over the urban space. As in Ireland or in the former Yugoslavia, history is always writ large here. “There is a crackpot quality to much of the talk here about Jerusalem,” Yossi Beilin complained two years ago while he was deputy foreign minister in Rabin’s government. He tried to get back to Tel Aviv every night. “I could never live here,” he said. In Jerusalem the centuries overlap. Miracles are happening, or at least recited. Laws of nature are suspended in a flutter of Koranic or Lubavitcher blessing cards. In the galvanized liturgies of both sides, current events are associated with the intentions of heaven or hell. During the Gulf War, Palestinians in East Jerusalem claimed they had seen with their own eyes Iraqi scud missiles tipping their wings in a salute to the Haram al Sharif as they flew over it on their way to Tel Aviv. History is relentlessly and superstitiously evoked. Questions of “Who started it?” and of “Who is to blame?”, according to Benvenisti, are invariably a matter of ethnic affiliation. Each side insists it is the victim.

In the past, there were suggestions that the religious components of the disputes should be isolated from the political. This would seem realistic nowadays only with regard to the Christian holy places, since these are no longer tied to the interests and ambitions of competing European powers. The same suggestions appear entirely unrealistic with regard to the Western Wall, the last remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple. At the Western Wall, people today worship not only God but also themselves, the people God is said to have chosen in the Bronze Age, as well as their miraculously resurrected nation-state.

The mythic appeal of the bare stones upon the national imagination was dramatically demonstrated in the aftermath of the 1967 war, when Catastrophe was theologically linked with Redemption. The name given to the conflict—the Six-Day War—suggested the six days of creation. The old phrase (“Wailing Wall”) was frowned upon after 1967, since, as Mayor Teddy Kollek hopefully said, the time for tears was over. The Wall, built of huge Herodian stone blocks, is much higher and longer now than it was in 1967, when an entire Moslem quarter was evacuated and razed overnight, and a large plaza was created, one big enough to accommodate the mass of pious Jews, Jewish patriots, and tourists. The Wall and the new plaza fronting it have since come to symbolize the successful restoration of Jewish statehood. It serves as the stage for torchlit military and political spectacles. Elite army units are paraded on it before they are sworn in.

It will take true statesmanship and scarcely available political and cultural imagination now to isolate the purely religious component from the political. Nor is this realistic with regard to the great mosques on the Haram al Sharif. Political sermons are given there on Fridays and Moslem holidays. For several years now, a movement has been afoot to rebuild the Jewish Temple next to (or instead of) the two mosques. It is often said that a time bomb is ticking on the Haram. There have been several failed attempts by Israeli zealots in the past to blow it up.

Before the 1967 war most Israelis seemed content to control only the modern western parts of the city. Politicians spoke of Jerusalem but preferred to live in Tel Aviv. The country was by and large reconciled to the partition of the city and the consequent loss of access to the Western Wall. No Arab government was ready to make peace at that time. The common Arab expectation was that the State of Israel would be as shortlived as that of the Crusaders. Arab governments rebuffed all offers to make peace based on the 1949 status quo. They regarded Jerusalem in its entirety as an inalienable part of the Arab and Moslem heritage.

These positions were reversed in the aftermath of the 1967 war. Israel controlled all of Jerusalem and the entire territory west of the river Jordan. Now the vanquished were ready to compromise. The victors were not. In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, a good many Palestinians in the Occupied Territories were ready to make peace and expressed a desire to see an autonomous Palestinian entity in the West Bank loosely tied to Jordan but independent of the PLO. Jordan (in 1969) and Egypt (in 1970) followed suit. They discarded the three “no”‘s of the Khartoum Arab summit of 1967 (no peace, no negotiation, no recognition of Israel). Jordan and Egypt offered peace on condition that Israel withdrew from territories occupied during the war, including East Jerusalem. Jordan offered to redraw the border in Jerusalem, leaving parts of the Old City, including the Western Wall, in Israeli hands.

One wonders what might have happened if some version of those offers had been accepted. How stable would peace have been? On both sides, it might have been more acceptable then than it is today. This was before the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab countries. Extensive Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem and the West Bank had not yet taken place. There are over 320,000 settlers today in East Jerusalem and in the rest of the occupied West Bank. They add little if anything to national security but instead complicate, and perhaps thwart, all likelihood of withdrawal or territorial compromise. In the early 1970s, Israel was in no mood to accept Palestinian, Jordanian, and Egyptian proposals. In a flush of patriotic fervor over the “liberation of the Nation’s Holiest Sites,” the new military governor of East Jerusalem abruptly dismissed the elected mayor of East Jerusalem, Rauhi al Khatib, and his city councilors.

The deep-seated Israeli desire to deprive this Palestinian politician of any legitimacy as representative of a part of Jerusalem or its Arab population was evident in the summary and humiliating manner in which his dismissal was carried out. In City of Stone Benvenisti wonders what would have happened if the East Jerusalem municipality had been allowed to continue, alongside the West Jerusalem municipality, perhaps under a joint Greater Jerusalem Council, presided over by a rotating Lord Mayor.

What happened in fact is meticulously described by Benvenisti, who knows every corner of the city and what has happened to it. Israel formally annexed the territory of the dismantled municipality, and much of the surrounding suburbs and farmlands as well, including twenty-eight Palestinian villages, a total of seventy-one square kilometers (only six of these had actually been part of the municipality of East Jerusalem). Jerusalem was declared “reunited” under an Israeli mayor and an all-Jewish municipal council.

Benvenisti was Kollek’s deputy at the time, and served as administrator of the annexed Palestinian quarters; clearly this experience led him to change his views. Arab dignitaries rejected all his offers to join Kollek’s council as appointed members. With great fanfare, the walls, minefields, and barbed wire along the old demarcation line were removed. The state of the city was favorably contrasted to the continuing forced division of Berlin by a high wall. The comparison so impressed the conservative German press lord Axel Springer that he became a major contributor to Jewish causes in Jerusalem and a lifelong supporter of Mayor Teddy Kollek.

Kollek went on for years arguing that he did not want to re-erect in Jerusalem another Berlin Wall. And yet the comparison with Berlin was always artificial, if not downright false. The wall in Berlin divided families of the same people; in Jerusalem before 1967 it divided two nations, two ethnic communities, two religions at war. In a similar vein, Kollek often compared the civic strife in Jerusalem with the violence and racial conflict in the streets of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Until the intifada taught him a different lesson, he even contrasted the safety of Jerusalem’s streets with those of New York and Los Angeles. There was, of course, an essential difference. In Chicago or Los Angeles the minorities were demanding civil rights. In Jerusalem, by contrast, they wanted to secede.


The municipal borders after 1967 extended deep into the West Bank territory occupied during the war. As Benvenisti shows, they were dictated by geopolitical considerations—to have a maximum amount of land inhabited by a minimum number of Palestinians. The new borders were drawn up by military men, on the basis of shortsighted historical, urban, demographic, and political considerations, in disregard of all the normal needs of town planning. The Israeli planners, Benvenisti complains, grossly underestimated the collective strength and political determination of the Palestinians as well as their ability to proliferate numerically, despite determined efforts to keep their numbers down by various legal and administrative tricks. Arab Jerusalem continued to grow alongside Jewish Jerusalem. At the time of reunification, the population was 197,000 Jews and 68,000 Arabs. The latest available official figures (1995) are 417,000 Jews and 174,000 Arabs. Within the larger metropolitan area, i.e., within a radius of between ten and twenty kilometers—which the Israeli government insists on annexing as part of a peace settlement—the disenfranchised Palestinian population of roughly half a million is already at par with the Jewish. During the next twenty years, according to widely published estimates, it will surpass the Jewish population by at least 15 percent.

In 1967, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem protested their forced incorporation into the reunited city. They were not automatically made Israeli citizens, as the Arabs of Galilee were in 1948 or as the inhabitants of, say, Strasbourg were forced to become Germans following the annexation of the city after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The failure to give the East Jerusalemites citizenship was seen at the time by most Israelis as a generous liberal act since it allowed them to remain what they were, citizens of Jordan. In retrospect, this only put them at a disadvantage. Their new Israeli identity cards were said to guarantee their status as permanent residents. In practice, this was never so. Since Palestinians were only rarely given permission to build houses, the resulting housing shortage forced many to move a few kilometers east or north into the adjacent West Bank. Their ID cards were confiscated and their Jerusalem residence permits were cancelled. People who spent a few years abroad suffered a similar fate.

The city remained divided as before. The two ethnic groups continued to live apart. But for Israel’s coercive power, Benvenisti warned some ten years ago after his resignation from the municipal council, the city would fall apart on the ethnic fault line. Thirty years after reunification there are still two separate downtown areas—both decaying—and two distinct business and entertainment centers. Each community is served by its own hospitals, fire department, and medical emergency crews. There are two price scales for real estate, two bus companies, one serving Israelis and one Palestinians, often running the same routes, and two electric power grids (administered respectively by a Palestinian and an Israeli company). Welfare services in the two sectors are governed by different principles; those in the Palestinian sector are distinctly inferior.

One third of the newly annexed lands in East Jerusalem were expropriated for “public” purposes and then made available mostly to Jews. More than thirty-eight thousand housing units were built on these lands for Jews; fewer than four hundred for Palestinians. It was not the only instance of gross discrimination. Under Kollek, Benvenisti writes, less than 6 percent of the municipal budget was allocated to Arab neighborhoods, where almost a third of the population lived. The per capita expenditure in the Jewish sector, according to Benvenisti, was approximately $900 compared with about $150 in the Arab. The new, strictly Jewish, heavily subsidized suburbs the government built after 1967 across the old demarcation line were dense enclaves in semi-rural Palestinian neighborhoods. Many of the Palestinian owners of these confiscated lands refused to accept the compensation offered them. It was in any case far below their real market value.


Benvenisti first made his mark as a researcher and a writer in the early Eighties with his West Bank Data Project. Funded by American and European foundations, it was the first independent survey of Israeli expropriations of land, water, and other natural resources and of building activities in the Occupied Territories.

In Israel Benvenisti’s surveys drove both hawks and doves crazy. Hawks resented his disclosures of what the government’s settlement program on the West Bank was costing the taxpayer at the expense of much-needed support for welfare, education, and infrastructure in Israel proper. Doves recoiled at his frequent warnings that the point of no return on the West Bank could be near if it had not already passed. All sides were disturbed by his pessimism.

In the early Eighties he began to suggest that an immediate political solution to the conflict might not be possible because, as in Northern Ireland (he now adds the former Yugoslavia), it was a deep and primordial one, a communal conflict between two ethnic and religious groups closely intertwined in, and claiming, the same land. Benvenisti did not keep moral score; he endeavored only to be realistic. In his new book, too, he chronicles a complex story in which nobody is entirely right, many are wrong, and the future is uncertain. And he examines the looseness with the truth on the part of both Palestinians and Israelis toward themselves and toward others.

The intensive programs for Jewish settlement during the Seventies and Eighties, he grew to believe, may indeed have made a repartition of Jerusalem impossible, partly because the communities are now so inextricably intertwined and partly because of the Jewish votes there. The sum total of forces working against conciliation seemed greater than the sum total of those working for it. It was unrealistic, Benvenesti has claimed since the early Eighties, to offer solutions without first dealing with the larger political, psychological, and conceptual problems which prevent the two sides from considering more rational alternatives. For this reason, he implied, a binational, democratic, secular, and pluralistic solution (as proposed by the PLO until 1988) was as unrealistic as territorial compromise.

Hundred years of violent conflict have left sediments of hatred, de-humanization and brutalization of values. The mechanisms of violence, aggression and confrontation, inspired by destructive myths and mobilised indoctrination, duplicate themselves and the conflict.

When, in 1993, Israel and the Palestinians recognized each other and agreed to search for a political compromise, Benvenisti published a much-discussed article in Ha’aretz entitled “Where Was I Wrong?” In this self-questioning essay he slightly shifted his position and confessed that he may have both overestimated the power of emotional factors and underestimated the capacity of historical processes and political constraints to compel change. At the time many saw this as a concession of error. And yet, the chaotic events of the last nine months may still prove his original, pessimistic judgment right.

The forces making for tragedy through fanaticism or shortsightedness may still be more powerful than the desire for catharsis. Benvenisti may at times have exaggerated the likelihood of a catastrophe. Yet the way the continuing conflict over Jerusalem is being conducted still precludes rationality. “The future will show that reconciliation between communities is a complex and long process,” he wrote in his Ha’aretz article in 1993. He questioned whether either side was truly capable of ending the struggle:

Such a conflict never really ends. It is so dependent on good will its intensity may change but in the final resort it is endemic…. Those who equate negotiations and even reconciliation between the elites of communities that live together (in the same land) with the signing of a peace treaty with a foreign state don’t know what they are talking about.

It is no wonder that City of Stone ends with an excursus on the cemeteries of Jerusalem. Benvenesti finds a kind of consolation in the vast City of the Dead that surrounds the Old City, the necropolis where the dead of all ages and all communities have been buried since time immemorial. Their lives and deaths, he reflects, bear witness to the fact that in the long struggle over Jerusalem there are no victors and no vanquished.

—February 27, 1997

This Issue

March 27, 1997