History dominates the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Selective memories on both sides produce partial narratives that deny or obscure the claims of the other side. The fragmented narrations breed continuing distrust.
Ever since Simha Flapan’s The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (1987), revisionist historians have set out to uncover new facts, upset myths, and rearrange accepted interpretations. The result has been a series of scholarly wars over who has the story right and who offers the best solution for an Israeli–Palestinian future, especially the future of Jerusalem. For within the Arab Middle East, all the dimensions of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict are condensed and symbolized in Jerusalem—and in particular in its walled Old City of 220 acres and thirty–five thousand Jewish, Christian, and Muslim dwellers, where too much history crowds claustrophobic space. Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City by Bernard Wasserstein, a professor of history at the University of Glasgow, is the latest book to wrestle with the extraordinarily complicated set of issues surrounding the city.
Jerusalem today includes the Old City and East Jerusalem, formerly held by Jordan and annexed by Israel in 1967, as well as West Jerusalem and the 1994 western expansion of the municipal borders. The city limits now encircle ninety–four square miles and at least 650,000 inhabitants. Sixty–two percent are Jewish, 38 percent non–Jewish, most of them Arabs. West Jerusalem has been almost bereft of Arabs since 1948; and during the past twenty years, East Jerusalem has been intentionally divided by enclaves of Jews that isolate the city’s eighteen Arab villages and neighborhoods, so that, in the 1982 statement of deputy mayor Shmuel Meir, “No government in the future will be able to give it away.” But despite these hopes, demographic facts show that the city’s fate remains quite unclear. With the Arab minority currently increasing at an annual rate of 3 percent, twice the rate of the the Jewish majority, Arabs are likely to form the majority of voters in Israel’s democratic capital within thirty years.
Wasserstein focuses on the political, religious, social, and demographic history of Jerusalem in order to understand the diplomatic issues surrounding questions of its political future. He takes only two chapters to summarize—quite successfully—the city’s history up to the slow meltdown of the Ottoman Empire in the 1800s, when “the Jerusalem question in its modern form first emerged.”
The author has two theses. First, that “Jerusalem is more than ever a divided city,” in fact, “the most deeply divided capital city in the world.” Thus his second thesis: “The struggle for Jerusalem can be resolved only when there dawns some recognition of the reality and legitimacy of its plural character, spiritually, demographically, and—all claims notwithstanding—politically.”
From the outset, Wasserstein sifts through the divergent religious claims, pieties, and “high emotions” over the city. Its holiness, or lack of it, is “neither a constant or an absolute.” The city’s character waxes and wanes according to economic, cultural, and political influences. In today’s Jeru salem, piety easily becomes political, and politics transforms into piety.
Not that antireligious passions are immune from becoming political as well. The early Zionists refused recourse to any divine intervention for the movement towards “a nation like other nations.” A Zionist needed no god to dictate what was ethical or moral. No surprise, then, that initially Orthodox rabbis in Europe and in Jerusalem spurned political Zionism. It was, in their view, an arrogant, solely human endeavor that opposed Yahweh’s eschatological plans for the redemption that will come only when the Messiah chooses to arrive. The required daily prayer, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” encapsulates the Jewish desire to return to the focal point of messianic hopes. The prayer did not imply Jewish sovereignty in a modern state.
In Der Judenstaat (1896), Theodor Herzl proposed Haifa for the capital of the the secular “State of the Jews”— not Jerusalem. For Herzl, Jerusalem was the deposit of “two thousand years of inhumanity and intolerance.” Those who built Tel Aviv on coastal sand dunes in 1909 intended a new city that would be burdened by no religious baggage. By the late 1930s Tel Aviv had become the Jewish center of gravity. It was the base of most political parties and home of nearly all of their leaders. It was the real capital of Zionism. Jerusalem remained the religious center for Jews, Christians, and Muslims—which was a primary reason the British attempted to make it an internationally guaranteed corpus separatum.
Eighteen months after Israel declared itself an independent State (May 1948), it proclaimed Jerusalem its capital, despite international opposition. That action inflamed religious passions, especially after the 1967 military occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank—biblical Judaea and Samaria, the heartland of Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel), an event that became for many Jews “the beginning of the flowering of messianic redemption.” In that perspective, Jerusalem, founded by King David, “the chosen City of God” (Psalm 48:2), had been properly restored as capital of Israel.
It should thus come as no surprise that almost all ultra–Orthodox Jews now support the political slogan, “Jeru salem should and will remain the unified and eternal capital of the State of Israel, under the absolute sovereignty of Israel alone.” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon repeated the statement in his response to Colin Powell’s policy speech (November 19, 2001), which placed Jerusalem on the negotiating table. The current steady exodus of so many not–too–religious Jews from the city in favor of Tel Aviv, and the immigration of so many Israeli and diasporan Orthodox to West and East Jerusalem, has had the effect of radicalizing the city’s politics.
Muslims, for their part, believe Jerusalem to be the third of their holy cities (after Mecca and Medina), and they still call it Al–Quds (The Holy). It is graced by the Al–Haram al–Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary), which the Jews call the Temple Mount. Members of both faiths consider it “the navel of the earth.” Wasserstein skillfully traces the competitive struggle for this most divisive of places, which was once pagan, then Jewish, Roman, Christian, Muslim, again Christian, again Muslim, and now Jewish/Muslim. It was at the Clinton–Barak–Arafat negotiating summit (Camp David, 2000) that President Clinton discovered to his surprise that the main unresolvable issue was the ownership of this small piece of real estate. As Avishai Margarit has asked, how does one divide a symbol?
For Muslim extremists, such as the anti–Arafat Hamas, Allah has given the entire Middle East, which in cludes the intrusive “Zionist entity,” as an Islamic trust (waqf) for all generations until the day of judgment. Hence their own slogan, “Jerusalem should be forever united solely under Palestinian [read: Islamic] sovereignty.” The extremists would not support the Palestinian Authority’s less radical desire for sovereignty over East Jerusalem, including the Old City. In general, both ultrareligious Jews and Muslims judge that pragmatic bargaining over Jerusalem is a blasphemous act against Yahweh/Allah. Political compromise implies religious appeasement.
If Wasserstein’s book has a flaw it is that he underestimates the theological and political role of Christians in the city. In particular, he has little to say about the long history of Christian anti–Judaism in Jerusalem, which began almost two millennia ago and continued well into the twentieth century. Western and Eastern Christians judged that the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in a.d. 70 and the final expulsion of the Jews in 135 was God’s punishment for their killing of Jesus in that same city. Constantine’s transformed Jeru salem symbolized the triumph of Christ and his Church of the New Covenant. The Christian Byzantines continued to leave the Mount in ruins, even using it as a garbage dump. It was not until Omar accepted the surrender of the city in 638 that the esplanade was cleaned up, preparing the way for the building of the Dome of the Rock (691) and the al–Aksa Mosque (705–715).
The same theology and piety helped to justify the Latin Crusaders’ zeal when they captured Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1099. They torched its synagogues along with the Jews they sheltered. Eventually the Templars converted the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque into churches—a Christian triumph over both Jews and Muslims. The annual Palm Sunday procession ascended the Mount, circled the True Cross in the Templum Solomonis (al–Aksa), then the Templum Domini (Dome), before descending to the new “navel of the earth,” the Holy Sepulchre church.
The Jews were also thought to have forfeited their right to a restored homeland as a divine punishment. “They should remain in the dispersion [diaspora, galut] until the end of the world.” (Thus wrote the Vatican’s semi–official Civiltà Cattolica shortly after the first international Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897.) According to his private diary, when Herzl was in Rome to seek Pius X’s good will and support for the Zionist dream and program in January 1904, the Pope replied: “We are unable to support this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews going to Jerusalem, but we could never support it. . . . The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.”
Today things are very different. The conflictual context of the Holy Land does keep alive remnants of this classical anti–Judaism among Jeru salem’s Christians, but it is very minor. And this despite the fact that most contemporary Christians belong to ecclesial communities that have not had a Vatican II and its Nostra Aetate, which officially condemned anti–Semitism. Christians of the Holy Land are very conscious of standing faithfully on the shoulders of almost two millennia of fellow disciples in the Mother Church. This fosters their primary identity, even more so now when they are in eclipse. In the Jerusalem of 1948 the thirty–two thousand Christians made up approximately 19 percent of the population; today, at twelve thousand, they are a mere 2 percent.
Jerusalem Christians today claim only civil rights to religious freedom—the right to retain and staff their holy sites, churches, schools, pilgrim hostels, and other institutions, and to practice and witness their faith. They lament the discrimination they face, not so much as Christians but as non–Jews. They are mostly tax–paying Arab citizens who, like the Muslims but unlike the Jews, do not enjoy their civil right to an equitable share in municipal common resources for education, housing, and other social services, including garbage pickups.
Wasserstein emphasizes the centuries–long internecine divisions between the churches in Jerusalem, focused on control of the holy sites and practices of crude proselytism. But he omits to note that in the last decade a pervading ecumenical spirit and common witness among the laity, clergy, and hierarchs is gradually transcending church divisions. He does not mention, for example, the 1994 common statement on the future of Jerusalem by the three patriarchs (Greek and Armenian Orthodox, and Latin), seven other church leaders of the Orthodox and Catholic Eastern churches, and the Anglican and Lutheran bishops. These local leaders joined the Vatican in proposing for the Old City a special juridical and political statute, permanent and stable, which the international community would guarantee. Jerusalem’s Old City, they declared, “is too precious to be dependent solely on the municipal or national political authorities, whoever they may be”—that is, Israeli, Palestinian, or both.
Can the earthly Jerusalem question ever be resolved, or must one settle for the cynical appraisal of Meron Benvenisti: “The torn city is an enigma without a solution”? Wasserstein briefly—and wisely—outlines some of the already over seventy plans that have been proposed for the city. He rules out the idea of sole Israeli or Palestinian sovereignty. Although many of the possible solutions have merit, Wasserstein concludes that “they all look like flimsy jigsaw puzzles to a profound problem of human relations.”
For anyone who seeks a comprehensive descriptive background to the complex problems and high emotions in the struggle for Jerusalem, this book is highly recommended.
Thomas Stransky, a Paulist priest, is former rector (1987–98) of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, where he still teaches.