Jerusalem is the center of the cosmos, advises the Midrash, and many Diaspora Jews concur. Even for the most secular of Jews, “kotel-ology” has a hold. There is a feeling that this is the core, the kernel of Jewish nationhood, the hope of generations.
Bernard Wasserstein’s interesting and articulate book traces the struggles of a plethora of religious and national groups to control Jerusalem over two millennia. It is said to have been conquered 37 times between its foundation and 1967. This continuum of violence prompted Herman Melville in 1860 to describe it as a city “besieged by an army of the dead.”
The aspirations of the three main faiths to secure Jerusalem is well documented by Wasserstein as is their theological rivalry. This, and the sheer emotions generated, have also led to a zealotry within faiths – and a subsequent use of the passions aroused by politicians to outmaneuver their opponents in their own camp.
Before 1967, each new conqueror attempted to obliterate any trace of the previous civilization by building both horizontally and vertically. Even the IDF’s Rabbi Shlomo Goren allegedly beseeched Gen. Uzi Narkiss in June 1967 to simply load the Mosque of Omar on the Temple Mount with a 100 kg of explosives and blow it sky high.
Then there are those manipulated photographs which airbrush the Dome of the Rock out of existence which have simply continued the tradition.
The early Zionists, Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am and David Ben-Gurion all regarded Jerusalem as a primitive backwater. The writers – Brenner, Alterman and the early Greenberg – reinforced this by projecting a view of degradation.
The new Hebrew Republic would be built on Tel Aviv which would symbolize the transformation of the shtetl Jew – that submissive individual who comforted himself by dreaming about Jerusalem. As Moshe Lilienblum wrote in 1882, “We do not need the walls of Jerusalem nor the Jerusalem Temple, nor Jerusalem itself.”
Wasserstein, a Jerusalem Post contributor, had the misfortune to publish at the same time as Tom Segev’s One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate and, therefore, certain similarities surface. It was also coincidental that the current troubles broke out as he was completing the book. There must have been a continual updating and expressions of angst from his publisher until the very moment of printing.
In one sense, then, this book should be read from right to left to understand the debate about Jerusalem after Camp David 2000.
There is a good account of the obscured Beilin-Abu Mazen negotiations which proposed two sub-municipalities, al-Quds and Jerusalem. Although there were several fundamental questions to still resolve, Beilin later remarked that Israel would retain sovereignty “over united Jerusalem in its present boundaries and can add Ma’aleh Adumim, Givon and Givat Ze’ev to the city.”
The city’s division took place at least eight centuries ago when the Mamluks authorized the development of the Moslem, Christian, Jewish and Armenian quarters. Each community kept to its own and this has continued for religious and cultural reasons, as well as ones of security until this day.
Wasserstein quotes an opinion poll several years ago which suggested that 70 percent of Israelis have never set foot in Arab areas of Jerusalem outside the Old City.
Any attempt to suggest formal separation within Jerusalem arouses the ire of different political constituencies – the nationalist secular right, the national religious and those who psychologically are unable to cope with the hard reality of talking about Jerusalem.
During the 1996 election campaign, the Likud slogan “Peres will divide Jerusalem” bore fruit in the election of Netanyahu. In 2001, there was a political morphing between the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly one. Born-again former Soviet refuseniks “gathered the Jews” and together with Diaspora grandees sought to defend Jerusalem from former prime minister Ehud Barak’s intentions.
Although Wasserstein touches on the Clinton Plan of December 2000, the Palestinians similarly couldn’t cope with compromise on Jerusalem, preferring to seek refuge in promoting the right of return instead.
Clinton’s principle that “Arab areas are Palestinian and Jewish areas are Israeli” was disregarded by the Palestinians who argued that it was impossible to reconcile with the concept of “maximum contiguity for both.” Another fig leaf the Palestinians offered was that they also had problems with possible Israeli sovereignty “under the Haram al Sharif” and undefined religious sites in Jerusalem.
Wasserstein points out that, over the years, academics have created a huge number of creative solutions on the governance of Jerusalem – one study in 1995 listed 63 proposals.
Wasserstein starts and ends his book by looking at the fate of Rome during the nineteenth century – as a paradigm – which did not initially form part of the new kingdom of Italy. Papal sovereignty was safeguarded by French bayonets. Ten years later the forces of the Risorgimento entered the city and claimed it as the capital of modern Italy, much to the Pope’s chagrin and that of the religious leadership.
Wasserstein points out that it took two generations before the Vatican and Italy could bring themselves to sign the Lateran Treaty in 1929 to settle the question of Rome. Jerusalem is, of course, not Rome.
Wasserstein optimistically suggests that violence will not prevent a long-term solution, it will only delay it. He concludes his saga by asking “Jerusalem has already waited that long (two generations) for diplomacy to catch up with reality. How much longer must she wait?”