Wasserstein's Jerusalem

Wasserstein's Jerusalem

Mini Teaser: Discounting the Jewish claim to Jerusalem in the name of evenhandedness is no way to achieve a just settlement.

by Author(s): Yossi Klein Halevi

Bernard Wasserstein, Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 432 pp., $29.95.

Bernard Wasserstein is driven by an obsessive commitment to symmetry. His title, Divided Jerusalem, refers not merely to the reality of a city torn between two estranged national and religious communities, but to the moral and historical claims that reinforce that separation. Wasserstein divides these two elements of Jerusalem's division into balanced equations, priding himself on fairness. Indeed, dispassion is his passion. Yet, in his ideological commitment to balancing the centrality of Jerusalem for the Jewish people with the often ambivalent relationship of Islam and Christianity toward the holy city, he transforms a virtue into a distortion. Divided Jerusalem is an inadvertent warning against false evenhandedness-a curse with which the Middle East conflict, often reduced by outsiders to a "cycle of violence", is routinely afflicted.

Along with a symmetry of claims, Wasserstein posits a symmetry of ambivalence: All three monotheistic faiths, he insists, not only venerate Jerusalem but, at various points, have downplayed, disparaged and even despised the holy city. And so he begins his narrative-which focuses mainly on the role of international diplomacy in determining the city's fate-with contradictory historical voices about Jerusalem from within each of the Abrahamic faiths. He quotes the Temple priest Ananus bemoaning the fact that he lived to see the Temple's desecration by the Romans, and then counters that devotion with a dismissive quote from Zionist forerunner Moshe Leib Lillienblum: "We do not need the walls of Jerusalem, nor the Jerusalem temple, nor Jerusalem itself." He then offers similar contradictory quotes about Jerusalem from within the Christian and Islamic traditions. The very idea of Jerusalem, he insists, is divided within all three of the faiths that profess uncompromising loyalty to her.

But compared to the frequent neglect of Jerusalem under Muslim rule and the theological ambivalence within Christianity toward the earthly Jerusalem (indeed, both Islam and Christianity, at various points, dismissed attachment to Jerusalem as an archaic "judaizing" tendency), Wasserstein offers only flimsy evidence of Jewish ambivalence. He cites the neglect and even loathing of the city by early secular Zionists, adding that the Zionist movement was prepared to live with the partition of the city and even, in the mid-1930s, with its internationalization. Yet what Wasserstein perceives as disdain for Jerusalem among secular Zionists is more likely disdain for the ultra-Orthodox who dominated Jewish Jerusalem at the beginning of the Zionist return. The mainstream Zionist willingness to accept internationalization in exchange for statehood in 1937-and partition between 1948 and 1967-more accurately reflects the movement's ability to accept the limits of the possible rather than any disinterest in Jerusalem. Indeed, mainstream secular Zionism repeatedly proved its loyalty to Jerusalem. In the 1948 War of Independence, a third of the 6,000 Israeli casualties fell in defense of Jerusalem, including the Old City. And when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was confronted with the threat of internationalizing the city in 1949, he declared that he would rather forfeit Israel's seat at the United Nations than give up its capital-that is, forfeit Zionism's dream of transforming the Jews into a normal nation among nations, to remain loyal to the pre-Zionist dream of Jerusalem.

In his obsessive quest for symmetry, Wasserstein sometimes lapses into absurdity. "Both Israel and Palestine", he writes, "are seriously flawed democracies." Israel is an occupying power with a Supreme Court that deals with such issues as a recent suit brought by the brother of a dead terrorist who argued that Israeli police should have dismantled his explosives belt rather than shoot him. It is indeed an imperfect democracy; it is a laboratory that is testing the limits of democratic norms in a nation under permanent mortal threat. But what exactly does Wasserstein imagine to be Palestine's contribution to the democratic experiment? The summary executions of alleged collaborators, who are dragged through the public squares and then hanged by their feet from electricity poles? Or perhaps he is thinking of Palestine's controlled media, which does, after all, meet ACLU standards for allowing hate speech like Holocaust denial?

Wasserstein likewise distorts the truth in his falsely balanced treatment of the fate of holy places under Jordanian and Israeli rule. He implies symmetry between the campaign in the 1920s and 1930s of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, to deny the Jewish right to the Western Wall with the campaign of Jewish fanatics in our time to usurp the Temple Mount from Muslim rule. But there is no symmetry here. The Mufti was the spiritual and national leader of a people, while Israel's Temple Mount activists are a peripheral group of misfits who can barely attract three dozen participants to their demonstrations.

Worse, Wasserstein fails to make the obvious comparison between Israeli and Jordanian treatment of the other's holy places: When the Jordanians ruled the Old City, Jews were barred from praying at the Western Wall, a critical fact that Wasserstein dispenses with in half a sentence; while Israel has granted the waqf (Islamic endowment) continued autonomy over the Temple Mount, including veto power over the right of Jews to pray at Judaism's holiest site. Wasserstein fails to credit Israel with that unprecedented act of religious restraint. Indeed, the only relevant symmetry here is that under both Jordanian and Israeli rule, Jews have been barred from praying on their most sacred ground. Finally, he all but ignores the Jordanians' systematic destruction of the Old City's Jewish Quarter in 1948 and the years thereafter-including the transformation of synagogues into goat pens and latrines. He blandly notes that the Jewish Quarter was a "half-ruined slum", without explaining who ruined it.1
Wasserstein avoids comparing the significance of Jerusalem for each of the three faiths, precisely because that would disturb the careful symmetry of his argument. He notes that Jerusalem is not explicitly mentioned in the Quran, but fails to contrast that with the fact that the Hebrew Bible evokes Jerusalem 669 times. And while he acknowledges that Jews pray toward Jerusalem and consider the entire city, and not just its holy places, to be sacred, the unique Jewish relationship to Jerusalem-a relationship that virtually defined two independent Jewish Commonwealths that together lasted nearly a millennium (but was never the capital of any Muslim country)-somehow gets misplaced in the book's relentless message of symmetry.

Perhaps the essential difference between the relationship of Judaism and Islam to Jerusalem is that, without the idea of Jerusalem, there is no Judaism, while Islam would certainly continue to thrive in its absence. Only Judaism among the monotheistic faiths has linked its very existence with Jerusalem. Unlike Islam and Christianity, which are universalist faiths, Judaism insists on defining universal values within a particularist framework: a single holy people as a testing vessel for divine intimacy with humanity, and a single holy land and holy city as intimations of the future messianic sanctification of the planet. The Jewish people completed its transition from disparate tribes into a nation under King David, in Jerusalem; and the vision of the prophets is of the future unification of humanity in messianic Jerusalem. For Judaism, then, Jerusalem is the place of unity and wholeness; without Jerusalem, Judaism would lose its past and its future, its hope and reason for being.

Until recently, I shared Wasserstein's aversion to stressing the primacy of the Jewish spiritual claim to Jerusalem. Jewish polemicists who emphasize their claim tend to unfairly disparage Muslim devotion to the holy city. Islam, after all, ruled over Jerusalem for 1,300 years; its first glorious monument, the Dome of the Rock, was built here. Weighing one spiritual claim against another risks demeaning the sacred with inappropriate, even crass standards. Indeed, a spiritual symmetry in the relationship to Jerusalem among the monotheistic faiths does exist: All three venerate the holy city as the meeting place between heaven and earth. The Divine Presence descending on the Temple Mount's Holy of Holies, the Prophet Muhammad ascending to heaven from the Temple Mount, Jesus transcending death at nearby Golgotha-all evoke the theme of God reaching across the abyss to contact His creatures. Given that exalted commonality, why haggle over which faith regards the city as more central to its essence?

The answer, I have come to realize, is self-defense. The current Palestinian War has been accompanied by an unprecedented Muslim onslaught against the legitimacy of any Jewish claim to Jerusalem. The pa-appointed mufti of Jerusalem, Ekrema Sabri, has said that the only religious significance of the Western Wall is that it was used by the Prophet Muhammad to tether his winged steed, Buraq, during his night journey to heaven. At Camp David, Yasir Arafat insisted that the Temple had been in Nablus, not Jerusalem. The unholy war against the Jewish history of Jerusalem demands an unapologetic response, an affirmation of the uniqueness of Jewish attachment to the city-which, after all, only became holy to Christianity and Islam because it was holy to Judaism. (Initially, Muslims prayed toward Jerusalem, to woo the Jewish tribes of Arabia to Islam; when that failed, the qibla, or direction of prayer, was shifted to Mecca. This direction remains obligatory today even for Muslims praying on the Temple Mount.)

Despite the asymmetry of the competing claims over Jerusalem, arguably a majority of Israeli Jews would opt for the traumatic redivision of the city-were they convinced that it would end the pathological 100-year Middle East conflict that Israelis now realize threatens the viability and even the survival of the Jewish state. The problem, of course, is that most of us no longer believe that partitioning Jerusalem with Arafat's Palestinian Authority would lead to peace, only to dismemberment of the city. The one tangible achievement of Arafat's war for Jerusalem has been to convince the pragmatic Israeli center that under no circumstances should the Palestinian Authority be entrusted with governing any part of Israel's capital. Even many on the Left who advocate the desperate solution of unilateral Israeli separation from the territories concede that, for now at least, there is no possibility of dividing Jerusalem, which would only further entwine Israelis and Palestinians. The untenability of "sharing" Jerusalem with Arafat is the fatal flaw at the heart of all the current Middle East peace initiatives. For the first time since the Oslo process began, the old Israeli consensus on united Jerusalem has re-emerged-this time based not on historical or religious sentiment but on a combination of experience and fear.

In truth, many of the city's Palestinians share the same fear of Arafat's regime. It is hardly coincidence that, unlike the first intifada, few Jerusalemite Palestinians have participated in the current violence. In conversations with Palestinians living in the city, I have repeatedly heard dread expressed at the notion of "bringing Gaza into Jerusalem", as more than one Palestinian has put it. A Palestinian journalist who lives not far from me in northeast Jerusalem told me, around the time of the Camp David negotiations, that if Arafat comes to his neighborhood, he will move to mine.

Arguably the preferred option of Jerusalem's Palestinians is neither Arafat's rule nor Israel's rule but internationalization. In principle, that would seem to be the fairest and least dangerous solution. If Jews and Arabs cannot govern this world city together, then let the world do it. Yet as Wasserstein reveals-and here he is at his best-the sordid history of international meddling in Jerusalem's fate has only exacerbated its religious and national passions. Worse, no international forum exists that would provide Israelis with confidence in its fairness. Given the Durban "anti-racism" conference that degenerated into an anti-Jewish frenzy, and the UN's recent obsession with uncovering a non-existent massacre in Jenin while all but ignoring the massacres of Israelis by Arafat's terrorist militias, Israelis are hardly likely to entrust Jerusalem to the international community.

If Arafat's rejectionism makes sharing Jerusalem inconceivable, and the un's one-sidedness negates internationalization, that leaves as the only option the continued Israeli rule over an admittedly divided city. But for Israel to maintain effective control will require a re-evaluation of its policy toward the Arab population, in particular the policy of restricting housing permits for Arabs and then demolishing their illegally built homes. That policy has failed to contain Arab demographic growth in the city and has embittered many who might otherwise favor Israeli rule, or at least acquiesce to it as the least noxious of all evils. Given Arab fears of Arafat's regime, the time is right for Israel to renew its offer of citizenship for any Arab resident of the city who requests it. Nothing is likely to undermine Arafat's claim to legitimacy in Jerusalem more than a massive request among its Arab residents for Israeli citizenship. As for adding a quarter of a million Arabs to Israel's voter registry, that is the price the Jewish state must be willing to pay for Jerusalem.

That possibility does not even warrant Wasserstein's consideration. The disaster of the Oslo process, and Arafat's betrayal of Israel's overtures, has had no evident impact on him. He remains committed to partitioning Jerusalem, even if that means inserting Arafat and his militias into the midst of the Old City. Indeed, for Wasserstein, Divided Jerusalem is not just a title to describe a tragic reality, but an ideal. He has approached this story intending to offer historical justification for partition. The result is an account as unworthy as the political agenda it seeks to serve.

Essay Types: Book Review