Three faces of Jerusalem

For centuries, Jerusalem's sanctity for Christians, Jews and Muslims has been ruthlessly exploited for political ends. Divided it will remain
January 20, 2002

Agreement on Jerusalem was meant to be the culmination of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Instead, failure to agree on it at Camp David in the summer of 2000 started the descent into a new round of sub-war, sporadically interrupted by efforts to renew negotiations. The "al-Aqsa intifada," sparked off by Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount on 28th September 2000, is rumbling on inexorably as both sides pursue unrealisable goals by means of unrealistic strategies. The Palestinians apparently thought that, by initiating a return to violence, they could deepen divisions within Israel and between Israel and the US, with a view to securing a mass return of refugees to Israel and a Palestinian state that would include "Arab Jerusalem." But Israeli opinion is less divided than for many years, and the prospect of concessions beyond the sweeping ones that were on offer from Ehud Barak last year seems ever more remote. Meanwhile, the Sharon government is thrashing around, rhetorically and militarily, in the vain hope that it can eliminate suicide bombers and repress the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank into the helot status that they occupied between 1967 and 1987, before the first intifada. That too is not working. Yet given the expectations that both leaderships have aroused by resorting to force, neither can call a halt with nothing to show for it. So, like blinded boxers, they jab at each other with no clear purpose or hope of victory.

Jerusalem remains the territorial and symbolic heart of the conflict and both sides have been trying to establish new footholds for the negotiations which will eventually be resumed. Among the more bizarre manoeuvres are the preparations by Israeli zealots for animal sacrifice in a rebuilt Temple. The Palestinian response has included reassertion of the dubious claim that the Western Wall is a Muslim holy place and the ancient Jewish shrine was not on what Jews today call the Temple Mount, but somewhere else altogether. These debates are not restricted to the fringe; they are close to the political mainstream.

Since his election in February 2001, Sharon has declared that he is committed "to protecting a united Jerusalem with the Temple Mount at its centre, under Israeli sovereignty for ever." Such statements return Israel to the rigid posture maintained (except for Barak's wobble) since the capture of east Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967.

There is a problem: this position bears no relation to the real world. The Israeli claim to rule a united Jerusalem may or may not be justifiable, but it is not attainable. Jerusalem is a divided city. It has been divided throughout its modern history. After a three-decade-long Israeli drive towards "unification," the rift between Jerusalem's populations is deeper than ever. Arab and Jewish residents inhabit different districts, speak different languages, attend different schools, read different newspapers, watch different television programmes, follow different football teams-live different lives. Most Israelis have never set foot in Arab areas outside the old city. With rare exceptions, Arabs enter Jewish districts only to work in the construction industry, as waiters, or as labourers. Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem mix socially less than blacks and whites in apartheid-era Johannesburg. Marriages across the line are legally difficult and socially taboo. Above all, Arabs and Jews inhabit different mental worlds, informed by a dread of each other which has repeatedly exploded into aggression.

Jerusalem's divisions are neither new nor unique. Most middle eastern cities until recently had residential segregation based on ethno-religious identification. In the era of exclusive nationalisms, most of these multicultural cities became "unified": the Greeks and Armenians were thrown out of Constantinople and Smyrna; the Jews fled Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo; the cosmopolitanism of Forster's and Durrell's Alexandria was extinguished by Nasser. Jerusalem was different: it remained a cultural mosaic because, more than any other, it was a holy city.

The holiness of Jerusalem in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is undeniable. Yet Jerusalem's sanctity has been ruthlessly abused for secular ends. Generations of scholars have acted as handmaidens of power, embroidering history to justify political ambitions.

For christians, the sanctity of Jerusalem derives wholly from the events associated with the life, death, and resurrection of the Saviour. Historically speaking, however, there is no evidence of any particular sanctity attached to Jerusalem by Christians until the 4th century. Among the church fathers there were differences between those who affirmed the holiness of Jerusalem and those who downplayed it. The negative view of Eusebius, metropolitan bishop of Caesarea Palestinae (260-339), may have derived in part from competition between his episcopal see and that of Jerusalem. By contrast, Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem (320-386) maintained that the "prerogative of all good things was in Jerusalem."

The rise of the Christian view of Jerusalem's holiness was a result of the political triumph of the Emperor Constantine, who ruled Jerusalem from 324 until his death in 337. The celebrated journey of his mother, Helena, to Jerusalem to identify the sites of the crucifixion and resurrection marked a turning-point in the Christian history of the city. The Anastasis (later known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), erected over Christ's tomb and inaugurated in 335, replaced a temple to Aphrodite on the same location. Like so many other holy places in Jerusalem, the Anastasis from its outset gave physical expression to competitive religious spirit-in this case between Christianity and paganism.

External financial support for Christian institutions in Jerusalem, as for Jewish ones, is a longstanding feature of the city's history, extending back in the Christian case to the Byzantine period. During the first period of Muslim rule over the city, between 638 and 1099, non-Muslims still formed a majority of the population. At one point in the early Arab period, there is even said to have been a Christian governor of the province. On Christmas Day 800, coronation day of Charlemagne in Rome, the new emperor is reported to have received the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the flag of the holy city as tokens of respect from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Charlemagne and his son Louis built a number of new Christian institutions in Jerusalem. This construction work gave rise to conflict. In 827, for example, Muslims complained that Christians had built a bigger dome over a church than that over the Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock. Similarly, competition in pilgrimages is recorded very early. Pilgrimages and holy days were often violent. On Palm Sunday 938, a Christian procession was attacked and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was burnt down; on 28th September 1009 the Holy Sepulchre was again destroyed by order of the mad Caliph al-Hakim.

The conquest of Jerusalem by the crusader forces of Godfrey de Bouillon on 15 July 1099 inaugurated a new period of terror against Muslims and Jews, all of whom were driven out of the city and their mosques and synagogues destroyed. The Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount were turned into Christian churches. The Latin kings carved the city into separate districts based on the nationality of the Christian settlers and knightly orders. The Orthodox Patriarch was packed off to Constantinople and the Roman Catholics assumed the praedominium (right of pre-eminence) over the holy places.

After the final ejection of the crusaders from Jerusalem in 1244, Christians were compelled to translate their conception of Jerusalem from an earthly to a heavenly sphere. Christian pilgrimages continued: Chaucer's Wife of Bath went to Jerusalem three times. Books of Laudes Hierosolymitanae (praises of Jerusalem) were produced in large quantities. Having lost the war against the infidel, Christians embarked on a war against each other. The great contest between the eastern and western churches began for control of the holy places, above all the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. When the last crusader fortress in Palestine, at Acre, fell in 1291, the only Roman Catholic presence in Palestine was that of the Franciscans. In the early 14th century, the Pope appointed them to the "custody of the holy land." This outpost of Roman Christianity saw the battle against the pretensions of the eastern churches to proprietorship of the holy places as its primary task. It fought to uphold the enduring rights in Jerusalem of the true Rome. The fight carried on into modern times and, in modified form, endures still.

For muslims, the holiness of Jerusalem derives primarily from its identification with the "further mosque" (al-masjid al-aqsa), mentioned in the Koran as the place to which the Prophet was carried on his "night journey" from Mecca. From here he ascended to the seventh heaven. There is evidence, however, to suggest that the attribution of sanctity to Jerusalem was in part connected to the city's central position in the two precursor religions that Islam claimed to supersede. According to Muslim tradition, Jerusalem was the first qibla (direction of prayer) before it was changed to Mecca in 624. The practice is not attested in the Koran, but it survived in the practice of some elderly worshippers in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem within living memory.

In early Islam there was a tendency to emphasise the holiness of Mecca and Medina and to stress the importance of pilgrimages to those cities, rather than to Jerusalem. But in the second Islamic century (719-816 of the Christian era) an acceptance developed of the holiness of all three cities. A decisive point came during the Caliphate of Abd al-Malik bin Marwan (685-705): he was in conflict with a rival Caliph, Abd Allah bin al-Zubayr, who was installed at Mecca. Abd al-Malik built Jerusalem's most impressive surviving religious monument, the Dome of the Rock-often wrongly called the "Mosque of Umar": it is, in fact, a shrine, not a mosque, and has nothing to do with Umar. Richard Ettinghausen has argued that the Dome of the Rock was not merely a memorial to the ascension of the Prophet: "its extensive inscriptions indicate that it is a victory monument commemorating triumph over the Jewish and Christian religions." The orientalist, Ignaz Goldziher, argued that Abd al-Malik built the shrine and reaffirmed the city's sanctity to compete with the rival Meccan Caliph and divert the pilgrim trade to his own dominions.

Surprisingly, the conquest of Jerusalem by the crusaders was greeted at first with Muslim indifference. A change of attitude emerges only in the mid-12th century and, as so often in the history of Jerusalem, religious fervour may be explained, in large measure, by politics. In the 1140s Zangi, ruler of Mosul and Aleppo, with his son and successor Nur al-Din, called for an all-out war against the crusader state. Their propagandists placed a new emphasis on the holiness of Jerusalem in Islam. This was accentuated by the greatest of the Muslim warriors, Saladin, who used the sanctity of Jerusalem as a means of cowing rivals for leadership of the Muslim cause. In the late 12th century the idea of the holy city was invoked no less in internal Muslim quarrels than in the external conflict with Christendom. The Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem, on 2nd October 1187, was greeted with rejoicing in the Islamic world. Saladin's victory was hailed in poems and Muslims were encouraged to resettle there and to go on pilgrimage.

In 1191, Saladin wrote to Richard I, in the course of armistice negotiations, saying that even if he were personally disposed to yield the city, the crusading English king "should not imagine that its surrender would be possible; I would not dare even to utter the word in front of the Muslims," (words repeated by Yasser Arafat to Clinton in 2000). Jerusalem was, nevertheless, returned to the Christians by the Treaty of Jaffa in 1229. Under this agreement, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth were handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, though the Muslims were permitted to retain their holy places there. The treaty was to last for ten years. After that, fighting broke out again and in 1244 the city was sacked by invading Kharezmian Tartars. Only after 1260 was order restored under the Mamluk sultans of Egypt.

Under Mamluk rule, Jerusalem was not a place of political importance. The division of the city into four quarters-Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian-had its origins in this period. Islamic institutions were established and the Muslim character of the city enhanced, although, unlike the Christians, Muslims tolerated the presence of other faiths. Religious groups tended to settle around their most important shrines: Muslims north and west of the Haram al-Sharif ("noble sanctuary"-the name given to the Temple Mount); Armenians in the south-west near their Cathedral of Saint James; the other Christians in the north-west near the Holy Sepulchre; and the Jews in the south near the Western Wall. At the dawn of the modern era, divided Jerusalem was a geographical as well as a spiritual fact. Under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, for four centuries after 1516, Muslim institutions were consolidated and, under the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (reigned 1520-66), it acquired the walls that ring the "old city" today and are its greatest secular monument. Yet Muslim predominance did not preclude the growth of Christian and Jewish communities. Indeed, it was during the later Ottoman period that the Jews became, once again, the majority of the population.

The first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, in a speech in Jerusalem in 1948, referred to "the unbroken chain of Jewish settlement in this city." Whatever the truth of such a claim for Palestine in general, the evidence in the case of Jerusalem is questionable. Jews were forbidden to live in the city under Roman and Byzantine rule. Although some Jewish pilgrims appear to have visited it, there is no evidence of a Jewish community there between the 2nd and 7th centuries.

Jews resumed residence in Jerusalem after the first Arab conquest of the city, in 638. Documents in the Cairo Geniza record financial contributions by Jews in Egypt, Syria, and Sicily towards the support of poor Jews and the maintenance of a synagogue next to the Western ("Wailing") Wall. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099, Jews were once more thrown out. Only after 1260, under the Mamluks, did they slowly return, although they came into conflict with Christians, especially over Mount Zion.

The conquest of the city by the Turks, in 1516, created conditions for secure Jewish settlement and slow demographic growth. But in the 17th century, the Jewish population was only 1,000 souls, perhaps 10 per cent of the total. In that period, the main centre of Jewish life in Palestine, certainly of intellectual life, was not Jerusalem but Safed. For a long time in the 18th century, Jewish bachelors and persons under 60 were forbidden by the Jewish "Istanbul Committee" to live in Jerusalem. The object of the ban was to limit the size of the Jewish population, which, it was feared, would otherwise be too large to support. The earliest community records of the Jews in Jerusalem date from no earlier than the 18th century. From the late 18th-century, religious Jews from eastern Europe moved to Jerusalem in growing numbers to found yeshivot (Talmudic academies).

By the time the first Zionists settlers began to arrive in Palestine in the 1880s, Jews were a majority in the population of Jerusalem. The city had always been central to the thought and symbolism of Judaism: the resting-place of its holy tabernacle, the site of its temple, the capital of its monarchy, the subject of lamentation from the year 70 down to our own time. Jews faced Jerusalem when they prayed. Biblical literature, halakha (Jewish law), aggada (non-legal rabbinic teaching), tefilla (liturgy), kabbala (mystical writings), haskala (the Hebrew enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries) and Jewish folklore all celebrated its ancient glory and mourned its devastation. In medieval Spain, Yehuda Halevi and Shlomo ibn Gvirol wrote poignant verses yearning for Jerusalem. In eastern Europe a picture of Jerusalem traditionally hung on the eastern wall of the Jewish house. Down the ages, Jerusalem remained the foremost destination of Jewish pilgrimage. Above all, Jerusalem carried for Jews an overwhelming symbolic freight as the focus of messianic hope and the locus of the imminently expected resurrection.

At the same time, Judaism differentiated between the heavenly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel ma'lah) and the earthly or everyday one (shel mata'). Religious devotion to the city was not regarded as involving any duty to regain Jewish sovereignty over it. Indeed, when the idea of such a restoration first began to be discussed in the 19th century, the dominant strain of religious opinion was strongly opposed to it. This remained true until the destruction of the religious heartland of Jewry in eastern Europe, between 1939 and 1945. At least until then, most orthodox Jewish authorities opposed Zionism as a blasphemous anticipation of the divine plan. On this point they found common cause with most early leaders of reform Judaism. Orthodox Zionists were an insignificant stream within the Zionist movement-and equally so within orthodox Judaism. Zionism, until long after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, was predominantly and often aggressively secular.

Early Zionist thinkers generally avoided attributing special importance to Jerusalem. The exponent of "spiritual" Zionism, Ahad Ha-am, was repelled by his first encounter with the Jews of Jerusalem in 1891. When he later moved to Palestine, he chose to settle in Tel Aviv. The founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was shocked by Jerusalem's filth and stench when he first visited it in 1898. When Arthur Ruppin set up the Zionist Organisation's first Palestine Office in 1908, he did so in Jaffa. The early Zionist settlers in Palestine from the 1880s onwards, and particularly the socialist Zionists who arrived in large numbers after 1904, looked down on Jerusalem as a centre of obscurantism, religiosity, and squalor. In particular, they despised what they saw as the parasitism of Jerusalem's Jews and their dependence on the halukah (charitable dole) from co-religionists in Europe and north America. David Ben Gurion who was later, as Israeli prime minister, to declare Jerusalem Israel's capital, did not bother to visit it until three years after his immigration to Palestine.

Modern Hebrew literature also contains contradictory strands regarding Jerusalem: in the last years of the 19th century, writers of the Ahavat Zion school tended to extol the city; modernist poets and novelists from Haim Nahman Bialik onwards took a more realistic view. The first half of the 20th century saw a stream of writing hostile to Jerusalem, loathing it, demystifying it, stressing its irrelevance. Yosef Haim Brenner, Nathan Alterman, Avraham Shlonsky, the early Uri Zvi Greenberg, they shaped a negative view of Jerusalem in the Hebrew literary imagination. This was only one stream of thought-but, in its time, perhaps the most influential and expressive of the Zionist revolution against Jewish traditionalism.

Zionist ambivalence about Jerusalem was reflected in politics. Jewish sovereignty over a united Jerusalem was not a Zionist objective before 1967. Even the hyper-nationalist, Vladimir Jabotinsky, favoured internationalising the holy places. In 1936, the Zionist Organisation proposed the partition of the city. In 1947 it accepted the UN plan for internationalisation. After the 1948 war the Israelis signed an agreement with King Abdullah of Jordan, perpetuating the division of the city. The notion that sole possession of the city was intrinsic to Zionism, let alone Judaism, developed later. Irredentist devotion to Jerusalem appeared as a political force only after the Israeli conquest in 1967.

For 34 years Israel has exerted every sinew to swallow up east Jerusalem. But, in spite of massive Jewish construction and immigration to the city, the Arab proportion of the population, even within gerrymandered municipal boundaries, has gone up. Unlike the Arabs incorporated into Israel after 1948, east Jerusalem Palestinians after 1967 generally declined to apply for Israeli citizenship, to participate in Israeli elections or to acknowledge the legitimacy of Israeli rule. They fended off the blandishments of Mayor Teddy Kollek until 1993, as well as the less diplomatic designs of his successor, Ehud Olmert, to subdue their distinctive identity or to diminish the authority of their institutions. The east Jerusalem Muslim religious court, for example, maintained its independence of the Israeli Muslim religious judiciary. East Jerusalem Arabs have controlled their own schools since Israel abandoned the attempt to integrate them into the Israeli-Arab education system. Under a secret agreement concluded on 21st June 1995 between Israeli Brigadier-General David Shahaf and the Palestinian Authority's deputy finance minister, Atef Alawneh, the Palestinian Authority (PA) controls tax collection from east Jerusalem Arabs. Al-Quds University, headed by the Oxford-educated scholar Sari Nusseibeh, was certified by the Palestinian ministry of higher education and conducts its activities openly in Abu Dis and Beit Hanina (outside the municipal boundaries), as well as in buildings in central Jerusalem. The Israeli civil administration in the occupied territories at first tried to bar West Bank students from attending. But the university enjoyed international support from some Israeli academics and the government chose not to court further criticism by closing it down.

Today Palestinian police operate with impunity in east Jerusalem. They report to a governor appointed by the PA. Over the past year, the Sharon government has tried to diminish the authority of the Palestinian police in East Jerusalem-but with limited success. The PA wields effective control (sometimes very directly) over the east Jerusalem media. East Jerusalem Arabs participated, again by agreement with Israel, in elections to the PA. Their representatives sit in the Palestinian parliament. After 34 years of Israeli rule, the Muslim religious bodies still control the Temple Mount, exercising an authority that has been explicitly upheld by the Israeli supreme court. All this is with the acquiescence of successive Israeli governments, including Sharon's.

Israel's policy of unification, whether measured by demographic data, institutional resilience, residential geography, political loyalties or diplomatic recognition, has failed. To his credit, Ehud Barak recognised this and began the process of weaning Israelis off the self-deluding slogans on which they had been reared since 1967. The only feasible release from Jerusalem's agony is recognition of reality: Israeli control over Jewish-inhabited districts; Palestinian over Arab-inhabited ones. This was what Clinton proposed in his final meeting with both sides on 23rd December 2000. There would be no physical redivision of the city; yet each section of the population would be sovereign in its own areas. They came close to agreement, but failed to close a deal.

Religious zealotry, more than anything, inspires those Arabs and Jews who insist on exclusive possession and reject the concept of a divided but open city. Among Palestinians, a recent opinion poll showed that a majority refuse to accept that even Jewish west Jerusalem belongs to Israel. As for the Israelis, Sharon's mirror-image view currently commands majority support. But opinion on both sides is volatile and experience has shown (ever since Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977) that decisive leadership can create broad constituencies for peace. The Bush administration-after its brief post-11th September efforts-has written off the possibility that either Sharon or Arafat can furnish such leadership. For the present, it is unlikely to repeat what is seen as Clinton's error of over-involvement. The Americans, like the citizens of the divided city themselves, await a new generation of leaders who can tell Jerusalem that warfare is spent. How much longer must they wait?