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Thorny of Thornies

Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City

by Bernard Wasserstein

(Yale University Press, 412 pp., $29.95)

The Rock: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalem

by Kanan Makiya

(Pantheon, 349 pp., $26)

It is often said that, of the many problems standing in the way of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, Jerusalem is the most intractable. Such issues as the 1967 borders, the future of the Jewish settlements, the fate of the Palestinian refugees, Palestinian demilitarization, economic relations, water rights, and so on are all justly held to be thorny. Jerusalem, we are told, is the Thorny of Thornies.

The history of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would appear to bear this out. On no other question have the positions of the two sides been further apart over the years; on no other question did the feverish peace talks--conducted during the last months of the Barak government, beginning at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and ending several months later in failure at Taba--founder so dramatically. The annexation of Arab Jerusalem, the first significant step taken by Israel after the 1967 war, continues to loom as perhaps the last hurdle to laying to rest that war's causes and consequences.

And yet there is no obvious reason why this need be so. Considered rationally, in fact, Jerusalem should be just about the easiest of all the major problems for Israelis and Palestinians to solve. Far more than the others, it is amenable to practical arrangements capable of satisfying the basic interests and emotions of both sides. Two new books about Jerusalem--one a rather pedestrian history and the other a rather artificial novel--can help us to think about the matter.

Let us go back one hundred fifty years. Jerusalem in the mid-nineteenth century, as described by Bernard Wasserstein, whose account skips quickly from early history to the modern period, was a small, "inward-looking, walled hill town," no larger than it had been when, as "an obscure, provincial backwater with a population of fewer than fifteen thousand," it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks from the Mamelukes in 1516. Occupying little more than two hundred acres, it stood entirely within the massive walls renovated during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), its roughly square shape divided into the four quarters--Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian--that its "old city" still consists of today.

Six thousand of its inhabitants were Jews, 5,400 were Muslims, 3,600 were Christians. Poor, rundown, and of little political or commercial importance, the city had been declared a district capital only thirteen years previously, having been governed until 1837 from Damascus. Its main landmarks and pilgrimage sites had not changed for hundreds or thousands of years: the "Wailing" or "Western" Wall of the Jews, the Holy Sepulchre of the Christians, the two great Muslim shrines on the Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount. Rising above the Mount to the east, the dominating heights of Mount Scopus, the future home of the Hebrew University, and the Mount of Olives, with its old Jewish cemetery, stood desolate. The surrounding countryside, infested with brigands, was sparsely cultivated and unsafe.

But all this was deceptive. Not only was Jerusalem in 1850 on the verge of a rapid expansion that has continued unchecked to this day, the changes had already begun. The city was experiencing demographic growth, its population having regained its sixteenth-century level from a low of nine thousand in 1800, with nearly two-thirds of the newcomers--most religiously motivated immigrants from Eastern Europe--being Jews. It had also become, largely due to the introduction of regular steamship service to Palestine, a destination for wealthy Western tourists. By the 1830s, as Wasserstein observes, it was on the itinerary of "the Grand Tour," and by 1862 it had been visited by--among others--Benjamin Disraeli, the Archduke of Bavaria, the Duke of Brabant, the Russian Grand Duke Konstantin, and the Prince of Wales.

Spurred by the expected collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the European powers vied for spheres of influence in the city through the aggressive establishment of consulates, churches, and religious missions. The middle to late nineteenth century also witnessed--unremarked upon by Wasserstein, who sticks to the well-trodden paths of political and diplomatic history--a new vogue in Holy Land travel books, illustrated postcards, and memorabilia, all paying special attention to Jerusalem. Well-known landscape artists such as David Roberts, T.H. Horne, and David Wilkie painted the city extensively; the Frenchman Horace Vernet was photographing it by the daguerreotype process as early as 1835.

For the first time Jerusalem became, for millions of Europeans and Americans, a realistically visualizable place rather than a medieval set-piece of turrets and towers. It was a place, as portrayed in many of these books and albums, in which melancholy and exaltation clashed. "All the meanness and squalor of its degradation," wrote the British travel writer and illustrator Samuel Manning in 1873 of his first glimpse of the city from the Mount of Olives, "was lost in the radiance which veiled it."

This, too, was the Jerusalem pictured by Jews when, toward the end of the nineteenth century, Zionism proposed the city, which now had a Jewish majority, as the future capital of a modern Jewish state. It was the Jerusalem that unfavorably impressed Herzl, who wrote after seeing it in 1898:

When I remember thee in days to come, O Jerusalem, it will not be with pleasure. The dank sediment of two millennia filled with inhumanity, intolerance, and filth fills $(your$) foul-smelling alleys....But I am firmly convinced that a magnificent New Jerusalem could be erected outside the old city walls. Old Jerusalem would remain Lourdes and Mecca and Yerushalayim. A very handsome, elegant city next to it would be a real possibility.

And yet, while this New Jerusalem was emerging from the city's walls even as Herzl wrote, it was Old Jerusalem that continued to be depicted in Zionist iconography. In a famous photo montage produced after Herzl's death in 1904 and widely copied in posters, Zionist postage stamps, and even carpets, Herzl stands on a balcony (in fact he was looking down at the Rhine in Basel, where the picture was actually taken) and gazes at the old city ramparts and their "Tower of David" (in reality an Ottoman construction on Herodean foundations), behind which a many-rayed sun is rising; a column of Jewish pioneers, one turning to wave at him, marches up the barren hillside leading to the Jaffa Gate. The "handsome, elegant" new city of which he dreamed is nowhere in sight.

The Jerusalem dreamed of by the Jewish masses that had rallied around Herzl was the Yerushalayim inside the ramparts, ir ba David hana, "the city in which"--in the words of the Zionist anthem "Hatikvah"--"David dwelled" in an ancient and to-be-renewed golden age--although, as a matter of not-yet-known archaeological fact, David's city had lain outside Suleiman's walls, just to the south of them, on a slope partly occupied by the Arab village of Silwan, the biblical Shiloah or Siloam. Also curiously, the Temple Mount, the great raised plaza at the walled city's eastern end on which the Holy of Holies and its surrounding complex, first constructed by David's son Solomon, had stood until its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E., never belonged to this dream.

It would be hard to find a single Zionist image of the Temple Mount from Herzl's time or long after. In part, this was because the monumental Muslim shrines that stood on it were unsuitable Zionist icons. But there was a deeper reason. The Jews, having no desire to repossess the Temple Mount, had no longing for it either. For secular Jews, the very thought of rebuilding the Temple with its cult of animal sacrifice, let alone tearing down revered Islamic edifices to do so, was embarrassing and absurd; and for religious Jews, it was the ultimate sacrilege.

God alone could restore His dwelling place to Jerusalem in messianic times. Indeed, observant Jews were barred by religious law from even ascending to the Mount, since the cultic means of purification required for this no longer existed. Moreover, the Shekhinah, God's mystical presence that had dwelled in the Temple, was gone from the Mount. Fleeing when the Temple went up in flames, the holy spirit now sheltered (according to Jewish legend and popular belief) at the Wailing Wall, the western segment of the great retaining bulwark built around the Mount by Herod as part of the extensive renovations executed during his reign shortly before the birth of Jesus.

In 638, soon after the death of Muhammad, when the Arab army of Omar ibn Khatib took Jerusalem from the Byzantines, the city was not enormously different from what it was to be in 1500 or 1850. On its northern, western, and eastern sides, its walls followed the future lines of the Turkish ones; only to the south were they more extensive, encompassing Mount Zion and the archaeological city of David. But the most noticeable difference to the observer looking down from the Mount of Olives or Mount Scopus would not have been the city's walls. It would have been the Temple Mount, on which he would have seen neither the golden Dome of the Rock that is now Jerusalem's worldwide logo, nor its companion, the silver-domed Al-Aqsa Mosque for which the Palestinians have named their current uprising, but rather the rubble of the Temple destroyed six hundred years earlier by the Romans and largely buried under centuries of municipal garbage.

The Mount and the Dome are the subject of Kanan Makiya's The Rock, a novel set in Jerusalem at the time of the Arab conquest. Slight as a work of fiction, its characters transparent personifications of religious ideas and geopolitical forces, the book is nevertheless very absorbing; for these forces and ideas, known today as "the rise of Islam," "the early Umayyad Caliphate," and so on, are arrested for us by Makiya in the process of coming into being. He has described them at that formative stage of events in which future history seems pure potential.

Islam, the last of the three great monotheistic faiths, was greatly influenced by Judaism and Christianity, and Makiya's project in his book is to take the Jewish and Christian concepts of the sacredness of Jerusalem and examine how these affected the new religion, whether by being adopted by it in order to stress its continuity with its predecessors or by being rejected so as to emphasize its uniqueness. Was Jerusalem to be the holy city for Muslims--even though their sacred history had not taken place in it--that it was for Jews and, to a lesser degree, for Christians? Or was it superseded by Mecca, the place of Muhammad's birth and most of his revelations? And more specifically, in which direction was a Muslim to pray--facing, as the Jews did, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, with its "Rock of the Foundation" on which Abraham supposedly bound Isaac, or facing the Ka'ba in Mecca and its "Black Stone," given by God to Adam according to one Islamic tradition, and given to Ishmael according to another tradition?

That this was a practical problem for early Muslims is clear from the Koran, which reveals that they actually did face Jerusalem in prayer until Muhammad ordered a change in Mecca's favor. Indeed, when Jerusalem fell to Omar ibn Khatib, there were still Muslims who made a point of praying toward the Ka'ba and the Temple Mount by aligning themselves with both. Moreover, as Makiya points out in one of the many footnotes to The Rock that are often as interesting as the text itself, some scholars have argued that Abd-al-Malik, the fifth Umayyad Caliph (685-705), who commissioned the construction of the Dome of the Rock in the place where the Temple had stood, wished to substitute it for the Ka'ba, and Jerusalem for Mecca, in order to bring the religious center of Islam nearer to his seat of power in Damascus.

The Rock is narrated by Ishaq ibn Ka'b, the fictional son of an actual historical figure named Ka'b al-Ahbar, a seventh-century Yemenite Jew and early convert to Islam. Little is known about Ka'b apart from his being said by his Muslim contemporaries to have introduced much Jewish lore into the Islamic hadith, or oral tradition, and to have been offered, and turned down, the post of adviser to the first Umayyad Caliph, Mu'awiya. Although Islam later opposed Jewish thematics, known in Arabic as isra'iliyat, it was initially, Makiya writes in a "Historical Note on Ka'b," more open to them. In his novel, which is in part a meditation on the fudged possibilities of this openness, Ka'b represents a missed moment in history: the unseized chance for a Judeo-Islamic synthesis or pan-Semitic monotheism that would have chosen, as Ka'b urges it to, Jerusalem over Mecca.

It is easy to dismiss such a vision as an anachronistic historical pipe dream, a projection onto the past of the contemporary fantasy of a joint Jewish-Arab "children of Abraham" identity that might put an end to the conflict in the Middle East. Makiya himself, in all fairness, does not push the point, which in Ishaq's musings is never more than a wistfully considered path-not-taken that might never have led very far. Mecca's predominance was never seriously challenged by Jerusalem, and as Makiya notes in The Rock, it takes a wide range of factors--religious, political, commercial, and sometimes nationalistic--to determine the importance of a sacred site. Early Christian Jerusalem treated the Temple Mount as a garbage dump because, despoiled and degraded, it represented the ruin of Judaism and the fulfillment of New Testament prophecies concerning the Temple's destruction. When Constantine sought to revive the city's religious centrality as part of the eastward shift that saw him move his capital from Rome to Constantinople, he had his mother Helena conveniently discover the "True Cross," the instrument of his crucifixion supposedly borne by Jesus, and he commissioned the construction of the Holy Sepulchre on the site. The new Christian shrine, to which others soon were added, turned a Jerusalem hitherto neglected by the Romans into a prosperous diocese that drew pilgrims, the tourists of the ancient world, from as far as France.

Similarly, when Abd-al-Malik--or, in Makiya's story, Ishak ibn Ka'b acting on Abd-al-Malik's behalf--built the Dome of the Rock, Islam, too, sought and found a religious validation for this: the newly invented belief that a vaguely footprint-shaped indentation in the "Rock of Foundation" belonged to Muhammad, made by him on his famous "night journey" from Mecca to Heaven. And by the same token, when--jumping forward more than a millennium--tensions in Palestine mounted in the 1920s between Jews and Muslims, the latter, who had never before taken any religious interest in the Western Wall, now sought to claim it by attaching to it the legend of Muhammad's horse Buraq, allegedly tethered there during the night journey--even though, as Wasserstein points out, Buraq's hitching post was traditionally believed to have been elsewhere.

In general, Muslim interest in and glorification of Jerusalem has waxed and waned over the centuries in concert with the city's being contested by Christians or Jews. It was great in the early years of the Arab conquest; slackened and then mounted again at the time of the Crusades; and declined afterwards to surge anew with the advent of Zionism, and especially with the loss of Arab Jerusalem to Israel in 1967. In the polemics between Israel and the Arab world over the place of Jerusalem in Islam, both sides have therefore been right.

The Arabs' assertion that their attachment to Jerusalem is old, historically fervent, and firmly rooted in Muslim tradition is incontestable; but so, too, is the Jewish assertion that this attachment never sufficed, economically or politically, to make Jerusalem a ranking city in the Muslim world. As soon as the threat to it passed, so did its prominence. At bottom, despite its Arabic name of Al-Quds, "the Holy," it was not so much Jerusalem that was sanctified by Islam as it was the Haram al-Sharif, the "noble sanctuary" of the Temple Mount. It was not so much a returning golden age to which Muslim eyes were turned, but a golden dome on a sacred expanse of stone that Jews mourned for and, deep in their hearts, were thankful not to be the masters of.

The wall, then, to the Jews, and the Mount to the Palestinians. What could be simpler? It is indeed a mystery why a highly pragmatic politician such as Ehud Barak, while making great concessions on issues unrelated to Jerusalem, insisted in his negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on total or partial Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, even reportedly proposing the bizarre solution of Jewish control below ground level and Arab control above it. Apart from the archaeological lobby, eager to dig for Temple treasure, and fringe groups of right-wing messianists impatient "to force the End," in the disapproving rabbinic phrase, the great majority of Israelis, religious and secular, would willingly have swapped the Mount for the Wall and been relieved to be rid of it.

Of course, the Old City of Jerusalem is more than just the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. It is an extensive maze of streets, alleyways, homes, shops, markets, mosques, churches, synagogues, and real or mythical sites of historical and religious importance. Yet fairly apportioning all this would not be difficult either. History has already done the work. Most of the Old City's five thousand Christians and nearly all of its twenty-two thousand Muslims live in the Christian and Muslim quarters, where Christianity and Islam have their holy sites and institutions; close to ninety percent of its twenty-five hundred Jews live in the Jewish Quarter, of which the same can be said for Judaism; and its two thousand Armenians, who of all Jerusalem's Christians have the best ties with Israel, would probably prefer belonging to the latter. This would create a symmetrical and quite workable division, with half the walled city and one of its two main gates (the Damascus, which faces the Arab downtown) in Palestinian hands, and the other half and main gate (the Jaffa, which faces the Jewish downtown) in Israeli hands. The border, freely crossable, would run from west to east along David Street, the Old City's main bazaar, the Palestinian side to the north of it and the Israeli side to the south. Essentially the plan presented to Barak and Arafat by President Clinton at Camp David, this would have the virtue of once again giving each side what mattered most to it while denying to it only what did not.

The new city is more complicated. Far larger, if less elegant, than the city of Herzl's dream, it is an amalgam of neighborhoods that, starting in the 1860s, spread outward from the Old City walls, the Jewish ones in an arc from northwest to southwest, the Arab ones mainly from northeast to southeast; of outlying villages and refugee camps that were engulfed by these; of huge Israeli housing projects built on land occupied in 1967; and of Palestinian population centers growing toward them. All this has created a single metropolitan region from Bethlehem in the south to Ramallah in the north, some three hundred square kilometers in area and having a population of nearly one million, close to three-quarters of it within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem that were greatly expanded by Israel after the Six Day War. As opposed to the prewar situation, when Jews lived in the west of the divided city and Arabs in the east, a crazy-quilt pattern now prevails in much of it.

And yet here, too, why not--as the Americans also proposed at Camp David--give the Arab neighborhoods to Palestine and the Jewish ones to Israel? Under conditions of genuine peace, easily despaired of at the moment but nevertheless imaginable, two adjacent streets, one patrolled by Israeli and one by Palestinian police, or one having its garbage collected by East Jerusalem and one by West Jerusalem, would be no stranger than similar arrangements between New York and Connecticut or Brooklyn and Queens. True, this would mean, for the Palestinians, accepting permanent Israeli annexation of parts of Jerusalem, and, for Israel, "re-dividing" Jerusalem, as every Israeli government since 1967 has sworn not to do. But what, really, is Jerusalem? To consider it every patch of now built-up Judean countryside that one hundred fifty, fifty, or even thirty years ago was thought by no one to be part of the city is to be ruled by words and lines on maps. The area now defined as Jerusalem is no more the Jerusalem historically yearned for by Jews and militantly defended by Muslims than is Jericho (which Jerusalem's eastern suburbs may yet reach) or Tel Aviv (soon to be half an hour away from downtown Jerusalem by train). There is a need to disassociate perfectly legitimate Jewish and Arab emotions about the city from the urban sprawl that has come to bear its name.

Certainly, in terms of military security, which must be Israel's first concern in any peace agreement, letting the Palestinians have nearly all of Arab Jerusalem is not a problem. As long as Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives are retained by Israel, it controls the high ground dominating not only the city to the west but also the terrain falling away to the Jordan Valley in the east. And demographically, Israel, which must in the long run maintain a clear Jewish majority if it is not to lapse into chaotic bi-national conflict, has everything to gain by parting from the over two hundred thousand Palestinians now living in Jerusalem, most as Israeli citizens.

Indeed, as Wasserstein writes, although the Jewish population of the city has more than doubled since 1967, from 196,000 to close to 500,000, the Arab population has more than tripled. (So much for the Palestinian accusation that Israel has ruthlessly "Judaized" the city!) In fact, it is the increase of Jews (as has been the case in Palestine since the earliest Zionist settlement) that has caused the increase of Arabs, who have flocked to Jerusalem to take advantage of the economic opportunities created by rapid growth.

The Palestinians must have their half of Jerusalem. Although they can afford to back down on other issues, no Palestinian state can be viable geographically or economically without Jerusalem as its capital. Had Israeli negotiating positions, starting with Oslo, been more rational, they would have been the very opposite of what they were over the years and in Barak's last months: softer on Jerusalem and harder on other issues, such as permanent Israeli military control of the Jordan Valley, for which Jerusalem could have been used as a bargaining chip. But beginning with the euphoria of 1967, Israeli policy on Jerusalem has been anything but rational. It has been determined by emotional and symbolic thinking far more than policy on the settlements, many of which are more crucial to long-term Israeli interests than is a "greater Jerusalem."

Once a year in midsummer, on the fast day of the Ninth of Av, Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple. At the time the state of Israel was declared, it was proposed by some religious Zionists that, the restoration of Jewish independence having made up for the terrible loss of it at the hands of the Romans two thousand years earlier, the fast should be abolished. In religious circles, however, this suggestion was never taken very seriously. For it was not the loss of independence that the fast day commemorated--Judea had not been really independent before the Great Revolt against Rome either--but the loss of God's at-homeness in the world. If the Jews are now at home again, they have Israel to thank; but God's exile, for believing Jews, persists. This exile is metaphysical, and earthly arrangements cannot put an end to it. No disrespect is intended toward Islam if one says that, for a Jew, a bare wall at which, under an open sky, God's presence shelters means that the golden and silver domes must belong to others.

By Hillel Halkin