The Battle Over Jerusalem: A New Year’s Story

Who controls the past controls the future, George Orwell wrote; who controls the present controls the past. In Israel, rightist Likud coalitions, such as the one currently led by Benjamin Netanyahu, have controlled the nation’s present for so long that it may soon be futile to try to retrieve a Jewish past that they have not contrived. Nothing suggests this turn more vividly than the season now ending, which pitted the coalition against, by turns, UNESCO, America’s Reform and Conservative Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and neighboring Arab states, all in the name of promoting Jerusalem as the sacred center of Jewish experience—or, in Netanyahu’s words, “the heart of the people, the place to which everyone turned to, went to and prayed toward.” This evening begins the Jewish High Holidays, which focus attention not on any historical moment or national narrative but on individual conscience, on God “remembering us as dust”—on whether matter matters. In the liturgy of the holidays, hearts are open to divine inspection, but Jerusalem appears only on a tangent, on the morning of Yom Kippur, when rabbis and cantors recount, operatically, how the ancient High Priest expiated sin through sacrifices at the Temple in the city. What, then, can Netanyahu mean by “the heart of the people”?

The occasion for his statement was an arguably superfluous UNESCO resolution, from early May, “reaffirming the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions” and “reminding” the world that Israel is the “occupying Power”—that its “basic law” annexing the eastern part of Jerusalem should be considered “null and void.” The resolution further “regrets” changes (“excavations, tunneling, works, projects”) made in East Jerusalem by Israeli archeologists and developers.

The proposition that East Jerusalem—including the Old City and its three hundred thousand non-citizen Arab residents—has, since the Six-Day War, in 1967, been occupied territory under international law is hardly contentious anywhere but in Israel. Even there, various leaders will concede the point if pressed. When Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas got serious about negotiations, in May, 2008, they agreed, at the Bush Administration’s urging, to start with the pre-1967 border, which ran through East Jerusalem, as the basis for future land swaps, and eventually agreed to internationalize the Old City, which they called the “Holy Basin.” According to an Israel Democracy Institute poll from last year, sixty-one per cent of Israelis think that Jerusalem is “divided into a western and eastern city.”

Nevertheless, for Netanyahu, the UNESCO resolution was proof of international antagonism, which, by now, most Israelis also take for granted. Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s Foreign Ministry said, is Israel’s “eternal capital”; presumably, no compromise is possible on Israeli sovereignty over the whole of it. Another poll suggests that two-thirds of Israelis would oppose a peace deal granting the Palestinians even “partial sovereignty” over the Old City. “Eternal” means “mine.” “There is no other people in the world for whom Jerusalem is as holy and important as for the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said. “We denounce unesco and uphold our truth, which is the truth.” Nor is the Netanyahu coalition’s view of Jerusalem coherent without a theocratic corollary, namely that what distinguished the past of “the people” was observance of Halachic law. This has increasingly meant empowering political zealots who reject as un-Jewish any deviation from a peculiar national orthodoxy, of which the veneration of Jerusalem is only a part.

Two nearly simultaneous confrontations with oddly different forces have resulted. In June, the Netanyahu government repudiated a carefully worked-out agreement that had promised Reform and Conservative Jews, including women rabbis, a place of worship at the Western Wall, within sight of Orthodox devotions. (I wrote about this curious agreement here last year.) A month later, the government was violently at odds with Jerusalem’s Islamic authority, the Waqf, over an attempt to place Israeli metal detectors outside the Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, whose precincts include the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock—for Jews, the ancient Temple Mount—which was ostensibly a response to the killing of two Israeli police officers nearby but was also a clear effort to demonstrate ultimate sovereignty over the site. Surrendering to international pressure, including from the Trump Administration, the government relented on the metal detectors. It may yet relent, under pressure from American rabbis, on a prayer space for Reform and Conservative Jews. In no case, however, is there retreat in any quarter on the metaphysical elevation of Jerusalem; ironically, the fierce desire of liberal Jews for proximity to the Temple Mount seems of a piece with the very orthodoxy that they claim to be challenging.

Even UNESCO's director-general, Irina Bokova, had implicitly accommodated Netanyahu’s “truth” in the week before the resolution had passed. Addressing the World Jewish Congress, she noted that Haram al-Sharif was also, as the Temple Mount, “the holiest place in Judaism, whose Western Wall is revered by millions across the world.” Bokova and unesco implicitly cast doubt on Netanyahu’s claim that Israel alone could be trusted to be custodians of such holy places, and that Jerusalem is holiest to Jews because it was most yearned for—“turned to,” sung to, “prayed toward”—and that yearning gets you sovereignty. (By that logic, Sinatra gets New York.) What no one seems willing to question is whether Jerusalem is “the holiest place in Judaism,” or, more to the point, whether traditional Judaism entertains the idea of a holy place at all.

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