Sultans and kings have repeatedly conquered and reconstructed Jerusalem. They all left their markings amid the city’s jumbled stones. But the most enduring monuments they left behind, Amos Elon shows us, are the memories built on top of them. Elon tours Jerusalem with an acute architectural and topographical eye, but his travelogue is really about those multiple memories and the ways in which they mirror and magnify each other.
These memories may be manufactured, with a dubious relationship to the monuments that memorialize them. Zionism’s first emblem, the Tower of David, was in fact a 17th-Century Turkish mosque’s minaret. The Via Dolorosa marks the death march of the man who was either wonder-working sage, proto-nationalist rebel or the son of God. But Christ’s condemnation took place on the other side of the city. The Muslims claim the cleared platform of Solomon’s Temple as the launching pad for Mohammed’s night journey to heaven. In fact, the Koran does not mention Jerusalem by name and the city was probably identified with the sacred text’s “far distant mosque” only a century later by Damascus-based Umayyad sultans to whom Mecca was denied.
The memories draw millions. Pilgrimage has always been Jerusalem’s largest product. Jerusalem lived off its capacity to export dreams and confirm categories. Christians returned with tons of the “true” cross, gallons of the Virgin’s milk, and more than a dozen of the Savior’s foreskins. In the 19th Century, the city attracted more skeptical visitors like Disraeli, who proclaimed that Arabs were just “Jews on horseback”; Gogol, who came to break his writer’s block; King George, who had himself tattooed on the nose in the Old City.
Its most persistent pilgrims have always been Jews. Memory of this metropole has sustained Jewish identity over the millennia. Other peoples lost their sacred centers and then lost their way. The Jews’ uniqueness, Elon suggests, lies in the tenacity with which they retained mental citizenship in this city. It is there in the timing and content of Jewish prayer, in the architecture of the synagogue, in the cycle of holidays, intimately etched in each passage through life. Return to Jerusalem became the culmination of Jewish history.
Elon, the biographer of Theodor Herzl, the organizational father of Zionism, has written a literary, and often lyrical, biography of the images of Jerusalem, of Zion, the city after which Herzl’s national movement took its name. The label is ironic because Zionism was largely built outside Zion. The Zionists built the nation in the countryside and along the coast, not in this city filled with pious Jews who denounced them as heretics and free-thinkers. Labor Zionists distrusted cities, and, as he demonstrates, none more than Jerusalem. Herzl wanted to build the capital on Mount Carmel, not within Jerusalem, filled, he wrote, with “deposits of two thousand years of inhumanity, intolerance and uncleanliness.” Ben-Gurion avoided the city. Only in 1949, after voices were raised in the United Nations to internationalize the city, did Israel move its capital to Jerusalem.
Zionism, its proponents proclaimed, would bring Jews back into history, make them into a normal people. Elon’s earlier portrait of his people, “The Israelis: Founders and Sons,” documented the rise and fall of this muscular nationalism that cultivated soil and a new kind of Jew. Jerusalem’s rise as the nation’s sacred center is related to that decline. With the Temple’s destruction in the year 70 of the 1st Century, God was thought to have gone into exile. By taking and reunifying the city in 1967, Israel had provided the prooftext that God was on their side, that he had not reneged on his territorial promise so many millennia before. Religious nationalists now rebuilt the cultural foundations of the nation around the city’s ancient Temple. It was a fateful choice. The state became a divine instrument.
Each religion has expropriated the other’s sites, building an alternative memory on top of it, or where that was not possible, by profaning them. When the Crusaders took the city, they converted al-Aqsa mosque’s prayer niche into a urinal and slaughtered the city’s Jewish and Muslim population. With the rise of Zionism, when Jews demanded greater ritual rights at the Western Wall, Muslims countered by converting the narrow alleyway into a public thoroughfare where animals and irreverent passers-by would disrupt prayer services. Human excrement was repeatedly smeared across the sacred wall. Of the 70,000 Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives, only 20,000 remain, the Jordanians having destroyed the remainder, along with most of the synagogues in the Jewish quarter of the Old City. The Christianities--Greek and Russian Orthodox, Latin Catholics, Copts, Syrian Jacobites, Armenians and a host of others--who all recognize the divinity of Christ, don’t recognize each other. In 1964, for example, the Greek Orthodox refused Pope Paul VI’s request to pray at “their” church in Bethlehem marking their common Savior’s birthplace. Sacred sites, Elon shows, are battlefields that reflect and react back on the political conflicts between kingdoms and states.
While Elon eloquently treats Jerusalem, the Muslim city at the periphery of different kingdoms, he does not treat Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ national capital. There are no memories of Palestinian poets, writers and politicians. Elon is writing in the midst of the intifada , the most profound event in Palestinian history since the revolt of 1936-1939 when the Palestinian Arabs rose against both British rule and Zionist ambition, a conflict which gave rise to the first partition plans and hence legitimacy for the new Jewish state.
Elon does not tell us that the first Palestinian national congress was held in Jerusalem; that the first protests against Zionist immigration and organized violence against Zionist settlement was launched from Jerusalem; that the PLO--over Jordan’s objection--held its foundational convention on the margins of the Jordanian municipality on the Mount of Olives; and that today, the political directorate of the intifada operates from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is still the symbolic and political center of the Palestinian nation. By building the new Jerusalem as a “united” island of Israeli sovereignty, the Israelis helped make it so.
This is an unfortunate omission. For Elon is right--the peoples of Jerusalem mirror each other. Jerusalem’s role in Palestinian history contains a grim lesson. In the early years, Palestinians built their nationalist movement from Jerusalem, from the Islamic hierarchy centered at the Noble Sanctuary enclosing the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. They politicized Islam, using the sacred sites to mobilize their people and to engage the enemy. This policy divided their nation and created a debilitating civil war that sent thousands of Palestinians to their graves and hundreds of their best men and women into exile. It blinded them to the opportunities of international diplomacy and Realpolitik , so that Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jerusalem, even rejected the kind of Palestinian state which the PLO can no longer demand today.
Unlike most Israelis, Elon is willing to entertain the legitimacy of the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem. But, like most, he cannot confront the Palestinian memory of Jerusalem. It is not that he doesn’t see the problem. He does. The Israelis treated the Palestinian declaration of an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital in late 1988 as a non-event. Elon writes, “There was an unexpected irony in the fact that Jews, who owed their present prominence in Jerusalem to their extraordinary memory of their own past, were now counting on the Arabs to forget theirs.” But in the same way that Palestinians have refused to confront Jewish memory, in the end, Elon cannot share Jerusalem’s ground. In the body of the text, the Palestinians remain Muslims or Arabs, Jerusalem remains Zion, and Zion remains his.