Friday, November 23, 2012

Home-made Rockets

Yesterday I wrote that I'm back to blogging-retirement, but as a parting image: next time someone tells you about the home-made rockets Hamas shoots at Israel, show them this image, made by Israeli photographar Matanya Chakhmon in Ofakim this week.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Operation Pillar of  Cloud, as it was called in Hebrew, is over. At the end of this blogpost I'll shut down once more. Before signing off, however, here's an immediate summary of what I saw. I'm not going to say what will happen next because I don't know, and, being the civil servant I am, I'll do my best to stay away from Israeli politics.

So far as I can tell, many Israelis are angry today. They saw the IDF inflicting considerable pain and damage on Hamas without destroying it, and they wished us to unleash the power of the ground forces to break Hamas and leave no doubt who won. I've repeatedly heard the refrain, since yesterday afternoon, "What have we achieved? In a year or two or three we'll just be back in the exact same situation? So why not break Hamas now? Why Wait?"

This may well prove true; it's at least as plausible as not that the next round really isn't more than a few years off. On the other hand, it's hard to see the scenario in which our being more destructive now would prevent the exact same next round. The urge to harm us isn't going away, and where there's a will there's a way. The question What the Gazans think they're doing, what they possibly hope to achieve by their actions, isn't easy to answer, and I don't pretend to know. It certainly doesn't look like anything rational. It's not as if anything they might throw at us will make us go away.

Yet - with all the care I need to take in pronouncing on internal political matters -  I don't think the operation was a failure at all. Not miltarily, not morally, not in the media or international relations, and not in leadership.

First, the military and moral issues.

1. Iron Dome is magnificant! Not perfect, sadly, but very very good. And it will get better. And we owe thanks to the Americans who have been financing much of it.

2. Preparedness: The number of layers of society which need to be prepared for such an onslaught on civilians is large, from the police and health services to the kindergaten teachers and the baby-sitters, not to mention the civilians themselves. Israel has just demonstrated that it has this preparedness, and the resilience and determination which underly it.

3. The air force (IAF) carried out more than 1,500 attacks, in what is often described, with a bit of hyperbole, as one of the world's most crowded areas. (Hyperbole because it's crowded, yes, but Manhattan and Mumbai are both more crowded. Cairo, too). In 1,500 sorties, something like 150 Gazans were killed. Some, tragically, were innocent bystanders, but many weren't. One way or another, the numbers mean one person killed for every ten attacks. At most, since some of the casualties were probably killed by more than 100 Hamas rockets which fell on Hamas civilians.

This is a mind-boggling statistic. I dare anyone to find another army in the world which can do that. As a matter of fact, any army in the history of mankind.

4. The extremely limited amount of collateral damage wasn't happenstance. It was the result of lots of hard work:
4.1. Detailled intelligence gathering and data-crunching.
4.2. Aquisition of weapons systems and ordinance that fit the decision.
4.3. Training. Lots of it.
4.4. Developing and honing procedures. The fact that the operator of a drone has the technical ability to stop an imminent attack because a civilians just wandered into the frame doesn't mean the attack will indeed be aborted. There have to be procedures, worked out and practiced in advance.

The heart of the matter is that there needs to be a decision, and it needs to be understood and accepted by everyone in the system, from the bean-counters authorising the significant expense to the young woman with her finger on the button. The decision has to be made from top to bottom. Or, to put this into more precise language: Israel killed so few Gazans in spite of weilding such awesome power, because Israeli society decided to do it that way. Is Israel the most moral society ever to be at war? I don't know. But it's very high in a very small league.

(I can hear the haters screaming: "So few!??! Palestinian lives aren't important for you!!! You're a racist, and a monster!" Let them froth at the mouth. Facts remain facts even if you really don't like them).

Second, the media. Look, the BBC can't help itself, and the Guardian neither. Their animosity towards Israel is so deap-seated and partially even subconscious they can't tell the story in a balanced way. Not capable.

Yet much of the media actually told it essentially as it is. The howls of rage over at Mondoweiss, a top purveyor of Jew-hatred, as they saw Jodi Rudoren of the New York Times trying to be professional, was a pleasure to see. So far as I could see Rudoren hasn't yet picked up her Elders of Zion membership card, but to hear the invective hurled at her was a fine demonstration of how far gone the true haters are, and how reasonable a professional journalist will be if allowed to see the events and report on them. Hamas was exerting itself with all its sinews to kill Israeli civilians, and Israeli soldiers were exerting themselves not to kill Palestinian civilians. This stark reality often did come accross in much of the reportage. (Not all, of course).

Then there were the social media. Israel seems to have grasped the concept of talking to people directly, not through the media. A week ago the IDF had 70,000 followers on twitter; by last night there were more than 200,000. Some will now wander away, but there will remain a large number who don't need the BBC to hear Israel's version of events (which will never be supplied by the BBC anyway). Having suceeded once, Israel will now put thought, effort and funds into improving its capabilites on this battlefield, too. Contrary to the moans of many despairing supporters, Israel isn't obviously losing the ability to tell its version of events.

International relations: they played out well, don't you think? If there was any light between the Israeli and American governments, I didn't see it. William Hague, a British fellow not know for giving pro-Zionist speeches, was supportive. His German counterpart traveled over to say Israel has a right to defend itself and Hamas has no right to be shooting at Israeli civilains. The UN passed no resolutions - and now won't set up any new version of the Goldstone Commission, either.

None of this happened by accident. Israel doesn't get international support by default, and certainly not at time of war. Just as with the the military and media aspects, someone worked hard in advance to achieve the result. Syrian bestiality helped, as did blatant Hamas ciminality, but the diplomats have apparently been earning their upkeep by the sweat of their luggage.

Egyptian President Morsi: now there's a pleasant surprise! I doubt he's about to join Likud, but no-one's asking him to. (Update: Hours after I wrote this Morsi annointed hiself Dictator of Egypt. It's an odd world).

One final comment in this section: Yes, violence works. No, violence can't solve many of the world's problems. But faced with a gang of armed thugs suh as rules Gaza, the careful appliance of violence is not only legitimate, it can be an important tool for making things better, even if only as one tool among others, and even if only for a while.

Leadership: We've got an election coming up so I"m going to be very sparse in words. Yet one must say that all the above are the result, along other things, of leadership. I do recommend people go back and read what's been said about Israel's leaders in recent years, and then see if the descriptions fit the actions we've just seen; if these actions were predictable given the descriptions.

One more comment about leadership. Important Israeli pundits and activists said, in 2006 and 2009, that Israel's initial air attacks against Hezballah and Hamas were legitimate, but the subsequent decision to keep on going and throw in ground forces was wrong. OK. So this time we listened to their advice. One hopes this will be duly noted, though it probably won't. More important: the theses has been put to test. Now we'll see if it proves itself.

Enough. As I expalined last year when I stopped blogging, I have made a decision to desist from public punditry about Israel in return for the opportunity to make some changes real changes. To do, rather than to talk. In the past year my colleages and I have set out on the road to dramatially altering the way Israel deals with it's documentation. If we succeed at what we're currently beginning, by the end of the decade Israel will be a world leader in proccessing its documentation: in creating it, appraising it, preserving it, cataloguing and declassifying it, and offering it to its owners, the public. Given the size and complexity of the challenge, I don't expect this to be visible before 2015 at the earliest, but - rather like preparing for war, actually - impressive results require years of hard preparatory work. So I thank the thousands of readers who have come by this past week, and this blog will now return to it's semi-dormant condition, with perhaps a post once every month or three. Although, come to think of it, you're welcome to follow the archives' blogs (Hebrew, and English). We're a bit proud of them and feel they're worth taking a peek. They're active most days of the week but not on the weekends.

Finally, I wish a happy Thanksgiving to those of you who'll be celebrating this evening. I can easily empathize with a nation giving thanks for all that is worthy of celebration.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Keeping Track

A few days ago Raphael Magarick wrote a piece at Open Zion about seeing Israel's conflict with the Palestinians from Israel and from America. Apparently he's here right now (or was last week), and it's his first war here, and as he ran to take shelter in Tel Aviv one day he pondered wether the experience placed him better than previously to have an opinion. Not surprisingly he answered himself that no, it didn't. On the contrary, for all the immediacy of being here and not seven time-zones away, he felt the experience was more likely to befuddle his clarity of thought; thus, having an opnion about the conflict from New York is actually more useful and clear-sighted than having one from the place the opinions are all about.

It's an old argument, and isn't going to go away anytime soon.

The obvious response is of course that it's not a matter of distance-induced clarity, but rather of proximity-induced destiny: Bad decisions will cost the lives of the subjective locals, not the cool-headed foreigners. But that's also a worn argument (for all that it's also true).

It seems to me the more significant consideration is that given peoples' natural dispensation to follow events or not, the average Israeli keeps track of them better. This has been very clear to me this past week as I've had to listen (or read) pontifications from all sorts of people who mostly haven't been paying all that much attention. The admonitions to reach out to the moderates better than we've been doing: there's been all sorts of reaching over the past decade, but so far as most of us can see, there hasn't been much serious reciprocity. A number of people who regard themselves as serious observers have told us this week, in what appears to be complete sincerity, that if only we'd stop building settlements the moderate Palestinians would eagerly reach an agreement with us; and if not, we should try a spot of unilateral disengagement, becasue that would certainly work. (Gaza, anyone?) I won't go over the entire list of all these statements, but there are lots of them, they are always offered in the spirit of Mr. Magirick: We're fundamentally on your side, but since we're untroubled by the local dust we can see whith clarity that you're not managing things very well, so if you'd only listen to us you'd see that everyting will work out.

I will tarry for a moment on the single most problematic thing that folks with clarity can see, while the locals should know better: the settlements. In spite of my return to blogging this week I'm still a civil servant, and I'd trying to stick to the Israeli consensus. So I'm not saying whether settlements are good or bad or irrelevant or the eye of the storm. I'd just like to remind readers of some dry facts:

1. The last time a settlement was set up was in 1997. The last time an unofficial outpost was set up which then became a settlement was in 2003. Almost a decade.

2. There is no settlement activity in Area A.

3. There is very little settlement activity in Area B, though in a number of places along the edges of Area B there are some local cases of overstepping the line. Which means that for all the failure of the Oslo process, Israel is still respecting its transfer of control to the PA.

This is not to say there's no construction going on in any settlements, Of course there is, and it's the official policy of the current government. Yet the stereotypic view from afar, about how the settlers are gobbling up the West Bank and thereby preventing peace, looks a bit different when you carefully look from close up. As do many things about this conflict.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Private Thoughts of a BBC Fellow

I don't pretend to understand all the minutiae of Twitter, this post notwithstanding. A few minutes ago I stumbled upn an oddity I hadn't been aware of. A British journalist named Hugh Naylor tweeted something about Oxfam, and I responded. When you respond to a tweet and others have responded before you, you see the entire conversation; in this case, part of what had gone on there before my arrival was that a second British journalist, Roland Hughs, had been chatting with Naylor about how dangerous it is in Gaza. Hughs signed off with a comment about how he, unlike Naylor, wasn't in an area where Israeli warships are firing at random in Naylor's direction.

I responded sharply (There aren't Israeli warships firing randomly in anyone's direction, anywhere. Get a hold of yourself). Then, when I came to retweet Hugh's tweet so people could see the lazy comments of a BBC reporter, Twitter blocked me. It seems Hugh's Twitter account is protected, perhaps to give him the ability to chat without being listened in on. Except that I hadn't been listening in; as a matter of fact, until half an hour ago I didn't know Roland Hugh even exists.

But now that I know, I find it instructive that a BBC World News journalist, when he's got his guard down and is chatting with a friend, describes IDF actions in language not much different than Hamas does. Or, in the ranking I posited here, he's a category two antagonist.

Update: a number of readers have sent me screenshots of Roland's tweet. Here, for example.

Three Ways to be Against Israel

It's an interesting thing, is Twitter. Whoever cooked it up must have been either a genius or extraordinarily lucky, because although it sounds like an absolutely whacky idea, the fact is that it creates value. The thing I've noticed this past week, as I've been using it quite intensively because of the operation in Gaza, is that it easily beats other media outlets in its speed of supplying news of immediate developments, but even more interestingly, it enables conversations with people from walks of life I would otherwise never come across. In spite of its highly limiting format, conversations with some of these people can be highly informative.
First, there are the Hamas terrorists themselves, to be found at their own Twitter account, @AlqassamBrigade. Their view of the world is very simple: What we do is heroic, what the Israelis do is the epitome of criminal. Thus they crow about all the rockets they shoot at various Israeli targets (and they name them specifically: no random shooting in a general direction), and they scream about all the awful Israeli atrocities. In the reality their achievements are less impressive than they'd have us believe, which means their intention to harm is greater than their ability to harm, while with the Israelis it's the other way around. Their ability to harm, if they only wished to, is greater by many magnitudes than what they're doing in reality. Such a consideration, however, belonging as it does to the realm of moral deliberation, would be utterly lost on the Hamas people for whom morality is a subjective reflection of their own bestial urges.
Then there are the deniers of time. These are people who look at the present and assume that whatever they see must be self-explanatory. If there's an Israeli blockade of Gaza, there must have always been an Israeli blockade of Gaza. If the blockade doesn't go back all the way to 1967 (some of them say it does), then only because Israel periodically replaces one form of persecution with another; the constant being that Israel always does its worst against the Palestinians. Confronted with past Israeli actions that are so well documented they can't be brushed aside, the explanation will always be that Israel is continually refining its methods of persecution, true, but the persecution never disappears, and the Israelis never intend it to. The events of September 2005-February 2006, for example, were not indicative of an Israeli willingness to have the Gazans demonstrate their ability to be constructive following an Israeli departure; no, they were merely a prelude to a new period in which Israel would persecute Palestinians from afar and at reduced cost.
Similar to the moral imbecility of Hamas, these people cannot think in terms of historical causation, and thus they, too, remove morality from the discussion. Israel cannot be understood as navigating its way through the moral and practical complexity of life, because Israel always intends to harm the Palestinians, and any modifications to its actions are merely tactical tweaks, not human deliberation. Of course, the Palestinians are the mirror image of the Israelis, and while some of their actions are sometimes not nice, they are always the victim, they are powerless, and as ultimate victims they cannot be required to make moral decisions. They're too busy trying, and only just succeeding, to survive.

Hamas makes no pretense of recognizing universal morality. Their knee-jerk apologists use the opposite tactic, and clothe their entire argumentation in the terminology of universal human rights. Yet since they refuse to perceive Israel as human, insisting on its a-historical and inherent and immutable evil and the Palestinians automatic justness, both groups end up in the same position: whatever the Palestinians do is good, whatever Israel does is evil, and moral thought is banished from the entire discussion.

Finally, in an entire different category, there are the well intentioned rationally-minded observers. These tend to be liberal in the American meaning, or left-leaning in the European political vocabulary. Their problem is not a deficiency of moral thinking, nor a disability to apply it to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their problem is the inability to accept the degree to which people can be immoral. They cannot accept that some people are so different from them as to be unrecognizable. The implication being, that if only everyone seeks hard enough it will be possible to resolve most differences. As a number of them have said to me in recent days: if your pessimism were to be justified, Yaacov, then there's no hope. There needs to be a resolution to the conflict. There must be a resolution to the conflict. If you're not seeing it it's because you're not truly seeking it – and this laziness is unacceptable; ultimately, it’s a moral weakness, since you're willing to remain in a state of war when it's possible to leave it.

Faced with the possibility that what "needs" to be, what "must" be, actually isn't necessarily so, they retreat into a form of speechlessness, of cognitive paralysis, from which they soon emerge by denial. How often have I heard the sentence "But if you're right, Yaacov, then there's no hope, and I refuse to accept that there's no hope".

The refusal to accept reality is sometimes highly admirable, as it motivates us ever to strive for something better; this determination is probably one of history's most beneficial motivating forces. Yet it needs to be tempered by humility: in spite of our determination to make the world a better place, ultimately it won't be anywhere near as nice as we'd like. Faced with terminal illness we can rail against fate but eventually the time will come for other sentiments. Faced with historical conditions beyond our power to change, there likewise comes a time when adaptation is more useful than millenarianism. Or, to return to Israelis and Palestinians: striving for a just peace is extremely admirable. Failing to reach it, however, since inevitable, cannot break the determination to live correctly.

And to think that all this can be found on Twitter…..

Monday, November 19, 2012

What's a Ceasefire For?

There are rumours a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is near. I have no idea how serious they are. What I do know, having spent a chunk of time today looking for a what might resemble reliable information, is that there isn't much of it out there. Someday, decades from now, my professional descendants in the archives will publish the documents being created as we sit here, and their readers will be offered a nuanced, detailed look into the minds of the decision-makers and the sources they had to inform them - but that's not much help this afternoon. What I have managed to glean from here and there sounds like a total collossal waste of time.

Not a waste of time in that a ceasefire can't be achieved. It probably can, or will be achievable in a few days or a week or shortly thereafter. No. The waste, even in the best of scenarios, will have been of the years since 2005.

According to the rumours I'm hearing, Hamas is demanding that Israel lift its blckade (or what's left of it), and desist from targeted killings; and Israel is demanding some sort of guarantee that there will be absolutely no rocket-fire from Gaza, and no attacks on Israeli troops in our side of the border. In other words, Hamas is demanding... what Israel already gave in 2005.

2005 was a very very long time ago. So long ago that almost nobody old enough to use twitter or otherwise be able to express an opinion on Israel and Palestine can be expected to remember it. Still, the fact is that in September 2005 Israel pulled its very last soldier out of Gaza, after having pulled its last settlers out in August. Ariel Sharon, the prime minister and architect of the unilateral withdrawal, had intended to leave IDF forces on the Phladelphi line, the Gaza-Egypt border, to ensure that the Gazans not smuggle nasty things in, but the Bush adminstration had forced him to drop that idea: You're leaving? Then all the way. True, back in April 2004 the president seemd to accept some sort of Israeli military presence in Gaza, but that was then and now was now. so what was eventually worked out was that Israel really left, and some EU inspecters were sent over to inspect stuff. (They're long departed, obviously, since the inspecting proved to be unpleasant).

The significance of this is that between September 2005 and early 2006, there was no Israeli blockade of Gaza. The Gazans were in an eiree sort of diplomatic limbo, unlike anywhere else in the world, with no internationally recognized sovereign, but with lots of internationally recognized clout, and could have reasonably expected the Palestinian Authority to move towards an upgrade of its status. There can be little doubt that had the Gazans done in 2005 what the Jewish Agency did in 1947, namely purposefully go about the mundane but crucial task of nation building, Israel wouldn't have interfered. On the contrary: a majority of Israelis were hoping - fervently or dubiously - they'd do exactly that, which is why Sharon, then followed after his illnes by Ehud Olmert, built the election strategy of their brand new party Kadima on the idea of continuing the disengagement process on the West Bank. (Hitkansut, Olmert called it).

The reason none of this ever happened is that the Palestinians made their choices, and their choices were not what Israel had hoped. And thus began the downward spiral to where we're at now.

Is Hamas is now negotiating for what already existed in 2005, after having spent the intervening years pounding into the collective Israeli psyche that the gamble of 2005 was idiotic?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Pernicious BBC

This evening, November 17th 2012, the top story on the BBC's news website is about the conflict between Israel and Hamas. The story itself is annodyne. The noteworthy thing is the series of six images which adorn the top section of the webpage. Since it will probably be taken down later this evening or tomorrow at the latest, I've recorded it.

Picture number one: an Iron Dome rocket streaking into the skies:

The second picture is of the reason Iron Dome is in action: Missiles being shot from the middle of a residential area in Gaza.

The next photo is of a large explosion in the middle of the city of Gaza.

The next picture is of a damaged building, it could be on either side:

Next comes a picture of massing IDF tanks. Threatening.

So far, so good. Each of these images was probably taken yesterday or today. I'm not confident all the readers of the BBS website will be able to identify each of the pictures, and I haven't seen any mention on the website of how even the BBC is documenting the Hamas war crime of shooting from residential areas, but at least they're putting the images out there and we can use them. The final picture, however, wasn't taken today, and isn't part of the story, since at the moemnt there is no physical contact between the IDF and the population of Gaza. So it was inserted not to show us the news - since it's not news - but for some other reason completely. On the immediate level, it serves to balance the picture of the IDF tanks; on a more fundamental level, it offers an image to frame the entire conflict.

(Goliath, as history would have it, came from the vicinity of Gaza. And he's entered Western culture through a book written by Jews).

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Counter Intuitive Comment on IDF Capabilities

The IDF operation in Gaza - Defensive Shield, or in its better, Hebrew version, Amud Anan - has been on for about 70 hours. According to the twitter feed of the IDF, as of this morning more than 500 targets had been hit from the air in Gaza, many of them underground storage installations of weapons.

We don't know how many people in Gaza have been killed so far. The highest number I've seen is 18. Of them, how many are civilians? We don't know that, either. Some of them. The death of any non-combatant is always tragic (The deaths of terrorists is tragic for their families, but they made the choice to be terrorists and their possible death was part of that choice).

Nor do we know what lies in the future. It's sadly possible that an hour from now, or a day, or next week, an Israeli piece of ordinance will kill a large number of Palestinian civilians. This happens all too often in wartime. Yet even if that happens, the fact of the operation's first three day will be unchanged. Israel attacked hundreds of military installations in the middle of densely populated parts of Gaza because that's where Hamas was positioning them; Israel knew precisely where they are even when they were carefully hidden underground; and Israel managed to destroy them with the loss of perhaps ten Palestinian civilians, perhaps fewer.

All of which goes to disprove the entire narrative about the blood-thirsty Israelis callously (gleefully) slaughtering innocent Palestinians etc. etc. etc.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

One Gaza Picture is Worth Which 1,000 Words?

Here's a powerful AP picture from Gaza, yesterday afternoon:
Now the question is, which 1,000 words does it replace? When we look at the picture, who are we seeing? Since it clearly depicts an act of violence, who shoud we recoil from, and who should we identify with?

Is it a picture of evil Israeli aggression against the helpless civilian population of Gaza, who are under attack and can't defend themselves? Or is it perhaps a picture of the cynical strongmen who control Gaza, and store their long-range Fajr misslies in the middle of a residential neighborhood, so that if Israel ever tries to destroy them, this will be the resulting picture?

Both interpretations can't be simultaneously true. Yet the picture, in spite of its powerful image, is quite useless in giving us a thousand words of context or even simply of clarification.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza

This afternoon I was on the road up from Tel Aviv. There were three of us, on our way back from a day-long meeting. R was driving. Her mobile phone rang and she said to her husband
 - Hi P, I've got passengers.
- No problem,We just killed a Hamas biggie and I"m on my way to Ashdod to pull out your [80-year-old] mother.
 - OK. I'll talk to you later.
  Five minutes later her sister was on the line:
- The authorities are shutting down schools and markets here in Ashdod. There are immediate threats about Jerusalem, so make sure none of your kids are in crowded public places.
- P is on his way down to take Mom up to Jerusalem.
- Too late. They're shutting down the town. She'll stay at my place.

20 minutes later we were in Jerusalem. I got off near the large mall, and went through it on a quick errand. It was packed, as usual, with Jews and Palestinians intermingled, as usual. from there I crossed town and went to the supermarket. It, too, was packed, with Jews and Palestinians, shoppers and staff, all going about their normal lives.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

On the History of Jerusalem

Back in the days when I still blogged with regularity, and wasn't yet a civil servant who needs to keep his opinions to himself, I began to research a book about Jerusalem. A year or two later, I've begun to take advantage of the perks of the job, such as access to mountains of classified materials, coupled with the ability to get them de-clasified when possible. I've been posting some of my findings on the ISA English-language blog, so everyone can see what I"m seeing. At the present rate of research I expect the book will be easily completed by, oh, 2030.

Anyway, at one point I read a small pile of books about Jerusalem, but never got around to posting about them. So here goes.

The most famous book about Jerusalem is of course the Bible (both the Jewish and the Christian versions). A couple lightyears behind however, probably the best known book of the past half century is O Jerusalem by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. Written in the aftermath of the Six Day War, it tells the story of the war of 1947-48 in and around Jerusalem. It's a cracking tale, and the authors invested lots of effort in meeting and interviewing a whole range of people who had been involved in the events from all sides. So far as I could tell, however, they saw no documentary evidence at all, and didn't do much reading, either. The result has the immediacy and excitement of personal memory, and also all its many drawbacks. Lots of compelling drama, not much in the way of historical clarity or depth.

James Carroll's Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World is the work of a scholar, but not exactly a historian. Carroll, a lapsed priest, has written extensively about Christian and Jewish matters. This book however, despite its title, is actually more about America than about Jerusalem. It's essentially a description of ways in which the concept of Jerusalem has been and remains central to Western Civilisation and especially the story of the United States. A plausible idea, almost banal though worthy of description, but there's not much in there to tell about the history of Jerusalem the specific place, in contrast to Jerusalem the concept.

One interesting tidbit I'd never noticed before reading Carroll's book is that England's almost-national-anthem is a song called Jerusalem, sung at events such as this:

Which must go a way towards explaining the complexes of all those English intellectual types who so detest Israel. There is no way that people who grow up with that song can then regard today's Jewish presence in Jerusalem with the indifference they have towards, say, the Rohingya (Google it).

This evidentially apllies also to Karen Armstrong, another lapsed Catholic clergyperson (an English nun, in her case), and author of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. Armstrong looks at the religious history of Jerusalem, or the way religion expressed itself in the city's long history; she is especially interested in which religious rulers were most tolerant or not (the Crusaders were the worst in her telling). It's an interesting and informative book, though the earlier arts of the story, about which historians can know less, are the most interesting; by and by her tale slips out of religious reflection and ever closer to politics, where here analytical tools are less useful. By the time she reaches Israel's control of the city it's quite clear she doesn't like it.

I also must say that 18 months after having read her book,very little of it remains fresh in my mind. A weakness of mine, I suppose.

Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem - The Biography does remain in my mind, however, though I read it at about the same time; as a matter of fact, I recommended it a number of times here, on this blog, though I didn't review it. It's main weakness was that it isn't quite a history of Jerusalem, rather of Jerusalem's leaders. In most of the chapters we hear next to nothing about the Jerusalemites, and lots about their rulers. This is probably mostly the result of the documentation which has survived, but had Sebag-Montefiore wished, there's enough that has survived to enable him to balance the story. This focus of his also caused a second problem with his story: it's a horrifyingly violent tale. Thousands of years of mostly uninterrupted bloodshed, often applied in the most gruesome ways. Eventually I had to wonder why he was doing this; it seemed a bit odd for a city whose townspeople have repeatedly produced some of the most durable ideas and powerful texts in the history of mankind.

Back in March 2011 I once counted all the times Jerusalem was conquered, according to Sebag, and reached 60 or 61. I doubt Rome can hold a candle to that. Damascus, perhaps.

One overarching impression the book left me with was the sheer weight of time. Jerusalem was old when Babylonians Egyptians and Persians used to swap it back and forth. When the Helenic Greeks were having a spot of bother with it, it was ancient, probably older than Paris and London are now. The Romans obliberated it a couple of times before disappearing under the sands of time. The Byzantines permanently formed it into a Christian city, and it stayed that way for centuries (Armstrong makes the point that it remained mostly Christian for a few centuries after the Muslim conquest). That permanence, however, though it lasted far far beyond human memory, turned out not to be very permanent after all, as didn't what replaced it, and what replaced it, and it. The contemporary conceit that there is an end to history, and that we need to make one more effort and create one more reality in Jerusalem, and then it will remain "fixed" forever is merely that. A conceit.

Another point that Sebag-Montefiore makes without ever mentioning is that there's no justice. History washes back and forth, and either might makes right, or right is irrelevant and might prevails. As a Jew and a Zionist I can see the profundity of renewed Jewish control of the city, just as I can see why this control angers Mslims and Palestinians; and I can choose to rejoice in the Jewish return while hoping for better services and quality of life for the Palestinians; but it doesn't make any sense to think we're in some final chapter. Life will go on, and if in 500 years, or better, 1,000, Jerusalem will still be the capital of Israel, well, that will be a fine thing but it still won't be the end of the story. Anyway, I doubt I'll be around to see it.

At the very end of his book, starting at page 517, Sebag Montefiore veers away from history, and sums it all up through the story of the men of various religions who start each day before the crack of dawn, at 4 or 4:30 AM, each with their respective ritual. Each ritual has been going on for centuries, and each of them relates to the religious identity of the city they live in, and somehow they all live here together. It's a powerful, and beautiful, description.