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.


Alex Schindler said...

Hi Yaacov,
Do you have an opinion on Bernard Wasserstein's "Divided Jerusalem?"

Also, I read an interesting work a couple of years ago. It was called "Jerusalem in History," and edited by K. J. Asali. Its biases were obvious, and upfront -- and even articulated as a methodology by rashid khalidi in the foreword-- but it did make a few salient points that should be incorporated into any complete history of Jerusalem. It was a collection of essays on the archaeology and history of the city, starting from a couple millennia before the Davidic kingdom and ending near the present. I found the early chapters thus to fill a gap (however inadequately) left by zionist histories which tend to ignore that which precedes Jewish history.

Yaacov said...

Hi Alex,

No,no pinon,since I haven't yet read any of your list. Thanks forthe tis, tho. I shall, by and by.

Stop BDS Park Slope said...

Yaacov -

Do you, or anyone, have a recommendation for a resource describing the governance in the 19th century of the Ottoman provinces that became the State of Israel?

Specifically, I want to know who provided the police, courts, planned and maintained roads, provided services for cities, permitted buildings, etc. What was the role of all these foreign consulates? Why were so many foreign nationals living there? When Mehmet Ali conquered the area, what did that mean in terms of local distribution of services? Who was responsible for enforcing the Tanzim reforms?

I realize the technology of the 19th century did not require governments to have the kinds of regulatory role they have in our day. But still, I would think there was some form of enforcement of law and order and the structure of civil society. I have never been able to get a clear picture in my mind of how life was organized.

Does such a book or article exist?