Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bad Science

To say, there was no Jewish temple in Jerusalem is a historical lie (in the interest of de-legitimizing legitimate Jewish claims to their history in the city); to say Palestinians are not a people with distinct roots and attachments to the Holy Land is also a lie, used to de-legitimize the Palestinian sense of history and belonging.

To say, we don’t have evidence of a united Jewish kingdom at the beginning of Israelite history, i.e., to deny the veracity of the biblical stories about David and Solomon is not a betrayal of the Jewish nation of today but based on the belief that authentic nationhood cannot be based on unverified and unverifiable myths of origin at the expense of scientific veracity. To say that some biblical stories are contrived is not to declare the entire corpus of ancient Judahite historiography a literary contrivance. It matters, especially in connection with the repeated international calls among academics for a boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education, whether Israeli and Jewish scholarship elsewhere meet the highest standards of excellence. It is therefore of utmost importance that archeological explorations of sensitive places, such as those conducted in Silwan, the so-called “City of David,” are conducted under the auspices of internationally recognized bodies such as UNESCO. Right now, however, the “City of David” archeological park is run by the Jewish settler organization ELAD and excavated under the guidance of archeologists committed to finding evidence of the truth of “biblical” history, which is bad science and creates bad blood between Jews and the Arab residents of Silwan who are being harassed in the name of archeological research or, more accurately, by the concerted and state-sponsored effort of securing evidence of a biblical myth that is seen as the ultimate legitimization of Jewish rule over East Jerusalem. (On the controversial Silwan excavations, see this excellent short documentary.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Paddy Ashdown: Battle for the Holy Land-Jerusalem

I stumbled on this excellent video production when I read through the number 39 (2009) issue of the Jerusalem Quarterly, where Craig Larkin has a brief review. Well worth spending the hour and forty minutes it takes to watch the entire series.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Apropos David Brooks and the Story of Hanukkah

Note: This is a comment on David Brooks's op-ed in the NYT of December 11, 2009, on the story of Hanukkah. (The NYT online edition no longer accepted comments by the time I read the article.)

Reading the Hanukkah story as a morality tale, as David Brooks does, is fine. It’s a kind of sermon that bases its moral claims, intended to teach a lesson about current trends, on trends one reads into the ancient scriptures. This too would be fine if the authority of the moral of the story did not rest on the claim to have uncovered the true historical core of an ancient story. Analogies between  ancient stories and modern conflicts are a conjuring trick not just performed by preachers but also by historians who attempt to render ancient events plausible by using modern terms and situations to describe what is ultimately unknowable. We don’t know anything reliable about the Maccabees that goes beyond the lively but tendentious and contradictory accounts found in texts written decades after the events and in the interest of justifying the rise to power among the Jews of a family of usurpers who took the high priesthood and the title of kings without any leg to stand on in earlier Jewish tradition. Their only claim to fame was the act of cult restoration known as “hanukat ha-bayit,” the rededication of the temple. The Books of the Maccabees are ancient propaganda of a type familiar since the days of the Assyrian empire. Power required divine legitimization; no better source of legitimacy than the restoration of an ancient cult that had been tampered with. (For a brilliant scholarly analysis of this aspect of the story of Hanukkah see Steven Weitzman, "Plotting Antiochus's Persecution" in Journal of Biblical Literature 123/2 (2004) pp. 219-234.)

Neither David Brooks nor President Obama, in his brief message on this occasion, realized the ironies entailed in the rabbinic transformation of Hasmonean propaganda into the miracle of the small quantum of oil, sufficient for a day, that lasted for an entire week. Nor does David Brooks consider the irony of the fact that the rabbis banished the Books of the Maccabees from their canon. It’s not in the Jewish Bible, ladies and gentlemen; it’s only in Christian Bibles, where it is sometimes stowed away (along with other interesting literature) in the apocrypha. The Crusaders, btw, loved the Maccabees.

What Brooks is really saying is that the virulence of Hanukkah arises not from its psycho-social effect of compensating for Christmas but from its revival in the Zionist movement. The Books of the Maccabees celebrate brash action taken not just against the Seleucids (who were Macedonians rather than Greeks; the entire characterization of the Maccabean revolt as the uprising of a Taliban-like group [Brooks's "angry bearded men"] against Western universalists is amusing but significantly mischaracterizes the affair) but also against Jewish traditionalists, and for political reasons that were much simpler and more mundane than the morality tale allows. Modern Zionism realized an affinity with the ancient “muscled Jews” (as Herzl’s second in command, Max Nordau, called them) and has since foregrounded precisely those aspects of the story that the rabbis sought to obscure and neutralize.

Brooks's morality tale is, of course, quite timely. The modern synthesis of rabbinic religion and Maccabean political and military activism has bred a type of Judaism that is indistinguishable from the politicized Islam of the Mullahs and the Ayatollahs. This modern phenomenon gives us little to celebrate and much to fear.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Peace Follies

Among Israelis and Palestinians, as across the international community, there are proponents and opponents of the peace process. Proponents of the peace process speak of the need for a two-state solution, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, with economically viable borders, though presumably demilitarized because of Israel’s security concerns. Opponents of the two-state solution—excepting extremists who dream of settling the conflict by total annihilation of the other—fall into two opposite camps. There are those who believe that a sovereign state of Palestine in most or all of the West Bank and Gaza would constitute a mortal threat to the future of the Jewish state and there are those who believe that no viable Palestinian state can possibly be established in the West Bank and Gaza and who therefore advocate a one-state-solution. This however is rejected by those who fear that this would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Then there is the disagreement between socalled “realists” and “idealists” among proponents of peace and a two-state-solution. The realists say they would like to see the peace process advance but they are not sure this is the time to advance it. Who has not heard concerned Jews and non-Jews point out that the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians makes no sense at this point because the Palestinians are internally divided and so there is no one there to make peace with? In contrast, idealists (such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Brith Tzedek v'Shalom, or Americans for Peace Now) took heart by President Obama's inauguration and the initiatives, taken early on in his administration, to revive the peace process at a time when on the Israeli side there seemed no one to make peace with, and the process appeared all but dead.

Is it possible that the pursuit of Middle East peace is a semantic folly and does more damage than harm, at least at this stage? No one wants to appear as intransigent, no one wants to admit that they actually benefit from conflict more than they would from compromise. But claiming to pursue peace (something most admit is unattainable) has by now turned into a tool for the perpetuation of conflict. Peace rhetoric may serve as a mere pretext for politicians and governments to improve their image in front of a world audience that is insufficiently familiar with the intricacy of the problems and hence naïvely longs for an unrealistic resolution. Peace rhetoric allows painting the other as an inveterate enemy of peace, while indigent populations can be violently repressed as threatening the peace, and military aid can continue to flow into an industry based on the production and testing of sophisticated defense technology, all in the interest of peace.

Is it useful for Israel to have the Palestinians divided into irreconcilable camps, one of which fits the mold of radical Islamism and the other appears as corrupt and powerless? Perhaps not in the long run, but for the time being it allows for a significant part of the Israeli electorate to be held hostage by the right-wing religious nationalist settlers who have little to gain and much to lose by the establishment of a Palestinian state. Since January 20, 2009, the call for a permanent settlement of final status issues and for the implementation of the two-state-solution, that is: the threat of peace, has hastened the aggressive settlement policies pursued in the occupied territories and in annexed East Jerusalem, it has accelerated the evictions of Palestinians from their homes under the pretense of law-enforcement, and it has added urgency to the revoking of residency permits in Jerusalem, all of which is part of the concerted attempt to accomplish a “silent transfer.”

Perhaps it is futile to press for a political settlement. Any peace between Israel and the Palestinians, even if this entailed full sovereignty for Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza and sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem, also entails for Palestinians to accept the division of what they regard as their ancestral homeland, their homes, cities, lands, and villages. Why should they be compelled to make peace and accept the finality of the partition of Palestine? And why should Israelis enter into a peace agreement with the Palestinians knowing full well that Palestinians can never be fully reconciled to a Jewish state anywhere in historical Palestine, even though they might temporarily be compelled to put up with it.

But there is a whole other view, one that also resonates with many Israelis and Palestinians, although it is less well understood abroad. A few months ago I attended a lecture by Dr. Abuelaish, a gynecologist and advocate of education and health clinics for women in Gaza, who lost two of his teenage daughters to an airstrike of the IDF on his private residence in Gaza during the December 2008/January 2009 incursion into the densely populated Palestinian enclave. (The Israeli army later apologized for what appeared to have been a completely unmotivated attack on the apartment building, though it took Dr. Abuelaish months to extract this apology.) During his lecture at Northeastern University, Dr. Abuelaish echoed a view I had first encountered among my Israeli friends when I visited the country last summer. What my friends had said was that no one believed in a solution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict anymore. The conflict cannot be solved, it can only be managed. Dr. Abuelaish recommended something similar. Please stop talking about peace, he said. There is no peace, and there may never be peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But, he continued, we can achieve something that is far more urgent and may have much greater impact on the lives of Jews and Arabs, and that is to remember that the enemy is still a human being. His message was that peace-rhetoric merely obfuscates what must be the primary goal for all of us, namely, to stop demonizing one another.

Peace requires shared or equal sovereignty, i.e., statehood that applies to Jews and Arabs alike, whether in a single bi-national state or in two states or in some other form of political organization. Israel is already a sovereign state, but Palestine is not, and as a stateless entity, Palestinians cannot make “peace” with Israel. Only a state can make peace with another state; a stateless people cannot make peace with the power that renders it stateless, and as long as the Palestinians regard themselves as a nation and Palestine as their homeland, they cannot make peace with Israel in the sense of reconciling themselves to the fact that the Jews have a state in historical Palestine but they do not. Peace, or a declaration of peace, cannot be the precondition of Palestinian statehood, which is a matter of dignity, justice and the right to national self-determination, a right Jews have justly claimed for themselves for over sixty years. (In this connection it must not be forgotten that it was not Israel alone but the Arab states, supported by England and France, who prevented the formation of a Palestinian state in 1948, even though they may still deny this.) What we can learn from Dr. Abuelaish is that dignity matters more than peace. Unlike peace, it is also attainable and it does not require governments to attain it. We can simply relearn how to confer it on one another, one person at a time.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Ninth of Av (Tisha b'Av): Shall we fast?

On July 30, according to the Jewish calendar: the ninth day of the month of Av, Jews are commanded to fast for a day of remembrance for the destruction of the first and second temple of Jerusalem. The first temple was destroyed by king Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon in 586 BCE. The second temple was destroyed by Roman general Titus in 70 CE. According to biblical history, the first temple had been built by king Solomon, sometime in the 10th century BCE. The second temple was built by Jews returning from Babylon under the Achaemenid Persians in the late 6th century BCE. Remnants of the platform that once supported the second temple are still visible today. They were restored by Umayyad Caliph Abd al Malik in 688-91 CE, who built the Dome of the Rock, the first monumental building of Muslim civilization, that until today graces the Herodian platform that Jews call the Temple Mount and Arabs know as the Haram ash-Sharif.

What is it that Jews mourn when they fast on the 9th of Av? Jewish history is replete with destructions that occurred on this particular date. According to rabbinic tradition, it was on this date that the Israelites were told that they could not enter the Promised Land but had to wander in the desert for another forty days. On the same date both temples burned, though these events are separated by six hundred and fifty six years. The first expulsion of the Jews from a European state (England 1290) and their last expulsion (Spain 1492) are said to have occurred on Tisha b'Av.

Should we fast? It is true: had the Romans not destroyed Jerusalem in 70 and crushed the last great rebellion of Simon bar Koseva (the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 132-135 CE), we might still have a temple. We would not have gone into exile. The vulnerability of exile might not have been our fate. Modern Zionism hoped to end this vulnerability. It declared exile, which pious Jews had learned to carry as a divine mandate, a mistake to be rectified, a mishap whose reversal was within human reach: Wenn Ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen! as Herzl put it.

Not fasting but rebuilding Zion was the goal of Zionism. And rebuild they did. And yet, pious Jews are still fasting, are commanded to fast, until such time as the weeping for the destroyed temple is turned into jubilation over the temple to be rebuilt, "speedily and in our days."

At this point, if one were to write a sermon, one would need to make a decision. Are we still to fast, and if so, what are we fasting over? Only the past? And is such fasting a mandate to hope and pray for the restoration of the temple? Given the fact that Abd al Malik long since rebuilt the temple, how can we wish for another one without wishing harm on our brothers and fellow-Abrahamites? How does fasting over the destroyed temples not turn into hateful nationalistic egotism and hurtful fantasies of revenge? Is not the temple supposed to be a house of prayer for all people? How can it be if it is restored at the expense of the erasure it would require of what is there now? How can we wish for the age of mourning to be over without imposing mourning on others? Could this be the secret of the messianic age?

Can we imagine a ritual that does justice to the mourning of the Jews without merely, "keeping the hatred green," as Elie Wiesel wrote once, a long time ago? Is the current fear and hatred of the Jews, that is so common not just among our Arab brethren, not also nourished by the notion that somehow the Jews deserved their state of exile, that the Romans were merely the instruments of divine punishment on the Jews, as the Christians have always believed? Triumphalism is always evil because it teaches us to be resentful even when we are the ones dominating others. We are all guilty as charged. Perhaps, to remember this, it maybe worth fasting.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Jerusalem 2020

As reported by Sami Ershied in today's Huffington Post, the Israeli government is about to release a long awaited urban development plan for Jerusalem. We will track the document and the public debate of the plan as it becomes available.

According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Tuesday presented a city master plan for the next two decades that envisions the capital becoming the greenest city in Israel, and includes affordable housing for young residents, thousands of new apartments for Arab residents of the eastern neighborhoods, and the expansion of tourism and employment.

The JPost reports further that the report is currently held up for review by the Interior Ministry, which highlights one of the major obstacles to rational city planning in Jerusalem, namely, the intersection of urban planning with national political concerns of the state. This, in a nutshell, explains why Jerusalem has been an urban planning nightmare for the past forty two years.

Official Palestinian responses to the mayor's proposal have been critical since it does not sufficiently address the severe housing crisis in the Arab sector. (See the report in Haaretz.)

Sami Arshied, a lawyer from Jerusalem who, according to the by-line, specializes in land use and planning, concludes that only a political solution can correct the long-standing housing and development inequities between the Arab and Jewish sectors of Jerusalem:

Today, 42 years since the annexation of East Jerusalem, it seems that the future of Palestinian Jerusalemites is gloomier than ever, and that their pathways of existence are narrowing. Jerusalem 2020 utilizes seemingly professional tools to respond to the growing needs of an urban populace, but the plan is ultimately designed to serve a political purpose that marginalizes one of the populations most in need of a master plan. As long as Jerusalem sits at the heart of a historical conflict it seems that there is no magical solution based on master plans, creative as they may be. A true solution for Jerusalem will be bound with political negotiations and agreements between the two nations and three religions which call the city home.

There is, of course, another possibility, though admittedly it would require courage. Namely, instead of playing into the hands of the political establishment the residents of Jerusalem could take back the initiative. For example, the Arab residents could end their boycott of the municipal elections and participate in municipal governance, as they used to do until 1967. This could make a real difference, too.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Al Quds as a venue of literary gathering

In today's Boston Globe, Claire Messud reports on "Palfest," a literary gathering in Jerusalem that ran into trouble with the authorities. You may find her report here. Her words are much more mild mannered than the rant Swedish author Henning Mankell published in the Swedish Aftonbladet immediately after returning from Israel early in June. For example, Messud refrains from using the word apartheid that Mankell employs prominently as a historical parallel to the situation in Israel/Palestine. Ms. Messud chose to wait and write something that is perhaps even more disturbing than a simple condemnation. Instead of emphasizing the political aspects she allows you to imagine yourself for a moment as a Palestinian. To do so she describes how difficult it is for ordinary Palestinians to enjoy a particular kind of freedom we take for granted, namely the freedom to move around in our own neighborhoods, cities, and fields.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Jews, Christians, Muslims and Jerusalem

The life of the mind is a perpetual struggle against dogmatic slumber. Unless someone shakes us up and says, hey, wake up! our minds tend to go to sleep. Or we are asleep to begin with and never wake up. We are sleepwakers. Mental sleepwalking is the case when one unquestioningly accepts certain perpetually reiterated assumptions as true. One of these assumptions I am beginning to question right now is that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are equally attached to the city of Jerusalem. Now I don't want anyone to scream and yell at me and accuse me of bias. (You can accuse me of bias, but don't scream and yell, please.) -- Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all attached to Jerusalem, but perhaps not in the same way or for the same reasons.

This became clear to me when I explained what the book is about that I am working on. In a message to a friend I described my interest as follows. I said, I am trying to answer the question how a Bronze Age/Iron Age mountain fortress turned into a holy city for Christians and Muslims. This formulation suggested itself to me instead of the one I had hitherto been using. What I used to say my book was about was that I was trying to explain why we, that is, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, care about the city the way we do. The mistake was in the "we." "We" is, in this case, an academic abstraction. What is wrong with this is that it is people, rather than academic abstractions, who are attached to the city. Each specific people or group or religious community is a We. Whether or not there is a larger "we" that comprises all of these more limited We's without becoming an academic abstraction is very much the question.

So what about our We's and their respective attachments to the Holy City? For each We, Jerusalem means something different. What it means for each of these can be determined to some degree by looking at how they became attached to the city and in what way, sense, or respect they have remained attached.

That Jews are attached to Jerusalem is as natural as the fact that Romans are attached to Rome and Athenians to Athens. Nothing, not even the centuries of banishment following the Jews' eviction by Roman Emperor Hadrian in 135 CE, can change this. During the centuries during which residence was forbidden to the Jews, their spiritual leaders, the rabbis, developed a set of ritual practices that kept Jerusalem present and on every Jew's mind on a daily basis. This spiritual focus on the city probably by far exceeded the role Jerusalem had played in an ordinary Jewish life when the city and the temple were still firmly in Jewish hands. This is it in a nutshell. Jewish attachment to Jerusalem is perfectly natural for a Jew. It is also, in addition, intensely supernatural, providential, ritual, and mystical, due to centuries of rabbinic inventiveness and by the misfortunes of exile that made Jerusalem even more glorious in its absence.

Now let's take a Christian community, say, the Armenians. Setting aside that Armenians, skirmishing with the Romans in several Mithridatic wars, have many direct or indirecet historical connections with Jerusalem and the Jews that precede the conversion of their kingdom to the Christian faith, setting aside also that they supported the Frankish knights and the Latin kingdom (what else would they do as Christians?) and have been in Jerusalem ever since; over the past centuries, Jerusalem has become a second home, a home away from home and a refuge for Armenians. Survivors of the genocide of 1917 found their way to Jerusalem where they started afresh. That Armenians feel fond of Jerusalem is natural. It is also spiritual because to them, as to other Christians, Jerusalem represents heaven. The difference between the Jewish and the Armenian attachment to Jerusalem is this, among others. The capital of the only independent Armenian state, one only recently released into independence, is Erevan. The capital of the only independent Jewish state, one released into independence within living memory, is Jerusalem.

How about Arab attachment to Jerusalem. This is extremely complex, but it is not exactly the same as the Jewish or the Armenian one. Arabs lived in and around Jerusalem long before the Arab conquest of Syria, when Arabs came in the name of Islam. Arabs appear in the Bible under the name of Ishmael, the son of Abraham. If the Jews are descendants of Isaac and the Arabs descendants of Ishmael, Ishmael was in the "promised land" even before Isaac, since he was Abraham's first born, and both buried their father together in Hebron (presumably they made up after the deaths of their respective mothers, who did not get along). From Assyrian documents we know that Arabs were among the first to be settled in Samaria, after the Israelite kingdom lost its independence and Israelites were deported to the Hebar river. These Arabs became YHWHists and may be among the ancestors of the surviving Samaritans. The Nabatean kingdom, southeast of Roman Judea, was at one point renamed Arabia, though the language of state was Aramaic, the same as in Judea. An Idumean prince who ruled Jerusalem and turned it into a gem of the Roman East, was an Arab on his mother's side. If anything, one could say that Arabs, though Judaized in religion, were part of the Jewish elite in Roman times. By the way, the Arab/Idumean/Jewish king, I just alluded to was none other than king Herod who ruled in Jerusalem from 37 until 4 BCE and built the temple whose destruction Jews have mourned ever since.

Today, when we speak of Arabs, we most likely mean the descendants of those who came from the Arabian peninsula and established a world empire reaching from Spain to the Hindukush. The memory of these heirs of Cyrus and Alexander reverberates in Arab history. Arabs have resided in Jerusalem ever since. Unlike the Byzantines, and the pagan Romans before them, these conquerors had no taste for exlcusivism. The Byzantines were allowed to stay and to keep most of their land and quite a few of their privileges, and the Jews were readmitted. This, by and large, has been Arab policy in Jerusalem, even long after the Arabs were themselves subjugated by others, such as the Rum Seldjuks, the Kurdish Ayyubids, the Turkish Mameluks, and finally by the Ottomans. Though not completely independent, the families of Arab notables who have lived in Jerusalem at least since its reconquest in 1183 basically ran the city well into the twentieth century.

Muslim generosity toward non-Muslims, on the other hand, while applying in Jerusalem, never applied to the other holy cities, that is, to Mecca and Medinah. Jews were expelled from or massacred in Yathrib (i.e., Medinah), which had been a predominantly Jewish city in Arabia. Mecca is forbidden territory for non-Muslims.

To be sure, religious exclusivism was common in the ancient world. It has its parallel in other ancient temple cities, including Jerusalem, when it was still a temple city. Since the time of Ezra the scribe, the chief architect of the temple cult following the Babylonian exile, it was forbidden for non-Jews to enter the precincts of the temple. Similarly, non-Christians were generally not allowed to enter Christian churches until they had been baptized. Constantine's basilica in Jerusalem was off limits to tourists. Exclusivism used to be the norm when it came to religious rites. It is all the more remarkable that Herod introduced a "court of the gentiles" to the architecture of the temple.

What is my point? My point is that we must not be surprised at the asymmetries in the attitudes and feelings people harbor toward the Holy City for religious and other reasons. Everyone's attachment is different. Jerusalem is an erstwhile Canaanite hill fortress that became the royal city of Judah and later the temple city of the Jews. It was the anchor of their identity as Jews even when it lay in ruins. This is a special connection that cannot and must not be denied. That Jerusalem is also a holy city for the Christians is more surprising and requires explanation since the Christians are not simply a kind of Jews. Why are Christians attached to the city at all is the more complicated question, one I hope to answer in my book.

That Arabs should be attached to the city is also complex. All things considered, they have been present in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Holy Land as conquerors for well over a millennium and their historical roots precede this conquest by more than another millennium. Jerusalem is not a holy city for the Arabs qua Arabs. For the Arabs of Jerusalem, of course, the city is their ancestral home, a source of identity and pride. This type of attachment is characteristic of Jerusalemite Arabs. It is natural and deserves respect. Palestinian Arabs more generally see Jerusalem as the symbol of Palestinian national identity. This is not local patriotism but national interest and sentiment and as such it also deserves respect. Jerusalem also plays a role in Muslim history and imagination, which is not the same as Arab identity. Historically speaking and in symbolic terms, the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik established Islam as the new dispensation displacing the Byzantines as divinely sanctioned rulers of what was then Syria. For the Umayyads, as for the Byzantines, politics, architecture, conquest, and belief in divine rule were all interconnected. Living in close proximity and constant exchange with their Jewish neighbors, the Arabs of Jerusalem developed a literature in praise of Al Quds that is often indistinguishable from Jewish midrash. One's attachment has since rivalled the other's.

Love is exclusivist. Jewish historical experience and spiritual traditions have conspired to plant a love for Jerusalem in the heart of every Jew. But the same can be said of many Arabs, foremost among them the families whose names have been inscribed in the annals of the city's history since the Middle Ages. A Jew may feel that no one else can possibly love the city as much as "we" do. But what this Jew refers to is the spiritual Jerusalem created by the rabbis, when the real Jerusalem was inaccessible. History and religion produce the desire to merge the real and the imagined, to realize the intangible. This love is frightening to behold, especially for those other We's who love the earthly city just as much, though perhaps differently.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Michael Oren named Israel's ambassador to the US

Reuters "Axis mundi" blog posted an interview with the newly named Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, a historian affiliated with the Shalem Center, a neo-conservative think tank. The Jerusalem issue comes up in the interview exactly as one might expect, namely, as the non-negotiable eternally undivided capital of Israel, an actual conversation stopper in the interview.

The purpose of the appointment is clear. With Oren as the chief diplomat under Lieberman, public relations damage is to be minimized while pressure on US government, lawmakers and Israel lobby are to be maximized in support of Israel's current hard-line nationalistic policies. It will be interesting to see how far this goes.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

After Cairo ...

How, if at all, has the Jerusalem question been affected by President Obama's great speech of Cairo, by the elections in the Lebanon, and by the astounding mass protests in Teheran that have been hailed as the harbingers of a second Iranian revolution? -- In his widely noted recent speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his support of the two-state-solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As also widely noted, he attached so many unacceptable conditions to it that the spirit of the speech contradicted its letter. One of the conditions he made that would need to be met for him to accept Palestinian statehood was for the Palestinians to recognize Jerusalem as the eternally undivided capital of Israel. It is clear that this position is unacceptable for Palestinians and it is clear that Netanyahu knows this. Hence the impression that his concession on the question of Palestinian statehood was disingenuous.

On the other hand, there are reasons to see in Netanyahu's speech more than a closing of the door to peace by a closed-minded representative of the Israeli right. For one, Netanyahu correctly represented what is a widely shared Jewish sentiment concerning the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is of symbolic value to the Jewish nation, even though it is a pain in the neck from any rational political or urban planning point of view. There is no doubt that, politically speaking, the city remains ungovernable as long as the Israeli national sentiment insists on squaring the circle of holding on to an undivided Jerusalem while pursuing Palestinian statehood. So what is good about Jerusalem's reemerging as a bone of contention?

I believe that Hussein Agha and Robert Malley have it right in their essay of 11 June 2009, published in The New York Review of Books, where they argue that the crux of the matter, at least for the Palestinians, is not so much statehood as such, at least at this point, but the question of national interest, a question that is strangely undermined by the Israeli and international pressure to pursue the so-called two-state-solution.

As Agha and Malley argue, the larger symbolic issues on both sides of the conflict may be more central to solving it than the tried and failed negotiations over (or the imposition of) Palestinian statehood alongside Israel. For the Palestinians, this includes the matter of the return of the refugees. For the Israelis, whether we like it or not, it includes a stubborn insistence on the historic right of the Jews to the Holy City.

I admit, I find it odious to read pronouncements of the sort recently published in an opinion piece in the English edition of Haaretz by Nadav Shragai, a piece that proudly pronounces that "Jerusalem is ours". But the sentiment this piece expresses is as true as the Palestinian sentiment concerning the land of Palestine, concerning the legitimacy of the rights of refugees to return to their land, and concerning the sense, derided by Nadav Shragai, that Jerusalem, or rather Al Quds, is and should remain an Arab city.

Sentiments of this sort and how to deal with them is, according to Agha and Malley, more important than whether or not a "humdrum" two-state-solution is imposed on Israelis and Palestinians any time soon. Netanyahu has, at least, articulated views that, while beyond the pale from the liberal and western point of view, captured the sentiments of the right-wing and the religious sector of Israeli society and it did so without completely closing the door to a negotiated settlement. Negotiations need to take into account the sentimental aspects of this conflict, too. In this sense, Netanyahu's speech may not have been a complete waste but rather a reminder of the more complicated issues that both sides will bring to the table once serious negotiations resume.

So has anything changed in Jerusalem since Obama's speech in Cairo, elections in the Lebanon, and the ongoing second Iranian revolution? There has been movement. Though falling short of the standards established by previous Israeli administrations, including those of Sharon and Olmert, Netanyahu has moved the last bastion of the Israeli right beyond the tabu of even mentioning the possibility of a negotiated settlement that considers the Palestinians as a nation that deserves its own state within the historic boundaries of what pious and right-wing Jews like to call Eretz Yisrael. This may not look like much but it actually was a huge concession on Netanyahu's part. But there must be action to follow such pronouncements. If Agha and Malley are correct, some of this action must come from the Palestinians themselves and it needs to be in keeping with their collective national sentiments rather than being perceived as a mere response to foreign, non-Palestinian interests, be they the interests of Washington, Cairo, Beirut, Teheran, or those of the Israelis. Of course we all hope that this initiative, when it is taken, will be a constructive one.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mastercard advertises family fun in the City of David

Gush Shalom's blog has alerted us to a new advertisement campaign by Mastercard in Israel, aimed at Isracard holders, to make use of a coupon for a tour of the City of David, courtesy of the settler organization Elad, which runs the archeological site and aggressively pursues the expansion of the excavations over the legitimate concerns of the Arab residents of the village of Silwan. If you wish to join the letter campaign of protest against this seemingly innocuous advertisement and for more background on the issue, see

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Nostalgia or obligation?

It is completely natural for Jews to feel attached to Jerusalem. It is also a religious obligation, though it is not immediately clear whether there is a connection between the nostalgia most of us are susceptible to and the obligation felt by few, not as a historical but a divine imperative. What is Jewish obligation in regard to Jerusalem? Is there a religious obligation for Jews to hold on to the sovereignty of the Jewish state over part or all of the city, or is this already a secular kind of attitude in the disguise of religious romanticism? Are we halakhically obliged to build a new temple if we have the opportunity to do so, and if so, who is to say that what presents itself to us now (a sovereign state in control of the city, though without international recognition) constitutes such an opportunity? For twothousand years, Jews prayed for the rebuilding of the temple, but only now some Jews and their Christian supporters are trying to bring about what had long been a more or less utopian idea. As Bernard Avishai points out in a recent post on this question, the desire to build a Jewish temple in place of the Dome of the Rock is a departure from Judaism as we knew it, a Judaism that secular Jews like Avishai and myself feel increasingly nostalgic for. What happened to the Judaism of the exile, a Judaism that prayed for a speedy rebuilding of the temple without arrogating to itself the power or right to make it happen? Where, more importantly, is the rational theology that denies divinity to any and all objects given to sensory experience? Are groups like the “Templemount Faithful” (ne’emaney ha-bayit) (see destroying Judaism as we know and love it?

Today, Jerusalem is at the heart of a new dilemma, namely, the question of the future of Judaism in a Jewish state. It is perhaps an unprecedented dilemma that calls for unprecedented solutions.

To understand Jewish “religion,” past and present, it may be helpful to remember an important rabbinic distinction. The rabbis, who were lawyers, distinguished between two types of material within the body of sacred text we call the Torah, namely, narrative and legal; in their terms: aggadah and halakhah. Halakhic or legal material constituted the obligations, the dos and don’ts of the Bible; haggadic material was everything else, including what we might call theology. Thus, for example, you can be obliged to affirm that there is only one God but you cannot be obliged to hold any particular opinion as true. You can be obliged to know God, i.e., to pursue the knowledge of God, but you cannot be obliged to accept anyone’s particular opinion about God as true. To be sure, you are also obliged to respect your elders, to live according to local custom, and generally to seek what is best for your community, and this is where things become fuzzy. The sophisticated rabbinic distinction between truth and opinion does not necessarily work in favor of an enlightened and rational point of view. It may also lead to mystical, illusory, even delusional beliefs. BUT: all of these views are, and by virtue of Halakhah itself, are matters of debate, at least in theory. But what happens to this nice, open, non-dogmatic rabbinical system (for which Bernard Avishai expressed nostalgia) when it enters the realm of a Jewish state?

Can religious Jews reconcile themselves to existence in a secular and pluralistic state where the majority is committed to Jewish nostalgia but not to enforcing halakhah as the law of the land? Jews are obliged to rebuke one another if they see someone who does not live by the Torah. But the concern, halakhically speaking, is not with making converts to a halakhic lifestyle rather than with the impression we make on the gentiles around us. In a pluralistic society and a pluralistic world we make a poor impression if it appears that our law, the law of the true God, makes us less committed to the wellbeing of our neighbors than to our own wellbeing. If it makes us look like inhuman religious creeps. Religion is supposed to curtail our natural self-interest, manage it by weighing it against a greater interest. It is clearly broken if instead it makes us more self-centered, even and especially if this collective self is enhanced by a transcendent deity.

Is a religious Jew obliged to pray for a rebuilding of the temple or even to exploit the possibilities of a secular system to advance the founding of the “third” temple? Perhaps, but that depends on how one determines Jewish religious obligation. There are differences of opinion. 19th-century liberal Jews, seeking to integrate into the republican societies of Europe and the United States, eliminated all references to a return to Zion and a rebuilding of the temple from their prayer books because it conflicted with their civic and patriotic obligations. What might a liberal prayerbook in the Jewish state look like? (To be sure, liberal or reform Judaism is a very small movement in the Jewish state.) Would it also need to eliminate all references to the building of the temple?

Perhaps it is time for a new, national liberal Jewish religion, one that affirms the values of biblical times: the love of neighbor and the insight of the prophets who were the critics of their own state. Something like Micah 6:6-8, for example:

With what shall I approach the LORD,
Do homage to God on high?
Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings,
With calves a year old?
Would the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
With myriads of streams of oil?
Shall I give my first-born for my transgressions,
The fruit of my body for my sins?

He has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the LORD requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk modestly with your God.

For the practice of this Jewish religion, no temple is neeeded.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Urban crisis or opportunity?

The city is in crisis. It has been for a while. I don't mean Jerusalem alone, which through a number of unfortunate measures has been turned into a sprawling ugly duckling. But it may be useful to see Jerusalem's urban crisis not just in the terms of the political conflict between Israel and the Palestinians but in terms that lend themselves to comparison with other urban centers in crisis. Having just returned from a trip to Paris, it became clear to me that Jerusalem is not the only city that struggles with issues of planning, governance and representation, civility, equity, services, education, transportation, sanitation, and other issues of concern to every city, though aggravated where national and municipal concerns intersect and overlap. Jerusalem is a capital city and also the largest urban center within the state. The same is true of Paris, Berlin, and Cairo, for example. Like Paris and Berlin, Jerusalem suffers from sharp ethnic divisions. Unlike Paris, Berlin, or Cairo, however, Jerusalem is a religiously divided capital and urban center, which makes cooperation and commonality of purpose among all of its inhabitants even more difficult to achieve. (Cairo, as swine flu related events reminded us, also continues to harbor an ancient religious divide between Christians and Muslims.)

In the case of Jerusalem, interests of state often interfere with the interests of viable urban development. But is this not also true in the erstwhile capitals of empires that have been confronted with large minorities of people who have every right to live and thrive among the historic majority, and for understandable reasons refuse to assimilate or integrate nationally, ethnically, or linguistically? Many cities around the world face similar problems in this post-colonial age.

There is an almost universal change in the role and character of cities: cities have become the location of civilizational conflict; they are the places where post-colonial societies struggle to find peaceful ways of coexistence. There are interesting medieval models that suggest that different religious and ethnic groups can get along just fine, as long as that is the goal of a central government or power. Meanwhile, the age of nationalism has given us models that are definitely not to be emulated further. The nation state with its endemic desire for homogeneity cannot help resolve the modern urban crisis because it produced it.

Jerusalem's place as world heritage site and as a city holy to the three Abrahamic traditions should be a testing ground for creative and innovative solutions. Its diverse populations should be encouraged to participate in cooperative and constructive ways of achieving a modus vivendi that is favorable to all without favoring any. Where else but in Jerusalem, where all of us feel responsible, should we expect to make significant progress on how to build the new city, a place where plurality can be an asset rather than a liability? Wouldn't this be in the spirit of our religious traditions, too?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Is Compromise on Jerusalem good for everyone or only for the Palestinians?

In a comment, reported in today's Haaretz, Abbas Zaki, the Palestinian Authority's ambassador to Lebanon, is quoted as saying that a compromise on Jerusalem and settlements in Judea and Samaria would amount to a demise of Zionism's "dream." Verbatim: "With the two-state solution, in my opinion, Israel will collapse, because if they get out of Jerusalem, what will become of all the talk about the Promised Land and the Chosen People?"

This is a very puzzling thing for a Palestinian statesman to say. Though he might think so, clearly, saying it in public amounts to providing ideological support to the hardliners in Israel.

Setting aside for now who said it and why, Zaki's musings raise a profound question, namely, whether compromise on the question of sovereignty over the Holy City can be a good thing not just for the Palestinians but also for the Israelis.

Some may remember the dictum by Moshe Dayan who, in June 1967, famously dismissed the Old City, just captured from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, by asking "What good is this whole Vatican?" (Sounds better in Hebrew, but the meaning is clear.) Israel existed for two decades before East Jerusalem was captured. While West Bank, Sinai, and the Golan Heights all had strategic importance (security, bargaining chips), Jerusalem had important symbolic importance. Gaza only constituted a headache and no one in Israel (or in Egypt) wanted to hold on to one of the most densely populated Arab areas of Palestine anyway. It never was part of the vision of a Greater Israel, even among those who, like Menachem Begin and his ideological heirs, were interested in holding on to the West Bank areas forever.

What I am saying is that Mr. Zaki is wrong. If a reasonable compromise can be achieved between all parties and once security is no longer an issue, then of course Israel, a Jewish state with or without a significant Arab minority, neither needs to control the West Bank nor exert sovereignty over East Jerusalem. It existed without it before and it can exist without it again in the future. Any negotiated settlement would need to include free Jewish access to the Western Wall and control of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, but neither Zionism, nor the idea of a Jewish state, nor Israel's flourishing in cultural, economic, social and political terms depend on Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif or even on whether or not all of the village of Silwan is turned into a Jewish history museum. None of this really matters. While maximal and total control of what two thousand years ago may have been the gem of Jewish life seems desirable and legitimate to some, Zionism does not necessarily consist in a striving to restore the ancient system of priestly rule and biblical sacrifices. In fact, this is a distortion of Zionism's original goals. There are different Zionisms. The vision of a restoration of the ancient Jewish way of life is odious to many Jews and Israelis. It is an absurd and dangerous religious idea, which should be resisted not just by Palestinians but by all reasonable people.

But make no mistake, Mr. Zaki. Even seventy years after Reichskristallnacht, we are not likely to give an inch when it comes to the right and legitimacy of a Jewish state. We will defend it with our blood.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Netanyahu: "Jerusalem was always ours and will always be ours"

Now that's a sentence that needs parsing! (For background see here.)

The season: According to the official calendar of the State of Israel (a combination of Jewish tradition, based on a Babylonian calendar, rabbinic clarifications based on biblical notions, and modern Zionist lore) it was "Jerusalem Day," i.e., time to commemorate the June 1967 war, in the course of which East Jerusalem was taken from the Jordanians and subsequently annexed by the State of Israel (in contrast to West Bank and Gaza, which were merely brought under Israeli military occupation).

The cause: Prime Minister Netanyahu reaffirms the government of Israel's resolve to hold on to Jerusalem as the "eternally united capital of Israel," as stated in the "Jerusalem Law" of 1980.

The audience: 1,000 ultraorthodox Jews and religious Zionists assembled at the "Merkaz Harav," spiritual center of the movement founded by the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of, then, Palestine ("chief rabbi" like "grand mufti" being an office created by the British), Rav Kook, and much enhanced by his son, who saw the 1967 conquest of East Jerusalem as a providential act, bringing us nearer the messianic age.

The reason (in my humble opinion): Israel's government has been (and will be) compelled to make concessions on rogue West-Bank settlements, so at least Israel's newly elected and installed right wing prime minister Netanyahu, bullied by the Obama administration, must emphasize that he won't give an inch on the question of sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem.

The claim: "Jerusalem was always ours and will always be ours."

The fallacy: Jerusalem, i.e., the municipal boundaries that constitute the current municipality of the city of Jerusalem vastly extend beyond the historical boundaries of the city. This Jerusalem is unprecedented; before 1967 and subsequent laws extending the municipal boundaries, the area now included in the city never constituted "Jerusalem." Furthermore, the notion that Jerusalem "was always ours" may be true in certain Jewish fantasies pertaining to property rights extended by divine fiat, but is certainly not true in terms of actual ownership by common political standards. The Jewish people lost sovereignty over the city to the Romans (in stages between 63 BCE to 70 CE, and completely after 135 CE), and never held sway in political terms until the modern era, and not over East Jerusalem until 1967. Even this claim of sovereignty has been internationally contested and has not been recognized by a single nation.

In short: Prime Minister Netanyahu is pandering to the religious zealots who are bound to be hit by the concessions on settlements in the West Bank that will most likely result from a strong US involvement in Middle East negotiations. To compensate for showing flexibility on settlements Netanyahu is digging in his (rhetorical) heels in the question of Jewish sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. Nothing less was to be expected.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Have we lost our sense of humor?

In a recent blog, Richard Silverstein (at tikkun-olam, May 13, 2009) points out that people on the extreme left and the extreme right have lost their sense of humor. They cannot take a joke, or rather they read nefarious intentions into expressions of artistic wit. The occasion for these musings was the publication of a map in which Palestine appears as an archipelago surrounded by water. The map L’archipel de Palestine orientale (‘The Archipelago of Eastern Palestine’) was made by French cartographer Julien Busac. If first appeared at with comments by the editors and the artist. (For further discussion see Robert Mackey's post on The Ledge.)

Perhaps it is not just people on the extremes who have lost their sense of humor, and perhaps it is not "the situation" that has caused us to lose our sense of humor. Hermann Cohen famously points out (as recently reiterated in a book by Myriam Bienenstock) that the God of monotheism leaves no room for irony. That may be the real problem.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Realism or idealism

None of us know exactly where we ought to stand on the question of realism or idealism. Realism means to embrace policies for reasons of state. Idealism means to embrace policies because they increase the good in the world. But what if the two conflict with one another? What if, say, what is conducive to the increase of power and safety of one party in a struggle for dominance is detrimental to another party? For reasons of state you would say, whatever is conducive to the increase of power and security of your own kith and kin is right, even if it is at the expense of the well-being of others. Idealism means you strive to minimize the damage to others that is incurred by striving for the well-being and safety of your own, because, in a final analysis, we both ought to live in safety, security, and dignity. The ultimate division is not between us and them but between humanity and inhumanity. When it comes to Jerusalem, there is a conflict not so much between Jews and Arabs or Muslims but rather between those who would settle the conflict on the basis of equity and security for all and those who insist on the legitimacy of their claim to ownership, even at the expense of others. Where do you stand?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ill prepared, unscripted: quo vadis, papa?

The Catholic Church is one of the largest and best established multinational religious organizations with followers across the world who revere their leader, the bishop of Rome, as the vicar of Christ on earth. This explains why even non-Catholics look up to this man. What he says matters. What he fails to say or to perceive or to prepare for also matters.

Previous blunders of this Pope have already been widely noted. The recent rehabilitation of certain renegade priests consciously or inadvertently overlooked that a significant element of the opposition to Vatican II, the reform council that did away with the millennial curse on the Jews as Christ-killers, was rooted in anti-Semitism. The recent papal visit to Yad Vashem is not likely to make up for this oversight, especially since the Pope eschewed any language that would have hinted at what really matters about the destruction of European Jewry, what sets it apart from other mass atrocities committed in recent memory. What matters is the intentionality and method of the mass annihilation, not its scale or the human tragedies it brought about. By focusing on human tragedy, the Pope sentimentalized rather than directly addressed the complexity of the Holocaust. He catered to what he presumed to be the common humanity between the former German Hitlerjunge and the survivors and descendents of genocide. There is a common humanity here, which is worth emphasizing. But it is not what the Pope as Pope should have focused on.

What followed was an interfaith meeting, disrupted by a known hatemonger. Again, the Pope or his handlers were ill prepared. They did not anticipate the disruption, no interpreter was on hand to explain what this was about. Congratulations to those who thought you could expose the Pope to the actual views of unscripted individuals. Welcome to the unmitigated hatred of the Jews that is so palatable when you travel to Jerusalem.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Pope visits the Holy Land

Here are some voices from reasonable people who hope that the papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land will do some good, especially for relations between the Christian community and others. Christians are now a minority in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Middle East, mostly due to comparatively low birth rates and emigration when other communities have higher birth rates or demographic growth through immigration. Demographers speak of Christians as the "vanishing third," but perhaps that's too dramatic. If one takes the long view (say over the past two millennia), this means that Greek and Roman influence on the culture and society of the Middle East has only been fully marginalized and eclipsed through events that unfolded over the past century. The remarkable longevity of the age of Hellenism is still evident in the fact that the Greek Orthodox Church continues to be the most significant landowner in the Holy Land after the State of Israel.

A shoutout to David Satran, who opens the documentary.

Monday, May 4, 2009

60,000 soon to be homeless in East Jerusalem?

In a Washington Post Foreign Service article of May 2, 2009, which was picked up by the Boston Globe, Howard Schneider reports on a U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs study, which finds that “60,000 Palestinians Risk Eviction in East Jerusalem.” (See here.)

60,000 Palestinians are threatened with eviction from East Jerusalem? How can that be? What have so many people done to deserve to live with such a threat hanging over their heads? Are they illegal aliens, perhaps? Did they live in Jerusalem without proper papers for all these years? Have rules of residency or other regulations been tightened that would warrant such an enforced exodus?

But, wait a minute: not
from East Jerusalem, but in East Jerusalem! 60,000 Palestinians are not to be evicted from East Jerusalem but merely from their houses! So why is this? Are they squatters? Are the houses unsafe? Or is someone else to live in their homes instead? Is this an initiative to make room for more Jewish housing? No, this isn’t it either, or not immediately, since the houses are not to be used at all. The houses, not the Palestinians, are illegal since they were built without a permit. When a house is built without a permit, the state or the municipality may be legally obliged to demolish it. After all, part of orderly city development is to issue or deny permits, based on the common good of all citizens. To allow residents to build without permit means anarchy.

Now, it has long been known that many of the houses that were built in and around the very small and somewhat declining Jordanian municipality that existed from 1949 until June of 1967 were built without permit. The U.N. OCHA report mentioned in the Washington Post article finally puts a number on it. Within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, boundaries vastly extended after June 1967, 60,000 individuals are now threatened with eviction and housing demolition should the State of Israel decide to enforce its laws. Enforcement of such a draconian law is a matter of politics. It is not a matter of municipal planning, but it, like many other political issues, emanates from the government of the state. Housing policy for Jerusalem is made by the Israeli cabinet, not by the municipality. It is a matter of national interest.

It is therefore extremely disingenuous to dissimulate, claim otherwise, and blame the Arab residents of Jerusalem for their own situation, as Yigal Palmor, a Foreign Ministry spokesman quoted at the end of the Washington Post article does when he says as follows.
But it "is not part of some all-encompassing government plan to do this or that," said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "It is municipal policy."

Arab residents of East Jerusalem traditionally have boycotted municipal elections on the grounds that they are living under an occupation. "If they are not trying to influence the municipal policy from within, which they can do," Palmor said, "then they cannot complain."
The problem is, if Arab residents (a minority of about a third of the population of Jerusalem today) decided to participate in municipal elections, they would legitimize the policies the majority imposes on the minority; they would accept the legitimacy of Israeli claims to a united Jerusalem; they would therefore merely put their signature under their eviction from their homes. At least, if they must be homeless in Jerusalem, let them keep their pride!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Beyond Cultural Narcissism

Can Freud help us understand the sustained policy failures and the perpetual return to tried and failed attitudes that have tended to prevent new solutions to the ongoing conflicts in and around Jerusalem from being considered and implemented?

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud comments from a psychological perspective on the mechanisms of hostility to civilization. What he writes is subtle. First of all, he reminds us that there is hostility to civilization, i.e., to any political order or regnant paradigm, because all civilization rests on the repression of some urges. This is generally so, but it becomes more tricky--and more interesting--when one considers privations that are imposed on some rather than all. All nation states, so Freud, are based on the privations a minority imposes on a majority. The repression of a majority is accomplished by a kind of mental coercion in addition to other forms of violence. This mental force is often exerted in the name of the ideals of a civilization that represent the great accomplishments of the past.

“It is understandable,” writes Freud, “that the suppressed people should develop an intense hostility towards a culture whose existence they make possible by their work, but in whose wealth they have too small a share.” Written in 1927, this statement focuses on economic repression and the resentment it breeds, which leads to the hostility of an economically repressed majority toward the values of the wealthy elite. But the continuation shows that this observation may equally apply to a situation where the power inequilibrium between groups is enhanced by what Freud calls the narcissism of cultural ideals.

Whether it is the unequal distribution of wealth or other factors that lead to the imposition of privations on one group but not on the other, the effect on the relation between these groups seems to be the same. Here is how Freud describes the effects of an unequal distribution of privation.

In such conditions an internalization of the cultural prohibitions among the suppressed people is not to be expected. On the contrary, they are not prepared to acknowledge the prohibitions, they are intent on destroying the culture itself, and possibly even on doing away with the postulates on which it is based. The hostility of these classes to civilization is so obvious that it has caused the more latent hostility of the social strata that are better provided for to be overlooked. It goes without saying that a civilization which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence.

How does this illuminate the current situation in Jerusalem? After all, the Arab population of Jerusalem is, in demographic terms, barely a third of the population of the municipality and hence a minority. But the very demographic situation, created by repeated redrawings of the municipal boundaries (see, is the result of politics imposed on the Arab minority by the State of Israel and its security establishment (but not necessarily supported by every municipal administration). The demographic policies pursued by all Israeli governments since 1967 have been based on Zionist ideals, shaped in years of struggle, pioneering, and state-building. These policies amount to an attempt at disenfranchizing the Arab populations, but even it this weren't the case the ideals on which they are based cannot be shared by the Arab population. The natural and, according to Freud: inevitable, resistance of the Arabs to the civilizational ideals imposed on them by the Jewish state equally inevitably appears to the Jewish population as resistance to their ideal of civilization and hence as nihilistic and uncooperative.

Freud’s analysis of what one might call differential privation goes a long way toward explaining the miscommunication between Israeli governments and the Arab populations affected by policies based on the ideal of Jewish statehood. The sacrifices imposed on the Arabs are neither commensurate with the sacrifices imposed on the Jewish population, nor are they legitimized by ideals that would compensate the Arab minority for its material losses.

But Freud also speaks of a “more latent hostility of the social strata that are better provided for,” a hostility often overlooked. This points to the fact that the dominant group is not unambiguously committed to self-sacrifice, hard work, and the lasting existence of its civilization. The alienation of the dominated is accepted by the dominant not because it is the price to be paid by the dominated for the continued existence of the dominant civilization but rather despite the fact that it may well contribute to the undoing of the dominant civilization. Freud explains this counter-intuitive and counterproductive behavior by pointing to the narcissism of cultural ideals.

The narcissistic satisfaction provided by the cultural ideal is (…) among the forces which are successful in combating the hostility to culture within the cultural unit. This satisfaction can be shared in not only by the favoured classes, which enjoy the benefits of the culture, but also by the suppressed ones, since the right to despise the people outside it compensates them for the wrongs they suffer within their own unit. No doubt one is a wretched plebeian, harassed by debts and military service; but, to make up for it one is a Roman citizen, one has one’s share in the task of ruling other nations and dictating their laws.

Modern Israelis are not ancient Romans. But Freud argues that the narcissism of cultural ideals is endemic to all nation states:

On the strength of these differences (to wit: between cultural ideals) every culture claims the right to look down on the rest. In this way cultural ideals become a source of discord and enmity between different cultural units, as can be seen most clearly in the case of nations.

But they also act as glue in a disparate and disjointed society. The cultural ideals common to all Israelis would be insufficient to bridge the gap between religious and secular, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, rich and poor, were it not for the narcissism implicit in the sense of difference between Jews and Arabs. Were it not for this narcissism, it might be possible for many Jews and many Arabs to recognize their common interests, set aside concerns with the cultural ideals of their respective and conflicted pasts, and work toward reasonable solutions of problems that can only be solved if one overcomes one's cultural narcissism.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Fetishization of Jerusalem

With its multiple destructions, Jerusalem became a unique object of veneration—beyond the ordinary veneration afforded an ancient royal city. (I am referring to 586 BCE and 70CE. It was destroyed twice.) Its destructions are the condition for the transformation of the city itself into an object of desire. The city takes on what was originally perhaps attached to the temple; Psalms of pilgrimage give lyrical voice to a longing to “see God,” to “reside in his forecourts forever,” rather than merely to “appear before God” as tersely commanded in the Pentateuch. Originally this language reflects a cultic longing (or the promotion of such longing) attached to the sanctuary and its festivals. With the absence of such a sanctuary and its replacement with mere commemorative shrines (and with the absence of national sovereignty this destruction of the temple signified to the ancient Jews) the semantics of these well known phrases changed and they continue to change.

Today we have a new situation. Jews have regained sovereignty, de facto, if not de jure, even in East Jerusalem, but the temple is still absent. For reasons to be parsed and motives to be considered carefully, this absence of the temple has begun to mean something new and different today. It has certainly fuelled a reinvestment in realistic projects of preparation for the imminent reinauguration of a building that only exists in the scriptural imagination of a few. What was, until recently, a devotion to the ruins of the temple (over the last centuries focusing on the Western or Wailing Wall) has, since 1967, turned into a devotion to making arrangements for the imminent rebuilding of the temple. Secular Zionism does not know of such anticipations. This is the difference between secular and religious Zionism. Where secular Zionism seems to have fulfilled itself in the heroic act of capturing Jerusalem (and has been celebrating in Tel Aviv ever since), religious Zionism captivates the imagination of those who feel that the establishment of a state was merely, in the words of Rav Kook, “the beginng of redemption.” To escape the ennui of the new Israeli materialism and to justify the continued contest with Palestinian nationalism, religious Zionism can plausibly claim that essential work remains to be done.

Jerusalem’s standing as a city protected by God is enshrined in the historiography of the first monarchy (i.e., the Book(s) of Kings). A city once captured for reasons of state (to create an independent stronghold for the upstart David; or for reasons unkown to us), Jerusalem came to represent the spirit of Judahite independence. The moment of salvation at the time of Hezekiah’s rebellion against the Assyrian Empire was enshrined in 2 Kings 19:35-37 as a providential indicator, a moment when divine protection of the city had become manifest (the angel of death wreaking havoc in the Assyrian camp, forcing Sennaherib to lift the siege; 701 BCE). Yet this remained ambiguous since it engendered a superstitious belief in the inviolate status of the royal city, a delusion (as in the German Wahn) insightfully scolded by prophets a few generations later when this superstition blinded the Judahites to the harbingers of change that required prudence and realistic adaptation to a shift in the regional balance of power (I am referring to the rise of the neo-Babylonian Empire, in 609 BCE; prophet Jeremiah was famously jailed for counselling submission to the new hegemon). While the biblical prophets were realists, the land-owning class, backbone of the royal economy, were ever ready to invoke the glorious past in the belief that it guaranteed divine protection of their independence in the future.

Then and now, religious faith and political pride tend to combine with the result of making Jerusalem not just a prized possession, but a fetish. Fetishization, as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant defined it, entails the making of natural means that have the purpose of reminding us of our moral duty into ends in themselves. Among such natural means are the many symbols and rituals that make up the alphabet of our religious languages. Bowing down or praying in a particular direction, baptizing with water, and any number of other rituals have the effect of helping us reflect on why we are here and what we ought to do as we restrain our bodies and train our minds to pay attention to the ritual performance itself. Jerusalem has long functioned both as a symbol in its own right, as a point of spatial orientation, and as the locale of particular shrines. The monotheistic religions, as Ludwig Feuerbach argued, have the tendency of transcending the real in favor of the imagined. In this case, real access to the city of longing gives rise to renewed longing for a better, more Jewish city, confusing more Jewish (i.e., more resembling one’s scriptural phantasies) with more godly.

What one may learn from this is that the mission of secular Zionism is not complete; it is time for the celebrants in Tel Aviv to sober up and remind themselves that the task of the state cannot be limited to its own founding and to the securing of its military and economic well-being. As long as the religious future of the state is delegated to the religious Zionists and to the ultra-orthodox fringe, the secular state is complicit in its own undoing. Wake up, Tel Aviv!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Israel and Palestine for Dummies

One shouldn’t think that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is intractable. Nor does one need to know its entire history in order to understand it, though it’s not a mistake to know this history. Needless to say, where there are multiple players (such as in the case of a political conflict between two nations) there are multiple narratives. Where there are multiple narratives, revisiting the history of the conflict usually ends in a clash of narratives.

Here is where it’s at: Palestinians don’t have a state, but Israelis have a state. Israel is a nation state, one which declares itself both Jewish and democratic; Palestine is, well, even saying what Palestine is is tricky. It is definitely not a state. It is a geographic unit created by the British (on biblical boundaries, hence a “scriptural phantasy”), divided by UN resolution, so as to provide the basis for two states, one predominantly Jewish, the other predominantly Arab. (According to the 1947 UN partition plan, Jerusalem was to remain extraterritorial, a corpus separatum, under an international regime.) Mandatory Palestine therefore turned into a divided body: part of it is today the geographic base of the State of Israel, founded in 1948, while another part or other parts of it constitute the Palestinian territories. One of these territories, the West Bank, is still under Israeli military occupation and the other one, the Gaza Strip, was recently subject to an Israeli military campaign though it was previously vacated by the Israelis in an act of unilateral withdrawal. Both Gaza Strip and West Bank came under the autonomous governance of the Palestine National Authority after the Oslo Agreements of the mid-1990s. De facto the two regions are now ruled by two different Palestinian factions (Hamas in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority, or rather the PLO, in the West Bank). The West Bank continues to be riddled with expanding Israeli settlements established since 1967 when Israel captured the West Bank from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and the West Bank is militarily controlled by the State of Israel, which reoccupied the Palestinian territories during the Al Aqsa Intifada, which broke out in 2000 and has never officially ended, though it has since fizzled out. An additional feature is the “separation wall,” a security fence (including miles of concrete barriers) separating Israeli from Palestinian territory, though the wall’s placement has caused lots of grievances and complaints about the unnecessary hardships it imposes on Palestinians whose villages are sometimes cut off from their fields. The separation wall also attempts to sever East-Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Jews and Arabs have been fighting over Palestine. Setting aside the history of the conflict, there are a number of possible resolutions.

1) Establish a Palestinian State alongside Israel in the territories of Gaza and the West Bank with a connecting corridor. This is the much cited two-state-solution to the problem of Palestine, resulting in the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

2) Establish an Israeli-Palestinian confederacy with internally autonomous areas and joined administration of federal lands and resources. This would be a kind of one-state-solution with parity among its disparate constituents.

3) Get rid of the State of Israel and replace it with a democratic state of Palestine, with equal rights for all citizens.

4) Establish a rigorously radical Jewish state in Greater Israel, or a Muslim state in all of Palestine.

5) Continue managing the conflict without a resolution of the political issues.

Of these options, number one, the two-state-solution, has been the stated goal of the negotiations between the State of Israel and the PLO, which led to the Oslo Accords and subsequent agreements. It continues to be advocated by the PLO, the PNA, by Tsipi Livni’s Kadimah party, by Ehud Barak’s Labour party, and many others to the left of the current Likud government. The two-state-solution is widely supported among moderate Israelis and Palestinians. To be sure, the Palestinian state requires agreements with its neighbors, the Israelis, the Jordanians, the Syrians, the Egyptians, that would guarantee control over roads and bridges, air and sea traffic, tourism, water, agriculture, industry, etc. This is not even so difficult to imagine, as long as Israel respects the integrity of this state and its territory and as long as this state respects the integrity and security needs of its Israeli and other neighbors. Major problem to be solved on the way toward such an agreement: what to do with the Israeli settlements. This issue could be resolved either by vacating settlements or by compensating the Palestinians with territory currently held or claimed by the Israelis.

If I am not mistaken, option two (one confederate state) is advocated by Palestinian intellectuals who don’t believe that the two-state-solution is either viable or just, that Palestine is a single region, that Israeli Arabs are part of the Palestinian people and that one should not base a state on religious or nationalistic distinctions. Currently I know of no Israelis who feel this is the way to go, though in the past this was advocated by Brit Shalom, established by the likes of Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Henrietta Szold. This solution has been discredited as too idealistic, i.e., as not taking into account the need for national self-determination, and hence of the nation state as the only viable form of realizing national interests.

Option three would require a return to the status quo ante 1917, an undoing of a century of Zionist development in Palestine and the undoing of well ensconced instutions of a highly functional state. The Palestinian notables responding to the new situation created by the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of British mandatory government that separated Palestine from Trans-Jordan and from Syria were hoping to achieve sovereignty for the population of what they perceived as overwhelmingly Arab lands, nothwithstanding the religious affiliation of its inhabitants. This appeared as the most natural development, though it ignored the sincerity of the British commitment, made in 1917, to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This goal has therefore always been undermined by the resourceful competing interest of European supported Jewish nationalism. If it didn't work before the state of Israel came into being, it is unlikely to work now.

Option four
, the radical Judaization of Greater Israel (including the biblical lands of Israel located, of all places, in the high lands of Judea and Samaria, i.e., in the hill country north and south of Jerusalem that are the West Bank) or the radical Islamization of Palestine (an unprecedented idea given the long Jewish and Christian histories in the Holy Land): either variant would be plainly absurd and undesirable, except from extremist perspectives, which does not mean that it is not advocated by the respective radical fringes. And since radicals speak more loudly than moderates, it appears that there are not few advocates of radical solutions on either side.

Option five
is de facto the position of the current Israeli government. It has been widely noted that, in his first address to the Israeli parliament, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu failed to mention the term "Palestinian state." Instead he spoke of peace with Israel's Arab neighbors. To speak of the latter without mentioning the former means that the new Israeli government is planning to return to the tried and failed policies that were in place before Madrid and the first Intifada, the "Shaking-off" movement that began late in 1987. All the gains made in direct negotiations would be lost because Israel would deny the Palestinians the status of an actual partner in the negotiations between two sovereign people, reducing the Palestinians to an autonomous population without sovereignty. Clearly this is a blow to moderate Palestinians, aimed at delegitimizing them in the eyes of their own people and encouraging Palestinians to return to violence, which in turn will justify those Israelis who will be able to say, we told you so, the Arabs don’t want peace.

How does Jerusalem fit into this picture?

In the two-state scenario (option 1), Jerusalem is one of the “final status” issues, to be settled by negotiation. Other final status issues are the return (or compensation) of Palestinian refugees, i.e., a settlement of the claims of millions of Palestinians living in refugee camps in Palestine, the Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere, and the exact boundaries of the future Palestinian state. As to Jerusalem, Palestinians demand sovereignty over East Jerusalem, i.e., those territories of the city captured by Israel in 1967. Return to the pre-1967 borders (i.e., the 1949 armistice line) is also the overall condition for peace stated and affirmed by the Saudis in recent years. In other words, a return to something like the status quo ante 1967 (though replacing Jordanian by Palestinian self-government) would satisfy not just moderate Palestinians but much of the rest of the Arab world.

Secular Israelis have no big issue with this, but both the religious-Zionist settler movement and some ultra-religious Jews are adamantly opposed to giving up sovereignty over the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, over the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), the City of David, and ultimately would like to take full ownership of the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). Jewish religious attachment to East Jerusalem is enormous, and it appeals to the endtime phantasies of Evangelical Christians who support this kind of attitude.

Religious Zionism which really came into its own only after 1967 has recently latched on to East Jerusalem so vigorously that it appears even more difficult to dislodge it from this, its religious and national hub, than it would be to dislodge it from settlements in the ancient lands of Judea and Samaria, including such embattled places as Hebron. So much emotional, ideological, and material capital has now been invested in the Judaization of Arab East Jerusalem that it appears virtually impossible to reverse course without major civil and political disruptions over the Holy City. The secular authorities of the State of Israel are to be blamed for having supported the policies of unification of the city under the banner of its Judaization; none of the major political parties are exempt from blame for the failed policy objectives pursued in regard to the Holy City; hence it will require a major national effort to reverse course in this respect.

Because of the elaborate mythological and concrete investments of religious and secular groups alike in the Judaization of Jerusalem, the most likely option to be pursued in the near future is option five, the continuation of conflict management rather than the resolution of the conflict. This is so because to pessimists (and most Israelis are pessimists today) it appears the most realistic. It may also be expedient to a government devoted to a delegitimization of the Palestinian claim to statehood to foster what appear to be historically sound and religiously grounded Jewish claims to the Holy City. For this reason, government support of the settler institution currently entrusted with the excavation and display of the City of David will most likely continue and the claims of the Arab residents of the Village of Silwan will most likely continue to be dismissed.

For now, we can only hope that the Obama administration will muster the courage and patience needed to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. Human conflicts can only be settled by human means, i.e., by means of reasoned compromise rather than by radical solutions. Israelis and Palestinians need to learn once again to regard one another as legitimate antagonists with equally valid claims to dignity and self-determination. To accomplish this equilibrium at the negotiating table, mediation is needed that only the United States can plausibly and credibly provide.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Apropos Lieberman (Avigdor, not Joe)

Politicians can change their minds; after all they’re politicians. But it helps if they are strong-armed. This helps them to save face when they abandon long-avowed positions. In the case of Binyamin Netanyahu, combined European, Russian, and US American pressure may be needed to sway him to abandon a mindset and a set of avowed policies shaped before the first and certainly before the second Intifada. The first Intifada, the “shaking off” of the yoke of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories best remembered as an uprising of juvenile stone-throwers, brought about a seachange within Palestinian society. It was home-grown rather than PLO initiated, though in the end it was smothered in the handshake between Arafat and Rabin that put the PLO in charge of keeping the peace while Israeli occupation and settlement-building continued.

With the new administration in Israel being sworn in, look out for a return to the agenda of a few well-worn propagandistic causes. While making consiliatory gestures to largely irrelevant moderate Arab and Muslim nations, Netanyahu, in his first address as Prime Minister spoke of the threat of annihilation represented by Iran; this at a time when the US administration is trying a different path, one recognizing the possibility of turning an enemy into a partner for peace and stabililty in the region.

One of the issues likely to return to the forefront with a Netanyahu administration in Israel is the Holy City. Part of the new ruling coalition are those ultra-religious groups that won’t give an inch when it comes to Judaizing the eastern parts of Jerusalem, captured in June of 1967 and since expanded and unilaterally annexed by Israel. It may not be too early for President Obama and Secretary Clinton to remind the new Israeli Prime Minister that Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem defies numerous UN resolutions and that any further enforcement of the harsh residency laws aimed at evicting as many Palestinians as possible from the city will be noted by the international community and by the US government. There may even (gasp!) be consequences, such as the imposition of sanctions on Israeli trade and tourism.

Under Netanyahu, we are likely to see maximum administrative pressure, this side of legality, on Palestinians to leave a city that belongs to them as much as to anyone else. But we are also likely to see secular western governments hesitate to bring pressure to bear on a shrewd politician who has proven in the past that he knows how to pander to the religious right. Considerable political will and a clear understanding of the issues at stake will be necessary to prevent the next blow-up in the Holy City.

Sacred Place

The central location in modern life is the self. This is true not just for philosophers such as Descartes who discovered the Thinking I (ego cogito) as the source of all certainty, but it is true also in many other respects. To be sure, our selfperception as moral agents may be inflated and illusory, as Marxist critics of Western spirituality have it, but this does not make the notion of a centrality of the self less powerful and a less widely accepted presupposition.

Rousseau, Goethe, and others have taught us that the modern preoccupation with the self is a double-edged sword, one that is all the more potentially self-destructive for its powerfully seductive and self-flattering qualities. In the following, I consider the modern self’s infatuation with itself in light of two competing metaphors, that of sacred place and that of sacred space. Sacred place is a common notion in the study of religion and usually applies to the phenomenon of the location of the sacred or divine in space. Sacred place signals an immediately accessible and hence quite atavistic experience of the divine. The identity of a place is purely extraneous and hence more easily remembered and less abstract than the identity of a time. “It was here, that …” or “Here is where …” can be pointed to and it impresses itself on those who did not themselves witness the theophany but who are taught to associate its telling with the place, associating the ephemeral word with the immovable object, the outcropping in the rock, the towering terebinth, the mountain peak. The sacred may linger in any place that arouses our curiosity, attracts our attention, or frightens us.

Sacred place may interact with sacred time when rituals are involved but this is not necessary for the experience of a place as sacred. Sacred place precedes sacred time. The difference between here and there is prior to the difference between now and then, although they may also simply reside in, or preside over, different spheres of consciousness. The primal discovery that here is unlike there and that this here is different from all others (to the extent that a conception of “all” is at all necessary to form the impression of difference), may live on in our sense of home, of being housed instead of homeless, oriented rather than disoriented, rooted rather than rootless. Place and home, i.e., the sense of a special place, correlate with the circularity of the seasons, with the repetition and sameness of time. But here we seem to transition to something that is better named sacred space. Sacred space, in contrast to sacred place, indicates freedom, empowerment, domination, and room to move. It is not limited to experiences associated with a sedentary lifestyle. One can imagine hunters and gatherers returning to the same cave again and again for ritual purposes or shelter. But space can also describe the boundaries and range required by the migration of herds for pasture. The ancient city represents both, sacred space and sacred place, namely, protected space and divine presence, in that it is understood as the residence of the deity on whose power depends the regularity of the seasons and hence the fertility of the land and the fecundity of the herd.

To be sure, with the exception of certain rugged individuals and the stars ruling the heavens of politics and commercial entertainment, most of us don’t show any trace of similarity with extraordinary places that might qualify as theophantic loci. But the sacred place represents the source of sustenance and the ability to represent it depends on the expectations held by those who approach it and the efficacy with which it is able to fulfill these expectations. What if the self has turned into a place that is approached by others with expectations that are analogous in some important ways to those with which one traditionally approached a shrine, an altar, or a holy city?

In the Middle Ages, geocentric cosmology, neo-Platonic ontology, and belief in divine providence contributed to a richly symbolic and largely unified view of life. God was at the top of a hierarchy of beings; the heavenly bodies mediated the divine influence to the sublunar sphere; just as God ruled the eternal motion of the stars, king and pope ruled society, and all were held accountable. The charme of this worldview consisted in the notion that the earth as a whole was the center of the universe (and hence of divine attention), that the Holy City (Jerusalem) was the center of the habitable earth, and that the shadowy material world was more than just the often dismal conditions of life, namely, the microcosmic mirror of the underlying imperturbable and eternal order of things. The dignity of human life was grounded in its relation to the transcendent source of life rather than immanent in nature. This changed with the shift from a geocentric to a Copernican view of the universe. Modern science initially retained many of the intuitions and assumptions of neo-Platonic ontology, most importantly the notion of the unity of the cosmic order, the uniformity of laws of nature governing all natural phenomena. The only exception to this rule that science had to allow for, at least from a Kantian perspective, was the lawgiving capacity of reason itself. This allowed Kant to retain a sufficient foothold for the idea of freedom. The divine spark did not need to be abandoned or denied altogether but it had to be relocated from the place assigned to it by the worldview of myth to the place assigned to it by the worldview of critical philosophy. Without a physical center, the location of the divine source of life was compelled to move to the only place that remained open to the idea of freedom, i.e., the human spirit. But even from a non-Kantian and more utilitarian perspective, the source of life shifts from divine providence to the enterprising spirit of man. Thus, perhaps inevitably due to the collapse and displacement of the medieval worldview, the enterprising or entrepreneurial individual, the modern Faustian man or homo faber, moves to the center.

It is this centrality of the self in modern life that suggests that the self may have come to stand in for functions formerly exerted by sacred place. The new “Cloverleaf-Map,” one might argue, would be something like a “Google-Earth,” with “my maps” linked to the place of the self as its central location. Personal computing, flextime, and connectivity have dismantled the traditional notion of a work place, and the separation between between home and work (and even the commute that used to separate them temporally and spatially) has been replaced by the unified home-office. Where commute still happens, it has become just another purely extraneous and tangential element in the ubiquitous performance of work by means of wireless phones and blackberries. With the conditions of work being available anytime and everywhere, the self has become the mobile location and pure source of productivity. The only remaining location that truly matters is the self in its presence to itself that is now challenged to transform itself into a readily available presence to its others. The expectation of others is that the self be available to their demands, just like the deity is available at a sacred place either from far away (through prayer) or up close (through pilgrimage). The arrows pointing to the self as a hub of productivity and communication threaten to eradicate all privacy not just because of the expectations of others but also and perhaps primarily because the attention and constant demand exerted by potentially profound bits of information (e.g., emails or sms from family, friends, and colleagues, market updates) constitute a potent source of a radically individualized form of entertainment and the perpetual sustenance of a feeling of self-importance and meaning (“you’ve got mail!”). The intensity of productivity or its simulacrum, the availability and technologically stimulated activity, is the measure of selfhood and hence of one’s actuality. The virtual character of this type of actualization has, of course, long since been noticed, just as the increasing difficulty to distinguish between the virtual and the actual has been widely exploited not just in the entertainment but also in the service industry (think offshore call centers).

The self as the locus of freedom turns into the self as the focus of productivity. This comes with the loss of privacy and hence, paradoxically, with the destruction of the freedom on which productivity depends. It is as if the Faustian bargain of perpetual engagement has subverted freedom into its opposite: a complete sell-out of the room to move that is implicit in the modern notion of the self. What suggests itself as an antidote and a representation of an alternative is what above appeared as the correlate of the nomadic conditions of life, namely, attention to space rather than place. The self is drowned and extinguished when it is forced to function as a sacred place but it may be liberated and restored when construed in the sense of a sacred space. The irony of this reversal is that it suggests the substitution of an image of emptiness and abstraction for an image of engagement and fulfillment. Sacred space, somewhat reminiscent of Rousseau’s notion of nature in its opposition to the business and traffic of civil society, suggests a limit or boundary: up to here and no further! To be sure, the modern self will still be haunted by the paradox that the self remains at its center: hic Rhodus, hic salta! but it cannot fulfill the role assigned to it in the post-Copernican world unless it regains a sense of space that allows the self to reconstitute itself.

Traditional sacred place, the obligation to turn in a certain direction for prayer, the commandment of pilgrimage—although excentric from the perspective of modern assumptions about freedom and autonomy, these forms of theocentric spatial orientation remain available to us and have become a source of fascination for those in need of restoring a sense of sacred space. The most attractive destiny of pilgrimage for the alienated modern Western self has been the East, esp. the ashram. The ashram is attractive because it provides relief from the pressures of self-determination. The very goal of Buddhist meditation is the overcoming of the self and hence of the sickness of post-medieval Western man. While pilgrimage to Jerusalem may serve to some as a welcome source of spiritual reorientation, it seems to me that meditation, prayer, and yoga, as the more readily available sources of spirituality and of making space for the individual, have eclipsed the Holy City as a destiny of pilgrimage. The centrality of the self to modern man remains unchallenged. Can this modern self, this location of productivity that considers itself the location of divine freedom and creativity and that is in dire need of space to recover its anonymity in order to regain a sense of the preposterousness of the burden it carries, can this modern self be aided by a visit to the Holy City or will it be condemned to remain—a mere tourist? Even if one were willing to accept the hardships and self-deprivation required by a traditional pilgrimage, the modern city hardly requires it. It is also highly doubtful whether, to its modern visitors, the spiritual meanings of Jerusalem are able to penetrate the thick fog of political meanings the city has acquired over the past ninety years. Most importantly, however, not even as charming and complex a city as Jerusalem can disrupt the sense that the sacred is either in ourselves, or it is nowhere.