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.

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