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.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Holy City as a Scriptural Fantasy

Jerusalem is over 3,800 years old. The name appears in Egyptian execration texts, bowls or figurines with the names of enemies to be smashed in rites of sympathetic magic by priests concerned with protecting Egypt from encroachments from its northeastern borders. At just about the same time, which archeologists refer to as the Middle Bronze Age, we have evidence of monumental fortifications and a tower near the only source of perennial water that was the reason why someone built this city in the first place, on a narrow ridge, surrounded on three sides by steep valleys, in the southern central hill country of what the Egyptians called “the land of the retenu,” what the Bible calls the Land of Canaan, what since Roman times has been known as Palaestina or Palestine, and what Muslims, Jews, and Christians refer to as the Holy Land.

Uru-shalimum or Urusalim, meaning “Founded by Salem” or the evening star, is neither one of the world’s most ancient cities, such as Jericho (which goes back about 10,000 years), nor one that served as administrative center of a great empire, such as Babylon, Nineveh, Persepolis, or Rome; in fact it was repeatedly conquered or subjugated by competing civilizations, either because it was on their path to more desirable prizes or because its residents refused to pay tribute. It was twice completely destroyed, once by the Chaldeans or neo-Babylonians, and once by the Romans. In its place, the Romans built a military colony, which they called Aelia Capitolina, in honor of Hadrian. This should have been the end of Jerusalem. In the event, it was not Jewish irredentism but a curious turn within Roman civilization itself that led to the revival or, one might say, to the resurrection of the city in the 4th century CE.

I have been working on the history of Jerusalem as a symbol of the western Scriptural monotheisms. No city has been more thoroughly excavated and probably no city has attracted more attention from pilgrims, tourists, and scholars. Few other places stimulate similar competing popular sentiments. The question I am trying to answer is why we—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—care about the city the way we do. The answer, I believe, has to do with Scripture. Without Scripture, the Christian movement would have attached no significance to an erstwhile Jewish royal or temple city; without Christian attention to the complex meanings of the city in Scripture, Jerusalem would not have been excavated by Empress Helena; without Constantine and his successors and their attention to the symbolic value of Jerusalem, Umayyad Caliph Abd Al Malik would not have chosen this mainstay of Christian Orthodoxy as the location of the first monumental building in the long and thenceforth distinguished history of Islamic architecture; without the scripturally motivated desire for reconquest stoked by Urban II, Jerusalem would not have been taken by the half-starving, half-frenzied Frankish knights in the bloodbath of the First Crusade; without the model of the Crusading Franks as their enemy and Jerusalem as their prize, the much divided Sunnis of Syria would not have united behind a jihad for the Holy City, accomplished by Salah-al-din; Suleiman the Magnificent, the new King Solomon, rebuilt the walls of Al Quds and invited Jews to settle in his realm because he, too, saw himself as the prince of peace and the manifestation of a scriptural order; without their Protestant Biblicism, the British would not have made Jerusalem the administrative capital of mandatory Palestine, drawn up along scriptural boundaries; and without its eschatological undertones, Israel’s capture of the Old City of Jerusalem and the “Temple Mount” in 1967 would not have turned into the ticking clock of an endtime scenario popularized by Jewish mystics and their Evangelical allies alike.

Scripture depicts what archeology tells us was a modest Iron Age hill fortress as the glorious capital of a “united kingdom” under David and Solomon; it is this kind of fantasy that has made Jerusalem the stumbling block for the nations that it is today. To be sure, Scripture is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for Jerusalem to rank centrally in the political design of communities, nations, and empires. Things are not that simple. What a Scripture is, how Scripture and politics interact, and how Jerusalem played into Jewish, Christian and Muslim imagination across the ages cannot be stated in a few words.

What is immediately clear however is that it may be necessary to understand the role of Scripture not only in the making of traditional attitudes toward the Holy City but of the role these attitudes, or fantasies, in the making of the modern political conflict.

What is astounding to those of us who came of age in the 1970s in an environment where it was taken for granted that religion was merely the vestige of the reactionary capitalism of the conservative 1950s, is that religion has returned to the front and center of national and international conflict across the globe. There is a growing realization that we must get used to the staying power of religious commitments. I venture to say that our liberal teachers failed to prepare us for this fundamentalist resurgence. We must therefore try to figure out ourselves, what gives religion this staying power and how to deal with the onslaught of the political theologies of the day.

When the Romans destroyed the Herodian temple of Jerusalem and eventually banished the Jews from living in its vicinity, they underestimated the power of memory and of a type of religion based on a major institution of memory that was both detached from city and temple and yet preserved the memory of city and temple across time and space. This institution is Scripture. It is the Jerusalem of Scripture, of the biblical writings preserved, studied, annotated, interpreted, and perpetuated by Jewish and Christian groups, that allowed the memory of the earlier Jerusalem not only to remain alive but to grow into the focus of intense apocalyptic expectations: Jews, Christians, and Muslims share the belief that Jerusalem is to be the location where the creator-god is to end the rule of injustice and establish a final dispensation, the reign of God on earth, accompanied by the resurrection of the dead, the punishment of the wicked, and the reward of the righteous. In this Scriptural fantasy, Jerusalem is the symbolic center of the earth, the location of divine rather than merely human judgment. This alone suffices to explain that any political compromise, any pluralistic and inclusive arrangement, and any sharing of souvereignty over the Holy City goes against the grain of the increasingly uncompromising fundamentalist factions among all three religious communities.

Seduced by Scripture, the Roman Empire itself was too weak to stem the tide of this powerful belief and in fact enhanced it by lending it the power and representation of the state. The transformation of Rome into Byzantion signifies the beginning of a political world dominated by Scriptural fantasies in which Jerusalem figures prominently as a kind of “exhibit A,” providing tangible evidence of divine providence.

Jerusalem would long since have been forgotten had it not been resurrected by the Roman Empire, which was the first in a succession of major political powers to utilize the remnants of a more ancient Jerusalem to create a shrine, a center of pilgrimage and worship, and a symbolic center of the earth that Rome itself no longer plausibly provided for the citizens of an empire largely centered in the east. If we understand this moment, when this earlier Jerusalem was excavated, if we understand the powers released by this resurrection of ancient Jerusalem, then, I believe, we understand what is going on in the Middle East today, where excavation of the biblical past has been the tool du jour for those staking a claim to legitimate ownership and justified rule.

Scripture provides the basis for shared assumptions that provide mechanisms of both inclusion and exclusion. Scripture provides sources of history grounded in divine volition and prophetic revelation. For moderns, Scripture provides a strong counter-model to nature as the ground of equality; it is used to establish and sharpen communal and national differences. In a post-secular world, which has seen a decline of classically modern political ideologies and utopias, Scripture has reemerged as a source of identity and orientation. Let me call this phenomenon the “re-religionization” (Moshe Zimmermann) of theo-politics by means of Scriptural fantasies.

My goal is to tell the story of this city in a way that does not already presuppose the valuations drawn from its Scriptural configurations. As historians, we aim to retrieve the openness of every historical moment. This is an elusive, fragile goal, because we always already presuppose the historical sources that were shaped by its outcome. Thus, any study focusing on Jerusalem is configured by the focus on Jerusalem that we inherit from our Scriptural traditions. Even the most seemingly neutral study of the ancient world of the southern Levant is therefore always fraught with predispositions, partisanships, distortions, polemics, and apolegetics.

My goal is not that of biblical history or archeology. Rather I am interested in identifying and understanding our received narratives for what they are, namely, imperatives formulated for the present or future of their authors in light of their historical experience. This implies partisanship rather than objectivity and interest rather than disinterest (the elusive goal of the modern historiographer). While this is true of every history based on existing historiography, in this case we are also dealing with the canonical or sacred history of the scriptural traditions (texts, interpretations, institutions) that received this ancient body of texts in a particular manner, formed in light of particular historical experiences and present interests that are in many way discontinuous with those of its predecessors and hence employ well-honed strategies (such as figurative interpretation; paraphrastic renarration; augmentation; etc.) that serve the goal of obfuscating difference.

Jerusalem’s late ancient resurrection and refashioning into a commemorative shrine to the truth of divine providence reveals something about how, and why, the symbols of monotheism work, and why they exert such a lasting influence on a large segment of the world’s population.

When I set out to write a book on Jerusalem, I did not anticipate the degree to which my work was to consist in deconstruction or, to use a less odious term, deflation.

I realized only gradually that the goal of my work is to engage the tacit assumptions and unquestioned presuppositions that guide not just policy makers but every ordinary Christian, Jew, and Muslim, and that make it so difficult for all of us to think afresh the question of the future of the Holy City.

Tacit assumptions work in the most extraordinary ways. This is true whether they’re consciously exploited or simply exert their influence as shared assumptions around which political and religious consensus crystallizes.

I approach the Holy City as a secularist, a skeptic, and a scholar of religion. As a secularist, I look at the religious attitudes people bring to the city of Jerusalem and I ask myself, why is it these people care about it the way they do. The object of my study, therefore, is not the city as such but the attitudes people bring to it and that make it what it is—to them. As a skeptic, I proceed from the assumption that we have no knowledge of essences, of things in themselves, such as God, for example. What we can have knowledge of must be the object of possible experience, as Kant might say. As a scholar of religion, I look at religious attitudes, and make them the subject of my study, trying if not to explain, then at least to understand what they are, where they come from, and, if possible, how they work.

There is an obvious utility to this approach in the case of a hotly contested site as Jerusalem, where religious and national sentiments are mixed in many ways and where disentangling the religious from the secular may be very much in order. In this context I find it extremely difficult to swallow really just one attitude, and that is the attitude of deference many well-meaning secularists and confessing unbelievers bring to the religious attitudes of others. Unbelievers often don’t consider themselves competent to judge believers. This is particularly dangerous in divided societies, and modern societies are generally divided rather than homogeneous in this respect, that is societies are divided between secular and religious, unbelievers and believers, but generally the argument of the believers is louder and more vigorous and presented with the tone of conviction, and hence commonly carries the day. As someone subscribing to the agenda of the Enlightenment I tend to believe that it matters to strengthen the voice of reason, i.e., the voice of skepticism, caution, moderation, and compromise. In this sense, I am not objective. I take a stand, in the classroom and in my writing on Jerusalem, in favor of reasonable compromise. The purpose of my entire teaching and writing on religion is to find a way of identifying the causes and the uses of radical belief, a belief I find equally dangerous among Jews, Muslims, and Christians. It is the self-righteousness and smugness of belief that bothers me, and, in the case of Jerusalem it is the political exploitation of belief that bothers me.

Does this approach lend itself to a resolution of the modern political conflict?
Radical solutions, such as flattening Jerusalem or banishing Scripture may be desirable but they may not be attainable. But we may be able to at least deflate some of the common assumptions by which religious claims acquire a degree of plausibility that can be exploited to evoke spontaneous assent even among basically secular or religiously moderate people. In other words, my hope is that by retelling the story of Jerusalem, I will make believers into skeptics, or at least sufficiently rattle the unacknowledged presuppositions of the moderates so as to persuade them that it might be alright to withhold one’s assent to the schemes of one’s more radical peers.
The Jerusalem-blog is a place for thought and information on Jerusalem, a city holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims contested between Israelis and Palestinians.

I don't advocate radical solutions. To the contrary, the goal of this blog is to provide mental and verbal space for the advancement of moderation and compromise.

Here are some more radical solutions that I've considered in the past but don't believe are practical.

1) Hand the city over to FIFA, play soccer turnaments every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Anyone who does not like it should move to Damascus or Tel Aviv. (Rejected because of FIFA's alleged corruption.)

2) Flatten the city and build another one in its place. (Rejected: Neo-Babylonians tried this, but then the Persians overthrew them and allowed the Jews to rebuild. The Romans did it, but then they revived the city and turned it into a major Christian pilgrimage site, forbidden to Jews. As long the memory of Jerusalem lasts, no attempt to erase it will succeed.)

3) Eliminate all holy scriptures so as to cause believers to forget why they raise such a fuss about the city. (Book burnings have been tried by the Catholics and the Nazis. This also isn't very practical or successul at erasing every possible memory, other than in science fiction.)

I am inviting everyone to post alternate solutions to the Jerusalem problem, which will continue to trouble and engage us for the foreseeable future.

Michael Zank

Michael Zank is  professor of religion at Boston University where he teaches classes in Jewish Studies, western religion (Bible, Moses, Jerusalem) and philosophy of religion. He holds a graduate degree in Protestant Theology and a doctorate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies (Brandeis University 1994) and is currently writing a brief history of Jerusalem. For more, see HERE.