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 http://gush-shalom.org.toibillboard.info/letter.htm.

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 http://www.templemountfaithful.org/) 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.