Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nir Barkat's Tunnel Vision

In an interview with the BBC's George Alaghia (broadcast today, March 23, 2010), Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat asserted that Jerusalem is not a settlement. The interviewer probed further (I quote from memory): "How many countries have their embassies in Jerusalem?" The mayor feigned ignorance, though he was forced to admit that no major nation keeps embassies in the Holy City. (In fact, the last rather minor states that had refused to remove their embassies from West Jerusalem after June 1967 did so in 1982, after Israel's parliament passed a law declaring Jerusalem the eternally undivided capital of Israel.) When asked why Israel insisted on contested Jerusalem rather than uncontested Tel Aviv as Israel's capital, Barkat rejected the question as "insulting." "Just read the Bible" he said in exasperation, assuming that this was going to dissipate any vestige of incomprehension when it comes to modern Israeli or Jewish sentiments toward this city.

What if we took Barkat by his word and read the Bible for Jerusalem and its place in the Jewish past? Would it give us a clue to the place Jerusalem holds in the collective imagination Barkat and others are invoking when they speak of the city and its centrality in Jewish historical memory and aspiration? Does the Bible confer a political right of ownership to Jerusalem, or does it mandate that Jerusalem serve as the capital of a Jewish state?  Just as Barkat does not seem to know whether or not any state maintains an embassy in the city of which he is the mayor, he ignores the fact that Jerusalem is not even mentioned in the Torah. The great code of Jewish law and the foundation of Judaism says nothing about the city, at least not directly, and what it says has nothing to do with the modern state. I would like to sit down with the mayor of Jerusalem and read Ezekiel chapter 16, a passage that does mention Jerusalem and its authorities, though not kindly or fondly.

What Mr. Barkat invokes rests on the modern national-religious narrative, not on the Bible. Why does he invoke it now? Why does he think it is politically useful or acceptable to idolize Jerusalem, i.e., to make it the object of a veneration that would be unworthy of being called Jewish were it not for the fact that it is shared by a great many Jews and not a few Christians? True, his constituents may idolize Jerusalem to the point of thinking that it is exclusively and eternally theirs by divine right, but this will not blind them (one hopes) to the point that they will ignore that Mr. Barkat's myopic vision does nothing to solve the city's acute problems. These problems are not exclusively political. What the ratcheting up of the national-religious rhetoric is meant to obscure are the perennial problems of a city whose problems are far more mundane and elementary. Barkat had won the recent mayoral election because voters (i.e., the majority of those who voted) hoped that he was able to attract investment to the city's fledgling high-tech industries and increase the dismal numbers of pilgrims and tourists on whom the city's service industry has always depended. It appears that he has been less successful than those expected who gave this political newcomer the benefit of the doubt. Now the exposed position of this ancient and contested though in fact rather provincial city has afforded this rather provincial man a platform from which to shape his public profile as the champion of a narrow vision of a Judaized and Israelitized Jerusalem. This should not make us forget that any and all nationalist rhetoric and the recent settlement shenanigans emanating from Jerusalem are mere ploys to distract the voters from the fact that the economic situation in Jerusalem continues to deteriorate. 

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