Friday, September 3, 2010

Emblematic, not exceptional

Jews and Christians tend to think of Jerusalem—and of the Jews—as exceptional. The Jews are a Middle Eastern people with a specific history that propelled them beyond their origins and into specific roles within particular societies. Their history is unique to the degree that every history is unique, while its particulars are never beyond analogy and comparison. Let us set aside the uniqueness of the Jews, which is ultimately a theological concept derived from the belief, shared by Jews and Christians and grounded in Scripture, that the Jews are God’s chosen people. Jerusalem, I think, should not be regarded as exceptional but as emblematic. It is emblematic of the complex religious, social, and political reality of the Middle East. I say this in view of three respects. One is the multi-religious and multi-ethnic character of the Holy City. The city is not unique in its plurality but eminently represents this plurality which is broadly characteristic of Middle Eastern societies. (See Bernard Lewis, Middle East Mosaic) The second respect in which Jerusalem is emblematic is the desire, driven—in this case—by Jewish religious nationalism, to overcome the pluralistic character of the city and to impose on it the will of a single people at the expense of the self-determination and equality of others. This trend is not unique to the Jews or the Jewish state. It is emblematic of many Middle Eastern societies where majorities or minorities rule autocratically and attempt to keep the rest of society under their control. Examples of this abound. The third respect is the force of radical religion in shaping the radical desire for dominance within the ruling majority or minority. In Jerusalem, ultra-orthodoxy has been pushing out the erstwhile secular majority among the Jews; religious Jews are exerting demographic and political pressure in determining the character of Jerusalem by forcing the secular segment of Jewish society to comply with the demands of the Jewish religion as they and they alone understand it. (See e.g. the affair of the Women of the Wall) This, too, has its parallels in other Middle Eastern (and other) societies and not only in Iran. One can overlook the fact that this is emblematic of a wider phenomenon only if one regards the Jews as a priori exceptional and their social and political behavior as unique and grounded in divine choice. The fact is that other communities see themselves in light of the same or an analogous assumption. Jerusalem, and Jewish politics in regard to Jerusalem, are therefore emblematic rather than exceptional.

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