Sunday, September 12, 2010

Leave Jerusalem for last, but take seriously the plurality of attachments to the city

There are multiple attachments to Jerusalem, as of course there are multiple ways of being attached to Jerusalem. But not all attachments are equal. What I mean concerns any attempt to treat Jewish, Christian, and Islamic attitudes toward this city. Since boundaries and conceptions of Jerusalem are fluid (even the name by which the city is referred to is not the same for everyone), it is important also to distinguish between what aspect of the city the attachment relates to. If attachment and city are correlatives, what one means or refers or relates to as Jerusalem differs from attachment to attachment.

Moreover, not every attachment is of the same kind. Some are exclusivist, claiming that their attachment (and, implicitly, their right to presence and sovereignty) is unique and must be realized at the cost of excluding the attachment of others (though this may be mitigated by appropriate compromise on non-essentials); others are “tolerant” (though not necessarily in the modern relativistic sense) of other attachments, recognize their relative right, though not to the point that they concede their own superior justification to rule and to serve as the arbiter between their own and the claims of others.

Even secular forms of attachment differ from one another. There is the local patriotic or particular attachment of individuals and families to their neighboorhoods. There is the focus on a particular quarter that renders the city as a whole an abstract entity or where one (erroneously) extends to the city as a whole the affection one harbors toward one’s neighborhood. There is the attachment various publics have to what they consider their city. These may compete for things like the most pleasant garden-neighborhood or take political dimensions during municipal elections, especially where neighborhoods or populations are sharply divided by class, race, ethnicity, religion, and other similarly strongly distinctive social qualifiers. There is the city as conceived by city planners, engineers, and administrations, and the city that is subject to different ideological visions about its past, present, and future (secularist v. religious, demographically Jewish v. open to everyone, cosmopolitan v. national, green/conservationist v. industrially or commercially developed, etc.).

It is important to acknowledge that the neutralist or objectivist perspective on such a city is also a position, one that cannot claim any greater justification than any other perspective. Someone like Folke Bernadotte, who tried to arbitrate between different attachments, was shot because he tried to impose a neutralistic vision or whatever he saw as a just solution onto Jerusalem that was unacceptable not least because Bernadotte lacked the intellectual modesty (a virtue then perhaps more rarely found than today) to acknowledge that the international view had no more authority or legitimacy than the view of those on the ground who lived their attachment to the city every day and were driven by millennial commitments rather than any more mundane or topical concerns. They were ready to die, or at the extreme, to kill for what they saw as their city.

Likewise, little is gained if one treats every religious or national attachment to the city as equal. They may be equally justified but they are not the same. They differ. They are not identical. That is what makes the sitution of a city like Jerusalem so difficult. When it comes to Zionism, for example, Herzl was wrong to think that the Jewish problem he hoped to solve and that he had diagnosed in a particular way could be solved anywhere other than in the Land of Israel. More precisely, Jewish attachment to the land was a  force he neither fully understood nor could was he in control of the national-religious forces he helped to unleash and funnel in the direction of a political solution. The Uganda proposal erupted in his face. Likewise, all references to the disdain left-wing Zionist leaders are said to have harbored toward the Old City of Jerusalem and possibly toward Jerusalem as a whole and what it stood for must not fool us into believing that Zionism could have advanced or succeeded without Zion.

On the other hand, it is quite likely that Zion, namely, the conquest of East Jerusalem, killed Zionism as we knew it before June 1967. This is imprecise, of course. What died in June 1967, though its death was not evident for a while, was the superiority of left-wing idealism over right-wing idealism. The conquest or “return” to Jerusalem’s “abandoned” streets and markets marked the beginning of a new powerful coalition between neo-Zionist realism (rooted in Revisionism) and the religious settler movement working toward the redemption of Zion (a vague notion whose overall impetus is, however, clear in that it points toward maximalist goals such as settlement and rule over the “complete Land of Israel” and Jerusalem as the “eternally undivided capital” of Israel alone; not to speak of the building of the third temple).

The elephant in the room of political pragmatism and negotiated settlement today is the special attachment of “the Jews” to “Jerusalem.” All three major Abrahamic or monotheistic formations lay claim to the Holy City. But when it comes to Jerusalem, Jews are extraordinarily exclusivist or maximalist. This is not an insult but a statement of fact. Religious attitudes cannot be measured by the standards of the French Revolution. When it comes to Jerusalem, Jews feel no brotherhood with the rest of humanity or the equality and freedom appropriate for any peaceful competition. The Jewish feeling is: Jerusalem is ours, and we are Jerusalem’s! Perhaps it is even the latter more than the former that characterizes the Jewish attitude toward the city. No possession of any land is unconditional in the Jewish tradition. Everything is the LORD’s, the earth and those who are on it are all God’s creatures. But we, if I may include myself for the moment, are existentially, ontologically bound to Jerusalem. As Jews, we are exiles from the city of Judah, the Jerusalem of David and Solomon. This is an attachment of mythological proportions. It exceeds mere history. It is our cosmic place. This is why one finds Jews relate with derision to the Palestinian claim of tsumud, or “attachment.” “Clinging” to Jerusalem is second nature to Jews, and it is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of our sense of self that we cannot but belittle the way in which others feel attached to the city. This is neither nice, nor is it politically correct, but it must be recognized in order for all of us who care about Jerusalem to be engaging what is real before we can get to some agreement on what is desirable.

It is an entirely different question whether a Jewish state, a Jewish nation, or a Jewish municipality can work its way around the Jewish existential attachment to “Jerusalem” (upper/lower, this-worldly/other-worldly, the whole nine yards) and allow for others to be attached to the city as well, in whatever way they may feel attached.

The extraordinary recent media onslaught launched by all sorts of friends of Israel (including the heaviest of all heavy hitters, Eli Wiesel) on the Obama administration at a moment when it seemed to pressure the Netanyahu government to compromise on Jerusalem or when it seemed that the US government took it for granted that Jerusalem should be on the agenda for renewed peace negotiations before these negotiations even started, this onslaught is not really surprising when we consider the depth of the anxiety caused by the prospect of relinquishing any sovereignty over those parts of Jerusalem that are both most intimately connected with the Jewish past, which are the same parts that are essential to any future Palestinian Al Quds. It may be sage advice, offered by Prof. Wiesel, to leave Jerusalem for last. But at some point the question will need to be confronted. When that time comes, it will need to be confronted in a manner that avoids any semblance of a liberal diktat that ignores Jewish attachment to Jerusalem. We don’t need more political assassinations; we also don’t need another Massada. On the other hand, the Jewish state, the Jewish nation, and the Jerusalem municipality (currently still boycotted by the city’s Arab residents who could easily influence municipal policies were they to accept Israeli sovereignty and participate in its political processes) needs to figure out how to build confidence among its Christian and Muslim citizens and neighbors that, even if Jewish attachment and the Jewish right to rule Jerusalem were fully respected, Jewish state, nation, and the municipality can leave mental space and make sufficient room for the equally genuine attachment of others to the same city and land.

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