Thursday, January 27, 2011

Center and Periphery

Center and periphery are mutually constitutive, but Jerusalem has not always been central to the same periphery. As the periphery changes, the character of the center changes as well. Nor was Jerusalem always central. According to the archaeological record, Jerusalem was an insignificant dependence rather than a center for the kings of the Israelite kingdom, and it remained so for the later Samaritans (populations in the northern regions of central Palestine that consider themselves descendents of the ancient Israelites and at times maintained a central sanctuary on Mt. Garizim, near modern day Nablus). Jerusalem’s rise to the status of a small imperial center with a significant periphery presupposed the destruction of the northern Israelite kingdom (722 BCE). The ideological or religious rhetoric of Jerusalem’s unique status, found in prophetic and hymnic literature of the late first temple period, is similar to the imperial rhetoric of exlusiveness (“I am He and there is no Other”) employed by the Assyrians. But the periphery of Jerusalem’s political, economic, and military power certainly never extended beyond the boundaries of the map drawn up to describe the fantastical boundaries of the empire of King Solomon at the height of his power (see 1 Kings 4:21). In the ancient Judahite imagination, even at its most extensive, the deity who had chosen the Israelites, the House of David, and the city of Jerusalem as the place, from among all the tribes, for his name to reside, never extended beyond the land of Canaan and its periphery. But, once established, the rhetoric of centrality could be extended as needed and as the purview expanded within which biblical texts were read. The rhetoric of centrality remained, but it took on new meaning as the world perceived by the committed readers of Scripture expanded their horizon to an ecumenical and, ultimately, cosmic range.
            But the correlation of center and periphery is not limited to cultic centers or sacred places. Today, much of the wrangling in and over Jerusalem as a municipality and a capital can be described in terms of this correlation. Until June 1967 and from the perspective of the state of Israel, Jerusalem was a cul-de-sac capital, at the end of a corridor, divided in half, and surrounded by Jordanian territory. Its political and religious centrality was called into question by the marginality of its location, which was central only if it was mapped on the area of mandatory Palestine and if the Green Line drawn at the time of the cease-fire agreement of 1949 was considered tenuous rather than final. Jerusalem’s de facto marginal position within the Israel of 1949 to 1967 boosted Tel Aviv as an alternate center, reducing the government town of Jerusalem to the periphery. Even in religious terms, with the Temple Mount, the Jewish Quarter, and the Wailing Wall out of reach, Israeli Jerusalem offered little to Jewish, Christian, or Muslim tourists and pilgrims. The Israeli part of the city was economically peripheral to Tel Aviv and religiously peripheral to Arab Al Quds.
            Arab Al Quds was, in fact, not as much a divided city than an amputated one, even though it was cut off from its western hinterland. The Old City, core of Palestinian life and central to Palestinian identity remained in tact even when Palestine was divided. Nevertheless, due to the Arab-Israeli conflict and heavy-handed Jordanian policies, Jerusalem suffered a reduction in status. It was no longer the capital of Palestine, its elites were in many ways prevented from fulfilling their traditional roles within the governance of the country, and Amman—the Ankara of the Hashemite Kingdom—begrudged rather than enhanced Al Quds its status as the Istanbul of Palestine, which remained a major center of historical research and religious tourism for Christians and Muslims, though no longer for Jews.
            Today, with the separation wall sneaking through the hills of the Judean desert east of the city and cutting away Arab villages that had always constituted the hinterland and immediate surrounding of the city (an important and time-honored correlation of center and periphery), the correlation between center and periphery itself has become the most contentious issue. As a “final status issue” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jerusalem is all about whether Jerusalem can simultaneously function as a center to a plurality of peripheries.

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