Promise and Redemption

Book review of Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Books Israel Judaism Middle East

Jerusalem the Golden: Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his undivided capital (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

To the educated British mind, mention of Jerusalem generally conjures up, at best, impatience with the apparently intractable problem of reconciling two equal and rival claims to the city, Jewish and Arab; at worst, fury at a presumed “occupation” by Israelis who have no right to claim it as their capital at all.

Such people would doubtless be amazed to learn that, some 10 centuries before the birth of Christ and 17 centuries before the birth of Mohammed, the city of Jerusalem was created by King David as the capital of the united kingdom of Israel and Judea. The Jews were in fact the only people for whom the land of Israel was ever actually their national home.

And the Arabs knew it. “Who can contest the rights of the Jews to Palestine?” the then mayor of Jerusalem, Yusuf Khalidi, told the Chief Rabbi of France in 1899: “God knows historically it is indeed your country” — even though, he added, the problem was that now there were others living there too. Those others were only there, however, because of the extraordinary impulse to conquer and possess this tiny piece of land — and above all, the prize of prizes at its heart, Jerusalem.

For after the Jews were finally driven out by the Romans in 70 CE, a myriad of different peoples and dynasties piled in to conquer it: Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Ummayads, Abbasids, Fatimids, crusaders from all over Christendom, Seljuks, Kurds, Mamluks, Mongols, Albanians, Ottomans and (in 1918) Britons. (The one name that does not figure in this great procession is the Palestinians — for no such people ever existed.)

Accordingly, as Simon Sebag Montefiore illuminates in his impressive “biography” of this most transcendent, mysterious and unique city, all these civilisations are embedded in its ancient stones like geological strata. What he brings out is that, from the start, Jerusalem was a global obsession. Peoples, religions and civilisations fought over it, conquered it and were in turn conquered. It was seen, quite simply, as the centre of the world, the hinge between heaven and earth. And   everyone wanted to possess it.

On the face of it, this was extraordinary. For Jerusalem was hardly propitiously situated — devoid of seas or rivers, a mere lump of barren rock in the middle of the desert. Throughout the centuries it was often desperately poor and squalid.

Indeed, it is still poor — mainly because of the high number of ultra-orthodox haredim who don’t work (another source of tension in a city that lives on its nerves). And yet it is still magnificent, luminous and utterly special. And that is because it is a city of profound spirituality and religious longing.

For both Judaism and Christianity, Jerusalem was the place where the end of days would occur; and because the Muslims knew that this was foretold by the Jewish and Christian prophets, they wanted to own it too. Like all millenarian dreams of redemption, this one exacted a horrific toll of fanaticism. To this eye-opening narrative of obsession, power-lust, and unspeakable savagery, Sebag Montefiore brings a novelist’s touch: vivid vignettes, stories and descriptions that leap off the page. Indeed, we could surely do without some of this graphic detail: Roman crucifixions, Tartar disembowellings, Crusaders piling up mounds of hacked-off limbs as a kind of religious sacrament. A city of peace this never was.

Strikingly, the seething hatreds coursing through it were not just between different religions but within them. In the 18th century, different Christian denominations hated each other so much that, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, every warring sect had its own lavatorial arrangement.  

Even today in that same church, Greeks fight the Catholics and Armenians, Copts fight the Ethiopians, and the only people entrusted with keys are Muslim Arabs from two rival families, who fight each other too.

People who think the State of Israel was a by-product of the Holocaust will also be surprised to learn that the real begetters were 19th and early 20th-century Christian evangelicals. They passionately believed in the redemption of the Jews to the land of Israel, and created the environment for the 1917 Balfour Declaration which paved the way for the Jews’ return to their ancestral home.

In describing these claims and counter-claims to Jerusalem, Sebag Montefiore takes pains to be totally even-handed — rather too much so. For he gives the impression that the fight for the city is between three religions with equal claims.

But they are not equal. The Jews created the city as their capital. Everyone else marched in and conquered it and did their damnedest to keep the Jews out. Christianity’s attempt to conquer Jerusalem derived from its desire to supersede Judaism; the Muslim attempt to conquer it — as today — derived from the Islamic drive not just to supersede its predecessor faiths but to appropriate and Islamise Judaism itself. But throughout, the Jews always retained their connection with the city, their holy of holies that has always been the focus of their prayers. 

Today, there are repeated Arab attempts to erase the copious, growing archeological evidence of David’s city and the ancient kingdom of Israel and Judea, which establishes the Jews’ indisputable claim to Israel and to Jerusalem. What is clear, however, is that it is only since the Israelis liberated East Jerusalem from the Jordanian occupation in 1967 that, for the first and only time in the city’s history, Jews, Christians and Muslims may freely worship at their shrines.

Sebag Montefiore, however, claims that this is only theoretically true. Non-Jews, he says, have their freedom to worship   restricted because of the security barrier and other bureaucratic harassments. But that’s only because of the need to defend these places from yet more violence. For exactly the same reason, Jews are forbidden by Israeli law to pray on the Temple Mount. 

In a war between truth and lies, justice and injustice, even-handedness ceases to be admirable and risks becoming instead partisanship for wrong-doing. Towards the end of this otherwise fine book, Sebag Montefiore falls into this trap. 

It is a similar trap — the misguided belief that fairness means splitting the difference between good and evil — that has led the West increasingly to abandon Israel to the prospect of yet further conquest and destruction. And so, as always, the peace of Jerusalem tragically remains merely a prayer.