Jerusalem's Three Unauthorized Portraits

New Books Take Divergent Approaches to Famed Holy City

Three Times Holy: Three books take very different approaches to the divisive history of Jerusalem.
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Three Times Holy: Three books take very different approaches to the divisive history of Jerusalem.

By Jo-Ann Mort

Published November 20, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.
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Carroll also documents how the early Americans carried Jerusalem in their hearts to the New World from their home countries. From Herman Melville’s notion of Americans as “the peculiar, chosen people” to John Winthrop’s messianic “shining city on a hill,” Jerusalem was the spiritual epicenter of the new America. By the early 1800s, according to Carroll, more than 200 American cities were even named for Jerusalem.

Millenarian movements of the Middle Ages and Pentecostalism valued Jerusalem. Today’s evangelical Christian right runs in a direct line from the millenarians, who see the Jewish conquest of Jerusalem as the prelude to the Second Coming of Christ. Jerusalem as an elixir is so powerful that it has even captured the myth of Christopher Columbus, with Delaney’s claim that Columbus’s quest for jewels and fortune for his rulers was driven by an urge to finance a renewed crusade to win back the city for the Christians.

But its place in world mythology has not brought peace, and certainly has not brought unity, to this troubled city. The ultra-religious Jews whose increasing influence over the past 20 years has driven out all but the last remnants of a moderate Jewish population in Jerusalem demand that everyone in the city follow their dictates. And 43 years after “reunification,” the cultural divide between Jews and Palestinians is tremendous, with points of reference for daily life almost completely different on the two sides of the city, even among educated groups. East Jerusalemites read different newspapers, watch different television stations and send their children to different schools than those to which their Western neighbors send theirs. Palestinian neighborhoods continue to be ill served by the “united” municipality: Trash collection, road paving and street signs are all barely functional.

Even the time zones sometimes are different East to West. Just as the Orthodox rabbinate influenced the Israeli government to switch to daylight saving time earlier than usual to accommodate religious Jews’ Yom Kippur fast, so, too, did the religious Muslim clerics convince the Palestinian Authority to do so for Ramadan which, this year, was most of August. So, when the clock shifted back in the West Bank in August, Palestinians in Jerusalem shifted with it — at least psychologically. And for about a month they had to remember to go forward or backwards an hour as they navigated the Israeli border.

Jewish Israelis almost never go beyond the Old City, certainly not to the areas near the municipal border — large Palestinian villages such as Beit Hanina, a town with more than 27,000 people in it, just 5 kilometers from Ramallah — or even to the nearer Wadi Al Joz, Shuafat or Sheikh Jarrah neighborhoods. Nor do American Jews, for whom Jerusalem exists more like a “Disneyland for grownups,” go there, preferring instead to see the holy sites and museums. One of the only mixing points in the city is the relatively new Mamilla outdoor mall, where secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews all come, as do the wealthier Palestinians from the outlying neighborhoods like Beit Hanina.

This past summer I sat on the porch with a friend in his family home in Sheikh Jarrah to celebrate the first night of Ramadan. This prominent family first settled in this neighborhood in the late 1880s, and their history is well told in Montefiore’s book. Today they are fighting for three of their properties in this neighborhood, against extremist Jewish settlers. We sat on the back porch, looking east, and waited for the Ramadan cannon shot in the Old City, signaling the end of the fast day. On the street outside, workers under electrical spotlights were pumping water into the construction site taken over by Jewish settlers on the corner.

“The linear order of time keeps getting lost in Jerusalem, just as the spatial realm, by being spiritualized, keeps evaporating — except for those who actually live there,” Carroll stresses. I thought of Jerusalem’s balancing act, between Jew and Palestinian, between past and present, between religion and secular daily life, all this as I walked outside from the back porch’s quiet to the dissonance of the construction on the street. I drove out of the neighborhood with the ancient walls in the distance, wondering — as do these three authors — how it will all turn out.

Jo-Ann Mort writes frequently about Israel for the Forward, Dissent and other publications.


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