What an iPhone Feud Says About the Ancient Fight for Jerusalem

Who Owns the Holy City? Apple Says No One

New Phone, Ancient Feud: Apple fans are scooping up new iPhones. But what does the ultra-modern product’s take on Jerusalem say about the age-old feud over the Holy City?
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New Phone, Ancient Feud: Apple fans are scooping up new iPhones. But what does the ultra-modern product’s take on Jerusalem say about the age-old feud over the Holy City?

By Jeffrey K. Salkin

Published October 21, 2013, issue of October 25, 2013.
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In the story of Cain and Abel, it says: “And Cain said to Abel his brother…” (Genesis 4:8) But what did Cain say? There is nothing in the text about what he said to his brother.

The ancient rabbis imagined an entire conversation between the brothers. And what was the conversation about? One ancient sage suggests this: They were dividing the earth between them, and they were arguing about the future location of Jerusalem. Cain said: Jerusalem should be in my territory. And Abel rebutted and said: No, it should be in my territory.

And that is how long the world has been fighting about Jerusalem. Who owns it? According to the new iPhone, no one.

In the midst of all the excitement over the release of the new iPhone, which actually provoked miniature riots of people waiting in line, not to mention people hiring homeless people to wait in line for them — and the release of the iPhone’s new operating system, IOS 7, which carried with it near messianic expectations as to its quality, beauty and speed — here’s something that the average user would have completely missed. Unless you happen to want to change the time zone of the clock on your IPhone.

Go to the clock app, and then into world clock, and scroll through all the cities that are available. You will find yourself on a world tour that would make the editors of National Geographic dizzy. Adamstown, Pitcairn Islands. Amundsen-Scott Station, Antarctica. Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland — which has the distinction of having two q’s in a row with no u following, not to mention two I’s in a row. Let the record note: the world clock app locates both Gaza and Hebron in the Palestinian territories.

Every single city in the list, no mater how obscure and no matter how remote, is attached to a country.

Except Jerusalem. Jerusalem appears, but there is no country following it.

It’s not as if the IPhone is utterly allergic to Israel. It lists Tel Aviv as being in Israel. But Jerusalem? No man’s land.

With the last iPhone operating system (IOS6 ), Jerusalem was stateless as well. The omission was supposed to have been fixed.

This is not upgrading. It is degrading.

What’s behind this utter failure in Jewish geography? Do the developers of that app simply not know where Jerusalem is? (Isn’t this what Wikipedia is for? Or Google Earth?)

Have they, in the words of most internet browsers, simply “cleared history?” Are they waiting for the conclusion of a final status agreement on Jerusalem? Have they jumped ahead of John Kerry et al and simply assumed that part of Jerusalem will wind up in the future state of Palestine? Are they simply trying to be sensitive to all the iPhone purchasers in the Moslem world?

And, having made this error in the previous operating system, and having heard complaints about it, shouldn’t they have gotten the message?

Yes, we Jews sing in the Aleinu prayer: God has not made us like the other nations of the earth. But this is not what we had in mind – that our holy city would be the only one in the world that has no state.

Perhaps it is a misbegotten sense that Jerusalem really is a stateless place – that it is above and beyond the rigid boundaries of statehood. Perhaps it is the sense that Jerusalem floats above history, like characters in a Chagall painting – just as the Jews were once supposed to have been.

Because of the internet, social media – indeed, the IPhone and its cousins themselves – we are living in a time when it seems that the classic real estate rule – “location, location, location” – means less and less.

Our lives are increasingly portable. As technology has shrunken and invaded every corner of our private time, leaving us with no private time, so, too, we need no longer live in any well-defined geographical space. Many people no longer have ground lines. Your cell phone number is totally portable. You can be anywhere – and if you can be anywhere, then there is no reason to be somewhere. The only necessary kingdom is the kingdom of Wi-Fi – and increasingly, not even that.

The German poet Heinrich Heine once called Torah the portable homeland of the Jewish people. The text, he insisted, was the true home of the Jew. One strand of anti-Zionist ideology believes that the Jew must live above land, above history, and not sully its hands with the putrification of statecraft.

Add globalization to this mix and you see what is happening to the very notion of sacred space, sacred land and sacred cities – it is passé. When your documents, music and photos are already somewhere in this mythical place called “the Cloud,” then what happens in the earthly sphere somehow seems less important.

But wasn’t this exactly what anti-Semites had suspected all along? A classic theme of early Christian anti-Semitism was that the first murderer, Cain, personified the Jews, and he had been condemned to wander the earth as a rootless nomad. The Wandering Jew, sent into perpetual exile for the sin of having turned Jesus away, is a favorite anti-Semitic trope. The nineteenth century German theologian, Bruno Bauer, believed that the Jews were an ahistorical and “imaginary” people. Stalin infamously referred to Jews, especially Jewish intellectuals, as “rootless cosmopolitans” who had no loyalty to the Soviet Union.

Ambivalent Jews eagerly latched onto that charge, transforming a lethal accusation into a virtue. The Jewish Communist, Rosa Luxemburg, complained: “What do you want with these special Jewish pains? I feel as close to the wretched victims of the rubber plantations in Putamayo and the blacks of Africa with whose bodies the Europeans play ball… I have no special corner in my heart for the ghetto: I am at home in the entire world, where there are clouds and birds and human tears.”

And so, by refusing to attach Jerusalem to a specific country, the developers of the world clock app, knowingly or not, have participated in a fascinating, if disturbing, historical and ideological drama. Yes, the world clock app connects the uber-hip Tel Aviv to Israel. No problem there, and let us not begrudge Tel Aviv its well-earned and rightful designation.

But, by saying that Jerusalem has no country, the world clock app describes Jerusalem as the world would want to describe the Jews – as stateless. To which we might say to the nations of the world: You want statelessness? Fine. You like perpetual Diaspora? Great. You try it first. France? Germany? The Czech Republic? Any takers out there?

But as for us: Been there, done that. It didn’t work.

iPhone – give us back our Land.

*Jeffrey Salkin is the rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, NJ. His books have been published by Jewish Lights and the Jewish Publication Society. *


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