Jerusalem skyline by the Forward

Why does everyone want Jerusalem? CNN investigates in a new docuseries

Photo by AFP contributor

Sunday night, after Jews around the world mourn the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem on Tisha B’av, CNN will premiere a series that — in so many words — traces 3,000 years worth of conflict to the laying of those structures’ cornerstones.

Solomon’s Temple, author Susan Wise Bauer argues in “Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury,” represented the Israelites’ status as a settled nation. But, she says, it was also “a falling away from the original idea that God was supposed to dwell with His people.” In short: the Temple became God’s permanent house, transforming Jerusalem into one of the holiest places on the planet.

Add to this Jesus’ crucifixion in the city and Muhammad’s Night Journey from the remnants of the First Temple, where the Dome of the Rock now stands, and you have plenty of material for an entertaining, sometimes reductive and regularly challenging six-part docuseries.

Telling the story of the city through six battles over three millennia, the series debut features the clash of David (mutely portrayed by a Spaniard named Pedro Rudolphi) and Goliath (in a mesh-leather Hannibal mask, looking like Bane). In the show’s intro, the young shepherd’s use of a sling is match-cut with a masked Palestinian winding up his own and hurling a rock off camera, a parallel sure to rankle some with its implication. Less provocative is the account of David’s conquest of Jerusalem and his undoing for pursuing Bathsheba, the wife of one of his generals.

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A number of the talking heads note that, to a contemporary reader, David’s seduction of Bathsheba is probably rape. They’re far from the first to say this.

I was more surprised by the experts’ take on Solomon, who is called “cold-hearted” and a “despot” for purging the palace at the beginning of his reign — not mentioning the fact David told him to. Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore contends that rather than wisdom, the cut-the-baby-in-half parable connotes a kind of sadism. That’s not how most Hebrew schools I know teach it, and the Bible seems more mad at Solomon for all his idolatrous wives and building temples to other gods, but I guess Montefiore has a point. The challenges to closely-held beliefs don’t end in Tanakhic times.

Subsequent episodes of “Jerusalem” benefit from a fuller historical record, focusing on Roman-era Judea, the Third Crusade (which erroneously implies all Jews had left to Europe and Africa by that point), T.E. Lawrence’s adventures in Palestine and the first Arab-Israeli War.

The episode exploring the period of the British Mandate and the 1948 war seems to have received special attention, drawing a mostly even-handed account of events through the commentary of Israeli and Palestinian historians. That said, in the reenactments, the two sides don’t get equal time.

Because the Palestinians then lacked a central figure in leadership, the stand-in for the Arab world is King Abdullah of Jordan, who meets with Golda Meir in secret as David Ben-Gurion looks anguished in a basement somewhere. Having Abdullah present, when no Palestinian character is, realizes the show’s premise that other Arab countries were making decisions without Palestinian input — a fact that is often glossed over in discussions of the U.N. partition. To its credit, the choice doesn’t appear slanted; most of the talking heads acknowledge that one group’s independence is another’s Nakba.

We see footage of the displaced Palestinians, and also the rubble of Jerusalem’s Jewish quarter. Does one commentator state that Israel is a “Western colonialist project?” Yes, but then the doc also lets the IDF off the hook for absorbing the Irgun after emphasizing the latter’s terrorist tactics.

Of the three episodes made available for review, the series paints an incomplete, but surprisingly nuanced picture, aiming to explain how this universal city remains a pressure point of geopolitics and faith. The last episode, focused on the 1967 War, when Israel captured East Jerusalem, will also likely bring us up to date with the Trump-era embassy move and the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. However it dismounts, its content will not please everyone.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch, it simply means that this is a show about Jerusalem and Jerusalem still means a lot.

Author

PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.

CNN’s Jerusalem series is provocative — in a good way

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Why does everyone want Jerusalem? CNN investigates in a new docuseries

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