Karl Marx famously wrote that when historic events recur, they appear “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” If Israel’s bloody conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967 (including the mass expulsion of Palestinians that followed it) was a tragedy, what can I call this latest chapter in the degradation of the place our prayers call “the holy city”?
The occupation of East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank has always been ugly — occupations can never be anything else — but today, 50 years after its opening salvo, this one has become a parody of its tragic beginnings. For Lyndon Johnson, we have Donald Trump; for Moshe Dayan, Tzipi Hotovely; for the seductions of Abba Eban, the crude boasts of a Prime Minister who has been publicly called a “liar, cheat and a crook” even by the nightclub bouncer who is now his Minister of Defense.
And for the June war itself? In the kitsch replay that ran on December 6, 2017, the trampling of Jerusalem by Israeli troops half a century ago dwindled to the pretense that this great city is nothing but the “capital” of a regime committed to apartheid in the Occupied Territories.
Oh, Jerusalem! What words are dark enough to mourn her disgrace?
If there was anything truly historic about the spitball Donald Trump threw in the face of international law last week, it was the depths of dishonesty to which Orthodox rabbis sank in order to praise it. Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, exulted that East Jerusalem under Israeli rule is “one of the few places in the Middle East where Jews, Christians and Muslims are able to pray in freedom, security and peace.” In the real world, one of Israel’s first acts as occupier was the destruction of the entire Mughrabi Quarter, including an ancient mosque, to clear space for Jews near the Western Wall; and the violent harassment of Palestinian worshipers at Al-Aqsa is a matter of record. For its part, the Orthodox Union chimed in with a blessing of Trump’s words as the fulfillment of “millennia” of Jewish prayers to “return to Jerusalem.” But every Orthodox schoolboy knows that this “return” is to coincide with the coming of the Messiah — so either the OU is prepared to accept a smarmy non-Jewish womanizer as the Anointed One, or its rabbis need to go back to basics in their Jewish education.
Either way, it’s hard to know which was the more painful offense last week: Trump’s embrace of the brutal occupation of sacred ground, or the rabbis’ falsification of centuries of Jewish longing for a Jerusalem freed from temporal fetters and open to all.
My own experience of occupied Jerusalem is that of a visitor, but I know all too well how the occupation’s propagandists have served their ends by debasing religious poetry into jingoistic rhetoric. Just 9 years old when Israeli troops blasted their way into the Old City, I was introduced to the conquest of Jerusalem through my father, who visited Israel after the war as part of the staff of Senator Birch Bayh. He brought back with him a recording of the 1967 Israel Song Festival, which had taken place just 3 weeks before the IDF’s assault on the West Bank. That performance culminated in a new Hebrew song called “Jerusalem of Gold” — specially commissioned for the event by West Jerusalem’s Mayor Teddy Kollek, as I later learned — and memorably sung by the young, sweet-voiced Shuli Natan.
Though songwriter Naomi Shemer’s lyrics were a slovenly pastiche of biblical tropes, crowned by a plagiarized line from a poem of Yehudah ha-Levi (turns out she stole much of the music, too), “Jerusalem of Gold” electrified its audience, and my young ears thrilled with what seemed like a revelation: it was as though the language of the Hebrew prophets were being reborn in my own lifetime.
Today — 50 years older and perhaps a little wiser — I know the difference between religious feeling and its vulgar exploitation. As an observant Jew, I know what it means to face Jerusalem when I pray — not because I’m attached to the animal sacrifices performed in the ancient Temple, but because I want to link my prayers with the aspirations of all my ancestors, to join my voice to the whole drama of Jewish history. And because I know that, I know how obscene it is to convert such aspirations into a call for military conquest.
And I want to cry aloud at the Orthodox rabbis who, alongside some of America’s sleaziest Christian fundamentalists, now boast of being “the tip of the spear” of the lobbying behind Trump’s declaration: Don’t you see that you are destroying the very things you claim to stand for? That the more you genuflect to Trump, the more you prove your subservience to naked power? That the louder you beat the drums of war, encouraging still more violence against Palestinians, the more you advertise the bankruptcy of your faith? “Tip of the spear”? Try the rear end of the bull.
Militarism and power disfigure everything they touch, and it was inevitable that Naomi Shemer, having corrupted a biblical tradition, would then corrupt even her own version of it. After the June war she added a triumphal stanza to “Jerusalem of Gold,” never so much as mentioning the destruction of Palestinian property — and life — that was marking Israel’s seizure of those long-coveted “wells and fountains” even as Shemer’s celebratory words were being written.
But real beauty survives kitsch. The last words of the poem Shemer plundered for her refrain have never cried out more keenly to me than they do today. Drawing on Jeremiah’s lament (9:10-11) for a Jerusalem he pictured as empty of everything but the howling of desert animals, Yehudah ha-Levi wrote, “To weep for your degradation, I am [like] jackals; at a time when I dream of your return from captivity, I am a harp for your songs.”
Today Jerusalem is disgraced by a military occupation — a defacement doubly repellent because it cloaks itself in Judaism. Today, religious Jews can only howl like jackals for the cynicism of their religious leadership and the corruption of a heavenly ideal. But in my dreams, I still see the holy city as Isaiah once longed to see it: a place to which all peoples freely travel to learn a new and blessed way of life, in which “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”