By Michael Goldfarb
When the assignment to go to Jerusalem first came up I made a solemn vow not to use that quotation from the Bible.
You know the quote that appears in all stories about Jerusalem, the one from Psalm 137, verse 5, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem..." I wasn't averse to a bit of Biblical quotation in my finished piece. In fact I packed my copy of the King James Version for handy reference.
But I was sure not going to use the quote that's become a clichˇ. And once I was in the Holy City I found that there were other passages in the Bible that were more apposite to today's situation. For example: "How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people" (Lamentations chapter 1, verse 1).
|A view of Jerusalem. (Av Harris)
I arrived in a Jerusalem in a state of high anxiety. It is a place of random violence. There have been enough suicide bombings and drive-by shootings during the new Intifada to have every one on edge. It's the kind of violence that you can't prepare for. The kind of violence that will find you if your number is up. But still, people seemed not to want to tempt fate. Who wants to be the one who gets shot at from a passing car? Who wants to be the one walking obliviously down the main drag and getting blown into oblivion by a suicide bomber? It's a stupid way to die. When I got to town a colleague told me: Don't go to the Old City after dark. Don't walk from the Arab East Side to the Jewish West Side after dark. It's dangerous. I didn't listen. My second night in town, I walked from my hotel on the Arab side of town to meet a friend at a nice restaurant on the West Side. It was only 8 p.m. I was just about the only person walking in the street. And Jerusalem is a wonderful place for walking. The only other pedestrian I encountered was a Palestinian teenager being interrogated by a platoon of soldiers who were curious to know what he was doing on the West Side of National Road 1, the unofficial dividing line in the united city of Jerusalem.
Even by day the city was comparatively empty. The current violence has pretty much killed the tourist trade. Israeli unemployment statistics released while I was there showed 77,000 people lost their jobs in the last quarter of 2000. Most of those jobs were in the tourism industry.
The upside of this was that the Old City was empty during the day and one could really get a physical sense of the place and its remarkable streetscape - a medieval warren of streets, many not much more than a car and a half wide, zig-zagging up and down the Old City's four hills. It was possible to walk normally without being trapped in people jams. A group of twenty pilgrims stopping by one of the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa can cause a massive and irritating pedestrian bottleneck. But I was free to simply stand and absorb the Oriental atmosphere and watch the residents of the place: Palestinians, some in traditional dress, Jewish settlers, machine guns slung at their sides, Chassidic Jews wandering from the Wailing Wall back to Mea Shearim over on the West Side. All going about their business as they always do without the camouflage cover of tourists.
"Since the day that I brought forth my people out of the land of Egypt, I chose no city among all the tribes of Israel to build a house in ... But I have chosen Jerusalem" (II Chronicles, Chapter 6, verses 5 and 6).
The house in question is the Temple. Built by Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, re-built and then destroyed by the Romans. Its remnant is the Wailing Wall. I went there to pray. Twice. Although I had religious education, I am not observant so it was unusual to bow my head and say the words that I memorized long ago but hadn't uttered in decades. But if you are Jewish, the Wall will get to the core of you in ways that even the most determined secularist can't explain. I bought a yarmulke from a Russian immigrant outside the grand plaza in front of the Wall so I could make my devotions. One afternoon I prayed on my own and then on Shabbat, I joined the Carlebach minyan to sing in the Sabbath.
While dancing around in a circle, singing a song whose words I did not know but whose tune was easy to pick up, I noticed that a crowd of several hundred tourists had formed in the plaza to watch the various groups sing and dance. I have been to many churches and mosques as a tourist and a journalist and watched other people's religious practice. This was the first time my practice had ever been the object of tourists' curiosity.
"Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens" (Lamentations Chapter 5, verse 2).
Although the above does not come from the Koran, it does more or less get to the core of the Palestinians' view of the situation. The right of refugees to return to their homes is at the heart of the Middle East problem. The Camp David summit broke up last year because just as a solution to the problem of Jerusalem seemed to be within sight, the Palestinian negotiators insisted that U.N. resolution 194 be honored. This was a resolution passed in 1948, after the Israeli War of Independence calling for Arabs to be allowed to return to their land. For three decades, Palestinians have been demanding that Israel return land conquered in 1967. At Camp David, Israel was prepared to pretty much do that. Now Palestinians were demanding refugees be allowed to go back to property taken two decades before that. The talks collapsed.
Refugee status has become the essence of modern Palestinian identity. It is a highly emotive word conjuring up images of displaced, desperate people living in makeshift conditions at the edges of conflict zones. But three generations on from 1948, the reality of Palestinian refugees is somewhat more complex. At Orient House, the Palestinian Authority's administrative center in Jerusalem, I was briefed on the Palestinian view on refugees; right of return by a well-to-do young Palestinian. He had grown up in Switzerland with all the advantages that wealth conveys. But he still called himself a refugee.
Palestinians cling to this point of identification. Inside Jerusalem's city limits there is a refugee camp called Shua'fat. It is not a place of tents and soup kitchens. The camp was established in 1965 and is as permanent-looking as any new neighborhood in the third world: multi-storied concrete buildings and haphazard, pothole-strewn roads. I went to Shua'fat on a rainy Saturday so the dust was damped down. The smell of backed-up sewage wasn't. Although inside Jerusalem, and so by definition inside Israel, the camp keeps a proud independence from the Jewish state. Basic Israeli public services don't reach here. It would be some time before the sewer drains would be cleared.
I met a teacher from the local boys' school, Khalid Gates. He introduced me to his school's principal. I explained that I was visiting Shua'fat to talk to people about the "right of return," and the two men immediately began to talk about being refugees. Both men had grown up in the camp. Neither lived there anymore. Both still considered themselves refugees. The principal was feeling particularly sensitive about the subject. He had just built himself a house on land he had purchased over near the West Bank. Some people had been critical of him for leaving the camp. He was wrestling with himself about his move. He explained that because he had made some money and could buy land and build a house with his own two hands, he shouldn't be criticized for leaving the camp. No matter where he lived, he claimed, he would always be a refugee until his family's land, seized or abandoned in 1948, was returned. That's slightly problematic since the land is adjacent to Ben-Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv.
The two men began to argue about whether all Palestinians are refugees. Khalid pointed out that some Palestinians had become real estate moguls in Shua'fat. They build apartment houses and rent to Palestinians without work papers who have jobs in Israel. They are more or less safe in Shua'fat and don't have to cross the border every day to get to work. These moguls charge extortionate rents. Such exploiters were not refugees, according to Khalid. The principal took a different view: every Palestinian is a refugee and there could be no settlement until all refugees returned to the places they came from.
Most of the time I was in Jerusalem I found myself thinking of which Bible story best summarizes the current situation. Both sides claim the city as their Holy Place. Both sides base their claim in scripture and in more mundane legal precedents. Both sides have more in common than they care to admit, motivated as they both are by a desire to undo Diaspora. The similarity of status, and the fact that both sides claim to love Jerusalem, kept bringing me back to the judgment of Solomon over the two women who both claimed to be mother of the same child. Why not threaten to divide the city in half by the sword as Solomon had? Whoever truly loves the place will say "No," if you dived it you will kill it. Let the other side have it. But a place is not person. And Jerusalem is not innocent - like the child in the Bible story.
A friend had a better idea. Nathan Englander, a young novelist of enormous gifts, took me to an abandoned Arab village on a hillside at the outskirts of Jerusalem. Nathan is a American-born Jew who moved to Jerusalem five years ago. He is, like so many in this city, in a state of despair about the collapse of the peace process. As we were walking along, Nathan was free-associating about his love for the city, and his loathing of the politicians who are messing things up. He decided that the best biblical passage to sum up the current conflict is this:
"And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of" (Genesis, Chapter 22, verse 2).
The Mountain of Moriah, where Abraham took Isaac to make the supreme sacrifice, is one of the hills on which Jerusalem is built. Mt. Moriah is also supposed to be the rock over which The Dome of the Rock mosque is built.
Nathan said the problem in the Middle East today is that the leaders on both sides are from the military. They think with military singularity about their mission and nothing else. In the Bible story an angel stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac and shows him a ram caught in a thicket. Abraham substitutes the ram as his sacrifice. Nathan turned to me and said, "Sharon and Arafat are so concentrated on their original missions that they wouldn't see the ram. They would slice Isaac's throat · and then go have lunch."
It was not a happy assessment, but it did seem to speak to the lack of vision shown by the old warriors who are still running the show and whose truculence and intransigence promise more conflict before the Lord fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah in Chapter 66 verses 12 and 13:
"Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river · and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem."