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9 -15 November 2000
Issue No.507
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Jerusalem. Le Sacré et le politique (Jerusalem. The Sacred and the Political), Farouk Mardam-Bey and Elias Sanbar, eds., Paris: Sindbad, Actes Sud, 2000. pp351

Jerusalem is ours

Another city will be found, better than this.
Every effort of mine is condemned by fate;
and my heart is -- like a corpse -- buried.

Constantin Cavafy, The City

"For the Greeks," writes Peter Hall in Cities in Civilization, "political was what happened in the polis." Cities seem to have borne out that legacy, on the whole; and the urban bias of many historians has filled in any missing gaps. Cities, one feels instinctively, are where everything happens. Population concentrations are higher, economic activity greater, cultural life richer and more varied. Cities may be parasitical: they live off the surplus extracted from agriculture, trade or industry. They take much and give little. Cities, however, are where it's at. And certain cities --Jerusalem is clearly one of them -- are exceptional even in this urbane, urban pantheon.

Jerusalem, it would seem, is not one city but many. Alternatively, it is not a city at all, but an imaginary landscape, the ultimate spiritual goal of every pilgrim's progress. How else can one explain its place as the central stake in so many power struggles? It has been the prey of disputes between rulers and ruled of various religions and nationalities; sometimes one would think it is sacred to all, yet holy to none. "If a 'question of Jerusalem' does exist," states the synopsis on the back cover, "and if this question has the reputation of being difficult, it is because the sacred and the profane, religion and politics, are always mingled in it, so that it finds itself pushed outside the field of application of the general principles of international law."

It may be appropriate, therefore, that a book dedicated to exploring the thorny "question of Jerusalem" should consist of a compilation of articles by authors specialised in very different fields: an essayist, a theologian, several university professors (of law, history and political science), a journalist and a Palestinian national activist, among others. And it is inevitable, no doubt, that such a collection of articles must pass up coherence in favour of a thematic construction more in keeping with the confused, tortured nature of the city it seeks to explain: a little religion, some politics, a dash of international law, a bit of history...

The editors recognise this result, although they present it as a shortcoming: "Of course this collection, conceived as it was barely a few months ago, sought neither exhaustivity nor a rigourous linking of its parts and chapters." Still, they add: "Its coherence is due not to a scientific method shared by the authors, but perhaps to the sentiment of urgency that animates it."

That sentiment may be the result of a common vision -- or a leitmotif inspired by the editors themselves: Jerusalem, as holy as it may be to Jews and Christians, is no less so to Muslims. Bringing these articles together at a time when the city is being bitterly contested, write Mardam-Bey and Sanbar, is a way of supporting the Palestinian, and more generally Arab, claim to Jerusalem as a plural city.

Khalidiyeh Library
Scholars assembled (circa 1900) at the Khalidiyeh Library in Jerusalem, built by the Mamelukes (from Colin Osman, Jerusalem Caught in Time, AUC Press, 1999).

It is also the result of a common awareness: sanctity aside, a military and political "solution" is being imposed on the city today, this very minute. Perhaps that is why there is so little time to write and read books and book reviews; perhaps, too, that is why books at least remain so important. It is important to record -- now, before it is gone -- a certain vision of things. It is important to publish books that will interest the ever-elusive "general reader" yet satisfy academics, and that will reveal what lies beneath the new buildings, the new roads, the new inhabitants.

Historians like to believe in the relevance of history to understanding the present. This is more than a conceit of the profession; in a city like Jerusalem, and indeed in a country like Palestine, one of the highest stakes is history itself. If one of the parties bases its occupation of the other's land on the claim that "God gave it to us," there is little more to be said. God is beyond history, after all. Then again, as a sceptic once scoffed, "What, is God a real estate agent?"

So the first task at hand is to restore history to its proper place. Jerusalem goes about it in a variety of ways. The editors advocate a "resolutely profane" approach, arguing that the dissociation of politics and religion is the only way of approaching the problem without prejudice. Some of the authors disagree. Youakim Moubarac, whose contribution appears posthumously, undertakes a thorough excavation of Jerusalem, tracing the respective symbolic and material claims of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to its various holy sites in a perspective that is at once extremely erudite, profoundly religious -- that is, imbued with faith -- and fundamentally secular in its disgust at the "sordid" conflicts over bits of monuments and parcels of land.

The letter from Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, known as the Balfour Declaration
He reminds the reader, among other things, that it is at the request of the Christian population, and upon the insistence of the patriarch, Sophrones, that the Jewish population was excluded from Jerusalem under Islamic rule (as they had been since their collaboration with the Persians in the first years of the seventh century). It was Salaheddin who restored a certain Jewish presence in the city, admitting Jews who were fleeing persecution in Christian Europe. At a time when Israel seeks to pose as the natural protector of Christian rights in Jerusalem, it is a good thing to remember such points. It is worthwhile, too, to read that the Jewish occupation of Palestine in pre-Christian times remained very partial, and that Jerusalem, taken as the preeminent symbol of that occupation, was in fact an eminently cosmopolitan city. The Jews remained confined to the mountains, on the whole; as for the coastline, it was inhabitated by a people "acculturated in such a way that the Canaanite world, and later the Arab world," recognised themselves in it: not the Hebrews but the Philistines.

Moubarac concludes this lengthy chapter on an ecumenical note, arguing -- as perhaps only a collaborator of Massignon could -- that the three monotheistic religions must almost by definition regard each other as full heirs to the city.

His article is perhaps the most original piece in the book, from the perspective of a reader accustomed only to analyses steeped in the determinedly "objective" ambitions of the social sciences or the unabashed apologetics of advocacy. The others, interesting as they may be, offer less radical departures from the familiar vista of chronological enumeration or legal explanation. Jerusalem. The Sacred and the Political is organised in a roughly chronological order, beginning with an excursus in the form of Salah Stétié's article titled "Jerusalem: Between Dream and Waking," a reflection on the connotations of the name Al-Quds ("'the site of sanctity,' or better yet 'sanctity'") and the Prophet Mohamed's nocturnal voyage to paradise (Al-Israa wal-Mi'raj). Following is André Miquel's "A Muslim Geographer and His City, Around the Year 1000," about the traveller and writer whose name -- Muqaddasi, or Maqdisi -- is but a variation on that of the city of his birth (a city he was tempted to describe as the most prestigious in the world, before succumbing to the dictates of objectivity and admitting to the poor state of its public baths, or the exorbitant taxes levied on the merchandise sold there). His description invokes the history inscribed in the city's sites: Old Testament, Christianity, Islam and eternity -- "centre of the Resurrection, source of Light and end of the Path."

The theme of Jerusalem's religious, political, symbolic and administrative centrality runs through these contributions, as it does through most of the articles in the first two sections, devoted to the religious and historical aspects of the problem. Opening the second part, Khalil Athamina offers a terse and effective note on the myth of Jerusalem as Israel's eternal capital -- a myth based, he argues, "in part on a political decision of [the Israeli] Parliament, taken in the flush of victory in June 1967, and in part on a political vision distilled by what is generally called 'Bible studies discourse'." The chapter as a whole -- "The First Century of Islam: Jerusalem, Capital of Palestine" -- skilfully navigates waters rendered choppy by the Zionist assertion that no political entity called Palestine existed before British Mandate (and therefore, quite logically, that no capital city could have existed) by emphasising Jerusalem's political and administrative importance after the Islamic conquest and its status as the capital of the jund of Palestine until the first quarter of the eighth century.

Athamina's article will serve as a convenient springboard for further reflection on the relevance of the past; for everything has changed, and who is to say it ever was any different? Small adjustments are made, and one can argue what one likes, depending on one's definition of "Palestine," or "ownership," or "God" for that matter. If history is merely one of many weapons in the oppressor's arsenal -- just that and nothing more -- it hardly matters where Palestine's boundaries were located in the seventh or, for that matter, the nineteenth century. It does not even matter that Palestinians still alive today, in the Diaspora, can retrace in their minds the steps they took from their front door to their olive groves not 60 years ago. What matters is that they can no longer walk that path, because house and olive grove alike have been bulldozed.

This is not the first such transformation, however. Pierre Aubé's chapter on the Crusades returns to the tropes of expulsion and return, and the necessary mingling of populations forced to remain permeable as long as they regard the same land as sacred: despite the Crusaders' massacre of Jerusalem's Muslim and Jewish inhabitants, during the century-long Western occupation of Bilad Al-Sham, those same inhabitants remain the populations base; their customs, property rights and laws are respected in return for "submission, labour, taxes and various 'services'." That, at least, is far more than one can say for Israeli rule today. Citing Claude Cahen, Aubé remarks that war, then, was not as absolute as it is today; trade, for instance, continued undisrupted, although this imperative harmony did not imply an understanding of otherness. One must wonder, in that case, whether such understanding is truly necessary, as long as otherness is not defined in terms of who holds the gun, and who is looking the wrong way down its barrel.

It would be impossible even to attempt to summarise this book; nor, indeed, would it prove useful. Suffice it to say that the remaining chapters make up the rest of the chronology: Jerusalem under the Ottomans, by Adil Manna, and Jerusalem, capital of Mandate Palestine, by Henry Laurens, form the last parts of the section on history; finally, the last section, devoted to the Israeli occupation, comprises chapters on daily resistance in June 1967; settlers and settlements (in French more frankly rendered "colonists and colonies") in the Old City from 1980 to 2000; Jerusalem and the question of global cultural patrimony; and a last chapter, bitter, to the point and humourous, by Walid Khalidi, on a "Just and Viable Solution to the Question of Jerusalem."

History is written... This is a platitude; of course it is. It has been repeated too many times to bear repeating once more. Yet it is also untrue. Today, history is written by (or at least about) the oppressed, the marginalised, the defeated. Yet the Palestinians are not quite victims yet. They have much to write. They cannot write enough. And those who wish to see justice rendered have much to read.

The other day, a picture came by e-mail. It was a picture of the Dome of the Rock, resplendent in the sun. Off to the left was Al-Aqsa Mosque, plain and almost drab in comparison. The sender was distraught: most Arabs, he wrote -- even Palestinians -- associate the image of the Dome of the Rock with the words "Al-Aqsa." They do not know what Al-Aqsa really looks like. He was worried that this ignorance would give the Israelis the opportunity to destroy Al-Aqsa; no one would know which building had disappeared. As long as the Dome remained, blissful ignorance would obtain.

Does it matter that the Rock bears the hoofprint of Al-Buraq? Does believing make it so? Perhaps not. Knowledge is no longer power after a certain point. Knowledge, however, may be all we have today. Much criticism could be levelled at a book like Jerusalem. The Sacred and the Political. Most of it would be irrelevant.

Reviewed by Pascale Ghazaleh

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