American Jews Israel Jerusalem Jewish identity Middle East peace process Zionism

For Zionists, the obsession with Jerusalem is a recent phenomenon

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations recently “reaffirmed its longstanding position that a united Jerusalem should remain the sovereign and eternal capital of Israel,” according to a JTA story. Some left-of-center groups were against it but they could not stem the tide. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the last decade, including Ehud Olmert, knows that the status of Jerusalem is an open question that must be resolved as part of a comprehensive agreement, but that did not deter the groups from, once again, being more Israeli than the Israeli government.

The idea that the Jewish people have had a continuous, unbreakable emotional and spiritual connection with Jerusalem for thousands of years is, of course, one of the organizing principles of our narrative. I certainly feel that connection, deep in my bones. But the transformation of that emotional and spiritual identification into the core of a political ideology, is, in fact, a recent phenomenon.

For one thing, many secular Israelis on the coastal plain want nothing to do with Jerusalem, rarely if ever venture there, and live quite happily without such a connection. That is, I think, their loss. But the Zionist pioneers who are mythic heroes to American Jews also lacked an attachment to the city. I just stumbled upon a compelling tidbit in The History of Zionism by Walter Laqueur, by far the best and most comprehensive history of the movement. He is, by and large, sympathetic to the Zionist cause. But, in a new preface written in 2005, he tells us:

The question of Jerusalem illustrates best the enormous difference between historical Zionism and the ideology that has replaced it. Jerusalem contains the holy places of three world religions, and elementary prudence if not basic tolerance should have prevented declarations according to which Jerusalem was to remain forever undivided under Israeli rule. It was, in fact, an empty declaration, for in actual fact Jerusalem is of course a divided city.

When Hertzl first visited Jerusalem, he saw only the musty deposits of two thousand years of inhumanity, intolerance, and impurity; he perceived superstition and intolerance on all sides. Hertzl suggested Haifa as the capital of the new Jewish state. But it was not only Hertzl, the assimilated Jew, who reacted in this unsentimental manner. Chaim Weizmann always feared becoming involved in the Jerusalem imbroglio. And because their attachment to the city was not overwhelming, David Ben Gurion and other leaders of the second aliyah did not visit Jerusalem for the first time until two or three years after their arrival in the country. For many years, not a single Zionist leader chose to live in Jerusalem. For them, Jerusalem symbolized the negative past of Jewish history, that part of the tradition from which they wanted to disassociate themselves.

The idea that Jerusalem was the beginning and end of Zionism, that Israel could not exist without having full sovereignty over the entire city emerged only after 1967 and the growth of a religious fanaticism and aggressive nationalism that had more in common with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood than the founding fathers of Zionism.

And so, guarding the holy sites has become a nightmare and Jerusalem itself has become a dangerous flashpoint. The insanity of a few religious fanatics –Jewish, Muslim or Christian—has the potential of transforming a local conflict into a religious war with incalculable consequences.

Word up, Walter.

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