The "Jerusalem Question"

by Nidra Poller (April 2010)

Jerusalem, eternal city and eternal flashpoint! The text that follows, written in July 2000, stands as the prologue to “Notes from a Simple Citizen,” a chronicle of the first years of the 21st century that got off to an explosive start with the al Dura blood libel, the “Al Aqsa Intifada,” 9/11… The chronicle has not been published yet. I was told, by two literary agents who wished to represent me, that publishers didn’t like that kind of format. They advised me to recompose the material into a more traditional work of non-fiction that would, necessarily, look back on those years in retrospect. I don’t mention this for the purpose of making the agents look ridiculous, but only to explain why it hasn’t been made available to readers. An e-version of “Notes” will be available shortly.

The power of “Notes” lies precisely in the fact that when I wrote about what was happening to Jews in France in 2000, for example, I didn’t know what was going to happen to Americans on 9/11. When I wrote this rebuttal to Karen Armstrong’s plea for a divided Jerusalem, I didn’t even know who she was. And I didn’t know that Americans would elect a president, Barack Hussein Obama, who would whip up the kind of anti-Zionism we are forced to live with in Europe.

It might help to remember, in vivid detail, how it happened.



In the aftermath of the recent Camp David negotiations it might be instructive to look back at Karen Armstrong’s essay, After All These Centuries, No One People Owns Jerusalem (IHT 17 July 2000). Drawing on historical precedents, the author of The Battle for God and Jerusalem: One City Three Faiths[2] argues against undivided Israeli sovereignty on the grounds that attempts at exclusive possession are unjustified and unviable. Though the broad lines of her argument, stated alternately as principles, assertions, and admonishments, are more or less defensible they function as circular arguments, undermined rather than substantiated by curiously unbalanced specifics. Karen Armstrong’s model of level-headed sobriety collapses, leaving us with the naked reality of two small nations locked in conflicting claims to a land so small that the hopes of one disturb the dreams of the other, the tears of one wet the cheeks of the other.

The idea that politicians must cut through the jungle of myths and passions in order to arrive at a viable pragmatic solution is certainly enticing, especially when couched in terms of honest concern for the welfare of all parties. All the more reason to face up to the rather laborious analysis required to identify the structural weaknesses of Armstrong’s slanted discourse. First, we must be careful not to confuse the notion of compromise—which is the very definition of peaceful solution of conflict—with division—splitting a cake and sharing it between two squabbling children. Some things cannot be divided without losing their viability. The question here is not if but how the parties should compromise.

K. Armstrong is not alone in believing that divided sovereignty is the appropriate compromise for Jerusalem. However, a call for dispassionate rational debate should be judged on the merits of the argument. If, as she claims, attachment to Jerusalem is systematically exacerbated by the threat of dispossession and, consequently, generous sharing is the optimum solution for peace, the burning question remains: who can be entrusted to generously share Jerusalem? On what rational basis should this judgment be made?

It soon becomes apparent that the call for a rational debate about rights and sovereignty[3] concerns only one party to the debate. Both sides contend that Jerusalem is their sacred capital, but their contentions do not have equal force: Though it is not politically expedient, writes Armstrong, the claim to Jerusalem as eternal, indivisible capital of Israel has acquired the force of a mantra in Israeli politics. But, she warns: The entire Muslim world categorically refuses total, permanent Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. By simple permutation the same logic would lead to the opposite conclusion: though politically inexpedient the claim to Jerusalem as eternal capital has become a mantra in Islamic politics; but the entire Jewish world, in Israel as in the Diaspora, categorically refuses Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem. Why is Israel’s claim nothing more than a mantra and, incidentally, why do Israelis need a mantra to express their attachment to Jerusalem? Isn’t the Bible enough?

Logically, this Muslim refusal of Israeli sovereignty would be classified among the unrealistic stances that get in the way of proper negotiations. But Karen Armstrong makes it a categorical imperative: there can be no peace in the Middle East unless the conditions are acceptable to the entire Muslim world. Given that Iraq and Iran, among others, absolutely refuse the existence of Israel, the title of her essay should have been: Jerusalem belongs to everyone but one people.

Following the author into the meanders of Jerusalem’s history we find some curious turns and shortcuts. As far as all these centuries are concerned, she chooses to log in just after the destruction of the first Temple, skipping over the period 1000-585 BC as if it didn’t exist. The most powerful tyrant on earth can’t destroy a temple unless someone first built it; what about that Temple, those centuries, that presence? Nothing notable? We are asked to believe that the most salient fact of those times is a certain policy of exclusion from the Temple practiced by the new [post-exile] cult of Jerusalem which happens to correspond, according to K. Armstrong’s logic, with the Muslim exclusion of other faiths from the city when Saladin took Jerusalem from the Crusaders

And so it goes: every example hides more than it reveals, and all the examples put together give an overriding impression of Israeli bad faith and stubborn intransigence. Jewish attachment to Jerusalem is minimized (it only became central to Judaism after the Babylonian exile in 586 BC) and Muslim attachment is firmly established on weaker grounds (Jerusalem has been sacred to Muslims since 610 when Mohammed preached there [sic]). Carried forward into recent times this argumentation gives: After the Holocaust, Jerusalem has become even more sacred to Jewish identity …counterbalanced by: But Palestinians see Jerusalem…as a symbol of their…beleaguered identity and ‘rightly or wrongly,’ the Muslim world feels humiliated by the West, with the loss of Jerusalem an intolerable symbol. What logical conclusion can be drawn from these radically disparate experiences? Is the loss of an empire to be measured against the near-extermination of European Jewry? 

Karen Armstrong calls on Israel to be reasonable like the early pragmatic Zionists who accepted anything they were offered, even if it fell lamentably short of what was required….  And clinches the argument with a curious anecdote: Jerusalem has not always been the ‘eternal and indivisible’ capital of Israel…Theodor Herzl thought it might be best to tear the Old City down! 

Then a hop skip and a jump over the Arab-Israeli wars (conveniently avoiding the question of their causes and aims) is given as further proof of Israel’s erstwhile willingness to forego total sovereignty in Jerusalem: in 1947 Zionists did not reject the idea of a divided internationalized Jerusalem, Israel just took the western half of the city in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, only claiming exclusive control of the whole city after the 1967 war. Bam! An Armstrong girder comes crashing down on Israeli heads: Such exclusive policies do not work in Jerusalem.

It is difficult for someone who has not studied the history of Jerusalem to judge the validity of examples drawn from the distant past. But the period 1947-2000, divided roughly into two decades of Arab sovereignty followed by an equivalent period of Israeli sovereignty, is fully documented. If the status of Jerusalem is to be decided on the basis of rational arguments would it not be levelheaded, sober, dispassionate and absolutely necessary to look into conditions during these two periods? Can anyone deny that the period of Arab sovereignty is marked by abominable desecration of all that is sacred to Jews, and absolute exclusion not only of Jews but of anyone who had dared to set foot in Israel: the very example of exclusive policies that do not work! The Muslim world has recently, tentatively, and with notable holdouts downgraded its policy from extermination to dismemberment of Israel. We can logically conclude within the very terms of Karen Armstrong’s argument that Israel has shown itself to be the more trustworthy party.

Avoiding these uncomfortable realities, Karen Armstrong flashes back to the Arab reconquest of Jerusalem, with Jewish help, in 634, after a long period of banishment imposed by the Byzantine Christians. Morally tolerant and politically shrewd, the Arabs lived in relative harmony with the Jews, proving once more that pragmatic coexistence has worked better in Jerusalem than rigid ideology. But if it was good for the Jews in 634 why isn’t it good for the Palestinians in 2000 to accept pragmatic coexistence over rigid ideology and live in relative harmony under Jewish sovereignty?

In the last analysis, Karen Armstrong wonders if the Vatican might not be a model for the future Jerusalem, unwittingly throwing us back into the vicious cycle of alternating Arab & Christian conquest of Jerusalem; this time around the Christians would stand on high as a disinterested disembodied Idea, leaving the Muslims to take care of things on the ground. Rational debate should take us to the here and now. We stand at the dawn of the 21st century. The glorious period of Arab conquest is no more. Neither Romans nor Christians will chase the Jews from the land of Israel. Israel’s steadfast defense of its birthright may well be the greatest contribution to peace in the region.

An honest compromise on Jerusalem—Islam’s third holiest city and Israel’s only capital—could be the turning point of a new era for Palestinians. By deflecting their desires from that one tiny unattainable city, could they not see the way to a new role as a viable state within a vast Muslim world of great wealth and under-exploited potential? Palestine, instead of seething in a tangle of explosive frustration, could be an Al Quds, a guiding light for an Islamic world desperately seeking a new dynamics. In the place of a stingy compromise that would satisfy no one, we have the possibility of a brilliant compromise that would finally bring an end to centuries of violence and give Jerusalem its rightful place as a holy city in a holy world that belongs to all people.[4] After all these centuries, wouldn’t it be worth a try?

[1]25 July 2000, unpublished response to an article in the International Herald Tribune

[2] Cf. André Chouraqui’s unbiased history, Jerusalem.

[3] All passages in italics, with the exception of book titles, are quoted from the 17 July article.

[4] See Daniel Sibony’s brilliant work, Les Trois Monothéismes for a profound understanding of how Jerusalem came to be sacred to Muslims and Christians.

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