Celestial City, Terrestrial City


Late last month, as Israelis celebrated the 62nd birthday of the Jewish state and the 150th of its inventor, the great Theodor Herzl, a full-page ad appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. The text was penned by another esteemed Jew, the Nobel laureate, prolific author and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel. Needless to say, his piece drew a lot of attention.

Entitled “For Jerusalem,” the manifesto celebrated Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, eternal capital of the Jewish people. Appearing at a moment of tension between Washington and Jerusalem — over the delicate subject of Israeli Zionist construction, or settlement, in sections of the Holy City construable as Arab territory — Wiesel’s poetic offering inspired and reassured many Jews. It baffled and enraged others. In this way, it was like a juicy page of Talmud.

“For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics,” wrote Wiesel. “Jerusalem is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture — and not a single time in the Koran.” As I read that oft-cited statistic, I flashed back to a conversation I had, maybe 15 years ago, with an Arab shopkeeper in the Old City, who told me: “The Torah says, Jerusalem belongs to Jews; the Koran says, it belongs to Muslims; and so we must share.”

Ha, I remembered thinking at the time, the Arab is wrong — on both counts! The word Jerusalem is not once written in the Koran. It is also never mentioned in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. You can look it up. (In the rest of the Hebrew Bible, 667 times, 151 times in First and Second Chronicles alone.) The larger point being, such claims of ownership do not count for much in today’s real world. Wiesel is writing about the celestial Jerusalem of prayers and lullabies, “Yerushalayim shel ma’alah.” But I live in the terrestrial city, “Yerushalayim shel ma’alah,” which is not above politics — quite the opposite.

“Today, for the first time in history,” wrote Wiesel, “Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines. And contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city.” Yes, but Palestinians from the West Bank, a few miles from Jerusalem, cannot freely travel to the Temple Mount. Yes, there are cases where Arabs are allowed to build where they like, but many more where they aren’t.

Our right-wing mayor, Nir Barkat, who won the last election because liberals voted against his ultra-Orthodox opponent, assured a group of visiting Republican congressmen in late April that there would be no building freeze in Jerusalem: “We’re going to build, and we’re not going to stop it.” Sounds pretty political to me.

Barkat is also a big supporter of archaeological digs near the Old City that will draw foreign tourists, Jewish and Christian, to the city, and support Israel’s biblical claim to sovereignty. It is exciting to believe that an ancient wall excavated in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem was built by King Solomon — not all archaeologists would agree — but the other side has its own story. At least one-third of Jerusalem’s 750,000-plus residents are Arabs, and even secular Palestinians might insist that the Western Wall had nothing to do with any alleged Temple, but was instead, as everyone knows, the place where Muhammad tethered his winged steed al-Buraq, after flying in overnight from Mecca.

Holy cities, in other words, have a funny way of being holy not just to you. This is especially true in Jerusalem, where sovereignty, since the time of King David, has gone from Jewish to Babylonian to Persian to Greek to Jewish, to Roman, Byzantine and Muslim, to Crusader to Mamluk to Turkish to British, back to Jewish — Had Gadya, as we say in Aramaic: full circle.

For this reason, the dazzling Anglo-Jewish author Israel Zangwill, a staunch advocate of his friend Herzl’s stopgap Uganda Plan of 1903, foresaw that ruling Jerusalem would be no picnic. Following the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which opened the door to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, Zangwill wrote:

“Zion is a bride who after her divorce from Israel has been twice married to Gentiles — once to a Christian and once to a Mohammedan — and when Israel takes her back he will find his household encumbered with the litter of the two intervening ménages. Such considerations, however, are still invisible to the stock Zionist on whose self-spun structures realities impinge in vain, and whose Zion is as much a city of dream as that builded on celestial foundations by the popular imagination yearning for the Messiah.”

The “city of dream” lives on, uncluttered by ex-landlords, inconvenient facts and figures, or clashing national histories. In this Jerusalem of Gold, Arabs and Jews, ultra-Orthodox non-(and anti-) Zionists, Muslims and Christians of various ethnicities, all live under everlasting Israeli rule, accepting the pre-eminence of the normative Jewish story. The burdensome albatross of Jerusalem — a volatile, multicultural metropolis, prone to inter-communal strife and rampant municipal corruption, and unappetizing to many secular Israelis — is thus alchemically transmuted into “The Albatross” of the French poet Baudelaire, a “monarch of the clouds” that cannot walk, can only fly, so big are its wings.


“The anguish over Jerusalem,” opined Wiesel in his full-page ad, “is not about real estate but about memory.” Actually, it’s about both. Palestinians in east Jerusalem, evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah by Jews waving title deeds from the Ottoman era, remember well their families’ homes in the West Jerusalem neighborhoods of Talbieh and Katamon, and have title deeds of their own, waiting in a drawer.

And what of Western memory? In January 1904, Herzl went to Rome and tried to sell Zionism to the Pope. He assured the Vatican that “we are asking only for the profane earth; the Holy Places are to be extraterritorialized.” But the Holy Father told Herzl he could never consent to Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem: “The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.” Then again, after 9/11, one wonders how many Americans would like to see the Christian holy places — Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane, Via Dolorosa, Church of the Holy Sepulchre — under the exclusive control of a new and volatile Muslim state.

It’s complicated, to put it mildly, but one thing is clear: the division of Jerusalem, by wall or fence or barrier, as it was divided from 1948 to 1967, with the Old City in Arab hands, without freedom of movement for all its inhabitants, is unthinkable, and not only to Jews.

What, then, to do? The Arab shopkeeper was right. The city must be shared. I agreed with him then, in the hopeful Oslo days. I agree with him even more today, as Herzl’s Jewish state is steered by a rightist government for whom a shared Jerusalem is no less thinkable than a divided one.

In Hebrew, the word helek means “portion.” The Hebrew verb that comes from the same root as helek means both “divide” and “share,” but these don’t have to mean the same thing. An open, undivided city, capital of two states, flying two flags: this too is a fine dream for Jerusalem. “All Israel” (read: All Jews), says the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin, “have a helek in the World to Come”: all you have to do is believe in it.


Theodor Herzl was a famous dreamer. In his utopian novel “Altneuland,” he imagined a sanitized Old City of Jerusalem, an interfaith theme park purged of its residents, where the mosques still stood on the Temple Mount, and “Christian welfare institutions” stood next door to Jewish hospitals, and a rebuilt Temple of Solomon, with lute-playing on Friday nights, stood on some other Old City site.

Nearby was a Peace Palace, “an international center for great undertakings,” whose “activities are by no means limited to Palestine and the Jews, but include all countries and all peoples.” Over the front door hung an ancient slogan in Latin, not Hebrew: “Nil humani a me alienum,” which means “Let nothing human be alien to me.”

Sovereignty is ambiguous in Herzl’s novel, where the Jewish polity is called the “New Society,” not a state, per se. More significantly, he did not designate Jerusalem as its capital — this he placed in scenic and secular Haifa, a wise and excellent choice. The United Nations, in its Resolution 181 of November 1947, approved the partition of Palestine into two states, Jewish and Arab, neither of which would rule Jerusalem: “The City of Jerusalem shall be established as a corpus separatum under a special international regime and shall be administered by the United Nations.” Is this still viable?

Most Israelis would say no. “Herzl’s plans to internationalize the city would have raised a terrible hue and cry from most if not all current-day Israeli politicians, no matter what their stripe,” wrote Shimon Peres in a quirky book of 1998 called “The Imaginary Voyage: With Theodor Herzl in Israel,” in which the author plays tour guide for the resurrected founder.

President Peres, another esteemed gentleman, is an enlightened internationalist, but he too has his boundaries. The ultimate solution for Jerusalem, an out-of-the-box arrangement for this unique and wondrous city that provides security and dignity for all its inhabitants, awaits its new visionary. With any luck, he or she will be wiser than Solomon, and find a way to share the contested treasure. n

Stuart Schoffman, an American-Israeli journalist and translator, is working on a book about memory and Zionism.

Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.

Check out the Jewish Week’s Facebook page and become a fan! And follow the Jewish Week on Twitter: start here.