Inhumane, Intolerant, Unclean

Ian Gilmour

  • A History of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths by Karen Armstrong
    HarperCollins, 474 pp, £20.00, July 1996, ISBN 0 00 255522 0
  • Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years by Israel Shahak
    Pluto, 118 pp, £11.99, April 1994, ISBN 0 7453 0818 X
  • City of the Great King: Jerusalem from David to the Present edited by Nitza Rosovsky
    Harvard, 562 pp, £25.50, April 1996, ISBN 0 674 13190 8
  • Jerusalem in the 20th Century by Martin Gilbert
    Chatto, 400 pp, £20.00, May 1996, ISBN 0 7011 3070 9
  • Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict by Norman Finkelstein
    Verso, 230 pp, £39.95, December 1995, ISBN 1 85984 940 7
  • To Rule Jerusalem by Roger Friedland and Richard Hecht
    Cambridge, 554 pp, £29.95, June 1996, ISBN 0 521 44046 7

What exactly is a ‘holy city’ or, for that matter, a ‘holy see’? If Jerusalem is the prime example of the first and Rome the only example of the second, their holiness clearly does not reside in the behaviour of either their rulers or the ruled. More evil has been done in Jerusalem than in many, if not most, places on earth, and in Rome Papal conduct and government has sometimes been anything but holy – in the mid-18th century the city’s 150,000 inhabitants averaged four hundred murders a year.

Nor does the holiness necessarily stem from the formative events of a religion having taken place there: as Karen Armstrong points out, those of Judaism and Islam happened far away, in the Sinai Peninsula and the Arab Hijaz. This is not true of Christianity: the death of Jesus undoubtedly occurred in Jerusalem, although opinions differ as to what happened afterwards. It was Armstrong’ s wish to find out what a holy city is that decided her to write her book. The result is a luminous history of Jerusalem. I am not sure that she fully answers her own question, but her book, imbued with sympathy for all three religions, added to careful scholarship and deep knowledge of theology and history, is a triumph.

Israel is this year celebrating the 3000th anniversary of Jerusalem. Strictly, those celebrations are eight hundred years late. Jerusalem was founded by the Canaanites in about 1800 BC. Since then it has changed hands some twenty-five times, been destroyed 17 times, and its inhabitants have frequently been massacred. Round about 1000 BC, the city was captured by King David. Assuming that he existed – and there is no archaeological or other evidence for him, or for Solomon, Moses or Joshua, outside the Bible, the relevant books of which were written hundreds of years after the events they purport to describe – David was probably an enlightened invader. Unlike many succeeding conquerors, he did not kill or dispossess those he had conquered but lived in peaceful co-existence with the Jebusites.

His successor Solomon built the Temple, though Judaism did not yet exist, and the Israelites were not yet monotheists. Solomon was later considered to be an idolater; understandably so, since he provided shrines for the gods of all his foreign wives, of whom he had a large number. Although the city was intermittently captured by the Philistines, the Syrians, the Egyptians and the Assyrians, and often had to pay tribute to Egypt and Babylon, the Israelites remained in precarious occupation of Jerusalem for four hundred years until 587, when Nebuchadnezzar captured it, and the Babylonian captivity began. The Babylonians were initially merciful, but after a Jewish rebellion a few years later they destroyed the city, including the Temple of Solomon and the royal palace.

Judaism originated in Babylon, and when Cyrus and the Persians defeated the Babylonians, captured Jerusalem and invited the exiled Israelites to return and rebuild the city, most of them preferred to stay in Babylon. Nevertheless, the second Temple was built. The Persians did not last long, being defeated by Alexander the Great in 332, but except for an interval of some eighty years under the Maccabeans, Jerusalem remained a pagan city until the conversion to Christianity of the Emperor Constantine. Before the present century, therefore, Jerusalem was a city controlled by the Israelites or Jews for, at the most, 500 out of the last 3800 years.

In 200 BC, the Jews suffered the first religious persecution in history. The Greek ruler, Antiochus, outlawed the practice of the Jewish faith in Judea, an edict, Armstrong writes, ‘which left an indelible impression on the Jewish spirit and made it emotionally impossible for many Jews to accommodate the Gentile world’. After a Jewish revolt in 70 AD, the Emperor Titus destroyed the city and the Temple, and after a second revolt sixty years later, in which the Jews showed astounding courage, they were banned from Jerusalem and the whole of Judea.

As Armstrong mildly puts it, ‘persecution does not always make its victims compassionate,’ and the Christians, released from persecution by Constantine’s conversion, proceeded to ban Jews from Jerusalem; they were, claimed Jerome, ‘not worthy of compassion’. The Jews were too weak to repay in kind the uncompassionate conduct of the Christians. Yet, as Israel Shahak shows in his ruthlessly penetrating examination of Jewish religion and history, their deep hostility to Christians, and indeed all Gentiles, was amply revealed in the Talmud, which was compiled during these centuries. According to Shahak – a survivor of Belsen, a former professor of chemistry in Jerusalem, a fine scholar and Israel’s foremost defender of human rights – the Talmud, which is more important for the Orthodox than the Old Testament, is bitterly offensive about Jesus in particular and Christians in general.

Jerusalem remained a Christian city for some three hundred years. Fortunately, its Muslim conquerors had a more civilised attitude to the other two religions than either of them had to the other. Jerusalem is holy to the Muslims, ranking after Mecca and Medina, because of Muhammad’s nocturnal ‘visit’ to the city, although as one of the contributors says in City of the Great King (a good and well-illustrated collection of essays by mainly Israeli scholars), the most likely explanation of the relevant verse in the Koran is that the visit was a dream. The Caliph Umar expressed what Armstrong calls ‘the monotheistic ideal of compassion’ better than any previous conqueror since King David; his conquest was bloodless.

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