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.

If Umar was the most civilised of Jerusalem’s conquerors, the Christian Crusaders in 1099 were the most barbarous, indulging in a three-day slaughter of all the Muslims and Jews they could find before singing hymns of joy at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yet when Saladin retook the city in 1187 he imitated Umar, not the Crusaders. Not a single Christian was killed, and Jews would have been similarly treated, had they not previously been banned from the city by the Christians. The Muslims were not always such paragons. In 1009, for example, the mad Caliph of Cairo, Al-Hakim, demolished the Christian shrines and in 1244 marauding Turks devastated the city and murdered many of its inhabitants.

Muslim rule of Jerusalem lasted until 1917, a period of 12 centuries, which was longer than Jewish and Christian rule added together. The new British conquerors did much good for the city; unfortunately, they were encumbered with the Balfour Declaration, promising a National Home for the Jews in Palestine. In the 19th century Jews had become a majority in Jerusalem, while remaining a small minority in Palestine as a whole, a fact which the British Government chose to disregard in 1917.

Some thirty years afterwards the English Zionist Arthur Koestler described the Balfour Declaration as ‘one of the most improbable documents of all times’, since in it ‘one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third’. ‘Iimprobable’ the Balfour Declaration undoubtedly was, yet it was a good deal more than that. Balfour had had intimate experience of the trouble caused by the clash of nationalisms in Ireland, yet his love affair with Zionism led him to introduce a similar conflict into Palestine, with disastrous consequences not only for the indigenous Palestinian population but for British interests. As Armstrong comments, if the Jewish problem has been solved, the Palestinian problem has been created: the ‘burden of suffering has now been passed by the state of Israel to the Palestinians’. The Balfour Declaration led to the expulsion of the Palestinians and to their diaspora, as well as to at least five wars, with more, probably, to come. Martin Gilbert quotes a remark by Curzon, the British Foreign Secretary in 1920, which well conveys the frivolous irresponsibility of Balfour and Lloyd George. ‘The Prime Minister clings to Palestine for its sentimental and traditional value, and talks about Jerusalem with almost the same enthusiasm as about his native hills’.

Gilbert’s history is heavily Zionist. For example, he twice claims that under the British mandate there was substantial illegal Arab immigration into Palestine, even alleging that more Arabs emigrated there than Jews. As the British authorities knew at the time, and demographers such as Justin McCarthy have since shown, that is nonsense. Between 1931 and 1945 over 300,000 Jews emigrated legally to Palestine; during the same period the number of Arab immigrants was 13,500. As McCarthy says, ‘there is no reason to believe that the vast majority of the Palestinian Arabs resident in 1947... were not the sons and daughters of Arabs who had been in Palestine for many centuries.’ With a similar upending of the truth, Gilbert suggests that the UN partition plan of 1947 was more favourable to the Arabs than the Jews. Again, he implies (perhaps inadvertently) that the Israeli massacre of 254 Arab men, women and children at Deir Yassin in April 1948 was the only incident of its kind. In fact, as Norman Finkelstein makes clear, the Israelis committed at least twenty large-scale massacres of Palestinians (more than fifty killed in each) as well as about a hundred smaller ones. Finkelstein’s book is both an impressive analysis of Zionist ideology and a searing but scholarly attack on Israel’s treatment of the Arabs since 1948. Most effectively, he revises the Israeli revisionist historians, showing, particularly over the Palestinian exodus in 1948, that they still have some way to go before their history is fully accurate.

Ordinary Zionist historians are much further away from the truth. Their difficulty is that the facts are overwhelmingly Arab; hence they seem (unconsciously) impelled to slant them in order to produce a narrative that is palatable to themselves and their readers. Nonetheless, despite his tilt, Gilbert is well worth reading. He has an unrivalled ability to tell a story through the eyes of (some of) those taking part and his book is good popular history.

Something of the same could be said of To Rule Jerusalem, the fruit of collaboration between two ‘non-orthodox Jews’, a professor of sociology and a professor of religious studies. They could probably have done with a third collaborator, a historian. ‘For a thousand years,’ they tell us, ‘Jerusalem was the seat of Jewish sovereignty.’ It was nothing of the sort. Their modern history is similarly awry. Although they sometimes cite books by the Israeli revisionists, they seem not to have absorbed their lessons. In their preliminary canter through the recent history of Palestine, they manage to avoid mention of the Israelis’ expulsion of five-sixths of the Palestinian population. Later they refer to it only in claiming that ‘more Jews were forcibly exiled by Arab terror and the threat of it than Arabs who had been pushed out of their lands by the conquering Israelis.’ Even a quick reading of Marion Wolfson’s classic Prophets in Babylon would have saved them from repeating such an ancient canard. In the late Forties the Israelis launched a massive and prolonged campaign to persuade Arab Jews to emigrate to Israel; hence they were less victims of persecution than of Israeli nationalism. The bombs which terrorised the Jewish community in Baghdad in 1950 turned out to have been thrown by Zionists. And the improbable claim that ‘the entire Arab nation began to amass the men and materials necessary to wipe out’ the Israelis in 1947-8 would not have survived a cursory study of the books on the subject by Avi Shlaim, Ilam Pappé and Simha Flapam. Again, we are told that it was not until ‘1993 that Yasser Arafat ... would accept partition’. In fact his acceptance was strongly signalled in 1974 and unambiguously announced in 1988. Yet despite these and other blunders Friedland and Hecht are usually fair, and their book, based on many interviews conducted over a period of years, contains much fascinating material.

They are especially good on the fast increasing number of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. The founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, had little affection for the city; he thought it was filled with ‘musty deposits of two thousand years of inhumanity, intolerance and uncleanliness’. He visited Jerusalem and Palestine only once, and then, as Arthur Herzberg comments in perhaps the pick of the essays in City of the Great King, ‘not to pray or to lay claim to it as the future capital of a Jewish state’ but to meet Kaiser Wilhelm II. At various times Herzl considered founding a Jewish state in Argentina and Uganda, either of which venues would presumably have caused far less misery and trouble than Palestine. Conversely, the religious Jews living in Jerusalem then and later were opposed to political Zionism, which they considered sacrilegious and a contradiction of the messianic promises of Judaism. Some of them still do. One of the leaders of Neture-Karta, or Guardians of the City, Moshe Hirsch, is a member of the Palestinian Authority. He believes that Zionism challenges ‘a divine oath’, telling Friedland and Hecht that it ‘began the strife which did not prevail before’, the Arabs having been ‘the least anti-semitic or anti-Jewish non-Jews throughout the world before Zionism ... We are not at war with the Palestinians’.

In strong contrast, another rabbi believes that God even delivered the Holocaust as a Zionist ploy. While many of the Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, see the Holocaust as God’s punishment for Jewish assimilation and their flirtation with secular Zionism, Rabbi Waldman sees it as a desperate divine effort to push the Jews to Zion. Such an excess of devotional bigotry makes Shahak’s denunciation of the fanaticism of many Orthodox Jews seem fully plausible.

Friedland and Hecht include a section on the rules governing the wedding night and sexual behaviour of the Haredim, to whom apparently sexuality is a fearsome thing. Their young couples, who barely know each other, are kept in total sexual ignorance until their wedding day, when they are hurriedly briefed, a procedure which sometimes sends them into shock. The groom is instructed

to close all blinds and curtains so that he will not ‘see’ the nakedness of his wife. Genitals must be washed before and after intercourse. And in no case may a young man study religious law during the sexual act. Indeed if there are religious books in the bedroom, they must be carefully covered with two cloths before the woman enters. Sexual intercourse must take place on a bed with mattress, sheet and blanket ... To fulfil the commandment, the groom is told he must not ejaculate before entering his wife’s vagina, and that in no case should sexual intercourse take longer than 12 minutes.

Because of the menstrual cycle, Orthodox men and women have to abstain from sexual intercourse for two weeks in every month. At the end of that period the woman must have a ritual bath and beware of ‘any unpleasant encounters’ on return; otherwise she has to go and take another bath. ‘Under no circumstances must the couple think of another man or woman,’ but ‘a son conceived while his mother thought about a horse would rejoice in the study of Torah.’ According to Friedland and Hecht, these rabbinic injunctions which date from antiquity ‘are still alive’.

More important than their sexual taboos and customs are the Haredim’s growing political strength, especially in Jerusalem, and their urge to impose their way of life on secular Israelis. Most of the leading political Zionists have been atheists or agnostics, yet they have managed to believe that God has given them in perpetuity the lands of Judea and Samaria. This confining of God to the function of what an American cleric has called ‘a cosmic real-estate agent’ gave them, almost literally, the best of both worlds: the ability to claim another people’s country on religious grounds and the ambition to found a secular state, not a theocracy. ‘ We shall keep,’ Herzl wrote, ‘our priests within the confines of their temples as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks.’ In fact, the state of Israel has never been able to confine its soldiers to their barracks, and now its ‘priests’ are similarly not in ‘their temples’ but all over the body politic.

This bodes ill for secular Israelis. Friedland and Hecht think that the Haredim ‘increasingly threaten to make Zion unbearable for the Zionists’. It also bodes ill for the Palestinians – not that they have not been consistently ill-treated by the secular Israelis. Political Zionism’s best slogan, ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’, was false. Palestine had for hundreds of years had a Palestinian people, and the slogan’ s coiner, Israel Zangwill, soon knew it to be fictitious, which did not deter the Zionists. Only in 1915, Armstrong records, did David Ben-Gurion, later Israel’s first prime minister and greatest statesman, discover Arab aspirations, when they hit him ‘like a bomb – I was utterly confounded.’ Two years later he had sufficiently recovered to make the claim, no truer than Zangwill’s, that in a ‘historical and moral sense’ Palestine was a country ‘without inhabitants’. In 1948, he acted accordingly.

Political Zionism was from one point of view a manifestation of 19th and early 20th-century imperialism, a Western colonisation of Asia. European colonialism had many dark features, but underneath it there nearly always lay the aim to make life better for the local inhabitants, at least in the future. Not so Zionist colonisation. Just as the Americans ignored the welfare of the Red Indians – we learn from Finkelstein that Hitler greatly admired ‘the efficiency of America’s extermination of the red savages’ – so many Zionists have tended to regard the Palestinians as inferior beings and have been anxious to get rid of them, thus making Zangwill’s slogan true after all.

Friedland and Hecht had a revealing conversation with Stan Cohen, who was formerly part of the white resistance to South Africa’s apartheid regime and now teaches at the Hebrew University’s law school. Cohen is relieved that Israel never developed a theory of racial supremacy, but sees many parallels between the two apartheid regimes and thinks that black Africans were more likely to get a fair trial in South Africa than Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Shahak would probably argue that Israel did not need a theory of racial supremacy, because it already had a religious one. In any case, practice is more important than theory, and after 1967 Israel practised apartheid in the Occupied Territories. It has, for instance, Shahak reports, designated 70 per cent of the West Bank land Jewish (92 per cent in Israel proper), which means that Palestinians cannot live or work on it. All that has been bad enough, but now it is combined with right-wing religious fundamentalism.

Shahak maintains that ‘the most horrifying acts’ of Israeli ‘oppression should be ascribed to “Jewish religious fanaticism” ’. He may well be right, yet on the building of illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories, officially around Jerusalem, perhaps the most malignant of all Zionist activities, secular Israelis have been at least as culpable as religious ones. As Mr Netanyahu recently pointed out, despite the Oslo Accords and ‘the peace process’, the Rabin and Peres Governments increased the number of Israeli settlers in Occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank by nearly 50 per cent in four years. So much for the idea that Peres is a man of peace. While the landscape of the whole West Bank has been spoiled by these settlements, Jerusalem has been the worst sufferer. What Armstrong well describes as ‘the belligerently planted ring of Israeli settlements’ is the most conspicuous feature of Arab Jerusalem. In 1971, the then Archbishop of Canterbury was distressed that the Israeli building programme was ‘disfiguring the City and its surroundings in ways which ... suggest an insensitive attempt to proclaim as an Israeli city one which can never be other than the city of three great religions and their peoples’.

Twenty years later things are much worse. Jerusalem has not just been disfigured, it has been wrecked. Israel’s illegal settlements, all built on stolen Palestinian land, have multiplied, and still the robbery goes on, helped by the American taxpayer. Israel now claims to be celebrating the 3000 years of Jerusalem as Israel’s ‘eternal capital’: what it is really celebrating is the grand larceny of Arab Jerusalem. And because of geography that effectively means the West Bank, too. In a chapter entitled ‘The City that Ate Palestine’, Friedland and Hecht show how, by the settlements around Jerusalem, Israel can ‘consume the centre of Palestine’. Similarly, Armstrong is sure that if Zion is to be ‘a city of peace instead of war and hatred some form of condominium’ is necessary. Yet the Israeli Government has evidently ruled out any genuine compromise. Indeed, with the intentionally provocative opening of the tunnel, the evictions of Palestinians from their homes in the city and the demolition of Palestinian buildings, the Netanyahu Government is evidently resolved to make Jerusalem a city of ‘war and hatred’.

The Arab question – why should their country be taken away from them because of the anti-semitic crimes of Europe? – Armstrong argues, is ‘entirely valid and unanswerable’. Finkelstein’s mother, like Shahak a survivor of the Nazi death camps, made the same point when she asked: ‘What crime did the Palestinians commit except to be born in Palestine?’ Since then, regrettably but inevitably, the Palestinians, under the pressure of overwhelming Israeli power and the world’s indifference, have committed a number of crimes, including terrorist atrocities.

Of course, everybody should be tough on terrorism, but to adapt Tony Blair, they should also be tough on the causes of terrorism, and there is little chance of that being achieved. For the main causes of terrorism stem from Israel and Washington. Israel nourishes terrorism by its ruthless oppression of Arabs in Palestine and Lebanon, as well as by branding as terrorist legitimate resistance movements such as Hezbollah, which is fighting to rid Lebanon of an aggressive and illegal occupation. And Israel has been able to get away with all this thanks to the constant backing of the United States, whose support is the consequence of what Gore Vidal in his gem of a Preface to Shahak’s book describes as ‘the serene corruption of American polities’.

As Armstrong fairly says, the Israelis have not been the worst conquerors of Jerusalem. That distinction belongs to the Crusaders, who provide a ‘striking instance of the dangers of leaving compassion and absolute respect for the rights of others out of the picture’. The Israelis’ current conduct and celebration of Jerusalem as their ‘eternal capital’ since the reign of King David provide a similarly striking instance. Instead of merely celebrating David’s anniversary, Israel would do better to emulate his toleration.

Meanwhile, the holy places remain, even if some of their sites are doubtful. Mount Zion has moved from the eastern side of the city to the west. The tomb of Christ may or may not be in the right place; in the 19th century Harriet Martineau referred to the ‘pretended sepulchre’ and Thackeray thought the Church of the Holy Sepulchre ‘the least sacred place in Jerusalem’. The Western or Wailing Wall, so sacred to Jews, also seems to have moved. Originally it was the western wall of the city, but from the 16th century it has been the western wall of Herod’s platform. Beacause of its profusion of holy places Jerusalem will no doubt remain ‘the holy city’, yet Herzl’s verdict on it is even truer now, after some eighty years of British and Israeli rule, than when he delivered it a century ago: ‘two thousand years of inhumanity, intolerance and uncleanliness’.