Capital Folly

Avi Shlaim

  • Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City by Bernard Wasserstein
    Profile, 420 pp, £9.99, March 2002, ISBN 1 86197 333 0

More than any other capital city, Jerusalem demonstrates the power of symbols in international politics. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is one of the most bitter and protracted of modern times, and the Jerusalem question, a compound of religious zealotry and secular jingoism, lies at its heart. The Oslo Accords, which launched the Palestinians on the road to self-government, bypassed the matter of Jerusalem along with the other truly difficult issues in the dispute: the right of return of the 1948 refugees, the future of the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and the borders of the Palestinian entity. Discussion of these was deferred until negotiations took place on the final status of the territories, due to begin towards the end of a five-year transition period. They were belatedly tabled at the summit convened by Bill Clinton at Camp David in July 2000, but Jerusalem was the issue that ultimately led to the failure of the summit and the breakdown of the Oslo peace process.

Religious rivalries are notoriously difficult to resolve, and Jerusalem’s spiritual significance for the three great monotheistic religions has ensured its long and bloody history. And then there is the political prestige that has always gone with possession of the city. Between its foundation and its capture by the Israelis in 1967, it is said to have been taken 37 times, and it has now been on the international diplomatic agenda for a century and a half. When Arthur Koestler visited it during the 1948 war, he was filled with gloom at the ‘international quarrelling, haggling and mediation’ that he could see looming. ‘No other town,’ he wrote, ‘has caused such continuous waves of killing, rape and unholy misery over the centuries as this Holy City.’

Anyone seeking to understand the Jerusalem question in its current form could not do better than read Bernard Wasserstein’s thoroughly researched, elegantly written and strikingly fair-minded book. Its starting-point is what psychologists have long been aware of as the ‘Jerusalem syndrome’ that afflicts some visitors to the city, especially Western Christian tourists, who feel a need to register their presence in the Holy City by assuming the identity of a Biblical character, undergoing mystical experiences or succumbing to the delusion of possessing supernatural powers. Jerusalem, in other words, represents not just a problem but also an emotion: above all, a religious emotion. Veneration for the city among Jews, Christians and Muslims runs deep and it is the duty of the historian, as Wasserstein sees it, to record this fervour without succumbing to it. From here, he goes on to develop his argument that politicians of all three religious affiliations have deliberately inflated the city’s religious importance to serve their own political ends.

When the Ottoman Turks captured Jerusalem in 1516 it was a provincial backwater with a population of fewer than 15,000. It didn’t acquire any administrative importance over the four centuries of Ottoman rule, but served only as the capital of a district forming part of the province of Damascus. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent it acquired the walls enclosing the city that are still almost intact today. But the various religious groups were left to run their own affairs and to administer their own institutions, with little interference from the central government. The Jerusalem question in its modern form arose as a by-product of the slow decline of the Empire. The initial struggle was over the Christian holy places. As Ottoman power waned, the other great powers sought to extend their authority and prestige, and Wasserstein lays bare the methods they employed with a wry humour in a chapter on ‘The Wars of the Consuls’: religious sentiment was exploited, local protégés were cultivated, dependent institutions such as churches, monasteries, convents, hospitals, orphanages, schools and colleges were founded.

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