Once in royal David's city

City of the Great King - A History of Jerusalem - Jerusalem in the Twentieth Century - To Rule Jerusalem
October 25, 1996

It is impossible to separate the physical reality of Jerusalem from the burden of religious and cultural significance that has attached to it over many centuries. Jerusalem as symbol and reality intertwine inextricably, as all these volumes, wittingly and unwittingly, illustrate. Karen Armstrong opens her study of the history of the city with the personal reflection that "in Jerusalem, more than any other place I have visited, history is a dimension of the present." But just as it is a disputed present, so it is a disputed past. The fact that the Madrid talks and the Oslo accord relegated the issue of Jerusalem's status to the final phase of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians confirms the intractable nature of the symbolic and mundane Jerusalem. It is a struggle in which the choice of terminology is never a simple or innocent matter: an author's decision to refer to "the West Bank", "the territories", "Judea and Samaria" or the "reunification of Jerusalem" in 1967, embodies important claims and reveals much about the presuppositions underlying his or her study.

The City of the Great King consists of a wide range of articles chosen to reflect "a living picture" of the city's past and present, covering a diversity of topics from its early history, its symbolic importance in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, its place in Zionist and Palestinian thought, as well as its depiction in art, architecture, cartography, and literature.

The book opens with a skeleton chronology which states that "King David captures Jerusalem from the Jebusites and makes the city his capital c.1004". Editor Nitza Rosovsky in her introduction emphasises that it was David's capture of the city 3,000 years ago and the building of the Solomonic temple that confirmed that "Jerusalem became the spiritual center of the Jewish people as well as their seat of government". She is at pains to emphasise that it was only during periods of Jewish control, with the exception of the Crusader period, that the city has been the capital of a nation. Although the book is meant to celebrate the multifarious culture of the city and not the king, she claims that their names are entwined forever. While acknowledging that the question of the status of the city is no longer a simple matter, her assertion and the implication of the title that the history of the city begins with David, and that it is by nature the capital of Israel, is little more than an echo of the claims embodied in the controversial "Jerusalem 3000" celebrations.

In contrast, the opening essay by Magen Broshi on "The inhabitants of Jerusalem" points out that the literary evidence alone covers four millennia, while archaeology reveals occupation over 5,000 years or more. Whereas F. E. Peters's following chapter on "The holy places" opens with the claim that "when Jerusalem first appears in biblical history, it is a town without a past, a newly conquered Jebusite settlement that David had made the capital of his still insecure Israelite kingdom". Thus there does not appear to be a clear organising principle behind the book.

The fact that Jerusalem's history did not begin with David is aptly demonstrated by Karen Armstrong's A History of Jerusalem. With typically panoramic sweep, she ranges across the religious and political history of the city from its earliest times to the present, continuing her fascination with the three great monotheistic faiths by pursuing the question of what it means for Jerusalem to be holy to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Her breadth of reading is impressive, as is her ability to reduce complex scholarship to bare essentials in pursuit of her theme. She dismisses the principle of possession by primacy - who inhabited the city first - to explore Jerusalem's sacred geography. This is an essentially optimistic study, tempered by the tragedies and atrocities of history, in which she searches for unity in diversity, the similarities between the three faiths in their understanding of the sacredness of the city.

Surprisingly, Armstrong is the only author under review to acknowledge the fierce debate in biblical studies over the early history of ancient Israel and the historicity of the biblical traditions. Unfortunately, her dismissal of the debate means that the first half of the study is reminiscent of the outdated histories of ancient Israel written in the 1950s and 1960s. Her pursuit of the notion of holiness leads to the conclusion that justice is an inalienable part of Jerusalem's sanctity which requires that whoever is in possession show compassion and tolerance to their predecessors. Caliph Umar and Saladin are singled out as paradigms of conquerors who have exercised such justice and compassion. In an ironic reversal of symbolism at the centre of the Jerusalem 3000 celebrations, Armstrong argues that David provides a similar paradigm to which "the state of Israel has not measured up". Although it is claimed that the book is not an attempt to arbitrate on the future of the city, Armstrong criticises the Israeli policy of "urban renewal" since 1967 which has meant the appropriation of Arab land and the dismantling of historic Arab Jerusalem. Such a situation falls far short of her ideal Zion: "This is not Zion, the haven of rest established by King David."

Contemporary Jerusalem forms the focus of the two studies by Martin Gilbert and by Robert Friedland and Richard Hecht. Together they provide a fascinating contrast in their assessment of the events and personalities that have shaped the city: Gilbert largely optimistic and positive, Friedland and Hecht dark, at times despairing, and ultimately pessimistic as religiously inspired antidemocratic groups drive the city ever further from Armstrong's ideal. Gilbert, as an academic historian, brings an immediacy to his account through his skilful use of archive materials, guidebooks, newspapers, and correspondence. He documents the growth of the city from an Ottoman provincial town through the period of British control and increasing communal violence, the dramatic events of 1948 and the division of the city, the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967 to the present. He contrasts the disparity between its provincial beginnings at the turn of the century, which he is keen to emphasise had a Jewish majority, and its transformation into a major city, "the capital of an independent nation, and still a vital centre of religious worship for three world religions". This is an impassioned account in which Gilbert often eschews the persona of objective historian for that of participant, acting as a driver for Israeli schoolchildren taking telegrams to tell of deaths of servicemen and women during the Yom Kippur war, being present at Israeli excavations or decrying the condemnation of Israel in the UN by "some diplomats of which, as I later learned from personal experience, could not even locate Israel on the map". He is keen to stress how British and Israeli rule has brought the trappings of civilisation to the city: paved streets, pleasant suburbs, piped running water, effective municipal services, and enhanced commercial activity. But this does not accord with the picture of East Jerusalem offered by Armstrong or Friedland and Hecht where municipal services are at crisis point, few building permits are granted to Arabs, while Jewish religious groups continue to infiltrate and colonise neighbourhoods.

Former mayor Teddy Kollek is the hero of Gilbert's narrative, portrayed as liberal, tolerant and working to the benefit of all the inhabitants of the city. Yet, as Friedland and Hecht illustrate, Kollek was one of the principal architects of the policy to make Jerusalem an overwhelmingly Jewish city. These omissions mean that Gilbert offers no insight into Palestinian opposition to Kollek's policies and their failure to support him in the municipal elections of 1993.

To Rule Jerusalem provides a much more detailed, gripping and disturbing picture of the struggle to control the city. Yet it is not a struggle reduced to a simple binary opposition between Israeli and Palestinian but a complex unravelling of the inner tensions in both societies revealing a struggle for control between secular nationalists and antistatist religious groups in a series of shifting factions and alliances. Friedland and Hecht, both Jewish and both specialists in religious studies and the sociology of religion, enliven their account with a series of interviews with politicians, religious leaders and ordinary people who inhabit the city and help to shape its future. While trying "to convey the assumptions, the logic, the local justice and indeed the common humanity of each of the city's communities", they reveal the hard-headed and all too often hard-hearted realities of the political situation.

The year 1967 represents for them a watershed. But rather than this exemplifying a triumphal "reunification", as seen from an Israeli perspective, it illustrated how secular Zionism "faced its most profound challenge" in Zion as the haredim, orthodox religious groups, gradually won the struggle over the control and definition of the sanctity, nature and meaning of the city. The contest to control space and time - the strategic infiltration and colonisation of neighbourhoods and insistence on sabbath observance - has been the battleground for the control of the city. Profound theological differences between the haredim and the settler movement have been set aside since the Madrid talks and the signing of the Oslo accord in opposition to a state that has lost its legitimacy and divine sanction. The authors analyse the political use of violence by such groups, often uncontrolled by the state, to deny Palestinian rights or nationhood. Their parallel analysis reveals strikingly similar developments and struggles among the Palestinians. Again, the irony of 1967 is that it created the conditions for the emergence of a Palestinian nationalism centred on Jerusalem, while it was the intifada that brought to an end the acquiescence of the Palestinian population and reconfigured what was politically possible. The Muslim Brotherhood made the same kind of essential connection between possession of land and piety as the religious Zionists, resulting in a similar struggle between nationalists, democratic forces and antidemocratic religious groups for legitimacy and power.

Friedland and Hecht end their account with the sober pronouncement that "the hard structures of the city are built upon foundations that are more enduring, more materially effective, than stone or concrete. The city is built upon a set of symbols that threaten to tear it apart. As Israelis and Palestinians move toward peace, Jerusalem is being prepared as a battlefield for war." The power of this analysis was illustrated all too tragically by recent events following the opening of the new tourist entrance to the tunnel running alongside the Western Wall within the Muslim quarter of the Old City. The potency of the tunnel's symbolism in the struggle for Jerusalem was highlighted by the statement of Mayor Ehud Olmert, the man who defeated Kollek, that the opening was a clear demonstration of the Israeli government's seriousness in stating that the sovereignty of Jerusalem is not negotiable. The struggle to rule Jerusalem is a struggle for exclusive control, embodied in the continued appropriation of Arab lands, thus denying the city's rich cultural and religious history to which these volumes testify.

Keith W. Whitelam is professor of religious studies, University of Stirling.

City of the Great King: Jerusalem from David to the Present

Editor - Nitza Rosovsky
ISBN - 0 674 13190 8
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £25.50
Pages - 562

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