Pursuit of the holy land
Amid long histories of exile and despair, return and triumph, all eyes are on Jerusalem
‘LAND For peace’’ was the early mantra of the Mideast peace process, and it was realized in Israel’s treaties with Egypt and Jordan. The formula has proven to be more problematic between Israel and Palestine because the disputed territory defines core identities of both peoples. Having accepted the principle, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a fellow Jew for whom any surrender of Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) violated the sacred trust given by God. Meanwhile, any Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist as Israel involves a yielding of claims to ancestral property that was seized in war. The pulse of conflict over the land beats from the heart of Jerusalem — the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary — which both sides see as an exclusive locus of holiness.
Could negotiators in a renewed peace process ever step across the divide to see the story of the land from the other point of view? Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are usually understood in mainly modern terms, with roots in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the stand-out issue here goes far more deeply into the past than that. Below the glibly asserted claims and counter-claims, how does this “much too holy land,’’ as defeated mediators call it, actually feature in the history of the religions and the peoples? I write as an American Christian, from outside both traditions, yet this is how the matter seems to me.
Each people has a historic — but not exclusive — claim to the land of Israel/Palestine, with biblical sanctification of Jerusalem matched by the immediate Islamic impulse to go there because of its sacredness to Jews. The history of the city and the two faiths challenges preconceptions on both sides.
The Bible says that the Lord promised the land to Abraham as a sign of the Covenant (the sign of God’s prior covenant with Noah was a rainbow, which had the advantage of never actually touching the ground). Appealing to that promise, so the story goes, a band of Israelites, led by Joshua, invaded the land of the Canaanites, which many today see as a foreshadowing of a Zionist invasion of Palestine. Against that myth, scholars now tell us, it is likely that the Hebrews were themselves Canaanites, and the mass invasion was an invented account, perhaps based on the arrival of a small band of refugees from Egypt, intended to explain why Hebrew understandings of God differed from those of their fellow Canaanites. So much for one pillar of the contemporary conflict.
Today, certain Ultra-Orthodox Jews (like the murderer of Rabin) take the biblical narratives literally, as if the boundaries of Eretz Israel can be determined. (Biblical definitions are problematic. Exodus 23:31, for example, stakes a claim from Arabia and the Red Sea to the Euphrates, which flows through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.) Yet any conceivable land grant from heaven has less relevance than the actual experience of the ancient Hebrews, whose feelings for the land really began when they were kidnapped away from it by the Babylonians in the 7th century BC — eons after Abraham. Only as Judeans looked back on territory they had lost, centered in Jerusalem, did it take on transcendent significance. Their recognition of God as the author of their connection to the land was how they explained their inability to forget Jerusalem. When they returned to the place, they understood it differently, and it was then that what we call Judaism really began (only then, for example, did the Bible take form). Their longing for Jerusalem while exiled away from it made the Jews a people.
The Temple had been constructed in Jerusalem to house the Ark of the Covenant, but during the exile in Babylon that sacred object was lost. Upon returning, the Jews reconstituted the Temple, but from then on its Holy of Holies was empty. The central religious insight of Judaism from then on, as this Christian understands it, was that God’s presence was felt as a form of absence — just as the sacred character of the land had been only fully realized in exile from it. For Jews, this paradoxical pattern was made defining when, centuries later, the Romans, having destroyed the Temple, once more forced them into exile — an exile that would last until 1948. Through all of those centuries, just as in Babylon, the Jewish people continued to understand themselves in terms of the land from which they had been expelled. Absence was an intense form of presence. This history, more than any extrinsic divine mandate, made it the most natural thing in the world for 19th-century Zionists, seeking escape from European antisemitism, to turn their gaze back to Palestine. In fact, the Jewish gaze had never turned away.
The Palestinian experience importantly includes Christians, but Muslim history revolves around this land. Against those who claim that Islam’s connection to Jerusalem necessarily negates Judaism’s stands the story of Caliph Umar, Muhammad’s companion and second successor. No sooner had Arab tribalism yielded to the cohesive new movement based on the “oneness’’ of Allah than its gaze was drawn to Jerusalem. The Byzantine-controlled city was seen as sacred because it had been sacred to Jews. Within five years of the Prophet’s death in 632, Umar’s army took Jerusalem without any loss of life — a Muslim control that would last, except for an interlude during the Crusades, until the 20th century. From the effective beginning of Islam, Jerusalem was a pillar of its identity. Of tremendous relevance to today’s dispute is the fact that Umar’s first act was to formally welcome the exiled Jews back to Jerusalem. Umar ordered the repair of the still-ruined Jewish Temple Mount as the Jewish Temple Mount.
Caliphs after Umar would consistently demonstrate their Islamic piety by valorizing Jerusalem even more than Mecca or Medina. Myths would evolve to account for its Islamic significance. Al Aqsa Mosque, deliberately built by Umar at respectful remove from what he took to be the foundation rock of Judaism, became identified with the “farthest mosque’’ mentioned in the Qur’an. The Dome of the Rock, built a few decades later, enshrines the legendary site of Abraham’s sacrifice, but is understood as also sanctifying Mohammad’s ascent to heaven.
As Christian fantasies of Jerusalem defined Europe’s long war with Islam, an expressly Muslim spirituality of the holy city intensified. But looming across the ages is the fact that Islamic devotion to this place began as respect for Jewish devotion. In that foundation lies a permanent principle of mutual reconciliation.
Thus, the land claims of each party to the contemporary conflict are grounded in contingent history, not in timeless mandates. As Zionism (which began with a focus on the Mediterranean coast and the kibbutz-farms of Galilee) recovered the religious meaning of Jerusalem, and as Palestinian nationalism evolved out of pan-Arabic identity specifically in relationship to territory defined more by the British Mandate than indigenous traditions, the fluidity of historical change was on full display. In war, though, fluidity calcifies. Thus the messianic-minded ultra-Orthodox Jews of the settler movement assert that God’s ancient will trumps anything that has happened across 3,000 years, while irredentist Palestinians deny any Jewish precedence in Jerusalem or its Temple (“claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine,’’ as the 1968 PLO Charter puts it, “are incompatible with the facts of history’’).
This history shows that each people is profoundly tied to the land and its holy city. Jews are who they are because of the place. So are Palestinians. But the one constant defining that tie in both cases has been change. Indeed, history is its record. Negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians must begin with the shared assumption that only change will make peace possible. The hope lies precisely there, because change, even of the most firmly held and apparently opposing convictions — embodied in contested land — is what made those convictions sacred in the first place. Now to change again.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe. This is the second of six special columns, which will appear every other week. His new book, coming early in 2011, is “Jerusalem, Jerusalem: The Ancient City that Ignited the Modern World.’’