James Carroll

Caught in the eye of a political storm

By James Carroll
February 21, 2011

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AS NEWS comes of yet intensified demonstrations in Iran, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen, a ferocious sandstorm howls through Jerusalem, a gritty fog swirling across the most contested place of all. Weather is mere nature, yet Jerusalem seems like the tranquil eye of the larger political storm.

There is tension for sure. How could tectonic plates shifting below the entire Mideast not cause tremors here? In the holy city — Al Quds — pilgrims are sparse. Tourism is down. Israeli officialdom remains defensive. Extraordinary security measures surround the prime minister. Memories of Pan-Arab wars against Israel intrude. Many Israelis worry more about far-right foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman than any successor to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, young people demonstrate in Nazareth and other West Bank towns. The Palestinian Authority preemptively dissolves its government, calling overdue elections — as if Fatah corruptions and widespread Gaza resentment of Hamas can compete with the harsh Israeli occupation as brewing issues in local Arab streets. Palestinian restlessness is the primal condition here, and the status quo (formerly known in Egypt as “stability’’) cannot hold. But today’s sandstorm passes. Nature’s calm returns. If Jerusalem is the still quiet eye of the Arab hurricane, it is also an eye through which to view the great dilemma: Is tumultuous Mideast revolt to be seen with fear or hope?

In Jerusalem, perhaps more than any other city, the historical view is mandatory. Every era across four millennia offered reasons to be afraid, with Jerusalem as the perennial cockpit of violence. But at a time when resolute nonviolence has defined the protest of once voiceless people from Tunis and Cairo to Algiers and Yemen to Bahrain and Tehran, Jerusalem’s character as a city defined by resistance to violence has never been more salient. Thus:

■ Out of the clash of ancient tyrannies, notably Babylon, Jerusalem invented a new vision of human interconnectedness, also known as the Oneness of God.

■ From the smoldering ruins of Roman destruction, Jerusalem emerged as an orienting memory for exiled Jews and a permanent ideal for empowered Christians.

■ Within a few years of Mohammed’s death, Islam understood its own essence as a religion of reconciliation precisely in coming to Jerusalem.

■ The locating vision of Christendom, channeling Western civilization, took hold in and toward Jerusalem, generating glorious material and spiritual achievements.

■ Even as the Ottoman Empire lost its way in opulence, Jerusalem’s Noble Sanctuary remained a touchstone of the Islamic conscience.

■ In the early modern period (with Napoleon’s 1798 landing in Egypt), Jerusalem became the lively heart of resistance to European imperial colonialism.

■ The American ideal of the peaceable city on a hill, spawned in Jerusalem, remains a rebuking standard against which militant US realism is measured to this day.

■ And always, that primordial memory of the holy city kept Jewish longing alive — from Babylon to shtetls and ghettos, until the malign narrative of enforced diaspora was reversed in 1948.

Yes, this history can be recounted negatively. Apocalyptic thinking, Crusader mayhem, monotheistic self-sanctification, cults of martyrdom, fundamentalism in all three traditions, fratricidal rivalry to the present day — these, too, have found receptive niches in Jerusalem. But the crisis of cultural, political, and even religious transition that breaks across the world today cries out for deliberately chosen positive recollection. The negative speaks for itself, loud and clear.

So this. Again and again, groups threatened by violence of their own making have, here, found ways of pushing violence back upon itself. Jerusalem has been the city of human self-surpassing. When God checked Abraham’s knife here, sacrificial homicide was deemed unholy; here, religion was limited by ethics; here, the vision of each individual’s sacred worth as image of the Creator gave ultimate birth to universal human rights; here, seeds of democracy were sown when God constantly sided with victims of power against its wielders. It was the vacant Temple of Jerusalem that defined God’s mode of presence in the world as absence, eventually undercutting every ruler’s claim — whether divine-right, despotic, or even democratic — to God’s exclusive sponsorship. And why should all people not demand such recognitions for themselves?

With this month’s storms raging on the horizon, Israelis have reason for wariness, and Palestinians are right to be impatient at promises unkept. Americans are understandably alert. Yet Jerusalem itself remains the best reason for keeping an eye not on fear, but hope.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His book “Jerusalem, Jerusalem’’ is being published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt this week.