To Understand the Complexity of Jerusalem, Read This Book

In his carefully wrought and well-sourced book ‘Urshalim,’ Nir Hasson tells the story of a united but fractured city, melding scattered historical, political and religious details into a significant picture

Israeli security forces hold position as they stand guard in front of the Dome of the Rock in the Haram al-Sharif compound in the old city of Jerusalem on July 27, 2017.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

First, an essential point: This important book, “Urshalim,” is apparently aimed at everyone who is not going to read it – the coalition party chairman who reads a book once in 10 years, local and national politicians, shortsighted statesmen, diplomats with whom Jerusalem is brimming and clerics and intellectuals who are doing their best to incite Jerusalemites to set their city on fire.

Everyone who does read the book by Nir Hasson will learn much that is essential for understanding the reality of our life – the sublime and the vain, the shoddy and the dismal. And after the current rites of death, incitement, violence, stupidity and braggadocio have run their course, perhaps someone in the Prime Minister’s Office will sit down for a few minutes, read this book and send a summary to “the captain,” to inform him of what will happen next time around. And the same applies to people in the National Security Council, the Jerusalem Municipality and several other Israeli bureaus of conflagration.

the cover of 'Urshalim: Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, 1967-2017.'
Nir Hasson

The distance between the current events sections and the thoughtful pages of the Haaretz books supplement has narrowed considerably of late. The news pages read like a fictional nightmare narrative, while the literary works are often as spot-on as an immediate news report. Into this space comes Haaretz Jerusalem and archaeology correspondent Nir Hasson. "Urshalim" is not only an expansion of his precise journalistic writing: It is the extraordinary – historical, diplomatic, religious, urban, local and international – story of the city that has plunged into the yawning abyss between hollow rhetoric and the sad reality of its streets. 

This is the story of Jerusalem in the past 50 years, and the pillars that support the internal structure of the book are a collection of historical and current facts woven into a logical and consequential story by means of impressive expressive ability. “Hassonic” writing, on the one hand, melds scattered details into a significant picture and, on the other, deconstructs big pictures into small human pixels.

The book has three "protagonists": a rare repository of knowledge and information, the crazy and schizophrenic city itself, and the author’s special language. The city with its wealth of vagaries, insanities and madmen demands special observation and extraordinary insights. Hasson provides them all, in abundance.

The book begins with a prologue about a moment in the summer of 2014 that has become yet another watershed in the city’s fate: the final moments in the life of the young Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir, at the hands of his Jewish murderers. Hasson wants to lure readers to dive into the story, so he does not begin too rapidly and does not rush to finish. He broadens the horizons of our vision to beyond the fleeting headlines, painting the blazing Jerusalem landscape for us.

The journey begins with the incendiary rhetoric in the wake of the abduction on June 12, 2014, in the West Bank of the three Israeli teenagers – Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah – moves on to the horrific Cats Square in downtown Jerusalem, proceeds from there to the city's Geula neighborhood from which Abu Khdeir’s murderers set out on July 2, arrives at the central mosque in Shoafat neighborhood of East Jerusalem, and concludes in “faint signs of ash in the parking bay” in the Jerusalem Forest, where the death of the innocent Palestinian adolescent who has become a symbol took place.

Four-hundred pages and two years later, the current story ends with a long epilogue following the Green Line, a few hundred meters from the place where Abu Khdeir died, to the Mitzpeh Naftoah hill that is renewing itself after the big forest fires of 2016.

In between, via bloody recent events and the flames erupting in Jerusalem, Hasson makes accessible the decades (in fact, centuries and millennia) of the reality of this united and fractured city. The timing of the publication of his book – in the 50th year since the eradication of the boundary between Jerusalem's two parts – is not by chance.

Israeli border guards keep watch as Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray outside Jerusalem's old city overlooking the Al-Aqsa mosque compound on July 28, 2017.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

Hasson explores this border that both refuses to exist and refuses to be eradicated, when no datum, detail, anecdote or recollection stands alone. In this city, everything is intertwined – history and politics, archaeology and demagoguery and frequently all of them at once.

The seven chapters of the book survey the city’s history from 1967 when the walls in its heart came down, to the years at the turn of the millennium when it was once again split apart by the security barrier. 

There is discussion of the Israelization and the conflicts of the Palestinian population of Jerusalem; the empty slogans and clichés that conceal reality from the eyes of Israelis and cut off any rational conversation concerning the city’s future; the centrality of the Temple Mount (the Noble Sanctuary, or Haram al-Sharif, for Moslems) as shaped by the two sides of the Jerusalemite discourse, Israeli and Palestinian; the Jewish colonization in the heart of the Palestinian neighborhoods, and use of archaeology as a tool of crude political action; the violence of recent years, its origins and future directions; and finally, in the last chapter, all the possible scenarios as to where, by all the gods of this city, all this is leading in the next 50 years.
A small selection of the insights offered in “Urshalim” will make the wisdom and importance of this book clear.

Nir Hasson. The city with its vagaries, insanities and madmen demands special observation and extraordinary insights. He provides them all.
Olivier Fitoussi

Between 1948 and 1967, writes Hasson, “(Israeli) Jerusalem was, for the first time in all its chronicles, without a sanctified religious focal point and in many respects it became a secular city.” Some of its inhabitants “felt relief at Jerusalem, for the first time in its long history, having been detached from the burden of holiness and the baggage of generations that weighed heavily on it.”

Elsewhere, Hasson relates that, “three years after the [1967] war a pattern had been created from which Jerusalem has not freed itself to this day; the aim of construction in Jerusalem was not to answer the needs of the city and its inhabitants, but was part of a diplomatic struggle proclamations of ownership, acts of protest.” 

This protest is directed against the average Jerusalem Palestinian,” who is a “poor individual suffering from deep and continuing discrimination on the part of the political and administrative establishments. He lives in an illegal house that has a demolition order pending His children study in substandard classrooms in a school where the appointment of the principal was approved by the Shin Bet security service and the textbooks were censored by the municipality The street where he lives has no name or sidewalk He and members of his family are very familiar with the smell of tear gas and every kind of rubber bullet and stun grenade His legal status is under constant threat and his national identity is very nearly something illegal He does not have the right to vote for a parliament that has any authority over his life This is the starting point.”

Attorney Leah Tsemel explains to Hasson: “The women play the price of preserving Arab identity for the men. The keffiyeh is gone from the man’s head but has moved over to the woman’s head. It has been reversed: The man has given up these outward signs so as to be able to get along and integrate, but he has dressed his wife and daughters in them in an extreme way that had never existed before.”

Jerusalem has many kinds of discourse and none of them evades Hasson’s all-seeing eyes. He describes the inflammatory discourse concerning Jerusalem (“the heart of the nation”), the ethnocentric discourse (“our Jerusalem”), the mythical discourse (“the eternal city”) and the religious discourse (“the holy city”). With great precision he analyzes the dramatic religious transformation contemporary Judaism is experiencing precisely because of this city.

“The Judaism of our times is a religion that has developed over the course of the past 2,000 years without a Temple. The fact that the rabbinical religion did not need a Temple is not tantamount to a fateful decree that Judaism has learned to accommodate.

In many senses this absence is its backbone and the reason for the sanctification of learning, prayer, the mourning for the destruction [of the Temple] and the expectation of a miraculous redemption Thus renewal of the practice of burnt offerings on the Temple Mount, which Temple activists are seeking, is perhaps a legitimate desire but its significance is the creation of a new, post-Jewish religion,” writes Hasson.

Split personality

Hasson’s language is very precise and at the end of many of his sentences, the reader is left with the feeling that the words conceal additional strata beneath them. Every sentence has several dimensions – current and historical, micro and macro – in one well-wrapped package.

For example, “It is very difficult to simplify the complexity of Jerusalem,” he writes, but nevertheless goes on to do so, thusly: “However, it is possible to examine the events along Hagai (Al-Wad) Street in the Old City, between the Damascus Gate plaza and the Western Wall Plaza, and to try to see them as a microcosm of the big picture: a history of increasing friction between two religious and national communities, the occupation and attempts at control, establishment violence and terror, colonization and deprivation – all these alongside instances of civic and business cooperation, friendships that cross religions and nationalities, and everyday life that doesn’t always make a distinction between religious and national identities.”

Hasson does not write in a judgmental way. He gives all the voices and opinions worthy and respectful space, and the questions he directs at everyone – left and right, religious and secular, Jew and Arab, local or visitor – are sharp and precise. And with all the effort to strive for the objectivity of a curious observer, it seems that despite all the obstacles and blindness, Hasson is optimistic and believes that among the abundance of solutions available there is also one that will come to pass.

It is a pity then, as noted, that this book will not be read by those who need it more than anyone: the leaders, the statesmen, the religious leaders and the chief inciters. These people are not, after all, really interested in complexity, in understanding and in solutions. All of them are doppelgangers of Culture Minister Miri Regev, whose remarks from three years ago are quoted in the book: “If a third intifada is necessary so we can defend and preserve the right of Jews to go up to the Temple Mount – let there be an intifada."

You read this and have trouble believing it. Is Regev also one of the Prophets? Or perhaps among the creators of the demented and voracious reality in which, one way or another, her prophecies are fulfilling themselves?

It would seem that Hasson has not decided exactly what kind of book this is, and like the city that is its subject, "Urshalim" suffers from a somewhat split personality: On the one hand it tells a fluent, informative and thought-provoking story, while on the other it offers thorough, profound and comprehensively sourced academic work (“This is an academic and not a journalistic book,” the author writes). But as such, it is a pity that there is no index of citations, names, places and terminology.

The book is well wrought, excellently written and tightly edited, but on the margins I will add one petty observation. I did not find any flaws in it apart from two interdependent imprecisions, and I wouldn’t even remark on them had the author not provided mistaken biographical information related to me: Contrary to what he has written, I have never served as the minister of religious affairs, and my late father who did serve in that weird position was not called Avraham.

Hasson gives all the voices and opinions respectful space. And with all the effort to strive for the objectivity of a curious observer, it seems that despite all the obstacles and blindness, he is optimistic and believes that among the abundance of solutions available there is also one that will come to pass.

“Urshalim: Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, 1967-2017,” Sifrei Aliyat Hagag and Yedioth Books (in Hebrew), 436 pp., 118 shekels ($33)