Vatican City as a Role Model for Jerusalem

"Divided Jerusalem" by Bernard Wasserstein, Profile Books, 432 pages, £20.

In the interests of proper disclosure, let me say that I am indebted to Bernard Wasserstein for his favorable review of my book "City of Stone." I would also point out that another of my books is the source of certain facts that appear in "Divided Jerusalem." Does this disqualify me as a reviewer? I don't think so, given our totally different approaches to Jerusalem. Wasserstein is mainly concerned with Jerusalem as a problem in international diplomacy. He deals with "internal, political, social and demographic history, only to the limited extent necessary for an understanding of the diplomatic issues."

My approach is the diametrical opposite. For me, the history of Jerusalem, at least in recent generations, is the chronicle of the communities that live here, the interaction between them and their separate communal lives. Diplomatic history - the kind Wasserstein describes so fascinatingly, using primary sources that are new to me - is secondary in my mind, however interesting.

Perhaps our approaches are different because we are looking at things from a very different vantage point: Wasserstein is peering in from the outside, whereas someone who lives in Jerusalem, and is part of the social fabric, will necessarily emphasize another kind of history: "earthly history," history as it is perceived by the natives. When we begin to talk about "divided" Jerusalem, the matter gets complicated, for there are two sets of natives running about, and the Jewish view of the city's history is utterly different from that of the Arabs.

The Arabs argue that the narrative of the Jews is biased, one-sided and full of falsehoods. Only the Arabs are entitled to write the "earthly history" of Jerusalem, they say. What the Jews are writing is the "history of victors."

There is no place like Jerusalem for making one realize how much the writing of history is a matter of opinion. Where in the world is there a place where the past so dominates the present? A person searching for the future will turn the corner, only to find the past lying in wait, ready to grab him by the neck. So seductive is the music played by the lyre of Cleo, the muse of history, against the backdrop of the minarets and domes of Jerusalem, that we are distracted from what we need to do, which is to set aside the mountains of hate and the oceans of blood, and begin a new chapter.

So great is the seduction that the list of books about Jerusalem is longer than for any other city in the world. Every year new books are added, and authors are sure that they will succeed in writing the definitive history, not to mention devising the most brilliant scheme for solving the Holy Land conundrum. It's become a sideline of Jerusalem research: the comparative analysis of "solutions to the Jerusalem problem." There must be over a hundred of them waiting for cataloging and analysis, each one more clever and elaborate than the next.

But what is a person to do when the Jerusalem conundrum persists in being unsolvable? Although perhaps it's better this way - if the problems were solved, what would happen to the flourishing industry that keeps so many researchers in the black and provides them with a steady stream of symposia around the world? The fiercer the dispute and the greater the violence, the more proposals arise - to the point where the number of schemes and the frequency with which they are cranked out is a more reliable indication of where things stand than the number of violent incidents or the number of casualties.

It is a temptation that Bernard Wasserstein and many others - myself included - have been unable to resist. Wasserstein has chosen to present the history of Jerusalem in modern times more as a battleground of religion and political power than as an inter-communal, ethno-national struggle. Hence his assertion that religious dividing lines (woven together with "important political considerations") have "determined the history of the earthly city in the modern period."

Wasserstein states that "divided Jerusalem is a product of external pressures, at least as much as of internal dynamics." Thus the religious-political debate between Israelis and Palestinians, which he feels is the core of the problem, is equal in importance to the diplomatic-religious disputes between the global powers.

This is a rather anachronistic approach, which enables the author to elaborate - disproportionately, in my opinion - on many issues that are interesting in themselves, but which do not contribute to an understanding of the current situation. It is hard to shake off the feeling that the author devotes much more space to his spheres of expertise than to matters in which he must resort to second and third-hand sources. An artificial balance is thus created between matters of primary and secondary importance in order to justify the lack of proportion and gaps in Wasserstein's knowledge.

The imbalance is particularly felt in the book's emphasis on the status of Christianity in Jerusalem. "Viewed in historical perspective," writes Wasserstein, "perhaps the most significant change in Jerusalem over the past century has been the decline in numbers and influence of Christianity in Jerusalem."

Is he serious? Clearly, the most significant change in Jerusalem over the past century is not the marginality of Christianity and Christians, but that fact that the conflict in Jerusalem is no longer a tug-of-war between the global powers and the major religions. It is a bi-national conflict between Jews and Arabs. This conflict has seeped into the urban fabric and turned Jerusalem into a city split down the middle - a city that is run without consensus and whose entire urban life, from sewage lines and gardening, to architectural planning, health and education, is politicized in the extreme.

The marginal importance of Christians and Christianity in Jerusalem is a direct outcome of the bi-national conflict. Wasserstein is aware of this. But in his desire to defend the validity of his triple religion theory and make use of his vast knowledge of Christianity and diplomacy, he devotes no less than 10 pages to an esoteric and unimportant dispute between the "White" Russian church and the "Red" Soviet church - the same amount of space devoted to the problem of "Palestinians and Jerusalem."

This kind of uneven handling, a consequence of uneven knowledge, is evident across the board. Wasserstein cites primary sources that no one has yet had access to, and writes with flair, when the subject is pre-1948 diplomatic history. But when he tells the story of Jerusalem after 1967, the writing is superficial and based on a small selection of secondary sources. So much has been written about Jerusalem in the past decades, one would think this period would be taken more seriously.

Paradoxically, the first part of the book, with its fascinating in-depth analysis, accentuates the imbalance. If the author really wanted to focus on "the problem of Jerusalem in international diplomacy," he should have kept that in mind at all times, rather than straying off course and inviting criticism for his shallow treatment of other subjects.

But everyone wants to write an up-to-date book that brings the story up to the present and offers some kind of solution. Wasserstein's idea of a solution is to propose Rome, of all cities in the world, as a role model for Jerusalem. "Sooner or later, divided Jerusalem must somehow learn to live with herself," he concludes his book. "Italy and the Vatican had to wait two generations before they could bring themselves to sign the Lateran Treaty that finally settled the Rome question."

The comparison between Jerusalem and Rome intrigues Wasserstein. He sees "striking parallels," although these parallels are "outweighed by differences." The main point of resemblance, says Wasserstein is that both eternal cities are grappling with "issues of spiritual and temporal authority, the disputed location of the capital of a new nation-state, the connection between a holy city and a universal faith." The main difference is that "Jerusalem, even more than Rome, lies at the heart of a political conflict, that, beyond its own inhabitants, has engaged great human masses across many continents."

To say that there is any resemblance between the solution of the Rome problem in 1929, which brought about the Italian government's recognition of the independent sovereignty of the Vatican, and the situation in Jerusalem, is totally unfounded. The conflict in Jerusalem is not between a nation-state and a universal religion (or religions). It is between two national communities with conflicting religious and symbolic interests that are striving for sovereign control of the same piece of land. All the proposals to "Vaticanize" Jerusalem have been rejected because they cannot solve the problem of a city torn by national strife.

Wasserstein could have drawn more relevant comparisons with other divided cities, such as Nicosia, Belfast and Brussels. But if he had done so, he would be contradicting his central thesis, i.e., that the conflict in Jerusalem is a religious one. In consequence, he fails to answer his own question: "What is the explanation for the profound divisions among the different groups in the city's population?"

All these criticisms do not make "Divided Jerusalem" a worthless and uninteresting book. On the contrary, I found it highly interesting and learned things I didn't know. I didn't know, for example, about the meeting between Chaim Weizmann and Mussolini in 1934. "When we reach the stage of practicalities, can I count on your support?" Weizmann asked the fascist dictator. "Certainly," replied Mussolini.

Wasserstein also tells a nice story about Jordanian-Israeli cooperation in the matter of the Biblical Zoo ("one lion, one tiger, two bears, one hyena, two kangaroos, one monkey and a large number of birds"), which was stranded on Mount Scopus when the Jordanians cut off access to the area during the War of Independence. The two sides had to decide how to feed the lion: to purchase Arab donkeys with Israeli currency or haul Jewish donkeys up the mountain. In the end, everyone agreed that the best solution was to move the animals to Western Jerusalem - thanks to which I was able to show my eldest son his first lion.

The book is bursting with facts of all kinds and interesting analyses, some more important, some less. When I finished it, I asked myself what impression I would come away with if I had read it like an ordinary person, unfamiliar with the intricacies of Jerusalem's convoluted history, like, say, the book I just finished on the Crimean War. No question, I would feel that I was much more informed about Jerusalem, and had used my time productively. What more could an author want?

Meron Benvenisti is the author of "Conflicts and Contradictions," published by Villard Books, and "City of Stone," published by the University of California Press.