How to Love the Real Jerusalem

The left’s contempt for the complexities of Jerusalem - stubbornly religious, ethnically jumbled, unEuropean - shows why they have failed to connect to more Israelis in opposing the occupation.

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Apartments near the Chords Bridge in Jerusalem.
Apartments near the Chords Bridge in Jerusalem. Credit: Tal Cohen

Gideon Levy hates Jerusalem. It infuriates him. Jerusalem is ugly, he wrote here [“O Jerusalem, Israelis have already forgotten thee”] and besides, "you can't love a city when it's immoral."

It upsets me to read what Levy writes about my city, and not just because I love the crazy place enough to feel incomplete anywhere else, an incompleteness I've felt in Tel Aviv, New York, Paris or Mumbai. I should add that I like New York, Paris and Mumbai, even though they, too, have their own ugly parts and bitter injustices. Every unjust city, Tolstoy might have said, is unjust in its own way.

I respect Levy's dedication to reporting on the evils of the occupation. But since I want those evils to end, I'm frustrated about the left's failure to connect to more Israelis. Levy's riff about Jerusalem points to a couple of the reasons for that failure: Contempt for much of the Israeli public, and a tone of despair.

Levy describes how he was captivated by Jerusalem after Israel conquered the East City. He believed the myth of the city "united forever." He accepted the fairy tale of benign Israeli rule, propagated by the liberal-sounding, or at least European-sounding, mayor Teddy Kollek. Levy says the first intifada cracked the myths and the second smashed the shards. Now he hates the city and the "religious-nationalist brainwashing campaign" that he says began the day after the city's conquest.

There are two errors here. First, Levy writes as if the city and the myth were the same thing. The myth turned out to be false, so the city is ugly.

As a point of fact, the myth was wrong even before the paratroopers got to the Western Wall in June 1967. It was already wrong before the war, when Naomi Shemer's song "Jerusalem of Gold" described the Old City as being empty, waiting for the Jewish people to come back to it.

But the city isn't the myth. It's entirely more human, complicated and contradictory, which is its real beauty. If someone set you up with a blind date who was supposedly an enchanted princess or prince and a real person showed up, please, be angry with the matchmaker and with yourself for believing nonsense. It's not the date's fault.

As for the second error: Shemer wasn't "national religious." At the forefront of the mythmaking campaign stood secular Israelis. It was Moshe Dayan who came to the Western Wall the day of the conquest and proclaimed that we'd never give it up. Kollek claimed "credit" for the crime of razing the Moghrabi Quarter the night the war ended to create the plaza in front of the Wall - though Shlomo Lahat, then military governor of East Jerusalem and later mayor of Tel Aviv, told me many years later that it was his idea.

It was the quite irreligious Prime Minister Levi Eshkol who in haste and hubris convinced his willing cabinet to annex East Jerusalem. The prime ministers ever since then who have built massive Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem have, every one of them, led secular parties. Religious Zionist activists, such as those who later started settling in Palestinian neighborhoods, were over-enthusiastic understudies who stayed on stage when some of the original leading men left. They have made it easier for a significant part of the secular left to reflexively blame the occupation on religion or messianism. It's all someone else's fault.

What you might call "someone else-ness" is Jerusalem's other shortcoming, as seen by its detractors. In recent years I've had conversations with people from the well-off stretch of the Mediterranean coast who say they don't like coming to Jerusalem. The conversation usually leads to, "Too many ultra-Orthodox," or more simply, "Too Orthodox," sometimes combined with, "Too many Arabs." A euphemism for "too Mizrahi" is occasionally tossed in.

These are liberal people. Their problem with Jerusalem is that it isn't "secular, liberal and humanist," to use Levy's words. Allow me to translate: Jerusalem gets in the way of believing that Israel is post-religious and, despite what maps show, somewhere in Europe.

The earthly and earthy Jerusalem straddles the Green Line and at the same time welds Israel to the Middle East. More subtly, if you take the time to stay and know the place better, it challenges comfortable, sharp divisions, such as the one between Orthodox and secular. Every variation of religious identity is not only possible here; it is on display. The ethnic geography of Mizrahi and Ashkenazi is a jumble. Arab Jerusalem is a city apart from Jewish Jerusalem - yet the two are tied together by people's daily lives, particularly of Palestinians.

Dividing sovereignty in Jerusalem while keeping it an open city would not merely be "less of a disaster," as Levy says. It is a positive vision for a healthier Jerusalem and Israel. And if you want to recruit people to a cause, it helps to think of your own program as a step forward, not as a defeat. It also helps not to look down on people you need to recruit. In this case, it would help to embrace Jerusalem for what it is and can be, rather than to hate it for what it never was.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG



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