Opinion |

The Jerusalem Obsession

Of all of Israel’s whims, this is the craziest of all. A country trying look secular, Western and modern is going nuts over a wall

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Then-IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren at the Western Wall with paratroopers after they entered Jerusalem's Old City. June 7, 1967
Then-IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren at the Western Wall with paratroopers after they entered Jerusalem's Old City. June 7, 1967Credit: GPO
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

The sky has fallen. America is stuttering about the Western Wall. Where is it located? Whom does it belong to? It’s the end of the world, the Zionist enterprise is finished. It’s a good thing we have a Habayit Hayehudi representative in the United Nations (in the guise of the American ambassador), Nikki Haley. She hastened on Tuesday to prevent another emotional holocaust by stating that in her personal opinion, the Kotel is ours. What a relief! The Temple Mount is (again) in our hands.

Of all of Israel’s whims, this is the craziest of all. A country trying look secular, Western and modern is going nuts over a wall. It’s a fetish. You can live with it, of course, but like any obsession it can drive you insane.

But the obsession with the Kotel is part of a wider syndrome, the Jerusalem obsession. There’s no more divided city than united Jerusalem, and we’ve devised no greater self-deception than thinking there can be a solution without justice in Jerusalem. You can of course love Jerusalem, which was a lovely city until its last occupation, with an amazing history and holy places. You can pray toward it a dozen times a day, to a city that Jews lived in for generations and also longed for. It is truly an exciting and recommended tourist destination, just check out TripAdvisor.

But a country that wakes up in terror because some American official avoided saying that the Kotel is part of Israel, proves not only that its discourse is delusional, but that it isn’t at all sure that the Kotel really belongs to it, and how uncertain it is about its borders, sovereignty and justness. When it comes to talking about Jerusalem, it loses its moorings; when it comes to the Kotel, it loses consciousness. In both instances we’re talking about detachment from reality.

There are a large number of Israelis for whom the Kotel is the holy of holies. They should be respected. There are many other Israelis who haven’t been there in years, who were brought there by the army or on a school trip and don’t intend to go back. Some of them may love Jerusalem, but from a distance, and they won’t go there, certainly since it’s gotten so ugly during its years of occupation. But the discussion of Israelis’ feelings about Jerusalem, the Kotel, the Shoafat refugee camp or Sheikh Jarrah has only a loose connection to the question of sovereignty. That grave in Uman is also holy, but no one is claiming sovereignty over it (yet).

The Jerusalem obsession in its current form is new. Israel lived fairly well with little Jerusalem. Mini Jerusalem was a much more pleasant, humane and Israeli place, but the monster has turned on its creator during the past 50 years. On the other hand, there is no subject on which the world is as united as on Jerusalem; no country recognizes Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem and there isn’t a single embassy in western Jerusalem, either.

In other words, Israel is playing with itself, or maybe we should say talking to itself, when it talks about Jerusalem. The Kotel is occupied territory just like the casbah in Nablus, even if new U.S. Ambassador David Friedman rushed there straight from the airport. U.S. President Donald Trump can visit the Kotel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or without him, it doesn’t matter; Jerusalem’s future is far from established, even if Yair Lapid – now there’s a doomsday weapon – says it will remain united forever.

No one is saying that Israelis must be blocked from prostrating themselves on its holy stones. But turning the question of Jerusalem into the cornerstone of any solution to the conflict is the product of 50 years of brainwashing and ritual, including all the odd initiation ceremonies at the Kotel.

Let’s say that Israel one day accedes to the world’s position – there are countries that do that from time to time – and agrees that the Holy Basin be put under international control. Will any Jew going to say the selihot prayers have a hair touched on his head? Will the Kotel be a less just place? Less Jewish? Less holy? Less “moss and sadness,” or perhaps less “lead and blood?”

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