December 2011

Kerri Arsenault

Locus Pocus

Jerusalem: Portrait of a City of "Ravenous Passions and Impermeable to Reason"

In 2005, with an avalanche of daily media attention emerging from a country the size of New Jersey, to my astonishment, it was still difficult to find contemplative and accurate accounts about Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Unsatisfied, I decided to visit the region myself. After moving to Sweden that summer, I booked a room in Jerusalem and left an empty apartment and the unpacking to my dubious but supportive husband. My curiosity had no agenda except I wanted to write about what I found. And where else were stories so plentiful, complex, and just a teensy dangerous?

Months in advance, I studied everything from Haaretz to Hamas: Political Thought and Practice, and a Bible I nicked from a hotel. Much of the literature was ideologically based or just poorly written, and American media, useless. After I arrived, my pistol-toting Israeli hotelier seemed shady. A Palestinian fixer took to me to a “celebration” filled with Qassam rockets. I was plinked with stones by elderly hooligans in the Mea Shearim, chased by rock-wielding Palestinian boys in Hebron, and a backpack left by a forgetful shopper was blasted by an armed robot. Some people thought I was Arab, some Jewish, depending on what checkpoint I was crossing or what bus I was riding. Holy sites were rundown and heavily guarded. Everything seemed political and paranoid, even when it came to purchasing a simple map; the road atlas I bought didn’t include the Palestinian villages I planned to visit.

Simon Sebag Montefiore writes of Jerusalem Syndrome, a “madness of anticipation, disappointment and delusion” that arises out of the Jerusalem experience. “The contrast between the real and heavenly cities is so excruciating than a hundred patients a year are committed to the city’s asylum.” Like many visitors who came before me, I was disappointed. Jerusalem felt forsaken, less religious than a bowling alley.

Had Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography been published back then, it would have given me some solid apolitical footing. This book is of biblical proportions but Sebag tackles the vastness by following Jerusalem’s history through a more manageable system -- its families, which include his own. His great-great-uncle, Sir Moses Montefiore, a famous 19th Century Jewish philanthropist and banker, makes cameo appearances (he also graced the Israeli shekel at one point) underlining Jerusalem’s evolution, familial or not. Though Jerusalem is written objectively, it’s the author’s very personal context that makes the book sing, providing a much needed literary continuity and broad explanation of Jerusalem’s tangled history. Jerusalem should be required reading for students and State Departments alike to understand the city’s expansive historical reach and to see that Jerusalem is a breathing, sweating, murderous, forgiving, and wonderful main character. But like Judas himself, it will love and betray all in the same day.

Sebag begins with David in 1000 BC when “Jerusalem was already ancient” and ends after the 1967 war, with an Epilogue discussing the city today. He emphasizes that its repeated destruction and revival helped strengthen its position as a hub of the Abrahamic triumvirate and its ancillary groups. “It is ironic that the decision of Titus to destroy Jerusalem helped make the city the very template of holiness for the other two Peoples of the Book,” Sebag writes in his Prologue. Under Roman rule Sebag observes, “The very tragedy of the Jews’ plight redoubled their love for Jerusalem.” Then under Turkish ruler Muhammad ibn Tughj: “The political instability intensified religious competition” and in 1009 AD under the “psychopathic” Arab caliph Hakim, his dismantling of the Holy Sepulcher and Synagogues “seemed to inspire a fresh passion for Jerusalem.” Later, under Mamluk reign, Jerusalem begins to become more symbol than a compulsory conquest: “…the more sacred it became, the more poetical.”

Jerusalem and religion are entwined and Sebag discusses this without sounding sanctimonious or secular. He uses Islam, Christianity, and Judaism as touchstones, but shows these are not the only facets of the city despite the “narratives of conventional history.” Flip open the book randomly and you’ll find mystical saints, false prophets, Frankish slaves, the Swedish navy, and Gallic bishops.

Readers will soon see that land grabs, political upheavals, and religious turnabouts were often dependent on a leviathan: the Crusaders had the Frankish kingdom, the Muslims had Egypt, Herod and the Christians (eventually) sided with Rome, and Israel has America, a relationship built from the shared Evangelical belief that “Israel had been blessed by Providence” and both countries were “built on an ideal of freedom touched by the divine.” Jerusalem is and probably always will be a mutating city via force, timing, the cult of personality, accidents, divine intervention, and incongruent alliances. Who settled in Jerusalem first or who supports who doesn’t really matter, but denial of the historical record does, as Sebag stresses. The city is like geological schist where one layer shows “Cheating, adultery, theft, idolatry, poison, quarrels and murder” and the abutting layers periods of religious tolerance and relative calm, where each layer depends on the other for a reliable foundation. Sebag sets readers on an honest course.

This book also happens to be a highly readable romp through history with insane rulers, murderers, caliphs, queens, and crusaders -- among them, a cast of all-stars including Nero, Attila the Hun, Herod, Jesus, Mohammed, Ptolemy, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Saladin, and Suleiman, alongside lesser known characters such as the Empress Theodora of Byzantium who was a “gymnastically gifted orgiast” and emperor Tiberius who “according to the historian Suetonius, [was] fed by boys known as his ‘minnows,’ trained to suck his privates as he swam in the pool.” Each page delivers new execution methods from forcing emperors to drink molten gold to “the sacrifice of children at the roaster.” The dramatis personae are often the impresarios of one big bloodbath after the other and their deeds make the film Gladiator look like a tea party.

There is subtlety too. Sebag’s eye for the tragicomic periphery is undeniable. The erratic Caligula, he notes, rather than fight a battle “declared victory over the sea, collecting seashells for his Triumph.” Sometimes, Sebag casts his gaze to just the periphery, and Moshe Dayan’s intimidating eyepatch becomes a symbol of sorrow and empathy. He quotes Dayan: “a cripple. If only I could get rid of my black eyepatch… I preferred to shut myself up at home, rather than encounter the reactions of people wherever I went.”

My first time in Jerusalem felt like the Wild West theme park (but with better food): a Jewish father pushing his baby in a stroller with an AK-47 slung casually around his shoulder looked menacing. But nothing in Jerusalem is as it seems. The boys chasing me with rocks were just trying to show me a beautiful view, then they asked me to their house for tea with their parents. There were Israeli settlers who were afraid of Palestinians rather than the contrary; NGOs who were more radical than the people they were there to protect; kind-hearted armed fundamentalists; Israeli soldiers who were embarrassed by their countrymen; a Russian journalist who pretended to be a spy pretending to be a journalist; and I watched at a Bruce Lee movie with 27 Palestinian men, laughing their heads off, its footage dubbed in Arabic, subtitled in Hebrew, the kitsch of kung fu knowing no barrier. I started to admire every crazy-assed local, refugee, misfit, or pilgrim and the passion behind what they believed even if I didn’t believe it myself. This Jerusalem is Sebag’s “interlinked, overlapping cultures and layered loyalties -- a multi-faceted, mutating kaleidoscope” and I liked it. Unlike Vicomte de Chateaubriand, I was not “blind when it came to seeing the actual people who lived there.” It’s the people that buoy the city, not necessarily the remains of what they left behind.

Behind all the riotous personalities, there remain many average people going to work, making dinner, feeding chickens. As one Palestinian man told me: “We don’t care what’s happening in Gaza. We just want water, food, and a roof over our heads.” But just when things seem calm, the Sisyphean gestalt of Jerusalem’s dual personality rears its ugly head and we return where we started to a city “existing in the realm of ravenous passions and invincible emotions, impermeable to reason.”

Sebag’s research is profound and almost irrefutable, combining archaeology, genealogy, journals, books, interviews, and a lifetime of preparation. To complete such a massive history in one volume, Sebag has to move quickly over some details, which he often mitigates with well-placed and informative footnotes. But not all marginalia can cover such a literary feat and thus I include my own footnote here. In his Epilogue, Sebag opines that after Hamas won the 2006 elections,“[Ariel] Sharon built a security wall through Jerusalem, a depressing concrete eyesore which did, however, succeed in stopping the suicide bombings.” But in Jerusalem, nothing is what it seems and a wall is just never a wall.

According to The RAND Palestinian State Study Team,[1] the completed barrier will adversely affect around half a million Palestinians, mainly by obstructing access to their jobs or grazing land for their animals. The UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reinforced this claim with several reports in 2005 showing poverty among Palestinians more than doubled to 47% and unemployment reached 34.3% in 2004, two years after the barrier’s construction began in 2002.[2] The barrier is also redrawing the 1967 borders, separating East Jerusalem from the West Bank, chopping up Palestinian land, and helping to create a contiguous state for Israel and an interrupted one under Palestinian rule. A recent UN press release indicates 85% of its route is inside the West Bank, and its no secret that the barrier is absorbing Palestinian land within its confines.[3] During that same time, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that foreign investment in Israel went from $537 million in 1992 to $5.3 billion in 2004.[4] Fast-forward to November 24, 2011, where the New York Times reported: “Israel is refusing to transfer tax and customs payments [Haaretz reports it at $100 million] that account for two-thirds of [Palestinian Authority] income… to express opposition to the Palestinian Authority’s policy of pursuing United Nations membership and renewing power-sharing talks with Hamas.”

In The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War Robert Kaplan wrote of such a “bifurcated world” where “Part of the globe is inhabited by Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s Last Man, healthy, well fed… the other, larger part is inhabited by Hobbes’s First Man, condemned to a life that is ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’” Tad Homer-Dixon, in the same book, says, “Think of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned postindustrial regions of North America, Europe… Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction.” Currently and similarly, two-pronged have and have-not frustrations are playing out in Zuccotti Park and campuses across the United States.

Civil society, no matter what the poverty level, doesn’t condone murder, particularly when smack talk, and bombs aimed at civilians are launched by armed Arab guerillas. But walls, as proven in this book, the Book of Nehemiah, Cold-War Germany, and on the US-Mexican border, do not make good neighbors, despite the adage to the contrary. Walls in Jerusalem, over history, have generally served to keep people out, or alternatively, hemming them in. The barrier, however, serves a profound purpose; it is the ultimate line drawn in the sand, an impermeable physical reminder of what needs to be dismantled before peace ensues.

My aside is no discredit to Sebag or his remarkable text. If he paused to deconstruct every such issue, his book would be an exercise in exponential composition. I’m splitting hairs, something Sebag doesn’t do, and what he considers the ultimate hurdle for peace in the region. In the London Evening Standard[5] Sebag insisted that today’s Israelis and Palestinians have “impeccable claims” and that “both sides need to stop denying each other’s history.” In a struggle that has the fuel to go on infinitely, knowledge, insight, mutual respect, honest criticism, the things Sebag provides, is the first step toward towards reconciliation and change. Especially when peace is just a stone’s throw away.

[1] The RAND Palestinian State Study Team. (2005). Building a Successful Palestinian State. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

[2] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory. (2004). Review of the Humanitarian
Situation in the occupied Palestinian territory for 2004. Jerusalem: OCHA.

[3] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (May 14, 2011) oPt: ERC Amos calls for an end to forced displacement. Retrieved November 29, 2011 from

[4] Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (February 1, 2005). Israel’s economy shows growth in 2004. Retrieved September 28, 2006 from http://

[5] London Evening Standard, January 28, 2011,
downloaded November 27, 2011.