We just feel it: On Jerusalem and the power of ideology

In 1967, Israeli soldiers entered East Jerusalem. An iconic photograph from the time shows military leader Moshe Dayan with Chief of the General Staff Yitzhak Rabin in their military uniforms in Jerusalem’s old city. Another well known photograph shows an Israeli soldier looking overwhelmed in front of the Western Wall/the Wailing Wall/Al-Buraq Wall, upon its “liberation” from Arab control.

After 1967, the influence of the Israeli Left declined considerably. Public opinion in Israel was crushed beneath the image of the secular soldier moved to tears. The wounds may have run deep in our societies, but the event was overwhelming in Israel too. More than the euphoria of a decisive victory, it was the fulfilment of a two-thousand-year-old prophecy promised by the Torah — The return to “Yerushalayim shel zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold) — a moment every bit as significant as the declaration of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, and this time accompanied by photographs of stone walls and the piquant aromas of East Jerusalem.  

Moshe Dayan with Yitzhak Rabin to his left in the Old City of Jerusalem after its capture.

I have noted before that stone — in this case the stone of Al-Aqsa Mosque — is often hailed as more central to the story of Palestine than its people, the Palestinians themselves; that the stories of hundreds of thousands of people can pale in insignificance against the awe-inspiring image of an ancient stone wall crowned by the Dome of the Rock; that the Dome of the Rock has become the postcard of the Palestinian cause. 

The Torahic name of Al-Aqsa is Har ha-Bayit (Mount of the House [of God]), or Temple Mount, the name used in Israel today for the area. Searching the internet for “Yerushalayim” in Hebrew — as opposed to “Al-Quds” in Arabic — returns images in which the Dome of the Rock retreats into the background, becoming a detail in a wider scene. Here the mighty dome — the postcard — takes a back seat, not to human beings, but to another, hidden, postcard.

A commonly held view among Orthodox Jews is that the Dome of the Rock is a façade, a poor reconstruction, even a “dirty” addendum; a hurriedly-constructed fake, beneath which lies the real thing: Solomon’s Temple. Unseen but present, it orders everything from its place of concealment, and one day, it will be restored and the Messiah will arrive to redeem us.

Ideology is overwhelming because it is dazzling: so dazzling that it blinds the eye.

An Israeli soldier gazes overwhelmed at the walls of Jerusalem upon its capture.

Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv

From the founding of the state of Israel until very recently, Tel Aviv remained the Israeli capital. A city built on the ruins of Jaffa and extended to the north, Tel Aviv has always been Israel’s face to the world, its cosmopolitan city, and home to its “normal” people: stockbrokers, hipsters, artists, peace activists and those who couldn’t care less about the conflict; the city of sea and skyscrapers, of the emblematic white and blue, of wealth, capitalism and the “free life.”

Jerusalem, conversely, has always been portrayed as a dark, heavy city shrouded in fables, a city of Orthodox Jews, bloody conflicts and dark medieval alleyways. Far more than its counterpart Tel Aviv, Jerusalem has always been the center of gravity for the discourse of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To understand this we must think in epic terms. For, which image most befits a legend — a modern European café or a medieval citadel? Understanding this might help us understand the precedence that ideology can take over personal interest, the primacy of the specific and exclusive over the welter of baffling detail. Tel Aviv is often described as a “normal city,” and in epic narratives, the normal is not useful. The normal does not represent. Above all, it does not dazzle.

Did we occupy Jerusalem? Or liberate it?

A linguistic catastrophe nearly came about when the Israeli flag was planted over the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s old city upon its capture.

In the Israeli documentary Six Day War, paratrooper Yoram Zamosh, who raised the flag, is invited back to the same spot 40 years later. Zamosh recounts the moving story of how the flag was given to him by an elderly woman from the Jewish neighbourhood in Jerusalem, who placed it in his pocket and asked him to plant it when he reached the wall. “I can still feel her tears,” he says.  

“I took out the flag, and Stempel said “Write!”. So I wrote on the flag, like this, resting on my leg: “The flag of Israel flies today, May 28, 1967, over the Western Wall of Jerusalem, planted by the 55th Paratroopers Brigade, who occupied the city.”

Zamosh continues: “Stempel looked at me, like this, and barked ‘Liberated! The Brigade who has liberated Jerusalem. Correct it!’ — so I crossed out the word with two lines and wrote, ‘The Brigade who liberated Jerusalem’.”

Following this slip of the tongue — quickly glossed over in the documentary — the song Jerusalem of Gold by Naomi Shemer is heard. Performed after the 1967 war, the song met with immense success for its deft interweaving of political victory with Jerusalem’s spiritual resonance:

“Alas, the dry wells and fountains,

Forgotten market-day

The sound of horn from Temple’s mountain

No longer calls to pray,

Oh, Jerusalem of gold,

and of light and of bronze,

I am the lute for all your songs.”

The Jewish people have longed for Jerusalem since time immemorial, recording this yearning in stories, poems and holy books. Zionists tell us, “Our dream of Jerusalem — Yerushalayim — is far older than yours.” They are quite right: Jerusalem — Al-Quds — in the Arab imaginary came into existence only after the advent of the state of Israel, perhaps even after the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. The Arab dream of Jerusalem is just a few decades old, whereas the Jewish dream is centuries old: this is a matter of fact.

As an aside, a mystical and fantastical exegesis of the Torah relates that the name Yerushalayim ends with the grammatical marker of duality in Hebrew, because it consists of two “holies,” or two “Yerushals:” one on earth and its counterpart in heaven. It is a good example of an incorrect but appealing interpretation, which does more to stir passions and influence reality than a more technically accurate interpretation could ever do.

The Jewish dream of Jerusalem was achieved, becoming reality when the city was captured in 1967, along with the entire West Bank, and nearly a quarter of a million Palestinians were forced from their homes. The Jewish spiritual dream of Jerusalem, long expressed in poems and hymns, donned a military uniform and killed, burned and displaced a nation, forcing millions of Palestinians into refugee camps that still exist today.

But amid the euphoria of victory and fulfilment, slips of the tongue kept giving the game away: did we occupy Jerusalem or liberate it?

Imitating Israelis: What did the Arabs do?

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, in his book Secret Channels: The Inside Story of Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations, touches on the dilemma of ideology:

“Barriers to the untouchable had fallen away, and pretensions to the sacred ceased to exist… Yet the strange thing is that the overall total of facts and values had not changed, and nor was the reason for such a shift some surprising insight, some newly discovered wisdom, or some divine revelation that brought new laws to humankind… One of the differences was that the “other” was more conscious and informed, simply maintaining a position on the grounds of human history — and more often than not, the mythological — and holding tightly to those things held sacred and untouchable, which remained — after a supposed 2,000-year exile — the Land of Israel, God’s Chosen People, the Kingdom of David, the Talmud, Jerusalem, Samaria, Solomon’s Temple, the Wailing Wall, the Exodus and the Holocaust, along with an inassuageable obsession with security. The only addition to have come with time and evolving circumstances has been 200 atomic bombs.”

Leaving aside the 200 atomic bombs, concerning which Heikal neglects to make any recommendations to the Arabs, Heikal’s proposal can be summarized as follows: they are mad, so be mad too; continue to insist on sanctities and taboos because that is what they do. This is a commonly held perspective, based on the conviction that nothing can blunt the power of the right except for the right; i.e, as Israel shifts to the right, so must we in imitation. Just as Israel’s madness has triumphed this time, so our madness shall triumph next time. What Heikal demands of the Arabs is madness itself, rather than the 200 atomic bombs that buttress Israel’s madness.

And indeed, in response to Zionist ideologising, Arab powers determined to also adopt ideology, as well as the vocabulary of sanctity and untouchability, either out of unconscious fascination with the Israeli model, or in conscious imitation of it. The emphasis could equally have been placed on Palestinian refugees, or the victims of Israel’s wars, who are mostly Palestinians, but a collective Arab consciousness instead chose the image of Al-Aqsa.

Prior to 1967, the emblems of the Palestinian cause included Jaffa oranges, olive trees, refugees and resistance fighters, the keys to homes left behind during the Nakba, Handala the cartoon figure and Mahmoud Darwish’s Sajjil Ana Arabi. There was no unified focus until the 1967 war and the capture of East Jerusalem, and Al-Aqsa mosque, provided one.

In a parallel development, Islamist influence in Arab countries grew significantly over the subsequent decades. Islamist groups adopted the pan-Arab rejection of Israel, but took great pains to employ the language of the Quran, thereby attempting to beat Israel at its own game. The narrative was transformed from that of the killing of unarmed individuals, or displacement and dispossession, into that of an Armageddon in which Islam fights Judaism with no possible outcome but the total annihilation of one party by the other. Here, too, annihilation is a far more dazzling prospect than a discussion of details, and so the oranges of Jaffa, each one different and unique, have been reduced to one giant glob of gold hovering eternally over the Jerusalem skyline.

The Dome of The Rock

Of course, the Islamists forgot that there are many Quranic verses that acknowledge Israel. The Quran acknowledges the kingdom of David and Solomon, and recognizes the land as promised to the Children of Israel, at least until they “broke their troth with Allah,” leading him to break his troth with them in return. To put it simply, in a debate between a believing Muslim and a believing Jew, the Muslim won’t last long. The Quran has nothing to say on the political complexities surrounding the Jewish people, which pertain today; it offers no help in combating Israel, because at the time it was written or revealed, there was no state called Israel. There were Israelites breaking their troth with the Prophet, but no settler colonialism; there were Children of Israel but no State of Israel.

During the nineties, a slogan was popular on the walls of Cairo that read, “Jerusalem is Arab despite Zionism.” To me this slogan has always spoken deeply of the blinding power of ideology, for reality tells us that Jerusalem is Zionist despite the Arabs. Jerusalem’s Arabness has been defeated, and the Judaization of the city has been uninterrupted, in spite of the Arabs. Denying this defeat will not make it go away.

For some reason, Arabs have largely refused to accept these facts, or to speak of the Zionist enemy in anything other than mindless condemnation. They have even refused to condemn in more nuanced terms, because to embrace nuance in this matter threatens to bring the epic story crumbling down.

In other words, while the Zionist formula as explained by Heikal consists of sanctities, untouchables and 200 atomic bombs, the Arab formula, just as Heikal demanded, rests on sanctities, untouchables and not much else.

I feel it

Historical evidence and logical reasoning are often set aside in arguments I’ve witnessed with Zionists about their “historical entitlement” to the land. The entire discourse is reduced to a single point: “This land is Jewish. I feel it. It’s in the air I breathe.” A settler from Hebron puts it more eloquently: “The land of Israel is a matter of education, culture and religion. It’s in the heart. If you don’t have it, you have it. (Laughs) Can I convince someone to love Johann Sebastian Bach? I cannot.”

As many know, early Israeli leaders were not just religious, they were also secular. They viewed the Old Testament as the history of the Israelites, rather than a religious text. “There is no God, but He promised the land to us,” as Professor Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin perceptively puts it in the title of an article.

The Zionist leaders attempted to bend ideology to their purposes, and were crushed under the weight of the Old Testament, because they ultimately believed in it, even though they perceived themselves to be secular. As is well known, there are no documents proving Israelite rule over the land in question in the past, and no trace of the Kingdom of David or Solomon can be found in historical records, save for a small number of inscriptions, interpretations of which are disputed. When Zionists are confronted with this, the conclusive response is often, “I feel it.” How can you argue with a feeling, especially when it comes heavily armed and does not hesitate to kill and displace anyone who does not feel it?

Israel is the greatest manifestation of ideology in modern history; the greatest manifestation of what ideology can accomplish. That’s what so dazzled onlookers when the state of Israel was established: Zionism revived a language that was considered dead for 2,000 years, built new cities, and established communes and cooperative settlements, known as kibbutzim, based on socialist models. Impelled by their mighty dream, the Zionists arrived determined to build a state, whether on the ruins of old cities, or in the emptiness of the desert.

Yet they did not see the Arabs. Ideology sometimes builds, but it always blinds.

We knew them well, we just forgot their names

In a interview on Israeli TV program Moked in 1970, i.e., seven years after the end of his term in office, the first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion mispronounced “Gaza” as “Asia,” until the interviewer corrected the name for him.

Even more tellingly, when asked by the interviewer about the fact that young Israelis “these days” have the impression that Zionism didn’t acknowledge the Arabs in the land it colonized, Ben-Gurion defends himself and Zionism by replying:

“That’s not true, except in the case of one significant figure in Zionism, [Theodor] Herzl. Herzl did not really see the Arabs… One of the first things [Chaim] Weizmann did was to meet with the son of the prince of … (stumbles) The prince of Yemen.”

The interviewer corrected him: “He wasn’t an Arab from Yemen. Your Excellency meant the son of Sharif Hussein.”

To this Ben-Gurion replies: “Right, the son of Sharif Hussein, Faisal.”

That is to say, the founder of the Israeli state, and its spiritual father, forgot the name and nationality of Sharif Hussein, one of the most important Arab leaders of his era — all whilst attempting to demonstrate that the early Zionists were not uninterested in the Arabs.

I have always imagined, then, the story of the advent of the state of Israel as a movement of Jews from all over the world who were filled with a mythical yearning for Israel, who knew every inch of Eretz Israel as described in the Old Testament, who memorised songs about “Jerusalem of Gold” and everything else besides. Determined, intelligent and unwilling to leave anything to chance, they made sure to familiarize themselves with the powers who ruled, by turn, over Palestine: Greeks, Romans, British and Turks. Yet about the people of that very country they knew nothing — and nor did they want to. The unexpected existence of Arabs surprised many Jews upon their arrival in the holy “Eretz Israel,” and, in order not to spoil their theory, they chose not to see them. Blindness was preferable to a flawed ideology.

But who, Arab or otherwise, would consent to having outsiders settle among them? Outsiders, moreover, who do not talk to them, certainly do not ask permission and do not even see them, other than as servants or as part of the charming Bedouin landscape — and then say, “Surprise! From now on, we are the state, and you are our subjects, because we read in our book that this land was ours 2,000 years ago.”

From Kibbutz to settlement

If ideology can be a constructive force, propelling history forward, it also blinds. Because, in short, if the main claim of the Zionist argument is that, the Old Testament may not provide historical evidence, but the faith of the Jewish people and their longing for Jerusalem throughout history suffices instead, then the logical counterclaim would be that other people feel the opposite. For instance, I feel strongly that Spain belongs to the Arabs, and I have a library of brilliant poetry, magnificent architecture and historical inscriptions to support my argument. But what does that matter?

If you want an illustration of ideology’s hold over people, then imagine that, in a rosy and future, all parties achieve consensus on the proposal of a single secular state for all its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike. What would it be called —“Palestine” or “Israel”? Something tells me that the question of the new state’s name would preoccupy the concerned parties far more than the arrangement of matters on the ground.

Another illustration is the perception that Zionism arose as a response to the Holocaust. However, the sequence of events demonstrates that the First Zionist Congress in Basel, and the early waves of Zionist migration to Palestine, began about half a century prior to World War II. While it can certainly be said that Zionism emerged in response to the persecution of Jews in Europe without reference to the Holocaust, the persecution of Jews isn’t dramatic enough. Thus the Holocaust came to take on a central role, in the collective consciousness of Israelis and indeed many Arabs, in the story of the establishment of the State of Israel.  

Israel once liked to imagine itself as a Left-wing state, the state of the Labor Party, of cooperatives and farmers holding an axe in one hand and a gun in the other, of the new socialist Jew who was strong, determined, and confident. With time this image faded, as the kibbutzim were privatized, new religious and religio-nationalist parties emerged, the 1967 war took place and settlements were built in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. These settlements became a black hole, sucking Jewish extremism into their orbit then re-exporting it to the rest of the country. The religious right began to exert greater and greater control over the Israeli public until eventually taking formal power with the election of the Likud party’s Menachem Begin in 1977.

Ideology now expresses itself more frankly. In place of the perverse mantra of the secular forefathers that, “There is no God, but He promised the land to us,” a new formulation emerged: “God exists and He promised the land to us, for we are his beloved children and through fire and blood we will annihilate all Palestinians.”

Jerusalem and its surrounding settlements, which most Israelis now see as innocent suburbs, came to represent Israel. The foreboding ancient city became more representative than the city of lights, sea and nightlife, Tel Aviv.

Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, is the capital of Israel today. The United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is not only a recognition of the reality on the ground, as Trump stated, it is also a recognition of a reality ravished by ideology, a recognition that further entitles ideology to see itself as reality.

We feel that Jerusalem is our capital, therefore it is. Other people do not exist, and nor do complex facts or confusing details; nothing does, in fact, save our spiritual feeling and our passionate faith in the God of Israel. But, wait a minute… You don’t feel what we feel? How is it that the Dome of The Rock is such a captivating sight for you, yet you remain blind to the Temple of Solomon that is buried underground? You are biased, not objective, and eccentric; you are most probably not even human like us.

Nael El Toukhy 

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