A Brief History of Jerusalem
At age 75, Abraham leaves Ur with his wife Sarai (later Sarah) for a place called Haran in what is now Syria, where he acquires possessions (including "persons") before God leads him on into Canaan. There were at that time "Canaanites" in the land (Genesis 6:6-7), but their presence notwithstanding, God promises to give Canaan to Abraham's offspring. (This is the inception of the "Chosen People" and "Promised Land" concepts in the Hebrew Scriptures, so fraught with ramifications for world history.)
Sarah has an Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, by whom Abraham (whom apparently enjoys wide license in these matters) sires a child, called Ishmael. Thereafter (when Abraham is 99) Sarah becomes miraculously pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. (The postmenopausal Sarah understandably finds the whole situation quite amusing; see Genesis 18:11-15). After giving birth to Isaac, Sarah requests that her rival Hagar be cast out into the desert along with her little boy Ishmael.
(I will omit the episodes in which God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah and turns Abraham's nephew's wife into a pillar of salt [Genesis 19:1-24] and the one in which he asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac alive as a burnt offering, sparing him at just the last minute [Genesis 22:14]. These tales while extremely interesting aren't necessarily relevant to the topic at hand.)
Anyway, Isaac has twin sons, Esau and Jacob. The latter, who cunningly cheats Esau out of his birthright (Genesis 27:18-29), is later renamed "Israel" by God. He has 12 sons by four wives, including the famous Joseph, whom Jacob/Israel favors over the others. (Recall the story of the "coat of many colors" in Genesis 37:3-4). Jealous, the brothers sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt (Genesis 37:19-28), where after various trials and tribulations be becomes a powerful official esteemed by the pharaoh himself. Indeed, due to his brilliance, he becomes "governor of the whole land of Egypt" (Genesis 41:43).
During a drought in Canaan, Israel and his others sons come to Egypt to purchase grain. Joseph receives them (probably, you'd think, still annoyed with them for selling him into slavery), initially concealing his identity. He finally reveals himself, and forgives his brothers, who settle in Egypt where their descendants thrive. Referred to as "Hebrews" or "Israelites," they become a significant, affluent minority, but are eventually enslaved due to a pharaoh's allegation that "the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we" (Exodus 1:14).
Sometime around 1200, then, Joshua leads the Hebrews into the land of Canaan, now inhabited by a welter of peoples including Amorites, Jebusites, Philistines, Edomites, Perizzites, Hittites etc. God instructs Joshua to exterminate almost all of them. (See for example Joshua 8:1-25.) The conquest is achieved through various miraculous events, such as the parting of the River Jordan (Joshua 3:14-16) and the Battle of Jericho, during which the city's walls fell when the Hebrews blow their trumpets. Afterwards on God's command the victors slaughter every man, woman and child in the city (Joshua 6:21).
(I can't help mentioning here that Thomas Jefferson, in a famous letter to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787, mentioned this passage. He noted that "millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis as the earth does, should have stopped…" He advocated a skeptical approach to scripture and urged the seventeen-year-old to "question with boldness even the existence of God." But again I digress.)
To continue: having conquered the Promised Land, including the previously pagan city of Jerusalem, the Hebrews spend generations under the governance of "judges" such as Deborah, Gideon, Samson and Samuel. They then decide to appoint a king. (This is a controversial move, as 1 Samuel indicates, since some interpret it as an affront to God–and his direct rule over them via these divinely inspired judges, whom we might define as shamans).
- Also during this time, someone composed Psalm 137, which begins by referring to how the exiles sat and wept "by the rivers of Babylon," remembering Jerusalem. "If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither!"
- May my tongue remain stuck to my palate
if I do not keep you in mind,
if I do not count Jerusalem
the greatest of my joys.
- The poem alludes to how the Edomites (supposedly descendents of Esau), allies of the Chaldeans (Babylonians), had urged the leveling of the Temple following the conquest of 597. It concludes:
- a blessing on anyone
who treats you as you treated us
a blessing on anyone who seizes your babies
and shatters them against a rock!
So, note that the composition or compilation of these scriptures occurs about 1400 years after the (supposed) life of the patriarch Abraham, and around 600 years after the putative Exodus and conquest of Canaan. The oldest fragments in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet itself only date from the tenth century BCE. There is some (thin) evidence for a "House of David" ca. 800 BCE, but very little evidence for a monarchy based in Jerusalem prior to that point. The archeological record suggests that Jerusalem was a pagan Phoenician Canaanite city for over a thousand years before Hebrews appeared. (The Canaanites fortified it with massive walls by around 1700 BCE.) And it is likely that the Hebrews themselves congealed from a mix of Semitic tribes with ancestral legends about their Egyptian, Arabian and Mesopotamian connections.
It seems (to me) that over centuries an emerging priestly class settled on a narrative that drew on Sumerian and later Mesopotamian myths (including the myth of the Great Flood), and segued into the familiar mythic genealogy of Abraham, and grand stories about a national experience of bondage in Egypt, miraculous exodus, parting of the Red Sea, and the heroic genocidal conquest of Canaan.
Meanwhile, huge Judean communities flourished from Mesopotamia (where perhaps a million Jews lived by 100 CE) to the Egyptian metropolis Alexandria (where maybe a quarter of the population was Judean at that time) to Cyrenaica (Libya) and beyond. There were around 7000 Judeans in the city of Rome at the time of Julius Caesar. There was apparently even a Judean community in Spain. When St. Paul (a Judean born in Tarsus, in what is now Turkey) undertakes his missionary journeys in the 40s and 50s CE, he visits synagogues in what is now northern Turkey and in Greece and possibly beyond. He dreams of visiting Spain (Romans 15:24). This is before the Diaspora. Judeans were already dispersed, in large part due to voluntary migration and trade, or previous deportations as were so common and affecting so many nationalities in the ancient world.
In Jerusalem itself there lived a very international crowd of Jews and non-Jews ("Gentiles"). According to the New Testament Book of Acts, there were in Jerusalem at the time of the Pentecost (immediately after Jesus' death), Jews who were "Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asis, Phrygia and Pamphlyia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs…" (Acts 2:8-11). Acts 8:26 mentions an Ethiopian on pilgrimage in Jerusalem. It was already a diverse, multicultural city at the time this text was written.
The First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE)–a massive Judean revolt against Roman rule–resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple, and the forced exile or enslavement of tens of thousands. It was a major diaspora–some see it as the Diaspora–but not yet a wholesale expulsion. The Kitos War (115-117) and Bar Kokhba Revolt (132) produced more expulsions. Judeans (including Christians, considered a sect of the Judeans' religion) were banned from living in Jerusalem (which thereafter became a fully pagan city). Judeans became a minority in a Roman province with a highly diverse population of Syrians, Greeks, Romans and many others.
So to recap: Jerusalem was (maybe) the capital of a "Jewish" state–or at least tribal confederation–from ca. 1000 BCE to ca. 597 BCE. Thereafter, from 539 BCE, it was the site of the Second Temple to the disaster of 70 CE. For all but two centuries after the time of the Persian king Cyrus it was under Persian, Hellenistic, or Roman administrative control. Then it was under Byzantine, Arab, Egyptian, Ottoman and British control until 1948 when the western part was won by force by the Israelis.
After the Arab conquest Jerusalem became a quintessential Muslim city, indeed after Mecca and Medina the third most sacred city in the Islamic world. The magnificent al-Aqsa mosque, built on the Temple Mount in the eighth century and the third holiest Muslim site, is the most powerful symbol of the long period of Muslim rule over Jerusalem, which lasted over twelve centuries.
The Palestinian Jewish population probably never really disappeared. According to the online Jewish Virtual Library, there were 5000 Jews in what is now the state of Israel in 1517, out of a population of about 300,000. An Ottoman taxation register of 1553 lists 1,958 Jews in the city of Jerusalem. In 1851, when the region was under Ottoman Turkish role, a census showed 13,000 Jews out of a total population of 327,000 (4%). Thereafter a wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Yemen (the First Aliyah) brought around 30,000 more. Jewish population rose to 47,000 out of 522,000 in 1895 (8%).
Thus even before Theodor Herzl initiated the modern Zionist movement in 1896, by publishing his book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), there was already a significant Jewish community in what had once been Judea. There had been a Jewish minority with recognized rights in Jerusalem for many centuries.
Jews Outside Judea (and the "Birthright" Issue)
Many people who don't necessarily accept such religious ideas assume that the Jewish people concentrated in Roman Judea were expelled suddenly, violently soon after the time of Christ, and then were widely scattered. But able to maintain their "pure" bloodline, dating back to Abraham and Isaac, and by avoiding intermarriage, and preserving their unique culture against all odds, they were able, after untold horrors, able to return home.
This concept of "returning," one must observe, is quite special. My own ancestral homelands include Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Scotland and Ukraine. I might harbor some sentimental feelings about some of these places, and imagine that in visiting them I reconnect with my genetic history. But I don't feel entitled–by anyone–to be in any of those places, or settle down in them. This concept of "return" is rather a religious concept. It ultimately rests on belief in God's promise to Abraham.
But this is the concept behind the "not-for profit educational" project, "Birthright Israel," which sponsors free ten-day visits to Israel by Jewish students in the U.S. and many other countries. It encourages them to immigrate and endeavors to persuade them that they indeed were born with the God-given right to "return" to the land promised to Abraham. (Quite a number of my own students have accepted the offer, and I can't blame them. But some return appalled at what they've seen.)
In fact, of course, Jewish history is much more complicated than the "birthright" narrative suggests. The notion of a horrible eviction 2000 years ago, followed by centuries in painful exile, followed by a "return" (and reassertion of birthright) does not square with the facts.
The Khazar empire, beset by attacks from Kievan Rus (the first Russian state) and then the Mongols, collapsed by the early thirteenth century. Many of its Jewish subjects are thought to have fled west into what is now Poland. (Otherwise it is hard to understand why the Jewish population of that region expanded so dramatically in the Middle Ages.) A significant percentage of Ashkenazi Jews are likely to share Central Asian Turkic and Slavic blood. It's likely that some have negligible DNA connections to anyone ever living in Palestine. If lineage determines "birthright" (not that I think it should!) they have no more right to settle in that region than I do.
No credible historian will these days quarrel with the well-documented fact that as the Zionists created their future living-space that year, around 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled their homes in fear for their lives. Palestinians call it al-Nakba, the Catastrophe. It was a clear, effective instance of ethnic cleansing. The UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (Dec. 11, 1948) recognized the "right of return" to their homes of those forced to flee at that time, and also the right of their descendants to do so. The Israeli government rejects this, pointing out (rationally enough) that such a return would alter the demographics and threaten the Jewish character of the state.
Today, in the Israel of the 1967 borders, Jews constitute 75% of the total population, while Arabs comprise 21%. But when you look at what some Zionists call "Greater Israel" (including the occupied West Bank and the Golan Heights, plus the vast concentration camp which is Gaza), Jews are currently just 50%, and Arabs 47% of the population. The Palestinian population is growing at a more rapid rate than the Jewish. If there were to be a "single state solution" to the Israel-Palestine problem, the "Jewish state" would be doomed by demographics. (Palestinian women give birth on average to 2.6 children, Jewish Israeli women to 1.7. Immigration is down, and many Jewish Israelis are emigrating to safer, more affluent, more hospitable countries.)
In 1967 Israel seized the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. In the "united" city of Jerusalem, Jews are now around 62% of the population, Arabs around 45%. In the tensely occupied East, where the Israelis thumbing their noses at the world relentlessly build new, illegal Jewish-settler housing projects, the figures are about 43% (200,000 illegal settlers) versus 57%. The Zionists want to reduce the Palestinian majority. This year, 25% of new homes Israeli built in Jerusalem were constructed in the eastern, occupied portion of the city.
The U.S. and most of the world have never recognized Jerusalem including the occupied east as the Israeli capital; they continue to accord Tel Aviv that status and maintain their diplomatic missions there. But in deference to the powerful Israel Lobby–and anyone who denies its intimidating, destructive power is just not paying attention–U.S. politicians routinely tow the Israeli line about the "united, eternal capital."
The Israeli claim is simply illogical. It would make more sense to state that the ancient city has been intermittently, and at most, the capital of a Hebrew/Judean/Jewish state or dependency of some sort for at most 1100 years out of the last 4000, and a mainly pagan, Christian or Muslim city for the other 2900. (It was divided from 1948 to 1967, during which time–perhaps for the first time since the first century CE–the Jewish population in the western part came to exceed the combined non-Jewish populations.) In short, let us all acknowledge that Jerusalem has a complicated history.
U.S. Politicians and Biblical Mythology
How to explain this? How to explain this decision to ignore the universal recognition that Jerusalem is in fact divided? And how to explain the fact that, despite the longstanding position of the U.S. State Department (and practically every other foreign ministry everywhere) that the 1967 Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem was illegal and Jewish settlements there also illegal–and despite the universal understanding that a final peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians hinges on East Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state–U.S. politicians vie with one another to endorse this concept of Jerusalem as the united, eternal capital of the Jewish state?
I don't want to say it's a religious decision. It's a political decision, a mercenary decision. But it's rooted in the indebtedness that both Democratic and Republican parties feel to the large section of the electorate that literally believes in the Bible stories. Such people truly believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews, and that the establishment of the modern state in 1948 came in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Some Christian politicians are thus obliged to support Israel–and will frankly confess they do–on a specifically religious basis, just as they oppose abortion or gay marriage on the grounds of faith.
As Karl Marx (a German Jew and descendent of rabbis) famously put it, "religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." The desire of the Christian to believe in the End Times, a triumphant return of Jesus, is at least as appealing as the attractions of crack or crystal meth. And Jerusalem is at the heart of his or her apocalyptic yearnings.
The Book of Revelation specifies that Jesus, when he returns, will appear in Jerusalem. Building on ambiguous prophesies in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, it posits a "New Jerusalem" from which the Messiah will first preside over a very bloody punishment of sinners and then a long rule of heaven-on-earth. It is a beautiful, horrible vision that exercises an appeal on a certain sort of religious mind. The scenario posits Jewish control over Jerusalem prior to the Second Coming and the "Rapture."
- Myths about Jerusalem have boundless appeal in this country. Jerusalem figures prominently in Negro spirituals, as in "I Want to Be Ready" ("to walk in Jerusalem, just like John"). But I especially love Joan Baez's version of that 1970s Delaney and Bonnie song "Ghetto" that ends:
- Well if there is such a thing as revolution
And there will be if we rise to the call
When we build–we build, we build, we build–a New Jerusalem
There won't be no more ghetto–ghetto at all
No there won't be no more ghetto–ghetto at all.
'' When people hurt you Over and Over think of them as Sand paper.They Scratch & hurt you, but in the end you are polished and they are finished. ''"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great ones make you feel that you too, can become great."- Mark Twain.