City of Zealots

“Ten measures of beauty descended to the world,” it is written in the Talmud, “nine were taken by Jerusalem.”  One may quibble about the particulars of that celestial distribution, believing Paris or Cape Town deserving of several measures each, but the learned rabbinical text is not far off the mark.

Jerusalem’s beauty is undeniable.  Many of the city’s marvels, including the Western Wall, the vestiges of the barrier once surrounding the Second Temple, are constructed of indigenous limestone.  Municipal laws dating to the British Mandate require that all building faces in the city use the same pinkish material, creating a magnificent tableau.

Evidence of some of the many civilizations that reigned over Jerusalem during its 5,000 years of continuous occupation—Assyrians, Babylonians, Macedonians, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, ancient Israelites, etc.—litter the city.

One archeological gem is the Cardo Maximus.  Roman Emperor Hadrian built the main north-south thoroughfare after Roman’s razed Jerusalem in retribution for a failed Jewish revolt around AD 130.  The street’s colonnaded ruins testify to Roman might—and frailty, as Jews, not Romans, are now the city’s sovereigns.

Yet Jerusalem’s rich history is also a liability.  “The past is never dead,” as William Faulkner said, “it’s not even past.”  As the fountainhead of the world’s three great monotheistic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—the Holy City is also an incubator of religious dogma, with competing theological claims vying for supremacy on its sunbaked hills.

The religious stridency is not readily evident—at first.  Once divided under Jordanian sovereignty prior to Israel’s Six-Day War triumph in 1967, Jerusalem is now “united.”  For the most part, crossing some formerly barricaded boundaries, including those that once divided the Old City, home to some of the Abrahamic religions’ holiest sites, is surprisingly easy.

Careful scrutiny reveals a less stirring story, however.

Jewish zealotry mars Jerusalem’s eastern stretches, a historically Arab area that was partially annexed in 1967.  Take Ras Khamis.  Although the Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem lies within the city limits claimed by Israel, it enjoys few municipal services, including fresh water and garbage removal.  It is neither part of nor separate from the Jewish state.

Ras Khamis’ figurative indeterminacy is also literal: Israel’s separation barrier, originally built in the wake of lethal Palestinian suicide attacks, bisects the neighborhood.  Such “systematic discrimination” of Jerusalem’s Palestinians is not unusual, according to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.  Indeed, as many as 120,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem live in the sort of limbo experienced by Ras Khamis’ residents.

The analogue of Arab marginalization in East Jerusalem is the expansion of Jewish settlements in the area.  Since the failed 1993 Oslo Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, the Israeli population in East Jerusalem has roughly doubled from 146,000 to over 300,000, according to B’Tselem.

The settlements’ illegitimacy notwithstanding—not one country endorses them—they represent an existential threat to Israel.  With no viable means of forming a contiguous, viable polity of their own because of Israel’s unabated colonization, Palestinians soon may well demand full citizenship in a bi-national state, thereby threatening Israel’s raison d’etre, a Jewish homeland run by Jews.

Jews twice reigned over ancient Israel and twice lost the privilege.  Jewish chauvinism may well ensure a third go-around.

Islamic zealotry also plagues Jerusalem.  The religion itself arose in the Hejaz centuries after Christianity and Judaism’s foundation.  Just as Christianity leveraged Judaism by adopting the Old Testament, the new religion piggybacked on its Abrahamic antecedents by incorporating some of the Bible’s books as well as practices like Jewish dietary laws.

This adoptive process helps explain why one of Islam’s holiest sites, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, said to be where the prophet Muhammad alighted during his magical “Night Journey” from Mecca to Jerusalem, was situated precisely atop the Temple’s presumed location, a site revered by Jews.  Yet that choice virtually guaranteed conflict.

And it has.

As the Jewish/Arab conflict has intensified, so have efforts to repudiate each other’s claims on Jerusalem.  The Jewish Temple was a logical target given its spiritual centrality to Jews and onetime proximity to Al-Aqsa.  Predictably, then, some Arabs have questioned its bona fides.

The “Temple Deniers” included former Palestinian National Authority President Yasser Arafat.  During the 2000 Camp David Summit, Arafat allegedly told US President Bill Clinton: “Solomon’s Temple was not in Jerusalem, but Nablus.”

An official 2010 study commission by the Palestinian Authority (PA) echoed Arafat’s comments by concluding: “The Zionist occupation falsely and unjustly claims that it owns this [Western Wall]…this wall was never part of the so-called Temple Mount.”

Following international condemnation, the document was removed from the PA’s website.  Such sentiment’s underlying message—that Jews are interlopers in the Holy City—is not easily purged, however.  Sermonizing in 2010, then-PA Minister of Religious Affairs Mahmoud Al-Habbash said, “Jerusalem has to return to its owners.  And we [Palestinians] are its owners.”  It is likely that his views are not uncommon.

Christians have long greedily eyed the Holy City, too.  In the Middle Ages, prompted by Papal exhortations, Christians set out to conquer Jerusalem from the ghastly Mohammedans.  During one fit of religious conquest in 1099, European conquerors sacked the city and massacred its occupants.  An observer noted, “The Christians gave over their whole hearts to the slaughter, so that not a sucking little male child or female, not even an infant of one year would escape alive the hand of the murderer.”

With military conquest of Jerusalem no longer viable, Christians have overrun the city by alternative means: tourism.  These devout pilgrims clutter the Holy City, conspicuously caroling and praying in nooks and crannies once supposedly trod by Jesus.

The principle devotional route is the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Grief,” or path that Jesus is said to have walked, laden with his cross, to his crucifixion.  That Jesus ever lived is of historical contention, but no debate exists about the Via.  It’s bogus.

We know this because the present roads of the Old City of Jerusalem are 20 feet above those constructed over a century after Christ supposedly walked them.  Moreover, the route itself has also changed over the centuries based on updated archeological records.  At best, then, the Via symbolically retraces Jesus’ last steps.

No matter.  Christian pilgrims retrace the route with abiding devotion, stopping at each of the Via’s 14 “Stations,” or commemoration points, with tortured piety.  Here at Station III, where Jesus was said to have fallen during his death march, you’ll find pilgrims in anguished lamentation, and there at Station VIII, where Christ supposedly stopped and gave a small sermon, kneeling in solemn prayer.

Passion for the Passion reaches its apotheosis at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, constructed where Jesus allegedly was crucified and buried.  Inside the basilica’s main entrance is the Stone of Anointing, said to be where Jesus’ body, removed from the cross, was prepared for burial.  The faithful reverently touch the cracked marble, oftentimes in a hypnotic trance.  Yet the present stone was only emplaced in the basilica in 1810.

Israel welcomes Christian pilgrims, who generate considerable tourist revenue.  Christians also tend to back Israel politically, often believing that the Lord’s glorious return is predicated on Jews’ re-gathering in Holy Land.

Jews fare well in this coming Christian utopia—as Christian converts.  Those that don’t embrace Jesus will be forever condemned to Hell.  Such is friendship among the devout.

During the Roman occupation of Jerusalem starting in 63 BC, Jews, though allowed to practice their religion, increasingly chafed at their imperial and progressively oppressive overlords.  A group of Jews emerged named for their fearsome tactics in opposition to Roman rule.

The Zealots, identified by some as the world’s first terrorists, eventually retook Jerusalem, but only temporarily.  The revolt was brutally put down by Rome in AD 70, and the city, the Temple included, was destroyed.

The Zealots may have been banished from Jerusalem millennia ago, but zealotry ultimately prevailed in the Holy City.

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