Jerusalem 3000
Lecture 11 - Zionism and Jerusalem

By: Alick Isaacs

During this lecture we shall consider the role that Jerusalem has played as the capital city of the modern State of Israel. For most Zionists, the very fact that Jerusalem became the capital of Israel was symbolic of the reinstatement of the people of Israel in the land of Israel. Zionism, though a modern movement sought to bring about the revival of the Jewish people by restoring the national institutions of antiquity. Among these, Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem was perhaps the most important. The centrality of Jerusalem is reflected in the movement's name: "Zionism" which literally means "Jerusalem-ism". And this idea is echoed in the words of the National anthem. The Hatikva expresses the aspiration of the Jewish people to be once again "a free people in our land, the land of Zion; Jerusalem." Hence the re-establishment of Jerusalem as the national capital is one of the Zionist movement's more significant achievements.

1. Jerusalem in Zionist Ideology
The roots of Zionism are to be found in three places:

  1. The establishment of the Zionist movement may be seen in historical context, a product of the developments which occurred in European history during the 18th and 19th centuries. This period saw the division of Europe into centralised National States. These aspired to assert the independent National identities of the peoples of Europe providing centralised government and National institutions. The period was characterised by National pride expressed through an insistence on the purity of the national language, allegiance to a national flag and devotion to augmenting the military strength of the State. Nationalism touched also the dependent nations such as the Serbs and the Slavs inspiring them to struggle in the name of their repressed national pride. They campaigned for recognition and demanded their right to national institutions and political independence.

    Along with these battled the Jewish National movements. They claimed that the Jewish people are more than a scattered body of co-religionists. The Jews are not simply people bound by religion and without independent nationality. They argued that since one may remain Jewish even while not observing the commandments or believing in religious precepts, Judaism was more than a faith. Jewish nationality was inherent to every Jew. Jewish national characteristics must be recognised by Jews and gentiles and legitimate expression given to them. Many national movements were established with the hope of alleviating the plight of the Jews, in particular, of Eastern Europe by giving them national dignity. The Zionists were one of these movements whose special claim was that Jewish nationalism can only be fulfilled with the return of the people to their national homeland and with the resurrection of the national language in that land.

  2. Zionism may be seen, in part, as a reaction to modern anti-semitism. Theodore Herzl, the founder of the political Zionist movement, came to the conclusion that antisemitism was an inescapable feature of Jewish exile. To an extent one may say that Herzl understood the antisemites. There was something wrong with the Jews; they were at least partly responsible for the hate that was thrust upon them. As long as Jews were scattered around the world their existence was unnatural and so they would inevitably face antisemitism. Herzl argued that if the Jews were to recognise their national identity and concentrate their resources in one political entity, normalisation would put an end to the hatred.
  3. Zionism was a form of "Secular Messianism". The Zionist movement, though nationalist and secular, revived many age old ideas. Zionism hankered on the ancient yearnings for Zion which had filled the Jews with hope throughout the long exile since the destruction of the Second Temple. Zionist rhetoric echoed symbols such as the ingathering of the exiles; the Return to Zion and the rebuilding of Zion. Zionism gave new and practical meaning to yearning and dreams which had traditionally been considered out of reach. Through self assertion the new/modern Jew may bring about his own redemption. Zionism supplemented traditional metaphors for redemption with its own ideas of Nationalism and self assertion. The new dream embodied the old. Redemption meant freeing ourselves from the yoke of the nations. Redemption meant self determination and political freedom.

    Symbolically, even the most secular, socialist, nationalist aspirations of the Zionist movement were tied up intrinsically with the Messianic vision. Among these was Jerusalem. Jerusalem played a central role in the Zionist vision. Without Jerusalem there could be no redemption, and so since Zionism was the new metaphor for redemption, without Jerusalem there could be no Zionism either.

2. Jerusalem and the War of Independence
Even before 1948 Jerusalem was one of the important Jewish settlements in Palestine. There were Jews living in the city, and as we have already described, there were many new Jewish neighbourhoods built outside the walls of the "Old City" during the 19th century. From the time of the recognition of the State of Israel by the United Nations in November 1947 until the declaration of Independence in May 1948, Jerusalem became the focal point of the tension in Palestine. The Arab Nations who resolved to prevent the successful establishment of the New State by immediately declaring war, went for the "Jugular" by besieging the city of Jerusalem. Again, the city became the seam-line between two nations and the point of friction between two faiths, this time Arab and Israeli, Muslim and Jew. After the foundation of the State the two sides were poised to do battle over the city.

Ironically and somewhat irrationally, the conquest of Jerusalem and the protection of its Jewish population became one of the supreme objectives of the First Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Theoretically, the establishment of a Jewish State in the land of Israel could have been achieved without Jerusalem. The city's population could have been evacuated and many of the Zionist dreams could have come true in Tel-Aviv. But, it is my contention that such an outcome would not have been considered an achievement which fulfilled the Zionist objective. This would have been akin to establishing a Jewish state elsewhere. Without Jerusalem there was no Zionism. The dream had no power and it stimulated no passion if it did not entail Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem. And so, Ben-Gurion dispatched a disproportionate number of troops to the conquest of the city. The Harel Brigade, under the command of the young Brigadier Yitzchak Rabin, broke through the mountain rode which gave access to the city from the coastal plane. Hard battles were fought throughout the city and in particular at the Zion Gate and in the Old City. The outcome was the victory of the new Sate. Israel was established with Jerusalem as its capital. The Old City however and the whole of East Jerusalem were surrendered to Jordanian hands.

3. The Divided City 1948-1967
For nineteen years the city of Jerusalem was divided. The state of Israel bore the burden of a split heart, an ugly concrete wall which ran through the city dividing West from East. The wall was protected by look out posts and military positions on both sides. This was a volatile border plagued with scuffles and shooting incidents brought on by the dense existence in close proximity to the enemy. The soldiers on both sides new each others' faces, their habits, their daily routines. Sometimes they called across the wall to each other exchanging cups of coffee and fruit. Sometimes they shot and killed each other. The border was patrolled and supervised by the UN. There were checkpoints in the border such as the Mandelbaum gate on the road to Mount Scopus where members of the clergy and holders of foreign passports were aloud to cross. Twice a week a Jewish bus was allowed through the Mandelbaum gate to bring supplies to Mount Scopus, which even although it was surrounded on all sides, was still controlled by the Israelis.

The line dividing the city was poorly drawn. On each side of the border there was supposed to be a demilitarised zone where neither side was permitted to carry arms or build. But, the line was drawn with a wax crayon which expanded in the heat and now ran through houses and back gardens. One poor man in the border village of Abu-Tor found himself in violation of the cease-fire agreement when he built an outside toilet in his back garden. The crayon line ran through his property and the matter was discussed at the special UN committee which was appointed to resolve such disputes. During nineteen years hundreds of these violations were reported by both sides. During this time, the two sides of the city grew apart. They became strangers as a cultural gulf far wider than just the wall spread between them.

4. The Six Day War and the Reunification of the City
In 1967 war came again to the city of Jerusalem. In June 1967 it seemed apparent to all that the State of Israel was facing the threat of total destruction. The calls of anti-Zionist violence reached the holy land from Syria in the North, Egypt in the South, Jordan in the East and Iraq. They all threatened war and the objective was clear, the destruction of Israel. The remarkable victory of the Israeli army in 1967 left an indelible mark on the history of the State. In six days the Arab armies were defeated on all fronts. The Golan heights were conquered from the Syrians, Judea and Samaria on the West bank of the Jordan were conquered from the Jordanians, the Gaza strip was taken from the Egyptians and most symbolically important of all the Old City of Jerusalem came into Jewish hands for the first time in 2000 years. The city of Jerusalem was reunited and the concrete wall was broken down. This was a great and heroic victory. The paratroopers who broke through the Lion's gate and who conquered the Temple mount became national heroes. The conquerors were messianic figures of their time like King David was in his. Of the 39 times that the city had now been conquered, it had been taken 37 times from its most vulnerable spot in the north. Only the paratroopers and King David had conquered from the south. The paratroopers had, like King David, claimed the city in a daring surprise attack as capital of Israel. Millions flocked to Jerusalem to touch the stones of the western wall and utter a prayer. Religious and secular stood together before the Herodian stones proud and full of hope. They all believed that something marvelous and beyond their comprehension had been achieved.

The victory of the six day war provoked both religious and secular Messianic Zionist responses. The secular saw this victory as the victory of the new Jew. The young strong "Sabra" who knows how to stand up for himself and take gun in hand. He would never be lead like a lamb to the slaughter house. With this new found strength, the generation of 1967 assured the future of the Jewish people. They became convinced that they were invincible. They Israeli army could withstand and defeat any enemy.

A similar spirit pervaded the religious Zionists who saw in the Zionist movement the fulfilling of God's plan to return the Jewish people to the holy land. The conquest of the land and the establishment of the State comprised the revelation of God's will that the time had come. The reunification of Jerusalem in a six day victory on all fronts was nothing less than a miracle. This was clear proof of God's will. There could be no other explanation for such an irrational victory. The paratroopers were instruments in God's hand in bringing about the ultimate goal of the redemption. This process was to culminate in the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. After 1967 this was now possible. They only awaited the OK from God. The coming of the Messiah had to be soon. The Messianic fervour was further fuelled by the conquests in Judea and Samaria. The places whose names are immediately associated with our fathers in the Bible; Hebron, Bet Lehem; Bet El; and Shechem came into Jewish hands aswell. The process of the return of the people to the land was being rewarded by God who was now returning the land to the people.

But, the Messiah was not yet knocking at the wooden doors of the Jaffa Gate. The many problems and obstacles which the State of Israel was destined to face only became apparent after the wall was broken down. The two sides of the city were not easily brought together. The united Jerusalem remained divided between two very different and irreconcilable populations each of which aspired to assert its national right to sovereignty in the city. The State of Israel now ruled over two million Palestinian Arabs who had settled this holy land and who pinned their future aspirations and dreams on those very places. There were three options 1. return the land with its population to Jordan/Egypt, making suitable security arrangements along the way. 2. Hold on to the land and "transfer" the population elsewhere. 3. Hold on to the land and rule over the people who inhabited it. The Israeli government opted for the third option and in so doing established a military regime which was to govern and maintain the peace. At the same time the programme of settling the newly conquered land was given priority. Only through settlement could this territory become normalised and an integral part of the State of Israel.

4. The Yom Kippur War
In 1973 the along came the war which was to shock the Israelis more than any other single event in the state's short history. The Israeli government chose to ignore the warnings issued by military intelligence that war was imminent. The Israeli Defence Forces were caught, as it were 'with their trousers down' as an unexpected attack was launched on all sides on the day of Atonement. The house of Israel was in the synagogue praying and asking God to forgive sin, when the poor lads who were obliged to remain in the base on guard duty instead of spending the holy day with their families, looked into their binoculars and saw the whole Syrian army charging at them. Men were called away from prayer. They rushed to their units to fight an unexpected war. Israel suffered many heavy losses in the first days of the war. The image that the Israeli army was invincible was soon put aside. For many the dream and the vision that Zionism was Messianism was rejected and forgotten. Yom Kippur 1973 was too painful and too humiliating an experience for the dreamer to bear. Many Israelis reverted to the Herzlian, secular, political dream of normalisation and yearned to live at peace with the Arab nations.

Israeli victory in 1973 taught the Arab nations that Israel was invincible. After such a disastrous start and with such a terrible opening disadvantage, the IDF had managed to regroup, launch a counter-attack and emerge victorious. Surely, no better an opportunity to destroy the State of Israel would ever present itself. If it couldn't be done on Yom Kippur then it couldn't be done at all. The Arab nations reconciled themselves with the State of Israel and while it was only with Egypt that a peace agreement was indeed only a few years away, the other nations resolved, at least temporarily against all out war.

The Yom Kippur war brought about a change of tactics on all sides. The stale-mate in Jerusalem was not going to be resolved through war. The Palestinians now became the front runners of the Arab campaign against Israel. They resorted to terrorism. Israel endeavoured to settle the newly conquered land and reinforce the Israeli presence in Jerusalem as far as was possible. Government buildings were built in East Jerusalem. A protective belt of Jewish neighbourhoods was built surrounding the regions of the city conquered in 1967. Jews and Palestinians now lived in a united Jerusalem where no physical line could ever again be drawn, separating cleanly East from West. Many were perhaps disillusioned by Yom Kippur, but both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism survived the war. Both Palestinians and Israel dug deep into the city each determined to hold on to his piece of it. Without a foothold in Jerusalem both ideologies would have collapsed. And so, an invisible yet indelable boundary still divided Jerusalem in two.

We have discussed the history of Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel. However Jerusalem is not simply a capital city, the unfortunate venue of political conflict. Jerusalem is the stairway to heaven, the meeting place between East and West, the city which expresses the true preference of the One God. As such it is ideologically and unconditionally the pinnacle of the national aspirations of the two peoples who currently struggle over it. And so the status of the city will remain unresolved as long as the conflict remians unresolved. And of course, the conflict will remian unresolved until the issue of Jerusalem is settled. Any resloution of this conflict must entail an entirely new ideological position on both sides with regards the symbolic significance of Jerusalem. For this to happen, in my opinion, the very natures of Zionism and of Palestinian nationalism must both be reconsidered.



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23 Aug 2005 / 18 Av 5765 0